When admissions officers read applications, they begin with the transcript, review test scores (if available), skim through the activities list, and read letters of recommendation. Then they read the personal statement. It's at this point that the student can bring their own voice and character to their application.
The college essay provides context to the application.
It reveals the character behind the accomplishments.
Many students find it difficult to find the appropriate tone in their essay or they become overly concerned with trying to second guess what admissions officers want to hear. When this happens their essay may lose focus and impact.
Here are some questions, tips, and advice to help seniors assess if they are putting their best selves forward in their essays.
Questions to Ask
Does the essay answer the prompt? Many students miss this! They start out with a prompt in mind, write their essay, and fail to return to prompt to check that they answered the question in its entirety. Note, students do not always need to begin with a prompt in mind, as most stories can fit the prompt options in the Common Application. But be sure to re-read the prompt at the end of the writing process.
Are “you” in the essay? Or is it about your amazing grandpa, the fantastic trip to Dubai? Along the same vein -- the experience, journey, challenge, etc… is not the topic, the topic is “you.”
Try to connect with your reader.
Help them to create a picture in their head of your story.
Does the essay tell the reader something new about you that is not in the application elsewhere (in your activities section, your transcript, etc.)? Alternatively, what would you like them to know about you that you haven’t already shared in your application?
Could someone else be telling this same story? If the answer is Yes, add more detail and take ownership of it. Does it illustrate a trait, characteristic, or quality specific to you that you want to share with colleges?
Is it your voice? This is not a paper for school. You do not need to use multi-syllabic words. It’s a narrative essay about you. Use the first person. Short, yet descriptive sentences are fine.
How do you know if it’s your “voice?”
To use a clothing analogy, your narrative tone falls somewhere between shorts or yoga pants and the outfit you would wear to a serious job interview; between how you speak with your best friend and how you speak with a potential boss. One way to find your voice is to take a few days to free write in a journal about what’s on your mind or what you've done that day. Or record yourself reading your essay aloud. Does it sound like you?
Is it engaging at the start and make the reader want to continue beyond the first paragraph?
Is it personal? Vulnerability can be a good thing, especially when it shows personal growth and character development. Ethan Sawyer, the College Essay Guy, cites vulnerability as one of the four key criteria that make an essay great.
Does it express intellectual vitality (how you think and what you value)?
Does it have a sharp focus? Is it obvious what you are trying to tell the admissions officer about yourself?
Does it follow the one-third-two-third rule? A good rule of thumb: Do not spend more than 1/3 of the essay describing anything other than your own activities, thoughts, and goals. Or in other words, do you get to the point? If you are writing about your community or family, make sure to get to the present and your life and life works quickly.
You do not have to tell your entire life story.
Do you show and tell? Bring your story alive to the reader with descriptive, active language. Then, and this is important, analyze and reflect on what you have shown to demonstrate your character, growth, values, or whatever key trait about yourself you want the readers to know. Many students stop at the show and briefly tell. They miss a fantastic opportunity to reveal their character (which is what admissions officers want to read about) through their reflection.
Do you end with a bang? Do you make it clear by the end you have goals and aspirations that drive you? Does your ending tie to your future at the college?
Your endings must be specific for some prompts like those required by the University of California and University of Texas, but can be more oblique and implied in the Common Application and many supplemental essays.
Did you make an impression? Do you end leaving the reader with the desire to get to know you more, to see you on his or her campus, and to share your essay with someone else?
Remember, writing the personal statement essay is a process. It takes time, requires reflection, and multiple revisions. Focus on your content first, then move on to structure and style.
A Note About Supplemental Essays
Are you writing more than one essay? Many colleges ask for supplemental essays, often called College-Specific Questions.
Do not leave these until the last minute. In the eyes of college admissions officers, these essays are just as important as the personal statement. The admissions officers did not write the Common Application personal statement essay prompts, but they did write the supplemental essay questions. The college-specific essays are important to them and they will notice if you haven’t given the questions your full attention.