You’ve taken the tests, requested the recommendations, completed the common app, and now it’s finally time to refocus on what you’ve been putting off: the essay.
While most students spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting their personal statements, admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes actually reading them, according to Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.
High school seniors are faced with the challenge of summarizing the last 17 years into 600 words, all while showcasing their “unique” personality against thousands of other candidates.
“It’s hard to find a balance between sounding professional and smart without using all of those long words,” says Lily Klass, a senior at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. “I’m having trouble reflect myself without sounding arrogant or rude or anything like that.”
The following tips will help applicants make the leap from ‘average’ to ‘accepted’:
1. Open with an anecdote.
Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.
“Instead of trying to come up with gimmicky, catchy first lines, start by sharing a moment,” says Janine Robinson, writing coach and founder of Essay Hell. “These mini stories naturally grab the reader … it’s the best way to really involve them in the story.”
Let the moment you choose be revealing of your personality and character. Describe how it shaped who you are today and who you will be tomorrow.
2. Put yourself in the school’s position.
At the end of the day, colleges want to accept someone who is going to graduate, be successful in the world and have the university associated with that success. In your essay, it is vital that you present yourself as someone who loves to learn, can think critically and has a passion for things—anything.
“Colleges always say to show your intellectual vitality and curiosity,” Robinson says. “They want kids who are going to hit the ground running—zoom to class and straight out into the world. They want them hungry and self-aware.
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3. Stop trying so hard.
“One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying too hard to impress,” Robinson says. “Trust that it is those every day, specific subjects that are much more interesting to read about.”
Colleges are tired of reading about that time you had a come-from-behind- win in the state championship game or the time you built houses in Ecuador, according to Robinson. Get creative!
Furthermore, you’re writing doesn’t have to sound like Shakespeare. “These essays should read like smart, interesting 17-year-olds wrote them,” says Lacy Crawford, former independent college application counselor and author of Early Decision. “A sense of perspective and self-awareness is what’s interesting.
4. Ditch the thesaurus. Swap sophistication for self-awareness
There is a designated portion of the application section designated to show off your repertoire of words. Leave it there.
On the personal essay, write how you would speak. Using “SAT words” in your personal statement sounds unnatural and distances the reader from you.
“I think most students are torn between a pathway dividing a diary entry and a press release. It’s supposed to be marketing document of the self,” Crawford says.
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5. Write about what matters to you, not what matters to them
Crawford recommends students begin by answering the question, “if you had 10 minutes to talk to them in person, what would you say?” The admissions teams are looking for authenticity and quality of thinking.
“Theoretically, I think anything could be ‘the perfect topic, as long as you demonstrate how well you think, your logic and ability to hold readers’ attention,” Crawford says.
6. Read the success stories.
“The best advice is to read essays that have worked,” Robinson says. “You’ll be surprised to see that they’re not winning Pulitzers; they are pieces of someone. You want your story to be the one she doesn’t put down.”
Once you find a topic you like, sit down and write for an hour or so. It shouldn’t take longer than that. When you write from your heart, words should come easily.
Rawlins recommends showing the essay to a family member or friend and ask if it sounds like the student. “Take a few days and come back to it. But only do that once,” Rawlins says. “Reading it over and over again will only drive you nuts.”
7. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
While colleges tend to nod to disadvantaged students, roughing up your background won’t help your cause.
“It’s less about the topic and more about how you frame it and what you have to say about it, Robinson says. “The better essay is has the most interesting thing to say, regardless of a topic that involves a crisis or the mundane.”
The essays serve as a glimpse into how your mind works, how you view the world and provides perspective. If you have never had some earth shattering experience that rocked your world, don’t pretend you did. Your insights will be forced and disingenuous.
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8. Follow the instructions.
While the directions on the applications may sound generic, and even repetitive after applying to a variety of schools, Rawlins points out that every rhyme has a reason.
“They have to know that college put a lot of thought into the instructions we give them—so please follow them!” he says. “We’ve given a lot of thought to the words we use. We want what we ask for.”
9. Use this space to tell them what your application can’t.
Most colleges don’t have the time or bandwidth to research each individual applicant. They only know what you put in front of them. “If they don’t tell us something, we can’t connect the dots,” Rawlins says. “We’re just another person reading their material.”
Like Crawford, he recommends students imagining they are sitting next to him in his office and responding to the question, “What else do I need to know?” And their essays should reflect how they would respond.
At the end of the day, however, Rawlins wants students to know that the personal essay is just another piece of the larger puzzle. “They prescribe way too much importance to the essay,” Rawlins says. “It makes a massive difference—good or bad—to very few out there, so keep it in context.”
Paige Carlotti is a senior at Syracuse University.
admissions essay, college applications, Paige Carlotti, writing, VOICES FROM CAMPUS
This is your life.
Show them who you are.
Your personal statement is one of the most important parts of your application. Schools have a limited amount of scholarship money each each year, and your statement gives them the most personal look at who you are, why you want to attend their school, and why you deserve to be considered.
While the personal statement is a short essay (two pages maximum) it is not something you should put off. Crafting a strong essay takes time, hard work, and a lot of revision.
Your personal statement must answer these questions:
- Why do I feel I deserve a scholarship?
- What are my objectives in the USA?
- What are my plans after completing my education?
It should be written in a personal style that gives the people reading a look into your life—your personality, your hopes and dreams, perhaps an obstacle you have overcome. We suggest following a process similar to the one listed below to help your statement stand out from the rest.
It's best to have a plan. Spend a week thinking about the story you would like to tell. Make notes about:
- Difficult times you have faced
- People who have influenced you
- Favourite books, films, and activities
- Personal strengths and weaknesses
- Events, activities, achievements, or failures that have contributed to your self-development
Ultimately, the reader wants to know one thing: What makes you you?
Your essay should have three strong parts: an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.
Organize and write your statement in a clear, direct manner. Many students find it easiest to write the body first, then think of an engaging introduction that grabs the reader's attention, pulls them in, and makes them want to read the rest. The conclusion should not simply be a summary of what you've already written, but should tie the statement together.
Here are 10 tips to write an admission essay.
1. Study a few essays to get used to it.
2. Variety in sentence length. Try to create sentences which are not to long.
3. Do not start to often with ‘I’.
4. Use words that are usually part of your vocabulary.
5. Tell us something different from what we will read in your other documents.
6. Stay away from specific religions, political doctrines, or controversial opinions.
7. Avoid mentioning weaknesses.
8. Write about your feelings, not only about your actions. (Write out of your heart)
9. Be yourself in your essay. If you are funny, be funny.
10. Try to write as much as possible in the active form.
Leave the essay for a day or two so you can see it with fresh eyes. Come back and rewrite it. Check for spelling. Read it aloud to someone else, and have them read it to you. Listen to the way it sounds, ask yourself if any paragraphs can be stronger, any sentences clearer, and if it tells the reader the story you want him or her to hear: Why you are who you are, and why their university would not be the same without you.