Because college applications are due during the first semester of your senior year, you should begin them now, if you haven’t already done so. Otherwise, they’ll interfere with your schoolwork. Since more than 800 colleges accept the Common Application, we’re going to focus on it.
If you take a look at the Common App, you’ll notice that most of it requires relatively straightforward data entry. But the dreaded college essay fills you with anxiety and confusion: What should I write about? What do colleges want to hear? And then you confirm the rumors: many colleges may require more than one essay.
Yes, the college essay does take time and energy (we recommend that you prioritize it over other elements of the application). An effective essay will go through several drafts before it’s ready to share with colleges. But, with care and thought, it needn’t be intimidating – and it can even be rewarding. You may uncover just how interesting and fascinating you are! Let’s start at the beginning by examining what this college essay is all about and how to write it.
The personal statement, as the “college essay” is commonly known, is required by most colleges; they receive it through
the Common Application, Coalition Application, or a college’s own application – each of which has its own length requirement (e.g., Common App: 250-650 words). Most applications provide a list of prompts from which you choose. The overall purpose, regardless of which prompt you select, is for you to share with colleges a story about you that reflects the quality of your character, observational skills, and maturity. In fact, the prompt you select really makes no
difference, because what really matters is how you reveal YOURSELF through your writing. We’ll explain further.
The college application consists of a few parts: your academic record, test scores, activities, accomplishments, and awards – essentially, what you’ve done. However, you are more than that. Through the personal statement, you tell your readers who you are and what matters to you. It’s truly the “personal touch” you add to each application. Each prompt on the Common and Coalition Applications, as well as those appearing on colleges’ own applications (Georgetown University’s, for instance), are crafted to provoke an introspective response in the form of an anecdote about you.
Now that you understand the intent of the personal statement, it’s time to consider content. Let’s look at two of the Common App’s prompts and discuss some of the topics students could write about.
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Many students we’ve worked with have selected this essay prompt, simply because it’s so broad and can easily accommodate a huge range of personal experiences that can generate introspection: surfing, oboe, acting, culinary attempts, to name but a few. Seemingly ordinary background, identity, interest, or talent, combined with detail and personal insight, sparkle when you explain how you’ve grown as a result.
Let’s look at an example. In the following essay excerpt, the student wrote about a day on the job, a mundane eight hours filled with a good amount of manual labor plus customer service. Despite the humdrum day, the student found meaning and purpose in those moments spent working hard, and reflected in the essay’s final paragraph:
Often, a guest asks how I tolerate the relentless, blistering heat. I have a difficult time answering this constant question; I do not see it from that perspective. My tired body reminds me of lugging towels up and down the stairs, raking the sand dune, hauling umbrellas, and depositing trash. Yet, my mind remains energized and refreshed by the guests who have shared a little piece of their lives with me. Because of this, walking back through the “Staff Only” door at the end of the day, it is still difficult to conceive that I have just completed a day of work.
Now, let’s consider another Common App prompt, one which focuses on overcoming a challenge. It lends itself to a classic narrative structure (life before challenge, experiencing the challenge, and resulting transformation):
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
A challenge can mean many things: family situation, academic setback, medical condition. Regardless, if you select this prompt, you’ll focus on what you experienced and how it transformed you. Focus on those positive character traits that you developed as a result of facing adversity. Consider this conclusion from a student who wrote about the challenge of lighting a fire (part of a larger therapeutic wilderness experience where the act of lighting a fire is symbolic of her overall discovery that she had grown more capable and confident):
As I blew into the nest a flame emerged. My feelings at this moment could not be articulated by words alone. It was the feeling of that first bike ride without the training wheels; that feeling you get when you finish organizing your room and you take a step back and marvel at that uncanny event; the way I felt when I was a kid building Lego sets, showing my masterpieces to all my friends. I had finally completed something!
Of course, looking at sample college essays is helpful (use Google; many colleges post examples of essays that worked), but how do you get started? How do you pick a prompt or find a topic? Where does the inspiration for your brilliant personal statement originate? While we’d love to give you a magic formula for a fully-formed idea that springs seemingly from nowhere, we simply can’t; no such formula exists. But, we can share with you some brainstorming ideas and other resources that can assist you.
First, begin with your parents (or other close family members) who know you best. While they won’t necessarily come up with a topic for you (nor should they – it’s your essay), they can help you identify areas of your life where you may find some interesting ideas. You can also take a look at your activity résumé. Is there something in it that begs for further elaboration (possibly in an extracurricular activity essay – more on that later)? Any recent travel experiences that included going beyond your comfort zone? Or, closer to home, try your bedroom instead. What about items there that you hold dear, like your journals, trophies, framed photos, camp banner, favorite book – even the view from your bedroom window. Start small; many of our favorite essays have evolved from these deeply personal moments and thoughtful connections – readers are not looking for cancer cures or solutions to world hunger! If you have a big story to tell, fine. But if you don’t, don’t fret. You have great ideas circling within you, so spend some time thinking, reflecting, and brainstorming to have those ideas coalesce.
Once you’ve found a topic, the essay writing begins. Spend time with the subject you’ve chosen. Make sure you’ve created a nice balance between story (sometimes the first half of the personal statement) and reflection (often the latter part). A good essay may go through multiple drafts; big-picture elements come early on (story and structure), while you add details later (and carefully review for sentence variety, proofread, etc.). Share your essay with parents, a teacher, a friend. Ask them what they’ve learned about you – if their answer coincides it’s what you intended, great! Read it aloud to yourself or to a friend. Listen for your voice – does this essay sound like you? When all these elements come together, your essay will be finished and ready to copy into the application.
For some students, the personal statement will be the only college essay they’ll write. But as we alluded earlier, there are a good number of colleges (from elite institutions to those that are far less selective) that require extra essays (supplements) that focus on topics such as a meaningful extracurricular activity or the reason for actually choosing a particular college or your proposed major. In our next blog, we’ll cover some of these essays – with excerpts from those that worked – to help you tackle these supplements.
With this general introduction to the Personal Statement behind us, we’ll dive into the specifics in our next blog,
Chapter 2: Your Character Counts.
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