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How To: Write Your Personal Essay
Posted by Carolyn Pippen on Wednesday, September 11, 2013
While we still have a few more days until the official beginning of fall, around here it feels a lot like the season has already begun. Classes are back in session, the leaves are falling off the trees, and most of our counselors have departed for the two-month marathon of flights, high school visits, and college fairs that we call travel season.
In addition, thousands of high school seniors across the country have begun the process of filling out college applications. Regardless of whether or not one of your applications will be submitted to Vanderbilt, we would like to offer you a few nuggets of the expertise we have acquired working with students and evaluating applications over years.
Thus we give you: The “How To” Series. Over the next several weeks, we will be posting lists of tips concerning various pieces of the application that we hope will make this process a little less overwhelming for all of you. Today’s tips focus on the personal essay.
- Be thoughtful, but not fretful. As a senior, most of the accomplishments that will make up the bulk of your application – academic performance, test scores, and extracurricular involvement – are said and done. In a sense, the only part of the application over which you have complete control right now is the essay. Don’t let this scare you! While the essay is a valuable tool that we use to understand you better, it is rarely if ever a “make or break” component of your application.
- Keep the “personal” in personal essay. The Common Application presents six different prompts for you to choose from when writing your essay. To be honest, we don’t really care that much what you write about, as long as you’re writing about you. In other words, don’t spend the entire essay detailing the life of your favorite and most accomplished family member, but rather focus on how that person has affected you and your life decisions. Don’t give us a detailed narrative of your favorite community service trip, but instead tell us what you learned from that trip and how it has changed your outlook on the world. This is one time when it’s okay to be self-centered – more than anything, we want to know about you!
- Don’t try to guess what the reader wants to hear. If you ask a hundred different admissions counselors what their favorite kind of essay is, you will likely get a hundred different answers. Trying to figure out what topic will get us most excited is like trying to guess which outfits the judges of Project Runway are going to like the most – no matter how many times we watch, Heidi always manages to confound. Instead of trying to game the system, focus on the things that get you excited. If nothing else, I promise that passion will show through.
- Feel free to be funny or creative – but don’t overreach. If your friends tell you that you’re the funniest person in the class, use that skill to your advantage. If your creativity is what sets you apart from your peers, let that innovation guide the structure and content of the essay. On the other hand, if every joke you make at the cafeteria table falls flatter than a pancake in a Panini press, don’t try to fake it. Figure out what your personal strengths are, and stick with them.
- Tell us something we don’t already know. When writing your essay, be sure to keep in mind all of the other pieces of your application we already have in front of us while we’re reading it. Do not use this space to summarize your extracurricular involvement or your academic achievements if we’ve already seen these things in your resume and transcript. We know that there is more to you than just test scores and leadership roles, so tell us more!
- Ask for input (but not too much). Your parents, friends, guidance counselors, coaches, and teachers are great people to bounce ideas off of for your essay. They know how unique and spectacular you are, and they can help you decide how to articulate it. Keep in mind, however, that a 45-year-old lawyer writes quite differently from an 18-year-old student, so if your dad ends up writing the bulk of your essay, we’re probably going to notice.
- Edit, proof, polish, and breathe. Beyond gaining insight into your personal psyche, the purpose of the essay is also to showcase your written communication skills. Treat this essay just like any class assignment – write it early, proof and revise, keep an eagle eye out for spelling and grammatical errors, and make sure it is presented in a clean and polished way. That being said, do not call our office in a panic if you discovered a missing article or a misused “its” after you hit submit. Because of our holistic selection process, no student will be denied based on one element of his or her application; this includes typos.
Posted in Application Process, General Information, The College Essay and tagged: academic credentials, breathe, college applications, Common Application, essay writing, extracurricular activities, Heidi Klum, how to apply, personal essay, Project Runway
In addition to standardized test scores and transcripts, a personal statement or essay is a required part of many college applications. This requirement can be one of the most stressful parts of the process because it's the most open ended.
In this guide, I'll answer the question, "What is a personal statement?" I'll talk through common college essay topics and what makes for an effective personal statement.
Even the terminology can be confusing if you aren't familiar with it, so let's start by defining some terms:
- Personal statement — an essay you write to show a college admissions committee who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their school. It's worth noting that, unlike "college essay," this term is used for application essays for graduate school as well.
- College essay — basically the same as a personal statement. (I'll be using the terms interchangeably.)
- Essay prompt — a question or statement that your college essay is meant to respond to.
- Supplemental essay — an extra school or program specific essay beyond the basic personal statement.
Many colleges ask for only one essay. However, some schools do ask you to respond to multiple prompts or to provide supplemental essays in addition to a primary personal statement.
Either way, don't let it stress you out! This guide will cover everything you need to know about the different types of college essays and get you started thinking about how to write a great one:
- Why colleges ask for an essay
- What kinds of essay questions you'll see
- What sets great essays apart
- Tips for writing your own essay
Why Do Colleges Ask For an Essay?
There are a couple of reasons that colleges ask applicants to submit an essay, but the basic idea is that it gives them more information about you, especially who you are beyond grades and test scores.
Insight Into Your Personality
The most important role of the essay is to give admissions committees a sense of your personality and what kind of addition you'd be to their school's community. Are you inquisitive? Ambitious? Caring? These kinds of qualities will have a profound impact on your college experience, but they're hard to determine based on a high school transcript.
Basically, the essay contextualizes your application and shows what kind of person you are outside of your grades and test scores. Imagine two students, Jane and Tim: they both have 3.5 GPAs and 1200s on the SAT. Jane lives in Colorado and is the captain of her track team, while Tim lives in Vermont and regularly contributes to the school paper, but they both want to be doctors and they both volunteer at the local hospital.
As similar as Jane and Tim seem on paper, in reality they're actually quite different, and their unique perspectives come through in their essays. Jane writes about how looking into her family history for a school project made her realize how the discovery of modern medical treatments like antibiotics and vaccines had changed the world and drove her to pursue a career as a medical researcher. Tim, on the other hand, recounts a story about how a kind doctor helped him overcome his fear of needles, an interaction that reminded him of the value of empathy and inspired him to become a family practitioner. These two students may seem outwardly similar but their motivations and personalities are very different.
Without an essay, your application is essentially a series of numbers: a GPA, SAT scores, the number of hours spent preparing for quiz bowl competitions. The personal statement is your chance to stand out as an individual.
Evidence of Writing Skills
A secondary purpose of the essay is to serve as a writing sample and help colleges see that you have the skills needed to succeed in college classes. The personal statement is your best chance to show off your writing, so take the time to craft a piece you're really proud of.
That said, don't panic if you aren't a strong writer. Admissions officers aren't expecting you to write like Joan Didion; they just want to see that you can express your ideas clearly.
No matter what, your essay should absolutely not include any errors or typos.
Explanation of Extenuating Circumstances
For some students, the essay is also a chance to explain factors affecting their high school record. Did your grades drop sophomore year because you were dealing with a family emergency? Did you miss out on extracurriculars junior year because of an extended medical absence? Colleges want to know if you struggled with a serious issue that affected your high school record, so make sure to indicate any relevant circumstances on your application.
Keep in mind that in some cases there will be a separate section for you to address these types of issues, as well as any black marks on your record like expulsions or criminal charges.
Your Reasons for Applying to the School
Many colleges ask you to write an essay or paragraph about why you're applying to their school specifically. In asking these questions, admissions officers are trying to determine if you're genuinely excited about the school and whether you're likely to attend if accepted.
I'll talk more about this type of essay below.
What Kind of Questions Do Colleges Ask?
Thankfully, applications don't simply say "Please include an essay about yourself" — they include a question or prompt that you're asked to respond to. These prompts are generally pretty open ended and can be approached in a lot of different ways.
Nonetheless, most questions fall into a few main categories. Let's go through each common type of prompt, with examples from the Common Application, the University of California application, and ApplyTexas, as well as a few individual schools.
Your Personal History
This sort of question asks you to write about a formative experience, important event or key relationship from your life. Admissions officers want to understand what is important to you and how your background has shaped you as a person.
These questions are both common and tricky. The most common pitfall students fall into is trying to tell their entire life stories — it's better to focus in on a very specific point in time and explain why it was meaningful to you.
Common App 1
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Common App 5
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
University of California 2
Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
University of California 6
Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
Facing a Problem
A lot of prompts deal with how you solve problems or how you cope with failure. College can be difficult, both personally and academically, and admissions committees want to see that you're equipped to face those challenges.
The key to these types of questions is to identify a real problem or failure (not a success in disguise) and show how you adapted and grew from addressing the issue.
Common App 2
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Common App 4
Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
Describe a circumstance, obstacle or conflict in your life, and the skills and resources you used to resolve it. Did it change you? If so, how?
Most colleges are pretty diverse, with students from a wide range of backgrounds. Essay questions about diversity are designed to help admissions committees understand how you interact with people who are different from you.
In addressing these prompts, you want to show that you're capable of engaging with new ideas and relating to people who may have different beliefs than you.
Common App 3
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Describe a setting in which you have collaborated or interacted with people whose experiences and/or beliefs differ from yours. Address your initial feelings, and how those feelings were or were not changed by this experience.
Your Future Goals
This type of prompt asks about what you want to do in the future: sometimes simply what you'd like to study, sometimes longer term career goals. Colleges want to understand what you're interested in and how you plan to work towards your goals.
You'll mostly see these prompts if you're applying for a specialized program (like pre-med or architecture) or applying as a transfer student. Some schools also ask for supplementary essays along these lines.
Considering your lifetime goals, discuss how your current and future academic and extracurricular activities might help you achieve your goals.
University of California (Transfer Applicants)
Please describe how you have prepared for your intended major, including your readiness to succeed in your upper-division courses once you enroll at the university.
Why This School
The most common style of supplemental essay is the "Why us?" essay (although a few schools with their own application use this type of question as their main prompt). In these essays, you're meant to address the specific reasons you want to go to the school you're applying to.
Whatever you do, don't ever recycle these essays for more than one school.
What is it about Yale that has led you to apply?
There are thousands of universities and colleges. Please share with us why you are choosing to apply to Chapman.
How did you first learn about Rice University and what motivated you to apply?
More selective schools often have supplemental essays with stranger or more unique questions. University of Chicago is notorious for its weird prompts, but it's not the only school that will ask you to think outside the box in addressing its questions.
University of Chicago
Earth. Fire. Wind. Water. Heart! Captain Planet supposes that the world is made up of these five elements. We’re familiar with the previously-noted set and with actual elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, but select and explain another small group of things (say, under five) that you believe compose our world.
Whether you've built blanket forts or circuit boards, produced community theater or mixed media art installations, tell us: what have you invented, engineered, created, or designed? Or what do you hope to?
University of Virginia
What’s your favorite word and why?
University of Chicago (Phil Roeder/Flickr)
What Makes a Strong Personal Statement?
OK, so you're clear on what a college essay is, but you're still not sure how to write a good one. To help you get started, I'm going to explain the main things admissions officers look for in students' essays: an engaging perspective, genuine moments, and lively writing.
I've touched on these ideas already, but here I'll go into more depth about how the best essays stand out from the pack.
Showing Who You Are
A lot of students panic about finding a unique topic, and certainly writing about something unusual like a successful dating app you developed with your friends or your time working as a mall Santa can't hurt you. But what's really important isn't so much what you write about as how you write about it. You need to use your subject to show something deeper about yourself.
Look at the prompts above: you'll notice that they almost all ask you what you learned or how the experience affected you. Whatever topic you pick, you must be able to specifically address how or why it matters to you.
Say a student, Will, was writing about the mall Santa in response to Common App prompt number 2 (the one about failure): Will was a terrible mall Santa. He was way too skinny to be convincing and the kids would always step on his feet. He could easily write 600 very entertaining words describing this experience, but they wouldn't necessarily add up to an effective college essay.
To do that, he'll need to talk about his motivations and his feelings: why he took such a job in the first place and what he did (and didn't) get out of it. Maybe Will took the job because he needed to make some money to go on a school trip and it was the only one he could find. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for screaming children, he kept doing it because he knew if he persevered through the whole holiday season he would have enough money for his trip. Would you rather read "I failed at being a mall Santa" or "Failing as a mall Santa taught me how to persevere no matter what"? Admissions officers definitely prefer the latter.
Ultimately, the best topics are ones that allow you to explain something surprising about yourself.
Since the main point of the essay is to give schools a sense of who you are, you have to open up enough to let them see your personality. Writing a good college essay means being honest about your feelings and experiences even when they aren't entirely positive.
In this context, honesty doesn't mean going on at length about the time you broke into the local pool at night and nearly got arrested, but it does mean acknowledging when something was difficult or upsetting for you. Think about the mall Santa example above. The essay won't work unless the writer genuinely acknowledges that he was a bad Santa and explains why.
Even this little kid is a better Santa than Will was.
As I mentioned above, colleges want to know that you are a strong enough writer to survive in college classes. Can you express your ideas clearly and concisely? Can you employ specific details appropriately and avoid cliches and generalizations? These kinds of skills will serve you well in college (and in life!).
Nonetheless, admissions officers recognize that different students have different strengths. They aren’t looking for a poetic magnum opus from someone who wants to be a math major. (Honestly, they aren't expecting a masterwork from anyone, but the basic point stands.) Focus on making sure that your thoughts and personality come through, and don't worry about using fancy vocabulary or complex rhetorical devices.
Above all, make sure that you have zero grammar or spelling errors. Typos indicate carelessness, which will hurt your cause with admissions officers.
Top 5 Essay-Writing Tips
Now that you have a sense of what colleges are looking for, let's talk about how you can put this new knowledge into practice as you approach your own essay. Below, I've collected my five best tips from years as a college essay counselor.
#1: Start Early!
No matter how much you want to avoid writing your essay, don’t leave it until the last minute. One of the most important parts of the essay writing process is editing, and editing takes a lot of time. You want to be able to put your draft in a drawer for a week and come back to it with fresh eyes. You don't want to be stuck with an essay you don't really like because you have to submit your application tomorrow.
You need plenty of time to experiment and rewrite, so I would recommend starting your essays at least two months before the application deadline. For most students, that means starting around Halloween, but if you're applying early you'll need to get going closer to Labor Day.
Of course, it's even better to get a head start and begin your planning earlier. Many students like to work on their essays over the summer when they have more free time, but you should keep in mind that each year's application isn't usually released until August or September. Essay questions often stay the same from year to year, however. If you are looking to get a jump on writing, you can try to confirm with the school (or the Common App) if the essay questions will be the same as the previous year's.
#2: Pick a Topic You’re Genuinely Excited About
One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying to write what they think the committee wants to hear. The truth is that there's no "right answer" when it comes to college essays — the best topics aren't limited to specific categories like volunteer experiences or winning a tournament. Instead, they're topics that actually matter to the writer.
"OK," you're thinking, "but what does she mean by 'a topic that matters to you'? Because to be perfectly honest, right now what really matters to me is that fall TV starts up this week, and I have a feeling I shouldn't write about that."
You're not wrong (although some great essays have been written about television). A great topic isn't just something that you're excited about or that you talk to your friends about; it's something that has had a real, describable effect on your perspective.
This doesn't mean that you should overemphasize how something absolutely changed your life, especially if it really didn't. Instead, try to be as specific and honest as you can about how the experience affected you, what it taught you, or what you got out of it.
Let's go back to the TV idea. Sure, writing an essay about how excited you are for the new season of The Vampire Diaries probably isn't the quickest way to get yourself into college, but you could write a solid essay (in response to the first type of prompt) about how SpongeBob SquarePants was an integral part of your childhood. However, it's not enough to just explain how much you loved SpongeBob — you must also explain why and how watching the show every day after school affected your life. For example, maybe it was a ritual you shared with your brother, which showed you how even seemingly silly pieces of pop culture can bring people together. Dig beneath the surface to show who you are and how you see the world.
When you write about something you don't really care about, your writing will come out cliched and uninteresting, and you'll likely struggle to motivate. When you write about something that is genuinely important to you, on the other hand, you can make even the most ordinary experiences — learning to swim, eating a meal, or watching TV — engaging.
As strange as it sounds, SpongeBob could make a great essay topic.
#3: Focus on Specifics
But how do you write an interesting essay? Focus.
Don't try to tell your entire life story, or even the story of an entire weekend; 500-650 words may seem like a lot, but you'll reach that limit quickly if you try to pack every single thing that has happened to you into your essay. If, on the other hand, you just touch on a wide range of topics, you'll end up with an essay that reads more like a resume.
Instead, narrow in on one specific event or idea and talk about it in more depth. The narrower your topic, the better. For example, writing about your role as Mercutio in your school's production of Romeo and Juliet is too general, but writing about opening night, when everything went wrong, could be a great topic.
Whatever your topic, use details to help draw the reader in and express your unique perspective, but keep in mind that you don't have to include every detail of what you did or thought — stick to the important and illustrative ones.
#4: Use Your Own Voice
College essays aren't academic assignments: you don't need to be super formal. Instead, try to be yourself. The best writing sounds like a more eloquent version of the way you talk.
Focus on using clear, simple language that effectively explains a point or evokes a feeling. To do so, avoid the urge to use fancy-sounding synonyms when you don't really know what they mean. Contractions are fine; slang, generally, is not. Don't hesitate to write in the first person.
A final note: you don’t need to be relentlessly positive. It’s OK to acknowledge that sometimes things don’t go how you want — just show how you grew from that.
#5: Be Ruthless
Many students want to call it a day after writing a first draft, but editing is a key part of writing a truly great essay. To be clear, editing doesn't mean just making a few minor wording tweaks and cleaning up typos; it means reading your essay carefully and objectively and thinking about how you could improve it.
Ask yourself questions as you read: is the progression of the essay clear? Do you make a lot of vague, sweeping statements that could be replaced with more interesting specifics? Do your sentences flow together nicely? Do you show something about yourself beyond the surface level?
You will have to delete and rewrite (potentially large) parts of your essay, and no matter how attached you feel to something you wrote, you might have to let it go. If you've ever heard the phrase "Kill your darlings," know that it is 100% applicable to college essay writing.
At some point, you might even need to rewrite the whole essay. Even though it's annoying, starting over is sometimes the best way to get an essay that you're really proud of.
Make sure to check out our other posts on college essays, including out step-by-step guide to how to write your college essay, our analysis of the Common App Prompts, and our collection of example essays.
If you're in need of guidance on other parts of the application process, take a look at our guides to choosing the right college for you, writing about extracurriculars, and requesting teacher recommendations.
Last but not least, if you're planning on taking the SAT one last time, check out our ultimate guide to studying for the SAT and make sure you're as prepared as possible.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now: