(Do) Students should be themselves

To get started, I want to emphasize that students should look upon the college essay as a unique opportunity.

It’s a chance for the writer to reveal something about themselves that cannot be found anywhere else in the application.

The New York Times recently described the essay as:

[A student’s] megaphone, [their] view of the world and [their] ambitions. It’s not just a resume or a regurgitation of everything [they’ve] done. It needs to tell a story with passion, using personal, entertaining anecdotes that showcase [their] character…interests…values…life experiences… views of the world…ambitions, and even [their] sense of humor…The college essay is about the true things students want the colleges to know about them that can’t be seen via grades and standardized tests. Are you kind? Resilient? Curious? Creative? Are you any fun? And contrary to popular belief, it’s not about unattainable standards or curing cancer. In fact, a good test of a college essay is: Can the writer convince the reader that she would make a great roommate?

College essays are supposed to be personal statements—and admissions officers are truly interested in just that. They want to get to know applicants as three-dimensional people: they want to see the personality behind the grades; they want to hear the voice behind the activities.

So the best thing students can do in their college essays is to be themselves, not whatever persona they think college admissions officers want.

(Do) Students should package themselves

Students should present themselves in the best possible light.

That is, students should want to package themselves.

The student receiving Cs in history class who doesn’t have any extracurricular activities with a historical focus probably doesn’t want to write an essay about his or her love of history!

As much as possible, the essay should complement the other aspects of a student’s application. A good essay will bind together a student’s academic and extracurricular profile and help present the applicant in a unified way.

(Do) Students should sound like themselves

Students also want to sound like themselves…without being inappropriately casual. This is a tricky balance to strike. The personal statement should be more casual in tone than essays written for school. This is not the place for students to show-off their hard-earned SAT vocabulary! Chris Teare, former Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Drew University elaborates further on this point:

The Personal Statement has to sound like a 17 or 18-year-old wrote it. As I have heard others wisely put it, “The thesaurus is not your friend.” Don’t overdo your word choice…I know what sounds natural. So does everyone in college admissions. We have well-tuned ears.

However, students must also treat their readers with due respect and seriousness. College admissions officers shouldn’t be treated like a best friend or confidante. A certain level of professionalism is still expected.

(Do) Students should tell a story

Finally—and this one is key—students should tell a story. In fact, students should stop thinking about the personal statement as an “essay” or even a “statement.”

Essays and statements are serious things, often pretty tough-going: hard to write and hard to read.

Students should rather think of finding and telling a story. People like to read stories. Stories invite people in; they’re fun, even exciting, to read. And everyone intuitively knows what makes a good story.

Now that we’ve looked at what students SHOULD do, here are 2 common mistakes they need to avoid…

Now there are some common but costly mistakes that students make when writing their college essay.

And all too often, these mistakes arise because there is a real disconnect between what admissions officers are looking for and what students think admissions officers are looking for.

(Don’t) Students should NOT brag

The most common mistake I see is the college essay-as-brag-sheet: students who try to impress their reader with a full account of their achievements and accolades. This is a waste of everyone’s time; all that information can be found elsewhere in the application.

These students are just taking all the details they’ve provided in succinct and highly readable list form…and repeating it in long-winded paragraph form! In the best case scenario, these essays are a wasted opportunity, since admissions officers are left with no new information.

In the worst case scenario, these essays turn out to be a real chore to read. And students don’t want to alienate admissions officers who can determine their fate! 

(Don’t) Students should NOT be overly casual

Students should also avoid the other extreme, however. As I already mentioned, the admissions officer is not a friend; nor is he or she a therapist: students should stay away from sob stories, overly casual language, or gimmicks meant to attract the attention of the admissions committee.

Students should also use a measure of common sense in deciding what to share and what not to share. For example, one student wanted to write an essay about how bored he was with a class in order to explain a C that didn’t even show up on his official transcript. Bad move!

Another student joked about how she wanted to go to a school close to home so that her mom could continue to do her laundry. Students should make sure their college essays are memorable in a good way.

Remember: the personal statement is a chance for you to show you are a person beyond your test scores, GPA, and resume. Let the essay be a tool that showcases who you are and who you might be on campus: a roommate, leader, classmate, teammate and friend.

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