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
So you want your college essay to show admissions how amazing you are, but you don’t want to say, “Hey admissions—I’m amazing!”
Displaying your accomplishments without bravado is harder than most people think, especially in an assignment like the college application essay, which, when done well, can be a vehicle for highlighting some of your best assets and triumphs. Admissions truly wants to know what distinguishes you from the competition, but who wants to read 650 words of someone tooting his or her own horn? (Not me!) Talking about yourself requires a fine balance between humility and horn tooting.
Over the course of my 12 years of essay advising, I have worked with teenagers of all styles and comfort levels when it comes to presenting their talents and achievements. There are those who routinely undersell themselves (“Sure, I raised $10,000 for cancer research last year, but it’s not a big deal.”), and those would fill a sheet of paper long enough to reach the moon with the details of their every last exploit if you gave them the chance. (“I once decided not to kill a spider in the house and released it back into the wild instead, because I have so much respect for other living things.”) In between these extreme ends of the spectrum, fall the many students who feel moderately comfortable talking about themselves and their successes, but don’t know how to do it in a way that doesn’t feel braggy or self-important.
But it is absolutely possible to land in that sweet spot between overly humble and obnoxiously self-congratulatory. Here are some tips for displaying your landmark successes and defining these moments with grace and without the risk of leaving a sour taste in the mouth of an admissions officer.
Describe your actions and let your accomplishments speak for themselves. This is an offshoot of the classic “show—don’t tell” rule. Telling is boring. Showing engages. It reveals an understanding of the event or activity in question and can reveal thoughtful details about your involvement. Are you a Model United Nations champion? Describing the process of preparing for a tournament—your methodical preparation and bizarre-but-hilarious pre-competition rituals, for example—will allow admissions to grasp your level of investment in the activity, your sense of pride in your mastery of a subject, even your sense of humor. Revealing the process behind your passions can even show an admissions officer why you are so good at what you do. Admissions officers are insightful. They don’t need you tell them how to interpret your achievements. Describe your actions and let admissions infer their value.
Don’t list your activities. Instead, detail your motivations. Providing admissions with a list of your résumé’s greatest hits is a surefire way to sound like a self-impressed blowhard. Also: Zzzzzzzzz. These activity inventories are sure to appear elsewhere on your application (like in the Activities section of the Common or Coalition applications). What admissions will find truly impressive and interesting about your service initiative or your fundraiser or your gold medal at the math fair isn’t the fact of your accomplishment or participation, but rather the reasons behind your actions. Qualities like empathy, self-reflection, and determination don’t reveal themselves on your transcript, so show admissions your personality and humanity by shedding light on why you do what you do. Is there a reason you volunteering for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society instead of, say, Memorial Sloan Kettering? Why do you wake up at 4 a.m. to dive into a freezing cold pool every morning? What drives you, and how do you apply that motivation to your interests and goals? That is what admissions wants to know.
Be grateful. Do you feel lucky to have organized a book drive that has given underserved members of your community access to some of your favorite novels? Does debating the safety of long-term cell phone use on a Sunday afternoon make you nerdily giddy? How can you show admissions that you enjoy life, that you’re invested in your commitments, and that you think about how you have come to be in the place you’re in? Expressing gratitude is a surefire way to contextualize your standout moments and signal that you understand the importance, not just of your own actions, but of their relation to the bigger picture.
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Ultimately, no matter who you are and what you have done in the first 17 years of your life, representing yourself with confidence in the college essay is crucial. You don’t have to have a heavy hand with the self-praise (and probably shouldn’t), but this is the time to give yourself some credit and show admissions what you’re made of beyond your transcript, test scores, and activity lists. There is a balance to be found in the presentation of your finest qualities and most impressive triumphs. I know you can achieve it because—as admissions will soon find out through your own subtle cues—you’re pretty amazing.
Stacey Brook is a writer, admissions expert, and the founder and chief advisor of College Essay Advisors, an education company that offers online courses and in-person college essay advising to students around the world. Brook has over a decade’s worth of experience and teaches the Supplemental Essay Writing course at nytEducation: The School of The New York Times. She has helped more than 1,000 students build lifelong writing skills while crafting compelling and effective admissions essays.