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The College Essay: Getting Started

The College Essay Getting Started


There are any number of formulas out there for writing personal statements for undergraduate applications. Some encourage you to stick to the traditional opening-body-conclusion formula, while others insist you should take a risk to spice up the admission officer’s reading experience.

None of them are wrong, but it doesn’t mean they’re right for you. As the name implies, writing a personal statement is a personal experience, making it just a little bit different for everyone. Not just the process, but the actual statement itself, too.

Are you a natural-born writer or is it literally the last thing you want to do? In other words, you’d run a triathlon to get out of writing an essay? Whichever way you lean, let’s talk a little bit about strategy, implementation and getting ‘er done.

What Is the Goal?

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the mindset of this-must-be-done that we forget the primary reason for the presence of a personal essay. These papers, which usually clock in around 700 words, are designed to add some color to your transcript, which is pretty much all numbers and facts.

Those numbers and facts can apply to a lot of people. An admissions counselor can have a full stack of applications filled with 3.2 GPAs, all with a solid handful of extracurriculars, coming from college prep high schools.

The personal statement, also sometimes just referred to as an admission essay, is where you breathe life into your application. That being said, the golden rule for writing this short, reflective essay is very simple: be yourself.

Why Is It So Hard?

It’s hard because the premise is so open ended. You can write, quite literally, whatever you want. Choosing between two things is easy, selecting between five things is more difficult but manageable, but when the options are effectively limitless, it can feel overwhelming. What’s the right choice?

Banish “right” from your mind. There is no right or wrong, really, just how you tell it.

To help give some direction, though, here’s what an effective personal statement accomplishes when all is said and done:

  • It offers insight about you that can’t be seen in your transcript
  • It delves deeper than the surface
  • It ultimately showcases a positive aspect about you that would correlate to academia or the campus culture
    • Ex. An incident that showed you it’s okay to fail at something, or where you failed many times and finally succeeded, representing perseverance

Do A Personal Inventory

This may feel foreign, but it’s a great way to start the process. Look back at the past four years of your life and find a common thread. Are you solely dedicated to one sport or do you play a few each year, hopping from uniform to uniform? Are you focused entirely on one specific club year round, such as band, or do you participate in multiple clubs, heading from band practice to the theatre, as well as participating in planning homecoming?

Even very simply put, you can find patterns in your own behavior. Categorizing the charity or community service events you’ve participated in can also shed light on what you should write about. If you’re dead-set on a specific major, you can trace back where your interest began.

The point is, write down all of the key points in your high school career and see what stands out. Where have you put your priorities and why? What are you most passionate about and, again, why?

The Secret Weapon

If none of this is sparking any flames for you, there’s one seriously underrated resource left: examples. Head over to a search engine and type in “[school name] admission essays” because there’s a chance that the institution will provide you with the holy grail of examples.

Johns Hopkins has their Essays That Worked page, which shows personal statements from the most recently accepted class. Sometimes seeing what others have done before you is all it takes to get your mind working at full speed.

You Can’t Edit What Isn’t There

Any writer will tell you the truth about writing: no first draft is perfect and you can’t edit a blank page. Don’t sit down to “write the provocative and captivating essay that’s going to blow every other personal statement out of the water and get you admitted to the Ivies!” That’s far too much pressure for a first draft. That’s too much pressure for a second or third draft, come to think of it.

Sit down and write about a project that you’re proud of. Talk about organizing an event or participating in a community service project that opened your eyes. Type up an honest page about someone you admire or the moment you discovered your favorite word or why you don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like macaroni and cheese.

Serious or silly, proper punctuation or not, that first draft is just literally to get something, anything, onto the page. Once it’s there, it’s just a matter of refining and rewriting until it represents you.

Now, set a timer for seven minutes and don't stop typing until the alarm goes off. Take a break and do it again. Keep going until you have 700 words. Once you have your first draft, you can move on to the revision process.

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