(In order to keep things bite-sized, this application essay composition guide will be in three parts! This is part one.)
Firstly, let us indulge in some debunking. There are couple of common misconceptions about the purpose of the college application essay: some students believe the essay is meant to be a complete biography while others believe it is meant to be a catalog of glowing personal accomplishments. In truth, the Common App’s terminology for the “essay” gives a far better description of its purpose; rather than calling it an essay, they call it a “personal statement.” You don’t need to try to condense the whole of your time on earth to 500 words, nor do you need to provide a lengthy description of every club to which you have had the lofty honor of being a most esteemed member (that list will appear elsewhere in the application). All you need to do is make a statement that reflects your personality.
In one of his most brilliant strokes of wisdom, Charles Dickens wrote, “Every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” In the end, no admissions officer is going to read an essay and see into the most profound corners of the author’s soul, so relax. Use the essay to give the reader a glimpse of your personality that will make them want to know more, make them want to accept you just so they can meet the person who wrote that really honest, creative, intriguing personal statement. I know, that still sounds daunting, but you can do it with some thought and patience!
Do I really need to write an essay?
If you are applying to college, you will probably be using the Common Application, which means that yes you will need to write at least one essay. Some schools (mainly Ivy Leagues and private liberal arts) or special programs will require an additional essay and in some cases there may be an optional essay. In all cases, you should write the essay. Why? Because it helps the admissions office learn about you in a way that test scores and transcripts never can. You are not a number, you are unique. Fortunately, any school worth its salt wants unique individuals on its campus, not faceless numbers. Want to hear what the people who will read your admissions essay have to say about it? Check the admissions pages or blogs of university websites and you just might find some words of wisdom and reassurance from the admissions office itself, like this helpful post from W&M’s Admit It! blog.
What about the prompt?
The Common App essays may change from year to year, but they are usually consistent (click here to see the 2016-2017 prompts!). The prompts are meant to prompt you to tell the reader something important about yourself. For example, the most widely used prompt asks students to share something about their background, interests, identity, or talents which makes them unique. The key is to make sure the essay is about you, yes that sounds narcissistic or egotistical, but it doesn’t have to be. Writing about yourself doesn’t mean saying “I am amazing because…” it means saying “I am me because…” The first statement is not attractive because it is so prideful, but the second statement is honest and confident with being vain.
And what about word count?
In case you haven’t noticed, when I write, I write a lot. So this point was a major frustration for me. Common App personal statements are capped at 650 words. This doesn’t mean you need to try to write 650 words, it simply means that you cannot write more than that. That said, you should aim to write within a few hundred of the limit. Any essay of less than about 400 words would be a bit suspicious, in my opinion; but if you feel that you can fully express your statement with 389 words, then feel free to do so (it is your personal statement after all, the decision is yours!). Type you essay in a word processor for a word count before copy-pasting it into the application.
Check back soon for some essay do’s and don’t’s and more advice on writing an admit-worthy essay! Be patient with yourself, crafting your personal statement is supposed to be a challenge, but you can face it, all you need is some confidence (just let Julie Andrews sing in your heart and you will do “better than your best”).