Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.
It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores. However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities, to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.
Telling Your Story to Colleges
So what does set you apart?
You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.
Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.
You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.
Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay
1. Write about something that's important to you.
It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life.
2. Don't just recount—reflect!
Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.
3. Being funny is tough.
A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.
4. Start early and write several drafts.
Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?
5. No repeats.
What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.
6. Answer the question being asked.
Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.
7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.
A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.
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About Rob FranekRob Franek, Editor-in-Chief at The Princeton Review, is the company's primary authority on higher education. Over his 24-year career, he has served as a college admissions administrator, test prep teacher, author, publisher, and lecturer. Read more and follow Rob on Twitter: @RobFranek
The college essay is often the most difficult part of preparing your application. To help you get off to a good start, we've put together the following tips and hints. These are comments from our admissions staff who actually read your essays and evaluate them in the admission process. We can't guarantee results, but this advice might help you get started.
Essay Tips from The Readers
- Treat it as an opportunity, not a burden. The essay is one of the few things that you've got complete control over in the application process, especially by the time you're in your senior year. Use it to tell us a part of your story.
- Take the time to go beyond the obvious. Especially if you're recounting an event, take it beyond the chronological storytelling. Include some opinion or reflection.
- Don't try to take on too much. Focus on one event, one activity, or one "most influential person." Tackling too much tends to make your essay too watered down or disjointed.
- Brainstorm the things that matter to you. Don't be afraid to reveal yourself in your writing. We want to know who you are and how you think.
- Write thoughtfully and with authenticity. It'll be clear who believes in what they are saying versus those who are simply saying what they think we want to hear.
- Be comfortable showing your vulnerability. We don't expect you to be perfect. Feel free to tell us about a time you stumbled, and what happened next.
- Essays should have a thesis that is clear to you and to the reader. Your thesis should indicate where you're going and what you're trying to communicate from the outset.
- Don't do a history report. Some background knowledge is okay, but do not re-hash what other authors have already said or written.
- Answer the prompt. We're most interested in the story you're telling, but it's important to follow directions, too.
- Be yourself. If you are funny, write a funny essay; if you are serious, write a serious essay. Don't start reinventing yourself with the essay.
- Ignore the urge for perfection. There's no such thing as the perfect college essay. Just be yourself and write the best way you know how.
- Tell us something different from what we'll read on your list of extracurricular activities or transcript.
- Proofread, proofread, proofread. There's a difference between "tutoring children" and "torturing children" and your spell-checker won't catch that.
- Keep it short.
- Limit the number of people who review your essay. Too much input usually means your voice is lost in the writing style.
- Appearances count. Formatting and presentation cannot replace substance, but they can certainly enhance the value of an already well-written essay.