1. Pick a topic you’re passionate about.
Your writing will be both easier and more genuine if you write about what you want to write about, instead of writing about what you think colleges want to hear. The most successful essays describe a moment of personal growth, difficulty, strength, or confidence, all of which people experience in vastly different ways.
If you are serious about your college essay, you will most likely be spending a fair amount of time brainstorming, writing, and editing until you make it as near perfect as possible. Understandably, this process will proceed quicker if you actually enjoy the topic you are writing about.
More importantly, if you love the topic you choose, your reader will see it in your writing: the more passion you feel for a subject, the easier it will be to express yourself. So if your greatest personal growth story occurred as you were picking out socks for the day, so be it. Perhaps you managed to find courage on a stage in front of two thousand, or maybe just two people.
Remember that this is your personal statement, your only chance to differentiate yourself as a unique individual to colleges apart from grades, test scores, and resumes. Write about a topic that excites you, and you will excite your reader.
2. Engage your reader from the first sentence.
Regardless of the topic you choose, your reader’s interest must be captured in the first sentence. Out of thousands of essays, why should yours stand out? A perfect introduction will leap out to the reader and grab their attention.
The best way to do this is through as much detail as you can muster. If you have chosen a sport or activity you excel in, show your reader through your words a split second of what participating in the activity is like. Write as if you are telling a story: what was the setting? What was the weather like? Were there other people there? What emotions were coursing through you at that exact moment?
Many students will begin their essays, “The most life-changing/important/difficult moment in my life has been___.” Over time, admissions officers will lose steam over the constant repetition, and all essays that begin as such will fail to make an impact.
Make it easier for your reader to remember you by writing a story as your introduction. The more specific detail you add in, the more the reader will get into the story and the more sold they’ll be on you.
3. Ask yourself “So What?”
As with any good essay, you should spend at least a paragraph explaining the “so what?” aspect of your essay. If you have chosen a specific activity to write about, in addition to writing about the activity itself, colleges want to know why this particular activity has made an impact on your life.
So you’ve been playing baseball for the last ten years, so what? Perhaps playing baseball taught you teamwork, or made you appreciate the value of practice and determination in achieving your goals. As this is a college essay with a point to make about your character, a substantial portion of your essay should answer the “so what?” question.
Colleges want to know how you have grown as a person through your own experiences and how they have changed you, and stating why such experiences were important to you aid in convincing admissions officers that their school could use more students like you.
If your detail and story-like aspect of your essay comes at the beginning, your “so what?” moment should wrap up your essay, connecting your activity in question with the purpose behind your choice of topic.
4. Read through your essay out loud.
It goes without saying that you should spell-check your essay before sending it off to colleges. As your personal statement is one you will presumably be using for the majority of your college applications (if your colleges use CollgeApp), there is no excuse for sending off an essay that is not completely free of mechanical and grammatical errors.
In addition to the automatic spellcheck on Microsoft Word, set time aside to read over your paper out loud. This will allow you to catch things your mind might otherwise overlook; because you are able to hear any wrong grammar or sentence structure, you are less likely to skip over it.
It is also wise to ask for a second opinion: let your parents read it, your English teacher or your friends. Ask them to read it and tell you what they thought the central message they got out of it was; if it is the same message you were hoping to send to admissions officers, your essay has succeeded.
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(This article has been updated to reflect the new 650-word limit for the Common Application)
TheNew York Times has been rife this season with articles about the college application essay. The Common Application’s newly reinstated 650-word guideline is the topic of much conversation, as are general themes and strategies for the personal statement.
It is now early November. Some early application deadlines have come and gone, and November 15 deadlines are around the corner. Is your high school senior still stuck or struggling with his or her personal statement?
Many people, not just college applicants, have a hard time writing about themselves. Yet that’s exactly what you need to do when writing a personal statement. No matter how much you might not like it, your personal statement is about you. There’s really no way around it.
Today I will provide some assistance and resources to help any college applicant to get those 650 words written.
1. Relax! Have fun!
“It’s all about loosening up,” says a California college professor in Crafting an Application Essay That ‘Pops’, a New York Times article which reported on the recommendations of 5,000 admissions officers and counselors who gathered at the latest NACAC conference. I couldn’t agree more.
To help students have fun with their personal statements, Stanford University has come up with an interesting twist: They ask applicants to write a letter to their future freshman roommates.
Here are some samples, quoted in the article, of how students approached the essay:
“If you want to borrow my music, just ask. If you want to borrow my underwear, just take them.”
“I eat ice cream with a fork, and I drink orange juice right after I brush my teeth just for the sour taste.”
“If you have anything other than a Dodgers poster on the wall, I will tear it down.”
Note that all these lines are written in the first person – unfortunately to some, a required element of writing about yourself. And note that all the lines are unique. It’s unlikely that two applicants would have written the same thing.
Here’s the key to writing a great essay: Write something no one else could have written.
If that sounds like a daunting task, loosen up! Take a cue from Stanford’s essay question, no matter what topic you choose to write about. All you have to do is tell stories about yourself.
2. How NOT to Start your College Application Essay
One common pitfall students fall into is trying to write an essay about their reasons for applying to school, instead of simply telling a story. One of my recent clients started her essay to graduate school with, “I am applying to the XX school for several reasons.” I coached her to simply start telling her story. This approach made the project a lot easier, and made her essay a lot more interesting!
Here’s the start of an essay that meets this requirement:
When I went to Fall Out Boy’s Chicago radio show, there was the comment from the drummer, “The girl from New York is here.” When I fought my way to the front of the crowd in Florida, there was the bassist’s point of his finger at me as he mouthed one of my favorite lyrics: “I still hate you.”
This opening line works because it tells a story no one else could tell. It brings us into a world unique to the applicant. And it sets us up to think something interesting is going to happen in this essay. The reader is compelled to read the next line.
Contrast this to an alternate version of the essay that might have read, “Music is one of my passions, and because of that I attend a lot of rock concerts. My favorite band is Fall Out Boy.”
You might laugh, but version two is the way many college essays read. Or, to avoid boring the committee, applicants swing the other way: “Raindrops heated by the flashing lights above, falling abundantly and without end, singeing my hair, my skin, my eyes…”
Here’s a tip: If you are not a brilliant creative writer, just stick to the facts. They will set you free.
3. Doing it in 650 Words
The Common Application now sets a 650-word limit for a college application essay. The more you stick to a story – a story that is directly linked to the point you want to make in your essay – the easier it will be to stay within that limit — and to knock the socks off the admissions committee!
The New York Times’ “The Choice” blog provides spot-on advice for how to stay succinct in Advice on Whittling Your Admissions Essay. Read this article immediately if you are over the limit and unsure of how to cut your writing down to size!
You might also gain some breathing room from Matt Flegenheimer’s October 28, 2011 article, College Application Essay as Haiku? For Some, 500 Words Aren’t Enough.
Need Help with your Personal Statement for College?
If you’re still stuck, panicked, or unsure, consider getting some help. The Essay Expert’s Ivy-educated consultants are skilled in working with students to craft essays that say more than you might even imagine can be said in 650 words. Just try us!