If your student is a rising high school senior, this summer is an excellent time to think, plan, and write at least the first draft of his or her college essay, also known as the Personal Statement.
The Personal Statement is a 250 to 500 word essay that is part of the Common Application. (Many colleges will add their own, specific, shorter essay(s).) The topic choices are listed on the Common Application form at www.commonapp.org, available in PDF form until August 1st, when it is “live” for student inputs.
Why does the student need to write a personal essay? Why can’t he or she submit a graded writing sample from English or History class? The answer is, mainly, because colleges want to give the student the opportunity to tell them about herself and what makes her unique compared to other applicants. The topic choice matters less than the style of writing, and the revelation of what is important to the student writer. Some of the best essays I have read have been about a simple experience: not being able to play a musical instrument due to an injury, and the appreciation of music by listening, not playing, during the recovery period; or a passion for camping that started out as a bonding experience among the generations of men and boys in the family.
As you may know, I love “Top 10” lists! Here are my Top 10 suggestions for crafting an outstanding essay.
1. Be yourself; don’t try to sound like someone else. Your authentic “voice” will come through in a positive light. If you’re not
normally funny, this is not a good time to try on a humorous voice.
2. Start with two topics you are interested in writing about; there will be less pressure than choosing one from the start. Make an outline and a rough draft of each topic. Perhaps go over them with a friend or mentor, and see which one sounds more unique, or more revealing to someone who knows very little about you.
3. Think micro, not macro. You can’t draft a proposal for the solution to world hunger in 500 words or less. You also can’t tell your life story in one page (nor would someone want to read it.) Think of a situation that you learned from, or a passion that you want to share. Stick with that topic, and be as descriptive as possible.
4. Show; don’t tell. This is common advise, but worth repeating here. Use active, not passive verbs. (My pet peeve!) Example –
Passive: I am a messy person. Active: The pile of clothes from every season points to the disarray of my room; it is no wonder I
can’t find anything.
5. Write in the present tense. This is merely a suggestion, and not a requirement. But if you shift your story to the present tense, it becomes more engaging and interesting, I think.
6. Make sure your story threads back to YOU. If your topic is the influence that your grandfather has had on your life, make sure the essay is not entirely about your grandfather. (This comes up often in college admissions information sessions, so take note!)
How did he make you the person you are today?
7. What is your point, or defining moment? Make sure your story is built around a single point, an “Ah ha! moment”, and that you show introspection. Try not to ramble; make every word count and be cohesive.
8. Be humble, yet positive. There is a fine line that you can stay on. It is interesting to show a mistake that you made, and how you grew as a person from that mistake. Be optimistic, energetic, and passionate – all positive qualities.
9. Proofread. Take a break; proofread again. Too often, we rely on spellcheck and assume everything is perfect. Wrong! It is not a
good sign if your work appears sloppy and careless.
10. Ask a friend, or a teacher or mentor who knows you well, to read your essay and give constructive criticism or editing tips. But in the end, make sure it is YOUR essay!
Recommended Books and links on the college essay:
1. Edward B. Fiske and Bruce G. Hammond: Real College Essays that Work.
2. Jan Rooker: Nail Your College Essay
3. Connecticut College – sample essays: www.conncoll.edu/admission/essays-that-worked.htm