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
You’ve probably heard a great deal about the admissions interview, including various perspectives on its relative importance as part of your college application. It’s a good idea to look into interview options at the colleges on your list, because not only does it provide a good opportunity for the admissions committee to learn more about you as a person, but it also gives you a chance to learn more about the school itself.
Once you’ve scheduled an alumni or on-campus interview with a college, how do you prepare? While you have no way of knowing exactly what an interviewer will ask, you can — and should — expect and be prepared for certain types of questions.
At CollegeVine, we specialize in guiding students through the admissions process, including holding mock interviews with tons of practice questions to be as prepared as possible. Learn more about how our College Applications program can help you ace your interview.
Starting the Interview: What your Interviewer Wants to Know
The interviewer will most likely begin with some form of the question, “Tell me about yourself.” While this may seem like a fairly open-ended prompt, and perhaps even a bit daunting, there are certain ways to answer effectively, as well as topics to avoid.
Setting the Tone
You should see the “tell me about yourself” prompt as an opportunity to show the interviewer your most important qualities and describe what you can contribute to the school community. Just as with any interview you will have over the course of your career, college years and beyond, this prompt is meant to give the interviewer an idea of what qualities you offer that are relevant to the position at hand — in this case, as a member of that college’s matriculating class.
Because this may well be the interviewer’s first question, it will set the tone for the rest of the interview, so be ready with a strong, but not overly rehearsed, answer. Keep in mind that this is not an invitation to share your life story or overly personal information with your interviewer; doing so will make you appear unprofessional and unprepared.
Topics to Cover
In general, it is a good idea to begin by mentioning the area in which you grew up. Don’t spend too much time discussing the intricacies of your hometown and home life, but mention if you’ve lived there your whole life or moved around a lot, and, if possible, connect it to your interest in the college’s area, size, or campus.
Tell the interviewer about your prospective major, if you have one, or what your main area of interest is and what you hope to study. Also, describe a few personality traits (roughly three), which will allow you to segue into your academic areas of interest and extracurricular activities and why they are important to you. End your answer with why you want to attend that college.
Since you should have researched the school thoroughly before the interview, you will have a good idea of how your personality and academic and extracurricular interests will fit in there, so make an effort to connect what you know about the school with your personal strengths and the topics you’ve covered in your answer. Keep in mind that, if the school offers you admission, the admissions officers want you to choose them as much as you wanted them to choose you, so you should express how interested you are in attending.
I grew up in a small town in Connecticut and have lived there my whole life, so I’d really love to experience city life in college. Since I live relatively close to New York, I’ve had the opportunity to visit a few times, and it has so much to offer, especially in terms of the literary scene. I love reading and writing, so I’m planning on majoring in English or journalism. Journalism seems like a good fit because I’m good at noticing the details and know how to dig deep.
I’m proud of my ability to persevere and overcome challenges. This year I was having a hard time in trig, but I met with the teacher outside of class and committed to studying for two hours a day, and ended up with an A in the class. I’m also really passionate about my interests, especially writing and foreign languages. That’s why I’m a columnist for my school newspaper and the president of Spanish club.
I also tutor English and Spanish at an after-school program in my town. I’d love to attend NYU because it has such strong English and journalism programs. I’m also interested in foreign languages, and I hear NYU has an amazing study abroad program. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, New York is such an amazing city, especially for an aspiring writer.
In this response, the interviewee touches on the topics relevant to her interests and qualifications for the school. She discusses her background a bit and connects it to why NYU and the candidate are mutually good fits, explaining her interests in English, writing, and foreign languages, what she has to done to explore them both inside and outside school, and how she can continue to pursue them in college.
She also makes it clear what attributes of NYU appeal to her. Additionally, she reveals some attributes that make her unique and avoids offering cliché personality traits. She provides examples that illustrate these attributes, such has her ability to persevere and overcome obstacles in a challenging course, also demonstrating her ability to turn a negative into a positive.