(This article has been updated to reflect the new 650-word limit for the Common Application)
TheNew York Times has been rife this season with articles about the college application essay. The Common Application’s newly reinstated 650-word guideline is the topic of much conversation, as are general themes and strategies for the personal statement.
It is now early November. Some early application deadlines have come and gone, and November 15 deadlines are around the corner. Is your high school senior still stuck or struggling with his or her personal statement?
Many people, not just college applicants, have a hard time writing about themselves. Yet that’s exactly what you need to do when writing a personal statement. No matter how much you might not like it, your personal statement is about you. There’s really no way around it.
Today I will provide some assistance and resources to help any college applicant to get those 650 words written.
1. Relax! Have fun!
“It’s all about loosening up,” says a California college professor in Crafting an Application Essay That ‘Pops’, a New York Times article which reported on the recommendations of 5,000 admissions officers and counselors who gathered at the latest NACAC conference. I couldn’t agree more.
To help students have fun with their personal statements, Stanford University has come up with an interesting twist: They ask applicants to write a letter to their future freshman roommates.
Here are some samples, quoted in the article, of how students approached the essay:
“If you want to borrow my music, just ask. If you want to borrow my underwear, just take them.”
“I eat ice cream with a fork, and I drink orange juice right after I brush my teeth just for the sour taste.”
“If you have anything other than a Dodgers poster on the wall, I will tear it down.”
Note that all these lines are written in the first person – unfortunately to some, a required element of writing about yourself. And note that all the lines are unique. It’s unlikely that two applicants would have written the same thing.
Here’s the key to writing a great essay: Write something no one else could have written.
If that sounds like a daunting task, loosen up! Take a cue from Stanford’s essay question, no matter what topic you choose to write about. All you have to do is tell stories about yourself.
2. How NOT to Start your College Application Essay
One common pitfall students fall into is trying to write an essay about their reasons for applying to school, instead of simply telling a story. One of my recent clients started her essay to graduate school with, “I am applying to the XX school for several reasons.” I coached her to simply start telling her story. This approach made the project a lot easier, and made her essay a lot more interesting!
Here’s the start of an essay that meets this requirement:
When I went to Fall Out Boy’s Chicago radio show, there was the comment from the drummer, “The girl from New York is here.” When I fought my way to the front of the crowd in Florida, there was the bassist’s point of his finger at me as he mouthed one of my favorite lyrics: “I still hate you.”
This opening line works because it tells a story no one else could tell. It brings us into a world unique to the applicant. And it sets us up to think something interesting is going to happen in this essay. The reader is compelled to read the next line.
Contrast this to an alternate version of the essay that might have read, “Music is one of my passions, and because of that I attend a lot of rock concerts. My favorite band is Fall Out Boy.”
You might laugh, but version two is the way many college essays read. Or, to avoid boring the committee, applicants swing the other way: “Raindrops heated by the flashing lights above, falling abundantly and without end, singeing my hair, my skin, my eyes…”
Here’s a tip: If you are not a brilliant creative writer, just stick to the facts. They will set you free.
3. Doing it in 650 Words
The Common Application now sets a 650-word limit for a college application essay. The more you stick to a story – a story that is directly linked to the point you want to make in your essay – the easier it will be to stay within that limit — and to knock the socks off the admissions committee!
The New York Times’ “The Choice” blog provides spot-on advice for how to stay succinct in Advice on Whittling Your Admissions Essay. Read this article immediately if you are over the limit and unsure of how to cut your writing down to size!
You might also gain some breathing room from Matt Flegenheimer’s October 28, 2011 article, College Application Essay as Haiku? For Some, 500 Words Aren’t Enough.
Need Help with your Personal Statement for College?
If you’re still stuck, panicked, or unsure, consider getting some help. The Essay Expert’s Ivy-educated consultants are skilled in working with students to craft essays that say more than you might even imagine can be said in 650 words. Just try us!
Personal Statements and Application Letters
The process of applying for jobs, internships, and graduate/professional programs often requires a personal statement or application letter. This type of writing asks writers to outline their strengths confidently and concisely, which can be challenging.
Though the requirements differ from application to application, the purpose of this type of writing is to represent your goals, experiences and qualifications in the best possible light, and to demonstrate your writing ability. Your personal statement or application letter introduces you to your potential employer or program director, so it is essential that you allow yourself enough time to craft a polished piece of writing.
1) PREPARE YOUR MATERIALS
Before you sit down to write, do some preparation in order to avoid frustration during the actual writing process. Obtain copies of documents such as transcripts, resumes and the application form itself; keeping them in front of you will make your job of writing much easier. Make a list of important information, in particular names and exact titles of former employers and supervisors, titles of jobs you have held, companies you have worked for, dates of appropriate work or volunteer experiences, the duties involved etc. In this way, you will be able to refer to these materials while writing in order to include as much specific detail as possible.
2) WRITE A FIRST DRAFT
After you have collected and reviewed these materials, it is time to start writing. The following is a list of concerns that writers should keep in mind when writing a personal statement/application letter.
Answer the Question: A major problem for all writers can be the issue of actually answering the question being asked. For example, an application might want you to discuss the reason you are applying to a particular program or company. If you spend your entire essay or letter detailing your qualifications with no mention of what attracted you to the company or department, your statement will probably not be successful. To avoid this problem, read the question or assignment carefully both as you prepare and again just prior to writing. Keep the question in front of you as you write, and refer to it often.
Consider The "I" Problem: This is a personal statement; using the first person pronoun "I" is acceptable. Writers often feel rather self-conscious about using first person excessively, either because they are modest or because they have learned to avoid first and second person ("you") in any type of formal writing. Yet in this type of writing using first person is essential because it makes your prose more lively. Using third person can result in a vague and overly wordy essay. While starting every sentence with "I" is not advisable, remember that you and your experiences are the subject of the essay.
Avoid Unnecessary Duplication: Sometimes a writer has a tendency to repeat information in his or her personal statement that is already included in other parts of the application packet (resume, transcript, application form, etc.). For example, it is not necessary to mention your exact GPA or specific grades and course titles in your personal statement or application letter. It is more efficient and more effective to simply mention academic progress briefly ("I was on the Dean's List"; or "I have taken numerous courses in the field of nutrition") and then move on to discuss appropriate work or volunteer experiences in more detail.
Make Your Statement Distinctive: Many writers want to make their personal statements unique or distinctive in some way as a means of distinguishing their application from the many others received by the company or program. One way to do this is to include at least one detailed example or anecdote that is specific to your own experience—perhaps a description of an important family member or personal moment that influenced your decision to pursue a particular career or degree. This strategy makes your statement distinctive and memorable.
Keep It Brief: Usually, personal statements are limited to 250–500 words or one typed page, so write concisely while still being detailed. Making sure that each paragraph is tightly focused on a single idea (one paragraph on the strengths of the program, one on your research experience, one on your extracurricular activities, etc.) helps keep the essay from becoming too long. Also, spending a little time working on word choice by utilizing a dictionary and a thesaurus and by including adjectives should result in less repetition and more precise writing.
Personal Statement Format
As mentioned before, the requirements for personal statements differ, but generally a personal statement includes certain information and can follow this format (see following model).
Many personal statements begin with a catchy opening, often the distinctive personal example mentioned earlier, as a way of gaining the reader’s attention. From there you can connect the example to the actual program/position for which you are applying. Mention the specific name of the program or company, as well as the title of the position or degree you are seeking, in the first paragraph.
- Detailed Supporting Paragraphs
Subsequent paragraphs should address any specific questions from the application, which might deal with the strengths of the program/position, your own qualifications, your compatibility with the program/position, your long-term goals or some combination thereof. Each paragraph should be focused and should have a topic sentence that informs the reader of the paragraph’s emphasis. You need to remember, however, that the examples from your experience must be relevant and should support your argument about your qualifications.
Tie together the various issues that you have raised in the essay, and reiterate your interest in this specific program or position. You might also mention how this job or degree is a step towards a long-term goal in a closing paragraph. An application letter contains many of the same elements as a personal statement, but it is presented in a business letter format and can sometimes be even shorter and more specific than a personal statement. An application letter may not contain the catchy opening of the personal statement but instead includes detailed information about the program or position and how you found out about it. Your application letter usually refers to your resume at some point. Another difference between a personal statement and an application letter is in the conclusion, which in an application letter asks for an interview.
3) REVISING THE PERSONAL STATEMENT/APPLICATION LETTER
Because this piece of writing is designed to either get you an interview or a place in a graduate school program, it is vital that you allow yourself enough time to revise your piece of writing thoroughly. This revision needs to occur on both the content level (did you address the question? is there enough detail?) and the sentence level (is the writing clear? are the mechanics and punctuation correct?). While tools such as spell-checks and grammar-checks are helpful during revision, they should not be used exclusively; you should read over your draft yourself and/or have others do so.
Produced by Writing Tutorial Services, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN