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How To: Write Your Personal Essay
Posted by Carolyn Pippen on Wednesday, September 11, 2013
While we still have a few more days until the official beginning of fall, around here it feels a lot like the season has already begun. Classes are back in session, the leaves are falling off the trees, and most of our counselors have departed for the two-month marathon of flights, high school visits, and college fairs that we call travel season.
In addition, thousands of high school seniors across the country have begun the process of filling out college applications. Regardless of whether or not one of your applications will be submitted to Vanderbilt, we would like to offer you a few nuggets of the expertise we have acquired working with students and evaluating applications over years.
Thus we give you: The “How To” Series. Over the next several weeks, we will be posting lists of tips concerning various pieces of the application that we hope will make this process a little less overwhelming for all of you. Today’s tips focus on the personal essay.
- Be thoughtful, but not fretful. As a senior, most of the accomplishments that will make up the bulk of your application – academic performance, test scores, and extracurricular involvement – are said and done. In a sense, the only part of the application over which you have complete control right now is the essay. Don’t let this scare you! While the essay is a valuable tool that we use to understand you better, it is rarely if ever a “make or break” component of your application.
- Keep the “personal” in personal essay. The Common Application presents six different prompts for you to choose from when writing your essay. To be honest, we don’t really care that much what you write about, as long as you’re writing about you. In other words, don’t spend the entire essay detailing the life of your favorite and most accomplished family member, but rather focus on how that person has affected you and your life decisions. Don’t give us a detailed narrative of your favorite community service trip, but instead tell us what you learned from that trip and how it has changed your outlook on the world. This is one time when it’s okay to be self-centered – more than anything, we want to know about you!
- Don’t try to guess what the reader wants to hear. If you ask a hundred different admissions counselors what their favorite kind of essay is, you will likely get a hundred different answers. Trying to figure out what topic will get us most excited is like trying to guess which outfits the judges of Project Runway are going to like the most – no matter how many times we watch, Heidi always manages to confound. Instead of trying to game the system, focus on the things that get you excited. If nothing else, I promise that passion will show through.
- Feel free to be funny or creative – but don’t overreach. If your friends tell you that you’re the funniest person in the class, use that skill to your advantage. If your creativity is what sets you apart from your peers, let that innovation guide the structure and content of the essay. On the other hand, if every joke you make at the cafeteria table falls flatter than a pancake in a Panini press, don’t try to fake it. Figure out what your personal strengths are, and stick with them.
- Tell us something we don’t already know. When writing your essay, be sure to keep in mind all of the other pieces of your application we already have in front of us while we’re reading it. Do not use this space to summarize your extracurricular involvement or your academic achievements if we’ve already seen these things in your resume and transcript. We know that there is more to you than just test scores and leadership roles, so tell us more!
- Ask for input (but not too much). Your parents, friends, guidance counselors, coaches, and teachers are great people to bounce ideas off of for your essay. They know how unique and spectacular you are, and they can help you decide how to articulate it. Keep in mind, however, that a 45-year-old lawyer writes quite differently from an 18-year-old student, so if your dad ends up writing the bulk of your essay, we’re probably going to notice.
- Edit, proof, polish, and breathe. Beyond gaining insight into your personal psyche, the purpose of the essay is also to showcase your written communication skills. Treat this essay just like any class assignment – write it early, proof and revise, keep an eagle eye out for spelling and grammatical errors, and make sure it is presented in a clean and polished way. That being said, do not call our office in a panic if you discovered a missing article or a misused “its” after you hit submit. Because of our holistic selection process, no student will be denied based on one element of his or her application; this includes typos.
Posted in Application Process, General Information, The College Essay and tagged: academic credentials, breathe, college applications, Common Application, essay writing, extracurricular activities, Heidi Klum, how to apply, personal essay, Project Runway
Early 2000s kids, aka those filling out the Common Application this fall, have a pretty funky paradigm when it comes to how big the ego should be. Generation Z falls right behind us Millennials, who have been criticized for being overly encouraged as kids. If Millennials are getting a bad rep for loving the participation trophy and being way too self-confident, what’s a Generation Z-er to do when it comes to trying to sell themselves to colleges?
Listen up, Generation Z. Take it from a so-called self-obsessed Millennial herself: a place between humble and prideful exists, and that’s the exact place you want to reach in your college application essays. Here are five “what ifs?” of college essay humble-bragging and what to do about each of them.
Related:How to Write a Great College Application Essay
If you’re afraid of bragging...
College essays are about selling yourself. If you were selling a pen, you would definitely want to talk to your buyer about the pen’s high-quality ink, super-comfy grip, and trendy appearance. You would never leave any of those amazing pen attributes out because you want the buyer to want the pen. When writing your college essays, think of yourself as the pen. Never, ever leave out something great about yourself because you are afraid of bragging. College essays are the only time you get to talk about all of the wonderful things that make you you without anyone judging you for it. So take advantage!
If you want to come off as confident…
Showing confidence in your college essays might sound tricky, but with the right anecdotes, you can fully achieve that confident aura without literally saying, “I’m confident!” If you’re passionate about something unique that you might not have mentioned in your college app thus far, write about it in the essay. Talk about the time you did an underground production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show even though you didn’t know anyone else auditioning for it. If you thought becoming a ventriloquist as a kid was really cool and eventually gave it a shot, write about it. The best way to sound confident without outright telling the reader so in your essay is to write a story that shows you are confident. That will be more than enough to sell them on you.
If you think you might sound full of yourself…
The “show, don’t tell” rule of writing applies in college essays too. For example, if you are writing an essay about your summer job, never say, “I was the best employee at the grocery store.” Rather, show that you were a great employee by telling a story about the time you caught a shoplifter or exhibited great customer service. You never need to tell the reader you are superior or the best in any way if you can show them instead.
If you feel the need to tell the reader your credentials....
There is a whole other section of the Common App where you list the leadership roles you’ve had and the awards you’ve won. You don’t need to mention them again in the essay portion unless the story you’re telling calls for it. Say you are writing an essay about the time you won a particularly interesting debate for your high school debate team—you can write about your accomplishment without sounding cocky. For instance, rather than saying “I was the best debater on my team, which is why I am captain,” you could talk about the reason you are so passionate about whatever topic you debated that day.
The place for competing with what you’ve done in high school is in the rest of the Common App. The place for letting the college know who you are and what you’d be bringing to the college’s community as a person is in the essay. The best way to make yourself more competitive in the essay portion of your application is to write an essay that describes exactly who you are on a day-to-day basis rather than talking about your achievements. There are a few colleges famous for requesting applicants to pick one of their friends and have that friend write an essay about said applicant. While that type of essay might sound pretty nerve-wracking, the takeaway from the prompt is that colleges want to know what someone you hang around all the time thinks of you. Ultimately, a university is looking for a great addition to their campus, and in the case of writing a portrait of your personality in an essay, you should never have to brag, and you should have a lot of reasons to be confident in who you are.
Ultimately, the college essay is all about balance. Don’t tell the reader how great you are—show them instead. Admission officers will rarely be turned off by an applicant who wrote a great story about something wonderful they did, but they might find it a little off-putting if you call it wonderful yourself.
Looking for more college essay tips? Check out our Application Essay Clinic.