As the number of college applications submitted each year continues to grow exponentially and competition stiffens among the thousands of high- achieving students seeking admission, it has become increasingly important for applications to illustrate a complete, holistic picture of themselves. That has put a great deal of emphasis on the essays, which indeed, are vital pieces of the puzzle. While your grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities begin to show who you are on paper, the personal statement essay and other supplemental essays bring you into three-dimensional form for college admissions officers. The essays are your chance to make your voice heard and if executed properly, will help colleges determine whether you are a good fit for their university.
Through exercises, worksheets, and discussions of sample essays, my hope is that by the end of this course, you will have in-depth knowledge of what colleges want to see in your essays, at least one or two (and hopefully more) essay ideas, and a solid start to your first draft.
To get the most out of this course, take your time with the exercises and the overall process. A large part of writing a successful essay is self-exploration and self-reflection. Another large part is understanding that an outstanding application essay requires thought, patience, lots of rewriting, and more rewriting. But most of all, you can and should have fun with this. You get to write about you and the things that interest and move you.
Enjoy the process!
The Common Application, known as the Common App (commonapp.org), is accepted by close to 900 schools, and will likely be the main tool you use for applying to schools. It allows you to compile all your information in one place and easily disseminate it to the colleges of your choice. Other alternatives include the Coalition Application and applying directly using the school’s own application, but for this course, we will focus on the more popular Common App. Once you’ve written the essay for the Common App, it can be easily adapted to fit other applications.
On the essay portion of the Common App, you will be required by most colleges to answer one of the prompts in 650 words or less.
Unless bells and whistles went off when you read a particular prompt because you’re certain you have the perfect story that fits it, then don’t worry about choosing just yet. It’s best to start with your brainstorming and then decide if you have an idea that matches a prompt. Meanwhile, the Common App gave students a gift when they added prompt number seven a few years ago, allowing you to submit any kind of essay on any topic. So, if your idea does not accurately and completely answer a certain prompt (which it must do), then play it safe and choose the last “freebie” option.
Before beginning your brainstorming and drafting, it’s important that you have a clear understanding of what kinds of things you should be communicating through your essay. The college admissions officers reading your essay can learn a lot about you through your words, overall theme, and depth of thought. The story you choose to tell is merely the backdrop and framework for a bigger picture. Your ultimate objective is to create a portrait of yourself in 650 words or less that shows your persona, unique aspects of your character, and why and how you will contribute to a university community.
While these are the types of qualities colleges often want to see in students, this is not an exhaustive list and it doesn’t mean that you should fabricate or embellish information to fit into one of these categories.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING FOR YOU TO DO IN YOUR ESSAY IS TO BE AUTHENTIC!! Colleges want to know who you are and that you’ve taken the time to personally reflect on who you are and who you desire to be.
So let’s start with an exercise that will help you with that reflection process and uncover some of your personal qualities that could shine through in your essay.
For this next section, set aside at least 30 minutes when you will be undisturbed and can give your full attention to contemplating each question. Remember to answer genuinely and not from the perspective of what you “think” colleges want to hear. Take your time and write as much as you can to fully answer the questions. Sometimes the best nuggets/ideas/revelations come toward the end after you’ve gotten some of your initial thoughts down on paper. Use a separate paper or document to record your answers if needed.
Now, using your adjectives from Worksheet 1 and the answers in Worksheet 2, let’s create a Personal Purpose Statement. You can actually create more than one statement if you feel you can’t narrow yourself down to one. The idea is to loosely define the kind of person you are and what you hope to achieve. It can serve as a guiding vision of what you want to communicate through your essay.
Complete the following statement:
I am a _____________, ______________, and _______________ person who loves _________________ and hopes to make a difference/impact by _______________.
Example: I am a kind, outgoing, and funny person who loves to make people laugh and hopes to make a difference/impact by creating uplifting comedic productions and/or therapies that will help people heal from trauma
In this example, the student might decide that their essay should display their sense of humor because that’s one of their unique personality traits. Maybe they can talk about how humor has healed them in some way. Keep in mind that your essay should “show” rather then “tell.” So you wouldn’t just say, “I’m funny and make people laugh.” You’d write an essay that perhaps make the reader chuckle or talks about a humorous situation or a time you made someone laugh or did something silly.
This Personal Purpose Statement can serve as an anchor for you as you move through the essay process. Return to it often to make sure you are communicating these core ideas in your essays. You may even want to check your overall application to review if it is reflecting these important qualities.
Again, make sure you have some quiet time and space without distractions. For this exercise, refer back to your Personal Purpose Statement from Worksheet 3. You may want to have Worksheets 1 and 2 on hand as well for added inspiration.
The next step is to come up with some stories/personal experiences that relate to your Personal Purpose Statement since these are the main things you want the colleges to know about you. Below you’ll find some questions to help guide you in brainstorming and mining your memory for ideas. It can also be helpful to ask family members for stories they might remember about you. Keep in mind you want to be honest and vulnerable and while you may reference things from your childhood, colleges are interested mainly in events that have impacted you during or just before your high school years.
Using our previous sample statement, “I am a kind, outgoing, and funny person who loves to make people laugh and hopes to make a difference/impact by creating uplifting comedic productions and/or therapies that will help people heal from trauma,” the student should think of personal experiences that demonstrate that they are kind, outgoing, or funny, as well as events and people that inspired them. For instance, maybe they’ve volunteered cheering up young children who are ill. In this case, they could tell a story about a certain child they interacted with who had a particular impact on them.
Okay, your turn.
Answer the following questions based on your Personal Purpose Statement:
Not every student has a story about a challenge, obstacle, or moment that changed them. If this is you, do not worry, because everyone does indeed have some kind of story to tell about themselves. Sometimes it’s challenging to think and talk about yourself, or you may think you don’t have something “interesting” to share (you do!). Often you just need to keep exploring. Some of the best ideas come when you least expect it – like when you’re taking a shower, or playing a sport, or doing chores.
The best essays rely on one of the most natural, but powerful, techniques storytelling. Everyone has stories. You tell stories all the time when you talk about something that happened to you today. You listen to your family’s stories. You have stories that stick with you because they are especially memorable.
Often stories, especially in books and movies, follow the classic Hero’s Journey, which basically takes the character from an ordinary life, through a challenge or obstacle, and then through some transformation. This is a great reference point when thinking about how you might tell one of your own stories in an essay. In addition, you can find some great inspiration on storytelling on “The Moth” podcast or at themoth.org, which hosts storytelling competitions around the world. Watch some of the storytellers and see how they use description and detail, build interest and suspense, and then tie it all together so the story has a clear purpose and message.
Ultimately, what makes stories such an effective device in your essay is that they “show” rather than “tell.” You don’t want to say in your essay, “I’m funny.
I like to make people laugh.” By telling a story that shows your sense of humor and how you felt making another person laugh, you make that point in a much more meaningful way.
Keep this in mind as you begin to explore further for the story or stories you can showcase in your essay.
Time to dive in! Let’s pick an idea and start coming up with some details that you could use in the essay. This process should help you get a feeling about
whether you have enough material to work with on a certain topic/theme. Remember this is a trial-and-error process, so you may switch directions several times before finding the essay you want to write. In addition, as you spend some initial time fleshing out your topic here, pay attention to how you feel about the subject. This essay should be something you will enjoy writing.
See ”Example Answers” following this questionnaire if you need a little more help.
Here are some sample answers that our sample student might come up with. Remember the student’s personal purpose statement is, “I am a kind, outgoing, and funny person who loves to make people laugh and hopes to make a difference/impact by creating uplifting comedic productions and/or therapies that will help people heal from trauma.” Main Idea/Story/Theme: Volunteering at All Children’s Hospital – How Jill’s laughter healed me and made me realize what I wanted to do for others
3. Write at least a paragraph summarizing your main story/theme (doesn’t have to be perfectly written at this point; these are just notes).
The summer after my freshman year, I joined a couple of friends in the Healing Hearts program. We visited sick children twice a week. They wanted us to read to them, keep them company, play games. I met Jill on my second visit. She was 7 years old and had a rare lung disease. We didn’t even talk about that much. Mainly, she told me about what a pain it was to be poked and prodded and tested all the time. She just wanted to be a normal kid playing with her friends at home. That part of me that just wants to see people smile kicked in. I started coming up with jokes, books, and other things that I thought would entertain Jill. That one day, Jill finally broke out into an all-out giggling attack I saw her so differently. She was, if even for a moment, not feeling or thinking about pain or being sick. She looked completely different too. Then I got caught up in the laughing too and I felt it too. Relief. It clicked right then. Maybe I had always wanted to make people laugh because it made me feel better when they were happy. Was that selfish? As we kept laughing, I realized we were giving each other a mutual gift. Laughter is contagious. I also started wondering about its real
4. Describe some of the background leading up to the story.
I’ve always loved watching a good comedy, stand-up comedians and making people laugh. When someone isn’t happy, it becomes my mission to turn their frown upside down. I never really understood the power of humor, however, until ironically, I started what some would consider a very sad volunteer job spending time with young children who have major and sometimes life-threatening diseases. Even my mom tried to talk me out of doing it, thinking I’d end up depressed.
5. Zoom in on some details.
Pretend you are taking a photograph of a moment from this story. Describe it in detail. Who was there? What were you feeling? What were you thinking? What are the images, colors, environment in the scene? Moment with Jill laughing. Sitting in her room which was drab white and gray. Only color was from a few pretty pictures she had drawn that were hanging on the wall. Her mom was sitting in the corner reading a book on her kindle. I had brought my own joke book that day, determined to get her to laugh. The jokes kept bombing though. She’d chuckle politely. Then the nurse came in to check on her. She took her temperature and blood pressure, said a few words to the mom, and left. Jill rolled her eyes. Then I rolled my eyes dramatically. Jill rolled her eyes and this went back and forth a few times until I just crossed my eyes and pretended to pass out on the floor. Jill started to laugh so much I saw tears forming in her eyes. I started laughing too and then I snorted. That was it. We both lost it. Even her mother couldn’t help but laugh too.
6. What was the major turning point/highlight in the story?
Jill transformed before my eyes when she was laughing. This little girl who always looked sad and in pain was suddenly light and free. I witnessed the power of a good laugh and felt it for myself as well.
7. Discuss in more detail the outcome and how it impacted you. What did you learn? How were you changed?
I wanted to investigate and learn if there was any real data to support laughter being healing. I did a research paper and found some interesting studies (can give some stats). It also made me realize this was something I would always participate in, whether as a volunteer or hopefully as more of a career.
8. What is the life lesson?
How will use this going forward? Is there something in this story that helps guide you in the way you will approach your life in college? I will definitely pack my sense of humor and my desire to make others smile when I go to college. There’s plenty of seriousness in the world. I prefer to see the brighter side.
As mentioned previously, a good college admissions essay is authentic, reveals something about the student that can’t be found in the rest of the application, and shows that the student is introspective and self-aware.Remember that the admissions officers are reading hundreds of essays, so at the minimum, you want to submit a well written, well-thought-out essay that is error-free. At best, you are hoping to give them an interesting essay that holds their attention and is memorable for them. Don’t let that intimidate you. As an essay advisor who has read countless essays, I never tire of reading the fascinating stories students share. Everyone has a story to tell and there are infinite ways to weave your own personal tale and introduce yourself to the reader.
Don’t brag about yourself or your accomplishments. Example: Here’s a line from one student’s first draft: “Even though I was one of the smarter kids in the highest class…” Now, even though the student was trying to make a point about how shy they were, this line comes across as boastful. Stay away from these kinds of statements or find a way to say it that doesn’t sound like you are bragging. Exceptions would be if it is part of a bigger story in which the actions or outcomes are revealing something about your character or a lesson learned. Along the same lines, don’t list your accomplishments in your essay. That’s what the other parts of the application are for. Don’t use words or ideas that don’t sound like you. It’s nice to stretch yourself a bit in your writing, using synonyms to avoid repetitive words and showing that you have a wide vocabulary. But some students get caught up in impressing the readers and sprinkle their essays with complicated words they don’t even understand. Again, admissions officers read right through that. Be yourself! Don’t rush through the essay writing. It will show. Don’t get too cutesy. There’s a fine line between originality/creativity and trying so hard to be different that it misses the mark. Don’t use too many clichés. For instance, “life is hard,” “you don’t appreciate things until you lose them,” “every cloud has a silver lining.” Communicate these things in your own original thoughts and words. I would add that using quotes at the opening of essays is also cliché if not executed properly. Don’t use profanity, discuss bodily functions in too much detail, or overshare about personal situations, such as your sex life. (Yep, people do these things.)
There are also some topics that are best to avoid if possible, mainly because they are overused or not well-executed. The caveat here is that I have seen some exceptional essays on these subjects so don’t get discouraged if you want to tackle one of these. Just make sure your essay has a personal twist and demonstrates an insightful, mature view of how you were affected and changed.
The French phrase, je ne sais quoi, comes to mind when trying to answer this question. It means, “an indefinable, elusive quality, especially a pleasing one.” Often, it’s difficult to pinpoint what makes an essay special or memorable; it just has that je ne sais quoi and you know it when you read it.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a master writer, have experienced an earth-shattering experience, or have all life’s answers to create an excellent essay that the reader will appreciate. Simply being willing to be vulnerable and share honestly goes a long way. And some of the best essays I’ve read are based on simple, everyday stories and experiences. The following section has a few exemplar essays with comments following each to point out what makes them successful.