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  • Writer's pictureAllison Styffe

College Apps: how to write an essay worth reading

It's the most wonderful time of the year! No, I'm not talking about the holidays. I'm referring to college essay writing season! Roll your eyes all you want, but this English-major turned college & career counselor finds two of her great passions rolled into one when it comes to helping students with entrance essays.

While I could write a book on the topic, I'll refrain myself and instead simply share three small pieces of advice that can make a big impact in helping you create a personal statement you're proud of, one that admissions counselors will enjoy reading—

Don't go it alone

I'm putting this one first for a reason: it's one of the least considered yet most essential elements of writing a solid admissions essay. You will never regret having someone help you brainstorm, outline, and edit one of the most important things you've written in your life thus far.

Before I go on, did you catch that? I didn't just say, "Find someone to edit your draft once it's written." I said, "Find someone to walk through the whole process with you." I cant' tell you what a bummer it is to be sent a personal statement to edit that doesn't even answer the prompt, wishing that the student had had someone point that out in the brainstorming phase rather than me, now, after they've put in the hard work of writing a draft. Equally challenging is being asked to edit an essay that is so disorganized or disjointed that it makes more sense to go back to the outline drawing board than it does to edit the draft itself. So don't wait until you have the essay written to get another set of eyes on your work — I promise you'll save valuable time (and have a much better final draft) by bringing someone into the loop early on in the writing process.

As far as who that someone could be, the options are actually much more broad than you might think. A tutor in the writing center at your community college is an excellent resource, sure, but don't rule out a fellow senior who's also working on their college apps. Or how about me? As a college/career counselor, walking with students along their personal statement journey is one of my favorite things to do, so feel free to throw yourself onto my schedule!

Tell a unique story

Now, put yourself, for a moment, in the shoes of a college admissions counselor. Imagine how many essays they read each day. And then imagine how many of those essays sound the same. Or how many of them are, simply put, boring. It's not always an easy job, and one way to set yourself apart is to make 5 minutes of their day a little more enjoyable by writing something fun to read. One of the best ways to do that? Telling a story...

You've heard your English and writing teachers say it a thousand times: "Show, don't tell." Well, here I am, saying it for the 1,001st time. Whatever you do, do not tell the admissions counselor you are a strong leader in your community; share that time you coordinated a rally for social justice in your town. Do not tell them that you learned responsibility at a young age; paint them a picture of the jewelry business you started at 10 years old. Do not tell them that your favorite hobby is yo-yoing; write out the story of the first yo-yo competition you entered (and lost).

One of my favorite personal statements I've worked on with a student this year tells the story of how she became a successful chicken-keeper. It is a cohesive, colorful narrative that gives insight into her character, values, interests, and personality — all the things an admission counselor wants to know.

The more specific the story or idea, the better, for two main reasons: (1) Trying to fit multiple ideas or stories into one essay can be hard to write well and even harder to read, and you definitely don't want to make the admissions counselor's job more challenging than it already is. (2) The more specific your topic and story, the more unique your essay will be, and that is what you want: an essay that no one else can write but you.

Write like Goldilocks

Once you've established a topic and outlined your essay, it's finally time to write the actual words that will make up your personal statement. But choosing those words can be tricky when you only get 650 of them (or even less for many prompts).

As you find your style and voice through the drafting process, I encourage you to keep one of my favorite pieces of admissions essay advice in mind: write like Goldilocks. Yes, that Goldilocks. And no, I didn't think of this idea myself. It comes from an admissions counselor at the University of Southern California: "I often find myself sounding a bit like Goldilocks as she sampled the bears’ porridge and beds: this essay is too 'x,' this essay is too 'y.' ....We want it to be 'just right.'” Finding the right balance — between a formal and informal voice, too many details and just enough, colorful language and concrete ideas — it's one of the trickiest yet most essential elements of a stand-out personal statement. Check out the full article here, where she includes explanations and examples of do's and dont's.

And speaking of examples, the last word of wisdom I will leave you with is this: all good writers are good readers. So go read some examples of essays that worked to get inspired and get going on an excellent essay all your own!

Want more tips and tricks on personal statements and supplemental essays? Join us on Tuesday, October 26th, for our next Ready, Set, College! webinar. Email for the Zoom link
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