The point of the college essay isn’t just to generate 650 words that tell a story—the point is to thoughtfully craft an essay that surprises the reader by the originality of the insights shared, the cleverness of the message conveyed, and the power of the ultimate observation that the writer makes. If the story is going to begin like many others, the ending should surprise.
What goes on behind the closed doors of the admissions office is a mystery to most and decisions can seem to reflect more “artistry” than science. In fact, the process varies from school to school and depends on the size and type of institution, its selectivity, and the school’s own culture. However, every college and university assesses the strength of each application relative to the applicant pool as well as the school’s enrollment objectives.
Writing the Personal Statement can be a torturous exercise for many seniors. Fears of sounding like a braggart or worse, having nothing worthwhile to say, leave even strong writers paralyzed. While the temptation might be to adopt a distant, academic tone, by making your Personal Statement personal you help the admissions office gain a richer understanding of your unique character and qualities.
I have yet to meet the student who finds writing their Personal Statement for the Common Application to be the most exciting part of their college process. They whine, they procrastinate, they beg me to write it for them – and I am sympathetic. It’s hard to capture the “essence of who you are” in 500 words. But just as each essay should be as unique as the person writing it, there are some qualities that successful personal statements share: 1. They give a unique insight into the applicant. Begin by writing one sentence about what you want to convey about yourself to the reader. After the first draft, ask yourself if your essay conveys what you wanted it to. If it doesn’t, refocus.
2. They are well edited. Don’t let your mom or dad be your only editor. Chances are they love you too much to bring any kind of objectivity to their assignment. Beyond identifying grammatical errors, ask your editor what impressions of you your essay sent. Does that message match the one you intended to send?
3. The personal statement doesn’t rehash information that can be gleaned from other pieces of the application. If you’re a B+ student taking Honors classes at a competitive high school, there’s no need to tell the admissions office about how challenging your classes are - they already know. DO talk about an assignment or a moment in class when you felt particularly challenged or successful.
4. 3,000 words were written to get to the final 500. One page doesn’t leave any room for digressions or unimportant details. Make every word count, because it does.
5. They focus on describing moments, feeling and insights, not scenery. If your essay tells little more than what the reader could see on the front of a postcard, send the postcard instead.
6. They view the moment through a microscope, not a telescope. You can’t tell the reader everything you want to, so focus in tightly on the most significant details.
7. They are not cliché. Did you score the winning goal for an important game? Did you travel to far-off lands to do community service? Do you have an uncle who has overcome a serious physical handicap to accomplish incredible things? That’s wonderful. But, unfortunately, not original. If you are going to write on a theme that has been worn to death, there is a special onus on you to show how these moments have specifically shaped YOU.
8. Great personal statements are not about anyone else but the writer. If you are telling the story about a person who had an influence on you, be sure to keep the spotlight on you.
9. It’s not just about the story you tell, it’s also about how you tell that story. The deft use of alliteration, allusion, metaphor and other literary devises separates the good essays from the great.
10. They are more personal then they are statements. Great essays give the admissions officer information about what make you uniquely you.
Finding Applicants Who Plagerize The most challenging piece of the common application for the vast majority of the college applicants we work with is the personal statement. They hem, they haw, they look at us plaintively for help, and they dread typing those 500 words. (Yes, the personal statement asks for "250 words, minimum, but 500 feels about right for most essays). So, this piece about the increasing incidences of plagerism admissions officers are finding is disheartening, but comes as no surprise. Using someone else's essay as your own certainly takes the pain out of the writing process.
I find that working with our clients on their personal statements is one of my favorite parts of the entire college process. It is an opportunity for the student to reflect on their lives, evaluate their accomplishments, consider their values, and take stock of what they have accomplished in their 17 years and consider where they are headed. However, getting students to clearly and succintly and to articulate these ideas is a challenge. Over the next few weeks we will be blogging about some of the strategies we use to help our clients move past their writer's block and will be giving some tips about how to write a powerful, revealing, compelling personal statement - in your own words.
It really shouldn't be that hard - it's only 500 words long and on a topic about which the writer is expert: him or herself. Yet nothing sends seniors into greater paroxysms of anxiety than the personal statement. Fears of sounding arrogant, telling an unworthy story, or simply not knowing where to begin can paralyze even the most able writer. But when you hit upon the "right" topic and the words flow from your heart as well as your head, this writing exercise can be a deeply rewarding one.
While the personal statement gives the applicant a chance to tell the admissions office something important about him or herself, it is also a chance to show off strong writing abilities, demonstrate the caliber of intellectual skills, and give a unifying theme to the various parts of the application.
While the writing process is different for everyone, sometimes the easiest place to begin is to decide what you most want the reader to know about you and then pick the moment that best illustrates that point.
Ultimately, the event you describe is not nearly as important as the meaning you derive from it. Admissions offices are not impressed by church youth group trips to Peru, hang gliding adventures or bike tours through France in and of themselves - they are looking for an experience that has meaningfully shaped the way you see yourself or the world around you. What matters is the perspective you have gained, not the experience itself.
Once you have chosen your topic, it is important not to let the details of the story overshadow the message you are working to convey. While strong writing skills can, and should, be showcased through descriptive details, given the constraints of the 500 word limit, be judicious in your use of flowery prose and tangential information. Focus on delivering your message, not on telling a story.
Along those lines, there can be a temptation to use inflated vocabulary to impress the reader. More often than not, this is more distracting than clarifying, and the writer's natural voice is muffled. Every effort should be made to use the right word, but that isn't necessarily the one with the most syllables. Choose words that most clearly convey what you want to say, and make your writing sound like you.
Finally, while a good personal statement takes a lot of writing, a great personal statement takes a lot of thinking as well. Talking through ideas with friends, keeping a journal and spending time alone thinking about who you are and what you value most can help bring ideas into sharper focus. Besides revealing the character of the applicant, the personal statement reveals the quality of the author's introspection, global awareness and analytical skills. Clear and purposeful prose reveals clear and purposeful thinking.
It's only 500 words, and by focusing on the message you wish to convey, distilling the experience you write about into the most important moments, and writing in an authentic voice you will produce a personal statement that reveals your character and personality in their best and truest light.
And if you write about what is most meaningful to you, the words should come easily. All 500 of them.
Reprinted with permission from Metrowest Daily News.