Imagine you’re an admissions officer. On your desk you have the application of a straight-A shortstop who wrote his personal statement about hitting the winning home run at his school’s championship baseball game. Next to it, the application of a B-student who wrote her essay about taking care of her disabled brother while their mother worked the nightshift. You can only choose one. It should be an easy choice. And no, it’s not the shortstop.
Admissions officers have to face decisions like this every day, and often the personal statement makes tough choices easier. Grades argue that you have the ability to be at a college, but your personal statement argues why an admissions officer should want you to be at their college.
We as a team have a lot of thoughts about the personal statement. Probably enough to (maybe one day) fill a book. I’m going to distill those ideas to a few key pieces of advice about writing the college essay:
Do: Be engaging. No, this doesn’t mean putting a lot of exclamation points and onomatopoeias, and it certainly doesn’t mean writing long-winded, run-on sentences that never seem to end in an effort to create a sense of urgency or somehow convey your intellect which long sentences such as this one aren’t great for if you can’t tell, and instead make you sound incoherent and unfocused (see what I did there?). What it does mean is writing an essay that the admissions officer wants to read. How do you know if they want to read it? Well, for starters, how excited are you about your essay? If you’re not, that’s probably a sign that your reader won’t be either. You might also try sharing your essay with other people and getting their thoughts. Does your excitement come across? Does it make them excited too?
Do: Write about something foundational to who you are. What makes you you? If you can’t answer that question, you’re not ready to write your college essay. Do some soul-searching. Figure out the things that make you tick. What motivates you? What are the core parts of you? You want this to come through in your essay. And remember: you don’t have to be an amazing writer to write a great story. Just look at almost any best-selling young adult series. Relatable emotions and a compelling story can be enough to raise your essay above your writing ability.
Do: Get personal. Your essay should be something central to who you are as a person. Tell a story that only you can tell because only you experienced it. Don’t be afraid to be open and vulnerable. In fact, we recommend it. We’ve had students cry while writing their essays. When I write plays, that happens to me frequently. It’s not something to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s a sign that you’re tapping into something truly meaningful.
Do: Be specific. Going along with being personal, make sure to provide details that offer a real glimpse into your perspective. I like to describe them as tangible things that the reader can grab onto. They might not know what it feels like to switch schools 5 times, but if you do, try to get that across in a way that they can understand or relate to, make them feel like they are the new kid at the school (I’m not recommending you write about this, but it’s an example of a stereotypical essay. By going into deeply specific details, this essay could overcome its cliched origin. See more about overdone topics below.)
Now, with those things to do in mind, here’s some to avoid:
Don’t: Try to tell your life story. 650 words is not enough for your life story. If it is… well, that’s a different problem. The most successful college essays are the ones that give a thin slice of life, focusing on one specific (see that word again?) thing, be that an event, a challenge, an accomplishment, a point of view, or something else. In writing about that thing, you signal who you are, both through your writing style and your choice of topic.
Don’t: Brag. This may seem counterintuitive given that we recommend bragging (in moderation) when it comes to practically every other part of your application. However, your college essay is not the place to do this. It’s a place to show humility, growth, and the positive aspects of your character. The essay can offer a good opportunity to talk about some of your accomplishments, but always be sure to do so in a way that is not braggadocious. Don’t simply list off all the things you’ve done and how great you are, but take the time to get into the emotional journey behind the process. If you’ve ever watched a biopic or read a biography, you know that the best ones always show the subject as a complex person with real human faults. Don’t be afraid to let your essay do the same thing.
Don’t: Try to write like an adult. Write in a tone that’s familiar to you (but preferably leaving out emojis or slang). You should be comfortable in your essay, like you’re writing for a distant friend. Don’t try to use SAT vocabulary words (like braggadocious) or flowery language in an effort to impress an admissions officer. It won’t. Best case scenario is that they’ll think you’re trying to impress them. Worst case scenario is that they’ll think someone else wrote your essay. Larry has a Mark Twain quote he likes to cite when talking about writing styles, but it turns out that Mark Twain never said it, so I am going to attribute it to Larry: “Write the thoughts of adults in the language of kids” — Larry Liu. Just because you’re writing in the voice of a 17/18 year old doesn’t mean you can’t fit mature thoughts into that.
Don’t: Choose an overdone topic. It can be hard to know what’s cliche without having read or researched college essays. If you search around the internet for “Most cliche essay topics,” you can find a few lists. Some of them include writing about life-changing mission/service trips, being a new kid, overcoming an athletic injury, or a highlight reel of a winning sports game. The caveat here though is what I’ve already touched upon, which is that whatever you choose as your topic needs to be specific to your own personal experience. With that in mind, if you have a way to bring a new, unique perspective on a classic essay topic, you shouldn’t be afraid to try it.
Don’t: Try to find some big universal truth. A common approach to the personal statement is “I’m going to discuss something that at first seemed meaningless to me, but then I discovered that it wasn’t meaningless, and here’s the meaning. Now let me tell you the meaning that I learned in a lot of words that no one will actually want to read.” Don’t do that. Focus on the details and don’t try to draw some big picture conclusion from that. Let your reader do that for themselves.
Lastly, one more thing to do:
Do: READ. You study for the ACT, you should study for your college essay too. How are you supposed to write your own without any frame of reference for it? We’ve noticed that the college essay is one of the biggest problem points for our students for this reason. Most writing done in school is analytical, and you’re encouraged never to use the word “I,” but you’d be hard-pressed to write your college essay without that word. The college essay is less an essay and more a statement (which is probably why they call it the “personal statement”). It’s better to think of it less like a high school essay and more like a short story. Reading example essays is the best way to understand this. We recommend 100 Successful College Application Essays and On Writing the College Application Essay.
These are all guidelines, rather than set-in-stone rules, but do your best to follow them and you’ll be on the path toward writing a great college essay.