(In order to keep things bite-sized, this application essay composition guide will be in three parts! This is part two.)
If you are steeling your nerves to face your first college applications, you must be wondering what you are going to do about those essays or “personal statements.” I know I tore up many a draft before I figured out what I wanted to write and what admissions officers actually care about, so, to spare you a few headaches, I compiled this quick guide to essay composition. If you haven’t already, check out the first post of the guide for a few thoughts on some of students’ biggest concerns in essay writing!
Now, for our second installment, let us consider some “do’s and don’t’s,” shall we?
- Do be yourself: It’s the most trite thing you have ever heard, and you are not going to stop hearing it anytime in the foreseeable future. If people are so determined to give you this advice again and again, it is because it is great advice! When the admissions office reads your essay, they want to learn about the real you, so don’t try to hide it or re-imagine it. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t a 17 year old Nobel laureate (we can’t all be Malala, but if we were we would certainly not be in want of anything incredible to write about!), what matters is that you write what only you can write.
- Do take your time!!!!: These essays are supposed to challenge you, they require self-examination and creativity. So, take your time to think of different topics and consider which anecdotes, facts, information, or experiences best express who you are. For many students, the personal statement is one of the first times they have had to consider the question “who am I?” and neatly pack their answer into a limited number of complete sentences. It takes thought and time to consider and reconsider your response. Then, take your time to write it as well as you can.
- Do start early: See above, you can’t take your time unless you start early! Do not wait until the week the application is due or even two weeks before it is due to start. Starting a month or two early may sound extreme, but in the end you will be glad that you gave yourself enough time to ponder the essay and do your best work.
- Do consider the following questions: These can help you decide what you would like to write about!
- What positive traits do you want to convey? Of course, no one likes to sit around making lists of his or her own positive traits, so here is a simple, silly exercise: think of your Hogwarts House (if you haven’t read Harry Potter and don’t know your house, never mind reading my blog, go read the books!). Each house has positive traits, if, for instance if you feel that you are a Gryffindor you must be confident and if you are a Slytherin you must be innovative and resourceful. It can be hard to step out of your own shoes and understand what your best qualities are, but thinking of yourself in terms of things with which you identify can help you understand your best qualities a bit better.
- What are your proudest accomplishments, but more importantly, why are you proud of them? The things you take pride in reveal your values and interests!
- What do you love to talk about? What matters to you? What do you really rant about, to the point where you could drive your friends crazy because you care so much more than they do? Maybe it’s a cause, a subject, a hobby, or a person, but if you are passionate about it, it could be a perfect essay topic (see below for more on this).
- What will the admissions officer think? This is a risky question because it borders on trying to write what you think they want to hear, but it is important to consider how topics will be received.
- Do geek out: Oh my goodness, if there is one thing that got me into my dream program it is this. If you have a passion—coin collecting, chemisty, cooking, etc…—then let it show! I wrote essays on my obsessive love for literature and on my decade long mission to make proper French macarons. In both, I simply geeked out, showed how much I knew about the subject and discussed how my interest had taught me new things about myself. All of those literary references and descriptions of the perfect crunch of a truly flawless macaron must have been effective because I was accepted!
- Do proof-read, proof-read, proof-read: Write your essay, read it yourself, and then give it to anybody who can proof-read it for you. Parents, teachers, and friends can all help refine your grammar and give you feedback about how accurately your essay reflects you.
- Don’t “elevate” your voice: A simple essay which still reveals a true personality will always be more appealing than a stuffy, forced, yet beautifully crafted one. If you don’t feel comfortable using lofty, esoteric words like esoteric, then don’t try to sound more intelligent by doing so.
- Don’t write about the “normal” things: Admissions officers have read hundreds of essays about the same things, a W&M officer gives us a nice list: “death of a relative, parents’ divorce, traveling abroad, a service/mission trip, a sports injury, your epic love of Harry Potter books (that one has come on strong in recent years).” All of these a great topics, but they have been used many, many times before, and if you want to stand out you need something original. If you feel that you absolutely need to write about one of these things, make sure you give it a nice twist to make it unique.
- Don’t write it the night before you apply: Enough said.
- Don’t write what they want to hear/fawn over the school: When you are applying, don’t just write about how great the school is because the people who are reading the essays already know far more about the school than you do; they work there! In some cases (cough*Ivy Leagues*cough) you may be asked to explain why you want to attend the school, but you only ought to do this if it is part of prompt.
- Don’t keep it to yourself: Get feedback as often as you can! I wrote about a dozen different drafts before I began finalizing my essays for applications and I forced my family members to read each one. Go to the people who know you best but will also be honest about the quality and effectiveness of your writing.
- Don’t freak out: Yes, geek out, no don’t freak out. Every college-bound senior across the country and many around the world are facing the exact same prompts and challenges as you, and millions of students have faced them before. Fretting over whether or not you picked the perfect topic or whether your tone will appeal to the admissions officer will not help anything. As my dad would say, do your best, it is all you can do. If you can write a fine, simple essay that reflects your personality and is free of grammatical errors, then you should be very proud of yourself! The first thing to do is take a deep breath and start writing.
Coming soon, installment three of the composition guide! Check back for more on crafting a polished essay and the unmuddling of the mysteries of grammar and sentence construction.