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.