How I Spent My Summer Vacation Pt.2: The Essay


Last time, we delved into the personal statement. Here are some tips to for answering a college admission essay with an assigned prompt.


The most important thing about essays is that you answer the actual question. Read the questions carefully. For many years, one of the Common Application essay prompts was to EVALUATE a significant experience. Regretfully, many students responded by NARRATING a significant experience. That’s a big difference! (Another note on that…it was the thoughtful evaluation that mattered…not the experience itself).

If you have too many colleges with too many essays and you feel overwhelmed, the solution may be to trim your application list. Part of the reason for multiple essays is to gauge the level of commitment you have by completing them. This demonstrates that you are truly interested in that institution. Also, know that the questions themselves are a method for schools to “market” themselves to you. If they ask funky questions, they are hoping students will see the school as “funky”. If they ask deep profound intellectual questions, that’s what they want you to think of them. You might determine that a particular school is not a good fit for YOU if dealing with their questions sends you into a deep fit of anxiety.

Words of Wisdom

  • What did you learn about yourself? I’ve read many personal statements and essays in my career and it is not nearly so important WHAT you write about, as it is that you execute it well. You do NOT need to have had a one-of-a-kind life experience in order to have a great college essay. Ordinary things work well if you can show that you learned something from an experience, even if it is as mundane as your first flat tire or speeding ticket, first solo airline flight or some other adventure that may seem very run of the mill.
  • Don’t send a rough draft. You wouldn’t submit a rough draft for a final grade would you? Make sure you spell the words right, use the right word (ex. duel vs. dual, affect vs. effect, or the classic there, their, they’re quandary) and punctuate properly.
  • Avoid write satire in your college applications. Your readers are working fast and furiously for months on end and may be too bleary-eyed to get the joke. Plus, you may end up insulting them in some way. Unless you are very skilled, satire is a bad idea for college applications. I’ve seen it backfire in dramatic fashion.
  • Do not use the personal statement to make excuses for yourself. Maybe you received a poor grade at some point along the way as many students do. If you feel you must address it (and in some cases that is not a bad idea), please offer an explanation rather than blame a teacher or not taking responsibility for whatever part you played.
  • Be yourself. The folks who read these things are accustomed to working with teenagers and know the typical voice of a teenager. It has to sound like you. Most readers understand that if you were a perfectly formed writer already, you wouldn’t need to come to their college because you’d already be on the best-seller list. So, yes, you want to make it your best work, but don’t get so hung up in the pursuit of perfections that writer’s paralysis takes you over. Ultimately you have to write something, so get an early start so your essays can develop and improve as you revise them over the next few weeks.

Sabena is a graduate of the University of Richmond where she also worked as an admission officer for 19 years. She recruited both domestically and internationally, and visited high schools in 30 states and 35 countries around the world.  She estimates having read more than 15,000 admission essays in her career! Need help with a personal statement? Contact us.

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation Pt. 1: The Personal Statement


It is summer (in some parts of the world) and a good several months before most college applications (if you are applying to U.S. colleges) are due. While rising high school seniors everywhere would rather do anything BUT get ahead of things with those applications, it is a really great time to work on application essays and personal statements.

Personal Statements vs. Essays : The Difference

They are not the same thing and they serve different purposes. Personal statements might seem easier, because they are generally open-ended.  You can write about anything you’d like and often, you can write as much or as little as you like as well. The challenge is, though, that lots of students don’t end up writing about something that is particularly persuasive to the admission committee.  Essays, on the other hand, sometimes frustrate students because their topics can seem like brainteasers. But at least there is some direction from which to brainstorm, and generally, there is no right answer.  They want to see your imagination at work with the way you respond to the odd questions!

Perhaps most importantly, don’t send a personal statement, even if you feel that it is spectacular, if it does not address the topic that the particular college has given you. 

They ask their questions for a reason and failing to attempt to deal with that is a sure-fire way to frustrate your application reader!  And you do not want to frustrate (that’s the nice word for it) your reader!   If there is no guidance about length, I would suggest no less than one page (double-spaced, standard font and margins) but no more than two. Remember, that any well-written piece of work that is at least a page will absolutely have several paragraphs.

Personal Statements

So what should you do if you have to do a personal statement? What will keep the reader engaged and interested in staying with you all the way to the end? Think of it as your opportunity to demonstrate the ways in which you are a great fit for the particular institution. Think about the big picture of what you in particular offer the school and then thematically bring that into your essay. Try to tie it into what the school is looking for. How might you know what that is?  Look at all the reams of marketing materials out there and what are they emphasizing. Those are qualities that they are trying to attract, so how do you demonstrate that you have them?  That’s where to start with a statement. Do not do an auto-biography…a lot of students go that route.  Instead, tell a story or an anecdote that demonstrates that you are the kind of student that they seem to be looking for.  If you’ve read something in their materials that really resonates with you, you might mention that in your statement.  If a certain professor is doing research in any area of interest to you because you’ve had some experience where you have honestly tried to get involved with something similar, talk about that. Make the pieces of your application add up to a coherent whole. For example, don’t do a personal statement about your excitement to work with the aforementioned professor thus-and-such so that you can help in his quest to uncover the secret to Lupus, because you have a dear family who suffers with it IF you also list economics as your intended major.  It doesn’t add up.  Instead, if economics is your field, use that personal story with Lupus in another way…Maybe you want to investigate health economics.

It does NOT need to be academic-focused necessarily and some schools specify that they want to know something about you that is not related to your grades/courses/school things. In that case, think about what you’d like the school to know about what kind of person they will be inviting into their student body.  Are you service-oriented, a class clown, a stellar karaoke artist, an activist, an artist, an athlete, a person of faith, a gadfly?  Who are you? There is no right answer for this!

Next time, we’ll focus on the nuances of answering application essays as well as some words of wisdom.


Sabena is a graduate of the University of Richmond where she also worked as an admission officer for 19 years. She recruited both domestically and internationally, and visited high schools in 30 states and 35 countries around the world.  She estimates having read more than 15,000 admission essays in her career! Need help with a personal statement? Contact us.

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The Young & The Clueless: Declaring A College Major


Years ago, a student told me with confidence that she intended on becoming a pharmacist. She truly loved math and science and was the kind of student who would geek out over Calculus. This same student also happen to have great people skills. She really did. I once watched her single-handedly guide 25 six-year olds through a team building exercise. (If that’s not a true test of working with people, I don’t know what is.)

However, what was unique about her is that she seem to already possess a certain self-awareness about who she was and how that could translate into her future career. This student recognized that being a successful pharmacist wasn’t just limited to the scientific know-how but the interpersonal communication as well. She understood that would routinely work patients (not just focus on medication management) and fortunately, for all of us, she liked people. In her mind, this career would marry certain parts of her personality, the logical with the compassionate, quite well. So at 17, pre-pharmacy is the major she put on her college application and a few months ago, she completed her Doctor of Pharmacy degree.

But for every one of her, there are hundreds of teenagers who don’t have a clue. Yet, we often ask them to pick a college major to put down on the college application. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that the majority of college students will change their academic majors at least once. Recent statistics have the average number of changes at three. Usually, I hear some variation of the following when I ask a student why they chose to declare a specific area of study.

“My mom says I’m good with numbers so maybe I should be a business major.” More often than not, someone else chooses this major for the student. Individuals (anywhere from parents to the mailman) will offer well-meaning suggestions to be helpful to a student that is truly struggling to identify their interests and passions. The student, in turn, may feel pressured to choose the suggested major because everyone else seems to think it would be a good fit and he or she can’t think of a better alternative. Unfortunately, this makes the student a passive participant in their college planning life. Plus, the suggested major may have very little to do with the student own interest. This may also explain why I know a high number of unhappy accounting majors.

“I’ve always loved children so I think I should be a pediatrician.” Somewhere along the way, this student fell in love with a job title. As a result, they chose a major accordingly. Not an issue, until it becomes apparent that their academic strengths and individual temperament do not match with the professional aspirations. Usually, an introduction class in that field quickly weeds the student out. CSI alone is probably responsible for at least 1/3 of the students I see who want to go into forensic science.

Informational technology is hot right now, so I am going to major in it since it will definitely get me a job right after graduation.” Picking a path that, in theory, should lead to a career isn’t a bad thing. Ideally, that’s what all students should be doing regardless of major. However, the current job market opportunities shouldn’t be the only reason to choose it. Usually, when students go this route, they find they really do not like the major at all and it is hard to stay in something you dislike.

It is with this in mind, that I tell high school students to do two things.

The first is to seek out meaningful internships and volunteer opportunities. It gives them, teenagers with limited life experiences, a chance to explore. They can learn very quickly what they like to do or not do not. Part of the reason, my student above knew she wanted to be a pharmacist is because was exposed to pharmacy as a middle and high school student. She volunteered in hospitals. She worked in a drug store. She asked professionals about their career choices. Clearly, for her, the exposure made her even more interested in the field. Students don’t need to wait until they are actually in college to get some valid internship opportunities.

Secondly, do a personality assessment. To often, college related decisions are made solely by matching a student’s skill set and interests with specific jobs. The thing is teenagers are teenagers and they change their minds (and their interests) all the time. Shakespeare may have written that the world might be your oyster, but having so many options can be overwhelming. By focusing on the student’s personality, I help them identify their strengths, potential blind spots, and develop a customized way to evaluate both college and professional decisions. And unlike their interests, personalities tend to stay the same.

The summer break is a great time to accomplish those two things. While you can certainly do the first on your own, let us know if you need us know if you need help with the second. We’re all about helping students finding success in their college careers.

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