You’ve taken the tests, requested the recommendations, completed the common app, and now it’s finally time to refocus on what you’ve been putting off: the essay.
While most students spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting their personal statements, admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes actually reading them, according to Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.
High school seniors are faced with the challenge of summarizing the last 17 years into 600 words, all while showcasing their “unique” personality against thousands of other candidates.
“It’s hard to find a balance between sounding professional and smart without using all of those long words,” says Lily Klass, a senior at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. “I’m having trouble reflect myself without sounding arrogant or rude or anything like that.”
The following tips will help applicants make the leap from ‘average’ to ‘accepted’:
1. Open with an anecdote.
Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.
“Instead of trying to come up with gimmicky, catchy first lines, start by sharing a moment,” says Janine Robinson, writing coach and founder of Essay Hell. “These mini stories naturally grab the reader … it’s the best way to really involve them in the story.”
Let the moment you choose be revealing of your personality and character. Describe how it shaped who you are today and who you will be tomorrow.
2. Put yourself in the school’s position.
At the end of the day, colleges want to accept someone who is going to graduate, be successful in the world and have the university associated with that success. In your essay, it is vital that you present yourself as someone who loves to learn, can think critically and has a passion for things—anything.
“Colleges always say to show your intellectual vitality and curiosity,” Robinson says. “They want kids who are going to hit the ground running—zoom to class and straight out into the world. They want them hungry and self-aware.
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3. Stop trying so hard.
“One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying too hard to impress,” Robinson says. “Trust that it is those every day, specific subjects that are much more interesting to read about.”
Colleges are tired of reading about that time you had a come-from-behind- win in the state championship game or the time you built houses in Ecuador, according to Robinson. Get creative!
Furthermore, you’re writing doesn’t have to sound like Shakespeare. “These essays should read like smart, interesting 17-year-olds wrote them,” says Lacy Crawford, former independent college application counselor and author of Early Decision. “A sense of perspective and self-awareness is what’s interesting.
4. Ditch the thesaurus. Swap sophistication for self-awareness
There is a designated portion of the application section designated to show off your repertoire of words. Leave it there.
On the personal essay, write how you would speak. Using “SAT words” in your personal statement sounds unnatural and distances the reader from you.
“I think most students are torn between a pathway dividing a diary entry and a press release. It’s supposed to be marketing document of the self,” Crawford says.
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5. Write about what matters to you, not what matters to them
Crawford recommends students begin by answering the question, “if you had 10 minutes to talk to them in person, what would you say?” The admissions teams are looking for authenticity and quality of thinking.
“Theoretically, I think anything could be ‘the perfect topic, as long as you demonstrate how well you think, your logic and ability to hold readers’ attention,” Crawford says.
6. Read the success stories.
“The best advice is to read essays that have worked,” Robinson says. “You’ll be surprised to see that they’re not winning Pulitzers; they are pieces of someone. You want your story to be the one she doesn’t put down.”
Once you find a topic you like, sit down and write for an hour or so. It shouldn’t take longer than that. When you write from your heart, words should come easily.
Rawlins recommends showing the essay to a family member or friend and ask if it sounds like the student. “Take a few days and come back to it. But only do that once,” Rawlins says. “Reading it over and over again will only drive you nuts.”
7. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
While colleges tend to nod to disadvantaged students, roughing up your background won’t help your cause.
“It’s less about the topic and more about how you frame it and what you have to say about it, Robinson says. “The better essay is has the most interesting thing to say, regardless of a topic that involves a crisis or the mundane.”
The essays serve as a glimpse into how your mind works, how you view the world and provides perspective. If you have never had some earth shattering experience that rocked your world, don’t pretend you did. Your insights will be forced and disingenuous.
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8. Follow the instructions.
While the directions on the applications may sound generic, and even repetitive after applying to a variety of schools, Rawlins points out that every rhyme has a reason.
“They have to know that college put a lot of thought into the instructions we give them—so please follow them!” he says. “We’ve given a lot of thought to the words we use. We want what we ask for.”
9. Use this space to tell them what your application can’t.
Most colleges don’t have the time or bandwidth to research each individual applicant. They only know what you put in front of them. “If they don’t tell us something, we can’t connect the dots,” Rawlins says. “We’re just another person reading their material.”
Like Crawford, he recommends students imagining they are sitting next to him in his office and responding to the question, “What else do I need to know?” And their essays should reflect how they would respond.
At the end of the day, however, Rawlins wants students to know that the personal essay is just another piece of the larger puzzle. “They prescribe way too much importance to the essay,” Rawlins says. “It makes a massive difference—good or bad—to very few out there, so keep it in context.”
Paige Carlotti is a senior at Syracuse University.
admissions essay, college applications, Paige Carlotti, writing, VOICES FROM CAMPUS
This guest post is by Jessica Millis. Jessica is an experienced writer, editor and copywriter. She teaches writing at James Madison University works as a writing specialist at the EssayMama blog. Thanks for joining us today Jessica!
Good writers are able to fully express themselves with words.
But with so much flowing through the chambers of your mind, it is not easy to concisely find just the right words to express yourself, your idea, and your emotions. What phrases convey exactly what you’re thinking? How do you express yourself while keeping your reader following a logical description, dialogue or argument?
Even the briefest of outlines can help organize a thought process. Construction of a paragraph is worth studying.
When you’re writing an essay, for example, your topic sentence needs to lead a reader into a place, followed with supporting details or explanations.
Once it is done, move on. Going into too much depth or unnecessary detail will lose a reader, or bore them, or sound redundant.
2. Write like you talk
Some writers feel the best way to get their ideas on paper is to start with an oral representation.
You might try to dictate or narrate into a recording device or software program like Dragon to hear what you are saying and then proceed to write or have the software do it for you.
What you produce will still require your editing and proofreading, but it will help you find a language tone that is suitable for your audience.
3. Mind your tone
Your words express who you are, your character and personality. Never has this been more true than today when so much of our communication happens through writing, whether you’re texting, posting on Facebook, or writing an essay or a blog post.
Not only does your written work have to be pin-perfect in spelling and grammar, but it has to say something and leave the reader with an impression.
Ever had an email that you felt was yelling at you? Why was that? Could it have been the bold underlining and the excessive use of exclamation marks? Sometimes, additions like this are useful, and create a sense of urgency, but likewise, not using the right tone can leave your message flat and unimpressive.
Find a tone that works for the message or information you are trying to convey and test it out orally, or in print on someone objective, before publishing
4. Use Imagery
Whether you picture a place, a person or an object, your ability to describe it clearly has to transpire to your reader. Use a physical approach: describe a person top to bottom, an event in chronological order, and an object in a tactile or sensory way.
If you think your words will leave the reader with the same picture in their mind that you had in yours to begin with, you have succeeded!
5. Write Dialogue
When you write dialogue dialogue, use simple language, and keep your sentences concise, but with a peppering of emotion.
6. Share inner thoughts and voices
Sometimes the best way to express yourself is through feelings rather than concrete ideas. Novelists have an ability to take what a character is thinking and use it to further develop them and their actions.
7. Answer questions
If you can put yourself in the position of the reader, perhaps you will find that what you’re writing poses certain questions. Explaining and describing the necessary information will engage your reader. However, take care to not extend beyond the concise and relevant details.
8. Change Perspectives
Often your thoughts can be developed with better with a change in perspective. Say you’re writing about… home organization. Don’t just think of yourself as the harried housewife with too much clutter, but perhaps the busy executive who walks in the door and adds to the mess every day.
Or… if you are writing about losing weight through a gluten free diet, perhaps you could consider that packaged and ready foods are marketed poorly for people with this need. Step inside the viewpoint of another to express thoughts you perhaps hadn’t explored.
Perhaps in high school, you might recall studying précis writing in your English classes. There is a skill to being able to take a lengthy text and rewriting it down to a concise shorter piece.
To get really good at writing with brevity, use articles from a newspaper, or content from websites to practice the art of taking lengthy pieces and finding more concise language to still convey the same message.
Use synonyms. Take out overly technical language. Use stronger words that have better meanings than lengthy phrases or descriptions. Combine thoughts into one sentence. Learn how to use the semi-colon.
10. Edit, edit … and edit again
This is nothing new. Writers review what they have written all the time. Some walk away from their work and return to it after a time lapse, to look at it with somewhat of a fresh approach. Others hand it over to a second party which can give an objective review. Regardless of the method, rarely is something publishable shortly after it is written. Writing is a craft, and craftsmanship takes time and precision to develop.
Expressing yourself in the written form is not easy. Even the greatest writers past and present have their frustrations. Learning to understand that writing is a process, always changing and moving, a living thing is some ways, is to understand that it is the form of communication that represents us when we are not there to be ourselves. Find the right words until less is more becomes your mantra.
How about you? How do you express yourself in writing? Share in the comments section.
Find a piece you wrote months ago. Don’t worry what it was for, but choose one with some length to it. Use the various techniques above to review the piece again.
- Try reading it aloud. Does it “talk” the way people do?
- Assess its tone. Is it too harsh, or not persuasive enough?
- Close your eyes. Can you visualize the details in the way you need them to become visualized?
- Are the thoughts deep enough? Little voices in the head are worth putting into your words.
- Try cutting it down by a third. This will help you learn what is really key and essential.
- Finally… answer questions. Think of all the questions the reader could have at the end of the piece, and ensure each one leads to a degree of satisfaction.
When you’re finished, share a bit about your experience in the comments section. How’d it go?
This article is by a guest blogger. Would you like to write for The Write Practice? Check out our guest post guidelines.