essayhell.com is a great website to browse through before you begin your personal statement!
If you’ve been looking for help with your college application essay, I assume you have discovered the mountains of information (some helpful; a lot no so much) out there on the Web. One of my favorite resources for students is The Prospect, which is an organization centered on college admissions and high school/college life.
The main reason I love The Prospect so much is that it is all about helping students survive high school and get into the college of their dreams–but it’s also run by students like you! Their talented staff offered to share some of their best essay-writing tips here on Essay Hell. I think you will find their foodie-approach fun, inspiring and useful!
College Essays: As Told Through Cooking!
For those of us who are beginning senior year, the college application essay is one of the biggest components to be considered in these upcoming months. The choices are wide-open: start right away or wait until it’s too late and you have to write it? Write a truthful story about who you really are or cook together a delicious pot of lies?
Luckily, The Prospect is here to help! The college admissions essay can be tackled with the help of just three tasty core ideas:
FIND the recipe
ADD your own spice
TASTE test it, then try again!
(It’s just as easy as cooking!)
Finding the recipe is the first step, and really goes into organization and planning. Here’s some tips and advice from The Prospect’s own graduating seniors and college students:
“Know your deadlines, keep reminders, apply about a week early – I applied to around 20 universities, so I depended on my counselor to keep a track of all the dates. Big mistake. I got to know of the U of Florida deadlines literally the day before it, and since it was my first application, I was at my wit’s end about the transcripts and what to write what. And this was a school that was in my top 3!” –Niharika
“Give yourself a lot of time to write your essays… Starting right now, keep a Word document or a notebook of random sentences and ideas you think of. This will help you when you write your essays later, because you never know when inspiration will strike. After you’ve written a draft of an essay, leave it for a few days and then read it out loud to yourself. This will help you figure out which parts of your essay need the most revision.” –Heather
“Start drafting essays early! I literally did not start writing my essays for schools using the common app until mid December. My first draft was so incredibly formal that it made me want to puke. After I wrote my first draft, I sent it to 3 people and asked them to basically shred it to pieces. I basically came up with 10 drafts in 7 days but I took about a 5 day break so my mind could be fresh when I did my final draft. If I were to compare my final with my first, the changes are so so so dramatic and different. Honestly starting out early (it doesn’t have to be summer early but start in October or so) makes all the difference.” –Ameera
The next step is to add yourself– pour in some sugar, sprinkle some spice, do whatever you need to do to showcase your personal pizzazz. Try out these tips to make it work:
“Don’t be afraid to write on a cliche topic. Note: I say don’t be afraid, not don’t let it your first and only topic of choice. It’s not about what the story is but rather how you tell your story. I tried so hard to steer away from any topic that made me seem like a pity party (religion, race, etc) but no matter what, I would always go back to writing about my hijab. For me, wearing the hijab plays such a huge role in my life that I didn’t want a college to base who I am simply on my statistic and grades–I wanted to prove that my hijab is me and I am more than a number. Though I did discuss my hijab, I injected my personality EVERYWHERE and made the essay mine.” –Ameera
“Try to sound natural and conversational. Don’t be pretentious, and don’t use big words for the sake of using big words. If you do use a big word, make sure you’re using it correctly. The words “plethora,” “myriad,” “arcane,” “cacophony,” and “ironic” are overused (in my opinion, based on essays I’ve read) and often seem out of place, so think carefully before you use one of them. In general, avoid overusing adjectives.” –Heather
“My college essay writing advice is simple: be yourself, be honest, and let your personality shine through. For the college I will be attending this fall, one of the essays asked what made you choose the major you had put on the application. While it could have been easy to give some complete BS, inspirational answer, I outright told them that the TV show The West Wing made me want to go into Political Communications. It may be a rather silly reason, but it was the truth.” –Annie
So you’ve finished, it’s all done, you’re never looking at that sorry essay ever again… And then comes in step 3: taste test it, then try again and again until the seasoning and the presentation is as perfect as possible. You really only have this one opportunity to showcase YOU– make it good! Try it again with these three tips:
“Don’t be afraid to start all over again. The essay that ultimately became my CA/QB essay was my third attempt. Before I had written it I had written two completely different essays, neither of which really worked. I feel like people are so afraid to completely trash an essay and they shouldn’t be. Often it takes a couple tries to find your voice and you shouldn’t be afraid to start over because your next essay might be a thousand times better.” –Samantha
“Always get people to read your essay and drafts. You don’t have to ask EVERYONE EVERYWHERE you go. In fact you don’t need 15 drafts to make an essay perfect. Just understand that if someone is criticizing your essay, you better be able to defend what you’ve written or else you really do need to change it. This goes for grammar, spelling, and topic of the essay.“ –Ameera
“When I wrote my college essays, I really didn’t spend enough time thinking about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I made my college essays too narrow instead of expanding on a bigger idea. For example, I wrote about being “shy” and how I learned to raise my voice, but I didn’t really include examples of how I had raised my voice. Instead, I just included what I learned but not what I learned it from and how I truly applied it; it’s important to incorporate not just what you learned, but also how it changed you and inspired you and motivated you. I had planned on doing this, but the word limit stopped me. If I would’ve started thinking about my essays sooner, I would’ve been able to include what I wanted to include despite the word limit. I rewrote my essays several times, but I could’ve written them more. Sometimes figuring out how to explain who you are takes lots of time, and that’s okay. But you have to allot yourself that time or you’ll end up with a halfhearted essay despite your intentions.” –Paige
The results are in: Work work work on your college admissions essay! It could make the difference between being accepted to your dream school and being rejected from it. If you don’t think you have a good topic, try doing something new this summer to make one! Plan your own expedition, volunteer at a cool charity, do something awesome. Best case scenario, you’ll find the perfect topic for the perfect essay. Worst case scenario? You’ll have great stories to tell come school time. If you wrote it once and you already think it’s perfect, try sending it to your English teacher and see what you can change.
The time has come, seniors. Head to the college admissions kitchen and get cookin’ on your delectable college application essay!
5 Reasons College App Essays Don’t Suck:
If you are struggling with your college application essay right about now, you might be cursing the entire process.
You’re supposed to think up some fascinating topic that will grab the attention of those bored-to-tears admissions officers and help your application stand out among the thousands of other students vying for the same spot at your dream college.
All the experts tell you “Just be yourself!” or “Tell a story.”
While they are right, it’s totally normal that you don’t have much confidence in how to do that in 650 words or less.
Most high school students have not been taught how to write a narrative (story-telling style) personal essay.
And to write good ones takes a lot of practice.
But don’t be discouraged.
Here is a list of reasons why it’s worth putting your time and energy into these essays now...From essayhell.com:
1. You can learn invaluable writing techniques that you can use in college and beyond in the workplace. If you learn how to put a real-life story into your own words and tell it in a narrative style, you can power all types of writing.
2. You have a chance to pause in your busy life and ponder who you are, how you are unique and and why it’s important. To write a powerful personal statement, you need to take a hard look at yourself, and explore what has shaped you so far and where you want to go next.
3. This is your chance to use your personality and character to convince schools that you would be a great addition to their student body. No one really knows how much influence these essays have in helping students get admitted.
But if you are a student applying to a super competitive college or university (and that seems to be most of them these days!), you have to think that these could often be a deciding factor if everyone has the same uber grades, test scores, extra-curriculars, etc.
Same goes with students who have less than flawless grades, scores, etc., who need that extra edge to push past the competition. Be likable!
Think about it: If a college admissions officer reads an essay and she or he determines that you would be an ideal fit for their school, for whatever reason, they are likely to find ways to get you there, including offering scholarship money.
5. Chances are you will be writing other application essays in your future. Sorry for the bad news, but it’s likely you will need to write other application essays if you apply for things like transferring schools, scholarships (fellowships, internships, etc.) and advanced degrees (MBA, law school, med school, etc.) down the road.
The time you invest now to learn how to craft these essays will help you later on.
Keep these writing techniques–especially the Show AND Tell approach and anecdotes–in your tool kit to give you an edge in the future!
Even though these essays are a royal drag, they are worth your time and effort. So get cracking!
No matter what the prompt asks for, almost any effective college essay should showcase one or several of what I call your “defining qualities.”
If the prompt asks you to write a personal statement (for The Common App), tell about yourself or wants to know why you are a fit for their university, you will need a clear idea of the core qualities or characteristics that make you who you are—that “define” you.
Once you know those, you can write an essay that helps the reader understand how you are that way, and why it matters.
Of course, along the way, you will also mention your related interests, passions, idiosyncrasies, talents, experiences, accomplishments and even your endearing flaws.
(If you are confused at this point, you might want to check out my Quickie Jumpstart Guide to better understand the role these “defining qualities” play in a college admissions essay or personal statement.)
Here’s what I ask my tutoring students to help them start corralling their defining qualities—especially when many of them have no idea what I’m talking about at first:
“If your mom or dad were talking to a friend or relative who didn’t know you well and asked what you were all about now that you were all grown up, how would they describe you to that person?
What are some of the words or phrases they might use to sum you up?”
If you think about it, you can almost hear them, I bet: “Well, Sarah, she’s still very driven, and hard-working, and focused.”
Or “Oh Sam, he’s still a free spirit, and creative and imaginative, and he’s also very social and outgoing.”
or “Mike, he’s our problem solver, very logical, but he’s also so humble and generous.”
I’m not saying that your parents are always right about you, but in general, they have a pretty decent idea of what makes you tick.
Of course, include qualities that you think you have, or ask some of your friends. You don’t need a long list; anywhere between three to five solid qualities are plenty.
Once you find a quality or characteristic, you just need to think of a real-life story (called an anecdote) from your past that illustrates that descriptor—and you are well on your way to writing an effective essay!
Another trick when digging for your personal quality or characteristic is to try to focus them as much as possible.
For example, if you say you are “social,” try to think of qualities that are even more specific to exactly how you are social.
Are you open, talkative, friendly, funny, easy to talk to, accepting, empathetic, flirty, etc.
If you say you are smart, you need to be more specific.
Narrow it down; specifically how are you smart?: insightful, observant, logical, analytical, fast learner, critical thinker, problem solver, etc.
One more tip: If you’re among the students who already have a subject path in mind for your college, such as engineering or medicine or law, it doesn’t hurt to identify what qualities you have that would make you effective in that field.
But if you are like most students, and still have no clue, don’t worry about lining up your qualities with any goal other than finding those that are true to who you are.
When flaws are good: Although most of your defining qualities or characteristics will be viewed as attributes or strengths, it doesn’t hurt if you have one in there that could be viewed as a flaw or weakness.
Don’t overlook those. They can be very powerful when writing college admissions essays or personal statements.
Make sure those more negative qualities have an up side for you.
For example, if you have a stubborn streak, that could make you a persistent person (future lawyer? haha).
Also, sometimes, if we have a weakness, you have developed another quality to help compensate for it.
Flaws are fine as long as you can turn them around and show how they make you even more effective at being who you are.
If you are like some of my students who freeze up or go blank when I put them on the spot and ask them to jot down their “defining qualities,” I know it always helps to have a list to get you started.
These are all one-word descriptors, but you can also include short phrases:
Once you have your personal collection of defining qualities, you are armed to write a college essay that reveals your true character.
In most essays, you will typically focus on one main quality at at time, otherwise they will end up too general and not as powerful.
If you are starting an essay, read the prompt closely and see if it is trying to get you to share your core qualities.
Sometimes a prompt will ask you to write about someone other than yourself–a role model, leader or mentor in your life.
In these essays, the trick is to identify the qualities they demonstrated and what you learned from them.
Here’s my Jumpstart Guide to help you start most college application essays or personal statements, such as those that ask you to describe an experience, talent, accomplishment, achievement, dilemma, risk, etc. (It’s perfect for any of the Common App prompts as well as the UC prompts.)
Also, any prompt that asks you to show how something has influenced you–whether it’s a person, an issue or even a fictional character–you can’t go wrong by linking that influence to your defining qualities.
Once you have a defining quality you want to write about, all you need are some examples of how you developed, refined or applied that quality, and then why it was important to yourself, to someone else and/or to the world, and BOOM, you have a great college essay!