The following article was contributed by Dr. Mae Sakharov, College, Graduate School & Career Counseling.
The thought of writing a college application personal statement of 250 to 650 words as part of a college application sends chills down many students’ spines. They shudder at the thought of being judged on such a little piece of writing. Some spend restless nights thinking about what magnum opus lies buried in the depths of their unconscious.
How can their story, most often that of a generally unscathed 17-year-old, be told in a way that is unique, putting them over the top with the admissions committee? The stress over what should go into an essay often rises beyond all appropriate proportions.
Why is so much importance placed on a simple essay? There is an extensive amount of attention paid to this singular task. Books have been published on successful college essays, articles have been written about topics that work, and candidates themselves pontificate about how to succeed in getting into the college of their choice.
All this tension makes this task even more difficult. Students feel increasingly burned out from working so hard in school and resentful that anyone should ask them to reveal themselves in writing when their record is evident from excellent grades and high scores on standardized tests scores. Such students will sabotage themselves with a defensive or lackluster essay.
It is often rumored that the parent, not the student, composed the successful essay leading to the Ivy League. Although some parents may unduly intervene and dominate the essay-writing process, taking the radical step of writing the essay in its entirety is hopefully rare. It may be true that some parents at their wits’ end may sit down at the computer and pound ahead. Honestly, this does happen, though such aggressive interference is evident in essays that pit the grandiosity of adolescent angst and “know it all” style against the more polished observations that come from the aged. Take comfort, for counselors and college admissions offices claim that they can immediately sense the perspective of a 50-year-old.
After this impassioned diatribe, may I be so bold as to submit my own observations on steps that will facilitate the process of writing a college essay? First, read the questions that are being asked and really think about which one to answer. The Common Application has five essay choices that, when carefully read, can be adapted to different personal styles.
Interesting essays can spring from ordinary subject matter. One young man recalled his grandmother’s red lipstick as she returned home on the subway after a long day at work. From this glimmer came memories of his deceased grandfather purchasing a left-handed baseball mitt for his right-handed grandson so he would learn to play the game. This essay ended in a juxtaposing of roles with the boy, now a young man, pushing his stroke-ridden grandfather’s wheelchair into an elevator. This essay, which was on a conventional subject (a most admired person), became a beautiful statement rather than a rehashed cliché, with its focus on the applicant’s sensitivity to events that have transpired in his personal history.
To state the obvious, successful applicants do not plagiarize or paraphrase from college essays published on the Internet. Nor is it necessary to read countless books about how to write successful essays: these can add to the confusion and take applicants away from their own source of interest—themselves.
Keep in mind that the personal statement is not the only thought-provoking writing required on applications! Supplemental forms and short-answer questions can be even more telling and should also be taken seriously (though not too seriously, of course). It can be more difficult to answer a question such as “What was the best advice you have ever been given?” or “What character in a novel do you most relate to?” than it is to write a longer piece.
The application should be a lively representation of one’s inner life and not a report card, so share different aspects and interests. For example, a person who wants to study engineering might spend lazy afternoons listening to the scores of a grand opera or strumming a banjo.
What you may know very well about yourself is completely unknown to those who will read your application. It is better to keep things simple than to try to impress; better to describe sitting in a café drinking coffee than fabricating a grandiose scheme. Remember that your story is special and when shared honestly it will be received as a gift.
Honesty—simple honesty—is the basis of a strong personal statement. Writing about what’s true and what’s important to you and what inspires you is the best way to reveal your authentic self to colleges.
Photo credit: courtesy of Dr. Mae Sakharov, Ed.D