The personal statement is the best way to separate yourself from the torrent of applications that schools receive each year. It should be a concise, vivid, and specific essay about your world-view and what makes you unique. In 700 words, write clean prose that has a point. Then edit, edit, edit until only the 500 most efficient words remain.
Here are the top ten tips (and myths) for writing the college application essay:
1. Cover a topic that will set you apart. Do you know how many essays colleges receive about traveling, building a houses for the poor in Guatemala, or winning the big game? Too many to count. Your personal statement is an opportunity to be different. If you have a passion for your internship at the local radio station, and can write knowledgeably about why music is important to you, that will set you apart. If you can explain with insight your hobby of building electric bicycles, I’d love to read it. If you’re going to explain how good you felt ladling out some soup for the homeless that one Thanksgiving Day, I’d rather take a nap. However, if winning that big game was so important because your father recently died of cancer, and he’s the one who taught you how to play catch, sure, I could see that working. Just make sure it’s different.
2. Avoid topics that can set you apart in the wrong way. Bad ideas for essays: your own drug addiction (makes you seem risky), turning your friend’s life around (makes you seem self-aggrandizing), why your grades sucked sophomore year (makes you seem irresponsible), your time in jail (makes you seem criminal), why you hate [insert political or religious topic] (makes you seem intolerant). Remember the people reading these essays are asking themselves if they want you at their school. Give them a good reason to say yes.
3. Your statement doesn’t need to be a Hollywood blockbuster. If you saved a crying baby from a flood that decimated the Guatemalan village where you were doing community service last summer, that will probably make for a compelling personal statement. Some people have very revealing “big, important events” in their lives, and they should feel free to write about them. But remember that “important” is in the eye of the beholder. If you can explain why getting your first car was truly important to you or how a dinner with friends is an indelible memory, that could work. Keep in mind that not every movie is an action film. Some are small and intimate but pack a bigger emotional wallop than any Michael Bay movie. Write about what is important to you.
4. The more recent the better. I’d rather read about your experiences on the debate team last year than the bad day you had in kindergarten. That said, if you can take an old story and give it fresh perspective and new meaning, that can be great too. If you write about being disillusioned with Santa Claus in elementary school in the context of your parents’ divorce years later and how you understand that episode today, that could be a compelling essay. Remember that admissions departments want to know about you now because that’s the person they would be letting into their schools.
5. Be specific. If getting the lead in a high school musical was a big turning point in your life and you’re describing your audition, don’t just write that you sang the audition song well. What was the name of the song? What did the theater look like? How did you feel? Details put a reader in the moment. (Watch out for detail overload. Remember only details that support the point of your essay.)
6. Tell a story that has a beginning, middle, and end. This doesn’t mean that you need to write War and Peace. It just means that you need to think about your essay as an evolution. Start with a situation, experience, or thought. Then complicate that thought; where does it take you? Finally, there should be a resolution, a change in thinking, a change of viewpoint, an understanding about yourself or the world. If you’re writing about the small town where you grew up, you might begin by describing the boredom and claustrophobia about it. But you might end by discussing the pangs of leaving that tight-knit community. Stories are about change. If you write an essay about wanting to win the soccer game and then you win the soccer game, you’ve likely written something very boring.
7. Show, don’t tell. Instead of saying “my brother was mean to me growing up, but I loved him anyway,” say “my brother pounded me into a pulp like it was his job. He teased me and stole from me, spat on me and lied to me, but no matter how many of my Transformers he melted on the stove, I followed him wherever he went.” In the second version, I never said that my brother was mean, or that I loved him, but you still know because I showed you the behaviors.
8. Write more than one personal statement. Don’t get focused a single idea. It might turn out to be a dud. If you have three well-polished pieces of writing, you’ll be in great shape. (Plus, you can use the leftovers for supplements and other essay prompts.)
9. Share. You might think you’re the next Thomas Pynchon, but you’re going to benefit from feedback. Have people read your essays, lots of people. If it’s good, you’ll know. Their faces will light up, and they’ll say something like “I had no idea… ” or “This is SO funny… ” or “Let me make copies for grandma… ” Good writing enlivens people. The best way to know if your essay is working is to use human guinea pigs.
10. Writing is rewriting. Plan on writing about a dozen drafts of any particular essay. Your first draft will likely be terrible, and hopefully your last draft will look nothing like it. Good writing takes work, but it should be a fun experience.
Good luck on the college application journey, and remember that there’s support all around you.