The New York Times has been rife this season with articles about the college application essay. The Common Application’s newly reinstated 500-word guideline is the topic of much conversation, as are general themes and strategies for the personal statement.
It is now November – some early application deadlines have come and gone. Is your high school senior still stuck or struggling with his or her personal statement?
Many people, not just college applicants, have a hard time writing about themselves. Yet that’s exactly what you need to do when writing a personal statement. No matter how much you might not like it, your personal statement is about you. There’s really no way around it.
Today I will provide some assistance and resources to help any college applicant write a great personal statement.
1. Relax! Have fun!
“It’s all about loosening up,” says a California college professor in Crafting an Application Essay That ‘Pops’, a New York Times article which reported on the recommendations of 5,000 admissions officers and counselors who gathered at the latest NACAC conference. I couldn’t agree more.
To help students have fun with their personal statements, Stanford University has come up with an interesting twist: They ask applicants to write a letter to their future freshman roommates.
Here are some samples, quoted in the article, of how students approached the essay:
“If you want to borrow my music, just ask. If you want to borrow my underwear, just take them.”
“I eat ice cream with a fork, and I drink orange juice right after I brush my teeth just for the sour taste.”
“If you have anything other than a Dodgers poster on the wall, I will tear it down.”
Note all these lines are written in the first person – unfortunately to some, a required element of writing about yourself. And note that all the lines are unique. It’s unlikely that two applicants would have written the same thing.
Here’s the key to writing a great essay: Write something no one else could have written.
If that sounds like a daunting task, loosen up! Take a cue from Stanford’s essay question, no matter what topic you choose to write about. All you have to do is tell stories about yourself.
2. How NOT to Start your College Application Essay
One common pitfall students fall into is trying to write an essay about their reasons for applying to school, instead of simply telling a story. One of my recent clients started her essay to graduate school with, “I am applying to the XX school for several reasons.” I coached her to simply start telling her story. This approach made the project a lot easier, and made her essay a lot more interesting!
Here’s the start of an essay that meets this requirement:
When I went to Fall Out Boy’s Chicago radio show, there was the comment from the drummer, “The girl from New York is here.” When I fought my way to the front of the crowd in Florida, there was the bassist’s point of his finger at me as he mouthed one of my favorite lyrics: “I still hate you.”
This opening line works because it tells a story no one else could tell. It brings us into a world unique to the applicant. And it sets us up to think something interesting is going to happen in this essay. The reader is compelled to read the next line.
Contrast this to an alternate version of the essay that might have read, “Music is one of my passions, and because of that I attend a lot of rock concerts. My favorite band is Fall Out Boy.”
You might laugh, but version two is the way many college essays read. Or, to avoid boring the committee, applicants swing the other way: “Raindrops heated by the flashing lights above, falling abundantly and without end, singeing my hair, my skin, my eyes…”
Here’s a tip: If you are not a brilliant creative writer, just stick to the facts. They will set you free.
3. Doing it in 500 Words
The Common Application now suggests a 500-word limit for a college application essay. The more you stick to a story – a story that is directly linked to the point you want to make in your essay – the easier it will be to stay within that limit. Note it’s okay to spill over by a couple of words – but think of how impressed an admissions committee will be if you can knock their socks off in 500 or under?
The New York Times’ “The Choice” blog provides spot-on advice for how to stay succinct in “Advice on Whittling Your Admissions Essay.” Read this article immediately if you are over the limit and unsure of how to cut your writing down to size!
You might also gain some breathing room from Matt Flegenheimer’s October 28, 2011 article, “College Application Essay as Haiku? For Some, 500 Words Aren’t Enough.”
Brenda Bernstein, founder and senior editor of The Essay Expert LLC, has been coaching professionals and students on their writing projects for over 12 years. She works closely with clients to create effective written expressions of who they are and what they have accomplished.