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
How to Write Successful College Application Essays
Your college application admission letter or essay is one of the most important documents you will ever write. I want to show you how to write yourself to the head of the pack. To do that I need to first explain to you the concept of Stump Speeches, which are often used by politicians. Regardless of the question a politician is asked they will try to answer it in a way that lets them talk about a few areas where they are strong. One guy will always come back to talk about cutting taxes. Another will always come back to talking about economic growth because they know, from their research, that when they talk about these specific things, people like them more.
I’m going to tell you what to say in your college admission letter (or college admission essay) so that the readers at Stanford or Yale will want to choose you over everyone else. The people who are going to be reading your letter want to see that you tick certain boxes. So you need to think about these people as your market. You are trying to sell yourself to these essay readers at Harvard, Columbia or UC Berkley. So you’ll want to answer the essay question in a way that let’s you touch on the Four Traits every top college wants to see in their new students. The good thing is that once you’ve developed your letter for one school you can use much of the same content as a Stump Speech, to use (slightly modified) for another college’s admission letter. Below I describe the four traits (that the readers of your essay are generally looking for) and explain how you can show that you have these traits.
The four traits:
1 Show them that you are hard working. Provide evidence of this. Hard working doesn’t just mean good grades. They want to see real evidence that you will stick with something even if you aren’t good at it at first. Try to tell a story to make it clear how hard working you are. You stuck with a hard subject until you mastered it. You did an overseas working holiday in Cambodia, where it was hard, but you worked through it.
2 Show them that you know about their specific college. Tell them details about the college and even the specific program. This shows that you’ve done your homework about the place, which will make them think that:
a) You are the kind of student who does their homework.
b) You are taking the decision seriously, and
c) You appreciate and value the school. Everyone wants to be told that their university is great. I went to Queen’s University in Canada and I love hearing great things about it. By valuing the school you’re subtly telling them that you would fit in there. You are Queen’s University material.
Also (if this is true) you may want to convey the idea that you have been interested in this school for a long time. You have always admired professor so and so and the way he has used the study of whatever to help develop the such and such. All of this should be true, of course.
3 Show evidence of contribution to the community. Show you have a conscience, that you care about other people. Universities really do care about this. They want to see themselves and their students as helping the world. So show them, using real-life examples, that you like to do your part to make a real difference.
4 Finally, explain your vision for yourself in the future and how LSE or Princeton fits into that plan. Here is where you can really grab them. Even if you aren’t completely sure yourself yet about what you want to do in the future, you’ll still want to paint a picture for the reader of where you see yourself in 15 years. And again it should be clear why you need to take this specific program in order to achieve that vision. For example, you might say that, “My dream is to work for the World Trade Organization, helping raise the health standards of children in developing countries.” If you aren’t sure, pick something that you think you might like and go with that. You are allowed to change your mind later, but the reader of your essay will enjoy feeling like they are playing a part in making your dream come true (especially if this dream is about helping people).
Those are the four traits. However, I’d like to touch on two other things you should keep in mind.
How to Use Evidence to Strengthen Your College Admission Essay
You notice that I keep using the term “evidence”. By evidence I mean specific details about what you did: locations, number of people involved, the amount of money you raised. Basically I'm saying provide details.
So don’t just say:
“I raised money for charity.”
Instead say, say,
“I worked in a team of 5 students to raise $800 for the Japanese Red Cross Society’s Tsunami Relief Campaign.”
Do you see how that second sentence is a million times better than the first one? Specificity and detail makes it much more compelling and convincing? Of course, as always, these things also need to be true as well.
How to Use Stories to Strengthen Your College Admission Essay
Stories are brilliant ways of gripping your reader. You won’t have time to tell a whole story of course, but you can use the small version of a story, an anecdote, to reveal aspects of yourself. (The 20 second story explains how anecdotes make you and your message memorable). Stories are powerful. And they also work as evidence because it's hard to tell a convincing story about yourself that isn't true. Also people can relate to them, so they start to feel like they know you. So they are a great tool that you should take advantage of. You might want to tell us, for example, about when one of your personal heroes did something that made a difference in your life and what this experience taught you. So try to tie-in a real life story of when you had an experience which helped you to develop the Four Traits.
I just got this advice from a friend of mine, who is an Academic Advisor. It provides some more insight into how you should approach the UCAS essay (UK) and a US university application essay differently: -The UCAS essay should focus on why you will be a good fit for that course (i.e. Economics, Biology, Medicine). So while mentioning ECAs or volunteer activities is great, using that as evidence for why you should be admitted to the course is important. -In a US college essay, the questions they want you to answer can be a lot more "squishy", something like "discuss a character from literature that has influenced you and why". They may just want to know you can write and show are a creative thinker, even if you are applying to Engineering. So while evidence is important, how the evidence is used is crucial. Also, as one interviewer from Oxbridge I heard speak said, UK universities often are looking for "pointy" students who are good at a particular thing and really want to study that subject, because they will be studying it intensively for three years. Whereas, the US, in particular smaller and more selective colleges, are looking for more well-rounded students who are a good "fit" for their campuses. So a student who gets in to Oxford may not necessarily be a good candidate for Yale or Stanford.