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
If you’re one of the thousands of students that have decided to study in the US this year, you may be aware that unfortunately you cannot escape the dreaded piece of personal writing, even as an international student.
While there is certainly no Ucas system as there is in the UK, you’ll still be required to write a college admissions essay as part of your application. There are three types of applications:
The Common Application and the UCA are used by many US universities and colleges, and you’ll find that if you can write an essay for one of these, you’ll have no problems with any other individual applications.
The key to a successful essay is to start early – with the Common Application this means choosing which one of the five prompts you wish to answer and getting down some initial thoughts.
Think about each prompt carefully and decide whether your skills and life experience relate to one more than the others. Look at the individual words such as “background” and “interest” to help you, and if you still can’t decide, ask your family and friends which prompt they think might suit you best.
Remember that these prompts are just that, and not questions that must be “answered”. If you’re applying to institutions that use the UCA or set their own admissions essay, you won’t have to worry about this part, but the advice that follows will still apply.
When you’ve made a decision, sit down for a brainstorming session and make notes on how the topics below might be used in your essay:
- After school clubs and extracurricular activities
- Holidays and other trips abroad or around the UK
- Hobbies and interests
- Work experience
- Family members and friends
- Special occasions and other life experiences that have influenced you
When you have a few sentences down for each point, you can begin to put together your introduction.
Like the Ucas personal statement, an attention-grabbing opening sentence is crucial if you’re going to highlight yourself as an interesting person who the admissions faculty would want on their course.
Don’t start with something generic, such as “when I go into the city, I visit the museums because I like history”. Everyone goes to museums to learn more about history, so this isn’t a personal story.
Make sure you launch straight into telling the reader why you’re unique, without wasting time restating the prompt or describing what you’re going to write about.
Once you have a solid opening paragraph, think about how you can use your notes to construct several more paragraphs that will make up the bulk of your essay.
You are only given a maximum of 650 words for the UCA personal statement and the Common Application essay, which isn’t a lot of space, but at this stage it’s better to have too much written down that you can then trim, than not have enough. Institutions that set their own essays may offer more words than this, but it’s best to check the application form or their website first.
Think about how your notes from earlier can be used in relation to the prompt you have chosen, and try to link each paragraph so the essay flows well as a whole.
For example, if you’re writing an essay for prompt number five of the common application, “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family”, you might choose to talk about wanting to get your drivers’ licence as soon as possible. Paragraphs might then be broken down into:
- Your parent’s view of this and any compromises you had to make with them
- What you did to prepare for both the theory and practical tests
- Parts of the learning experience you found difficult and how you overcame them
- How you paid for lessons and/or a car once you had passed, e.g., getting a part-time job
- What the experience taught you, e.g., managing money, being organised, etc. and how it improved any of your personal skills or qualities, such as communication, teamwork or problem-solving
Looking at some example admission essays may also be useful in structuring your own.
The conclusion must round off your essay in a way that leaves a lasting good impression upon the admissions tutor. It should be a summary of what you have learned from your experiences and how they have shaped you into the person you are today.
Explain how this will benefit you on the course and make you a valuable asset to the university. You can also include a brief sentence or two about your career path or any other plans you have for the future that your university education will enable you to achieve. Tutors will want to see that you have thought ahead and considered how you’re going to use your degree later on in the field.
When your first draft is complete, don’t rely on a spellchecker to correct spelling and grammar mistakes; ask tutors, family and friends to look at it and give you their feedback. Make sure you go through at least several rounds of this, and you’ll achieve a polished essay that will give you the best chance of success with your US college applications.