College Admission Personal Statement Essays

Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - 09:00

I manage the UChicago Admissions Tumblr (uchicagoadmissions.tumblr.com!) and recently came across a great question in our inbox from Amy W, a prospective student. Amy asks:

First off: Amy, you can defeat it! We assure you! Whether you’re writing a personal statement for the Common Application, Universal Application, or another catch-all application essay, don’t freak out. (And don't worry that we're not talking about our Uncommon Prompts here-- we've got another post coming up soon just on that topic!) We know this can be a bit of a daunting time, so we have some tips and tricks we think will help make the writing process a bit easier for Amy (and other Amy-like students lurking out there in the internetiverse!) 

The common things we always like to see in an essay are pretty basic, and pretty limited: we like to read things that are written coherently, have a good handle on the conventions of English spelling and grammar, fall within or near our suggested word count, don’t have the wrong school’s name included in the text, and don’t cross basic lines of social propriety. And that’s where the common stuff ends.  I think one of the things that makes a great personal statement is when students take their essay to a place that isn't terribly common. If there was one thing I wish I could call out from the rooftop of my office in Rosenwald Hall to the high school seniors of the world, it is that you don't need to write about the thing your friend is writing about, or write exactly like the example in the "100 Best Essays" book, or write the essay your mom is pushing for your essay to be good. In fact, doing those things will probably guarantee that your essay is not good, because the thing missing from the mix there is “you”—your voice as a student, a writer, and a potential contributor to our campus.

When you choose a topic for a personal statement, keep in mind that whatever you write about should cause you to say "yes" to the question "Is this something, and perhaps the only thing, I think a perfect stranger should know about me?" Your essay doesn't necessarily have to be about your most life-changing moment—it can be about something you like, an academic or social idea that’s important to you, an experience you’ve had, or something offbeat if you so choose—but just make sure that you feel comfortable expressing this idea, that it is truly important to you, and can apply a reasonable level of self-reflection and analysis to your writing. Self-reflection really means two things here: it’s both giving us a little analysis of your subject within your discussion of a topic AND thinking beforehand about whether your topic and tone are appropriate to share with an admissions officer. Telling a good story is interesting, but relaying facts about the story ad nauseum is not as important as giving your reader a good sense of why you feel compelled to write about it. And telling a story that in no way reflects who you are (example totally-made-up-but-very-plausible title: My Horse Is The Best Horse), paints an inflated or unrealistic picture of your accomplishments or goals (My Plan for World Economic Domination Before Graduation), only tenuously connects to or ascribes too much weight to an event's real significance in your life (I Stubbed My Toe: The Reason I Want Pre-Med), or leaves your reader feeling awkward or uncomfortable (Top 10 Things I Love About My Girlfriend) are not ways to help your reader feeling like they’ve had a genuine interaction with you, or give a sense of how you’d contribute positively to campus.

Of course, this is all one lady’s opinion—while I have several years’ experience reading application essays as an admissions officer at UChicago, know that opinions and ideas can come from many sources. Make sure to utilize the knowledge and expertise of your teachers, counselor, and, yes, your parents—but keep the idea of writing something that is authentically “you” at the front of your mind throughout this process. And please make sure someone besides you takes a look at your essay before you send it off-- they'll help you catch those unfortunate circumstances of accidentally leaving in [insert other school name here] before submitting your application. 

Happy writing!

Grace

(AKA: Grace Chapin, UChicago alumna, cat lover, humorist? and Senior Assistant Director of Admissions)

PS: That’s not all, folks! There are many other types of essays you’ll write as part of your application to UChicago, and to many other colleges. Stay tuned in to the blogosphere (blagoblog? Blogiverse? Wordplace? Internet. Watch the Internet.) for tips on college-specific essays, our Uncommon essays, and other portions of your application coming up soon.

PPS: Welcome to the revival of our Uncommon Blog! As you might (or might not), have noticed, this is our inaugural (in-blog-ural?) post in a slightly new style and space. We’ll have posts from admissions officers and current students here throughout the year, and we hope that it’s a source of valuable UChicagoey information for you. Have any questions, or a desire to see a post on a specific topic here? Feel free to connect with us via email at collegeadmissions@uchicago.edu or by phone at 773-702-8650.

With the 2015-16 college admissions season officially underway, many rising high school seniors are beginning to tackle one of the most critical, confusing, and stressful parts of the college application: The personal statement.

The personal statement, traditionally the main Common Application essay, is the application component in which students have the most control and the best opportunity to let the university get to know a little more about them. While the main Common Application essay uses predetermined prompts, they’re broad enough that students can pretty much write about whatever they want, as long as it relates back to their chosen essay question.

Why the Personal Statement Is Important
When students think about what it takes to get into college, the first thing that usually comes to mind is good grades and test scores. While those “hard factors” are critical, holistic review also takes into account “soft factors,” or the application elements that aren’t so easily quantified, like essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and more. The essay is the most important soft factor that colleges consider, according to NACAC’s most recent State of College Admissions report.

The essay or personal statement, when used properly, can give admissions officers additional insight into who a student is as a person, what motivates him or her, and, more practically, how that student communicates and follows directions. An amazing personal statement isn’t going to guarantee a spot in the freshman class, but it can positively impact a student’s application, while a poor personal statement can, along with other elements, really hurt a student’s chances of gaining admission. This is why the personal statement shouldn’t be taken lightly. Students really need to put a lot of effort into writing a great essay in order to enhance their chances of admission.

Here are five tips to help college-bound high school seniors write a great personal statement essay.

1. Reveal something new about yourself.
We say this every year, because it’s one of the essay tips that students struggle with the most. In an attempt to show a specialty or passion, students can often be redundant and spend the length of the essay reiterating something else that’s already in the application. If marching band is on your activity list, the college already knows you enjoy music, so don’t spend your essay writing about what it means to play flute in the band. Take this opportunity to give the admissions office insight into something new about you. Whether it’s how your religion impacts your education, how a mentor helped you realize your potential, or an event that’s shaped who you are today, write about something with substance that adds another dimension to your application.

2. Spend time brainstorming topics.
In order to reveal something new about yourself, you need to choose a meaningful and original topic. While the Common Application essay questions are helpful, it’s up to you to choose a personal topic that ties in with the Common Application prompt you’ve selected. Take time to think about what’s important to you, what people or events have shaped you, and what you think is interesting about yourself. Don’t just choose the most obvious topic, like the soccer team captain writing about winning the championship game. Instead, think of events, themes, experiences, and more that are somewhat unique to you and how they’ve impacted you.

3. Be mindful of word choice, tone, and voice.
Your essay should sound like you wrote it, so don’t overload it with long vocabulary words, complex sentence structure, or a lofty tone if that’s not how you normally write or speak. That being said, don’t be afraid to stretch your writing skills. The personal statement should demonstrate your best writing, so take your time to carefully craft an essay that clearly conveys your story and your voice. Avoid redundant words or phrases, filler words that don’t add any value, or confusing language that muddles the message.

4. Practice, practice, practice!
It’s rare that anyone’s first draft is the perfect personal statement. Just like with anything else, you get better with practice. Write often, whether it’s in a journal, blog, or other outlet, as a way to improve and evolve your writing skills. When it comes time to pen your personal statement, practice that, too. Revise, revise, and then revise again. It often takes students many drafts before they have a personal statement that demonstrates their best writing and clearly conveys the essay’s message.

5. Don’t procrastinate.
A stellar essay isn’t usually written in a day. Get a head start on your personal statement by brainstorming topics and writing your first draft during the summer before the school year starts. That way, some of the most difficult work – choosing a topic and starting the writing process – is done before you head into a hectic senior year. This also allows students to get early feedback on their essays from college counselors, before the majority of the class begins seeking advice later in the semester.

These are just a few tips that can help you write a great personal statement this fall. Remember, be yourself and write about what’s important to you – not what you think the college wants to read. For more help with application essays, contact us today for information on our counseling services, and check out our blog for additional tips!

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