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How To Start Off A Personal Statement Essay

(This article has been updated to reflect the new 650-word limit for the Common Application)

TheNew York Times has been rife this season with articles about the college application essay.  The Common Application’s newly reinstated 650-word guideline is the topic of much conversation, as are general themes and strategies for the personal statement.

It is now early November.  Some early application deadlines have come and gone, and November 15 deadlines are around the corner.  Is your high school senior still stuck or struggling with his or her personal statement?

Many people, not just college applicants, have a hard time writing about themselves.  Yet that’s exactly what you need to do when writing a personal statement.  No matter how much you might not like it, your personal statement is about you.  There’s really no way around it.

Today I will provide some assistance and resources to help any college applicant to get those 650 words written.

1.  Relax!  Have fun!

“It’s all about loosening up,”  says a California college professor in Crafting an Application Essay That ‘Pops’, a New York Times article which reported on the recommendations of 5,000 admissions officers and counselors who gathered at the latest NACAC conference.  I couldn’t agree more.

To help students have fun with their personal statements, Stanford University has come up with an interesting twist:  They ask applicants to write a letter to their future freshman roommates.

Here are some samples, quoted in the article, of how students approached the essay:

“If you want to borrow my music, just ask. If you want to borrow my underwear, just take them.”

“I eat ice cream with a fork, and I drink orange juice right after I brush my teeth just for the sour taste.”

“If you have anything other than a Dodgers poster on the wall, I will tear it down.”

Note that all these lines are written in the first person – unfortunately to some, a required element of writing about yourself.  And note that all the lines are unique.  It’s unlikely that two applicants would have written the same thing.

Here’s the key to writing a great essay:  Write something no one else could have written.

If that sounds like a daunting task, loosen up!  Take a cue from Stanford’s essay question, no matter what topic you choose to write about.  All you have to do is tell stories about yourself.

2. How NOT to Start your College Application Essay

One common pitfall students fall into is trying to write an essay about their reasons for applying to school, instead of simply telling a story.  One of my recent clients started her essay to graduate school with, “I am applying to the XX school for several reasons.”  I coached her to simply start telling her story.  This approach made the project a lot easier, and made her essay a lot more interesting!

Here’s the start of an essay that meets this requirement:

When I went to Fall Out Boy’s Chicago radio show, there was the comment from the drummer, “The girl from New York is here.”  When I fought my way to the front of the crowd in Florida, there was the bassist’s point of his finger at me as he mouthed one of my favorite lyrics: “I still hate you.”

This opening line works because it tells a story no one else could tell.  It brings us into a world unique to the applicant.  And it sets us up to think something interesting is going to happen in this essay.  The reader is compelled to read the next line.

Contrast this to an alternate version of the essay that might have read, “Music is one of my passions, and because of that I attend a lot of rock concerts.  My favorite band is Fall Out Boy.”

You might laugh, but version two is the way many college essays read.  Or, to avoid boring the committee, applicants swing the other way:  “Raindrops heated by the flashing lights above, falling abundantly and without end, singeing my hair, my skin, my eyes…”

Here’s a tip:  If you are not a brilliant creative writer, just stick to the facts.  They will set you free.

3. Doing it in 650 Words

The Common Application now sets a 650-word limit for a college application essay.  The more you stick to a story – a story that is directly linked to the point you want to make in your essay – the easier it will be to stay within that limit — and to knock the socks off the admissions committee!

The New York Times’ “The Choice” blog provides spot-on advice for how to stay succinct in Advice on Whittling Your Admissions Essay.  Read this article immediately if you are over the limit and unsure of how to cut your writing down to size!

You might also gain some breathing room from Matt Flegenheimer’s October 28, 2011 article, College Application Essay as Haiku?  For Some, 500 Words Aren’t Enough.

 

Need Help with your Personal Statement for College?

If you’re still stuck, panicked, or unsure, consider getting some help.  The Essay Expert’s Ivy-educated consultants are skilled in working with students to craft essays that say more than you might even imagine can be said in 650 words.  Just try us!

Admissions, College Admissions, College Application, college application essay, college application essays, college essays, Colleges and Universities, how to write a personal statement, personal statement, word limit, writing, Writing Tips

(Image: Polka Dot/Thinkstock)

Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate school or trying to get into graduate programs, many applications require a letter of intent or personal statement. Personal statements are one of the most important parts of the application and sometimes the deciding factor for admission.

Personal statements give a better understanding of who you are, beyond the rigid constraints of the “fill-in-the-blank” application.

Like many around this time of the year, I am finishing my graduate school applications. Looking for advice and guidance, I decided to compare different schools’ personal statement requirements and ask admissions offices for advice. Here’s what I found:

1. Be yourself

The Columbia Graduate School for Journalism encourages students to write about family, education, talents or passions. They want to hear about significant places or events in your life; about books you have read, people you have met or work you’ve done that has shaped the person you have become.

Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.

2. Show diversity

Rayna Reid, a personal statement guru, received her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Law degree at Columbia. Reid says a personal statement is really just a way to make the college fall in love with you.

“The essay is where you really get a chance to differentiate yourself from the other applicants,” she said. “Explain why they should accept you. What will you contribute?”

Sean Carpenter, University of Southern California Student Services Associate and undergraduate student, reiterates the importance of differentiating yourself from other applicants.

He works in the Annenberg School for Communication admissions office and deals with prospective students daily. Carpenter says USC or any major school want to see diversity.

“They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants?” Carpenter said, “Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”

3. Do research and tailor each essay accordingly

Every college is different, so each personal statement should be different. Many students try to get away with having a universal essay but admissions departments will notice.

“Do research to give concrete reasons why you’re interested in particular program,” Carpenter said. “Speak with a faculty member that you’re interested in working with or doing research for and mention that in your statement. It would also be beneficial to say what classes you’ve taken that were relevant to the field of study.”

4. Be concise and follow directions

Make sure you read the directions carefully. One of the biggest red flags for an admissions office are students who don’t adhere to word limitations. Don’t give them a reason to throw out your application.

Believe it or not, there is a way to say everything you want in a page or less. If you need some help, ask several faculty members to read over your essay and give you feedback.

5. Go beyond your resume, GPA and test scores

Many students worry about how their GPA and test scores will affect the admissions process. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain any strengths or weaknesses in your application — such as changes in major, low GPA or lack of experience.

For instance, Reid was worried about not having a 4.0 GPA. Since Reid didn’t have the perfect GPA, she explained what she did with her time to make up for that fact. Being on the Varsity rowing team and a Teach for America Corp member are great examples of how devoting her time to other things made an impact on her GPA.

6. Tell a story

“Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner,” Reid said. “For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”

One of the worst things you can do is bore the admission officer. Make yourself memorable by telling a story about something distinctive from a creative or different angle.

With this advice, your personal statement will be the highlight of your application. Good luck!

Alexis Morgan is currently a senior at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in public relations, broadcast journalism, print journalism and production. Alexis truly believes if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.

Alexis Morgan, Columbia University, Cornell University, grad school, Penn State University, the application, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 

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