Given the rush to “get things done” and an increase in the number of students applying to college under one of the Early Action/Early Decision options, I begin this series of articles on the topic of personal statements – perhaps better known as the college essay.
Perhaps the most challenging part of filling out a college application comes at the end of the form: writing the essay! The personal statement/essay part of the application requires the most amount of time to complete and is cause for concern as high school seniors tackle this part of the process.
Why is writing a personal statement so difficult? Perhaps it is because students are not use to writing about themselves or have not given sufficient prior thought to their experiences, choices, and future plans. Writing a self-reflective statement may be a very new experience.
Why do many (most) colleges require an essay and/or personal statement as part of the application process? The purpose is twofold: to come to know the student as a person – more than what can be found in a report of high school courses taken, test results, and involvement in extracurricular activities. The personal statement is an opportunity for the student to present him/herself, to write about something of interest, to tell what matters, what is important, and gives meaning to all the other parts of one’s application. Second, the essay provides insight on how well the student writes and how carefully he or she follows directions.
The first decision in approaching the personal statement is to decide on a topic. Are topics assigned or suggested in the application? If given a choice, why are you choosing a particular topic? What do you want the admissions committee to know about you? Remember, the topic you choose is an opportunity to present yourself – your experiences, interests, and thoughts. Once a topic is chosen, you need to focus. Word limits dictate you must focus! What is the main point going to be? Write it down - it helps to focus on what you will write.
The essay is first written as a rough draft and should include an introduction, the main points or body, and summary – the conclusion. The purpose of the first paragraph, the introduction, is to state the focus of the essay. Typically, the next three paragraphs expand on the first paragraph. This is where an example or evidence is used to back up the main point of the essay. Be creative, tell a story when possible. Write as much as you want in the rough draft - you can edit later. The concluding paragraph is a restatement of the main point and serves to tie together the examples or stories referred to in the body of the essay.
Editing the rough draft is the time to make the essay more concise: delete or reconstruct awkward sentences, make it lively by using the active voice, and pay attention to word limitations. As you review the essay ask: does each paragraph flow smoothly from the previous one? Does each sentence convey its idea clearly? Does the essay include unnecessary sentences that repeat things already said? Are there any unnecessary words? Look for words and phrases you use repeatedly – can you find appropriate substitutes? When the final draft is written review it again – did you make all the changes? Check for grammar and spelling beyond the computer’s spell check function.
As you review the essay ask yourself: What message are you sending to the reader? What personal qualities are you highlighting - creativity, curiosity, resilience, persistence, or others?
And finally, and most importantly, does the essay sound like you?