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
For many high school students, writing an essay is one of the most daunting parts of the college application process, especially when students are unsure of each university’s expectations.
Going over top college essay examples is a great way for students to learn more about expectations for essay submissions. Check out these tips for ideas and inspiration, and read these example essays before getting started!
The Importance of Good Essay Writing
Being able to write a great essay is extremely important when applying for college, but the skills students use to write their essays don’t end with college applications. Writing skills are some of the most important, not only preparing students to write a top college essay, but they are preparing to write well for life.
College Admission Essay 1
Prompt:Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Pushing through the hordes of people, I catch a glimpse of my train’s boarding check-ins. Like a captain frantically seeking a lighthouse in a storm, I haul myself across the ocean of human bodies, trying to stay afloat, to avoid being stranded – or trampled – in the dustiest city in the world: Beijing, capital of both China and smog.
Luckily, I find my train with plenty of time to spare, and without being turned into a pancake, which is always a plus. The train conductor in his freshly pressed dark green uniform checks my ticket and welcomes me to the train. At last, it is time to return home to Shanghai.
This is the summer of 2012 and Shanghai isn’t to be my home for much longer. Another week and I will cross the globe to start a new life in a foreign land called Charlotte. But which is home? The place I am leaving or the place I am going? Arrival or departure? Like a compass with a broken magnetic strip, I can’t decide where to call home.
This uncertainty is unsettling, leaving me consumed by worry. I take The Things They Carried from my backpack and run my fingers over the slightly crumpled pages. It doesn’t take me long to lose myself; I’m sucked in, broken down, and shot off into the distance by this book of memories.
They say the best books tell you what you already know, resonating with your own thoughts and emotions. As I read The Things They Carried on the train to Shanghai, it is as if the tempest of my thoughts has become unraveled and spelled out on paper. The overflowing sense of hyper-reality in Tim O’Brien’s words of warfare spills into my world. His words somehow become my words, his memories become my memories. Despite the high speed of the train on the tracks, my mind is held in a perfectly still state – trapped between the narrative of the book and the narrative of my own life.
I feel like I should be disturbed, but I’m not. I read the last page and close the book, staring out the window at the shining fish ponds and peaceful rice paddies. I feel like I am a speck of dust out there, floating, content, happy. I realize that I am at home between worlds. I speak both English and Chinese. I use Chinese for math, science, quantity, and process. English, however, is my language of choice for art, emotion, and description. America owns my childhood, filled by pine trees, blockbusters, and Lake Tahoe snow; China holds my adolescent years, accompanied by industrial smog, expeditious mobility, and fast-paced social scenes. Shanghai is the place where I fought my first bully, discovered mobile phones, became acquainted with heartaches, and tasted independence.
I look out the window and realize we are drawing into Shanghai Hong Qiao station. My reverie is at an end, but I have the answer to my question. Home isn’t arrival or departure. Home isn’t America or China. Home is the in-between, the cusp of transition, the space between breaths, and that is where I feel most content.
College Admission Essay 2
Prompt: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
I won “Most Original” pumpkin at a Halloween party years ago. I hate the “Most Original” award. It’s a consolation prize. You can’t be the best, or the prettiest, so you have to be “original”. I’ve won the “Most Original” award a fair amount of times. I was even named “Most Original” at a basketball awards banquet. What does that mean? How can anybody be “Most Original” when she’s playing basketball?
Recognizing the “Most Original” award for the pity-prize that it was, I grew increasing hostile toward the very word “original”. If you win this cursed award, everyone around you feigns sympathy for your circumstances. Phrases like “oh, bummer” and “well, good for you” often circle around the recipient. This creates a cyclone of cynicism and regret, one from which the “winner” will never quite recover.
Okay. Maybe I’m overreacting, but I cannot for the life of me understand that award. “Most Original” always let me down, and as a result, I hated to be original in any context. In my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut, where normality was… well, the norm, I tried to be a typical student, absolutely, perfectly normal.. I blended into crowds, the definition of the classic American teenager. I became a person who refused to surprise people. Just another brick in the wall. Dull.
And then I moved to Berkeley for 6 months. It’s an odd, vibrant place, with odd, vibrant people. I love it because originality is celebrated there. I became friends with a student who dressed outlandishly, wearing corset tops and tutus, and on some days, carrying around a parasol. Her best friend was a boy with purple hair who once wore a shirt with built in LED lights for Christmas. They were the most popular people in school, despite being contradictions to all that was admired in New Haven. Our peers recognized them as being unique, but instead of ostracizing them, as would likely have happened in New Haven, the students in Berkeley accepted and celebrated their originality.
In Berkeley, I learned the value of originality: Those who celebrate their individuality are not only unique, but strong. It takes great strength to defy the definitions of others, and because of that strength, those who create their own paths discover a different world than those who travel the same worn road.
When I returned to New Haven, I had changed. My hair was dyed with red streaks, and I wore crazy clothes that instantly made me stand out. Suddenly, everyone knew who I was. Once, such notoriety would have made me nervous, as if I had painted a large target on my forehead. But I had changed more than just my hairstyle and clothing – I had embraced the idea of being original. Spending time in a place where “most original” was the highest compliment allowed me to explore myself without fear of being different, lesser.
I’m still skeptical about the “Most Original” award. In the context of an award ceremony, it’s still just a meaningless consolation prize. But I don’t think of being “most original” as an insult anymore. I wear it as a badge of honor, proof that I am myself and no one else.
Very recently, a friend joked, “If there were a ‘Quirkiest’ award in the yearbook, you would definitely be in it.” We were standing outside of a classroom, and I was wearing a pair of gold colored shorts that definitely caught the eye. Her comment made me laugh. “‘Quirkiest’ makes me sound awkward.” I answered. “How about ‘Most Original’?”
College Admission Essay 3
Prompt: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
The sweet smell of cinnamon resonated through the house. A wave of warmth washed over my face as I opened the oven door to reveal my first batch of snicker doodles. Small domes of sugary cookies shyly peeked from the edge of the door. I smiled in excitement as I thought about the laughter these cookies would bring to my friends. They like to compare me to the witch in Hansel and Gretel, except that I fatten children up and then forget to eat them. I am inclined to send a slight glare at this comparison, but any rancor is overwhelmed by my enjoyment of their anticipation of my baked goods.
There is something about the warmth of a kitchen filled with the buttery smell of pastry that evokes a feeling of utter relaxation. I find joy in sharing this warm and homey experience by showering the people around me with the sweets. The smile that creeps up in the corners of someone’s mouth as he or she bites into my food gives me a sense of pride and accomplishment.
For as long as I can remember, baking has been an integral part of my life. Thanks to busy parents and hungry siblings, I was encouraged to cook from a relatively young age. Time spent in the kitchen naturally piqued my interest in baking. Such interests expanded into a heart-warming hobby that rejuvenates my stressful days, improves upon even my happiest moments, and brings joy to the people around me.
They say that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. It has been my experience that the way to ANYONE’S heart is through the stomach. To me, food is not simply about sustenance. The time that I spend in my kitchen, the effort and care that I pour into my confectionary creations, is a labor of love that brings me just as much satisfaction as it does my hungry friends and family.
Writing Help from C2
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