9 Tips for Writing Your College Essay or Personal Statement

If you’re a high school senior, you might be getting ready to start applying to colleges and universities this fall. Most, though not all, schools ask that you compose and turn in an admissions essay (sometimes called a personal statement) with the rest of your application materials. For many students, this essay proves to be the most difficult element of their application process. What follows are some tips to make it a little easier–and to make your essay that much stronger.

1. Hook ’em!

Many students fall into the trap of starting their essay by simply rewording the prompt the college provides. For example, if the prompt asks: “What is one thing you want us to know about you?”, many students are going to start their essay like this: “One thing I want INSERT COLLEGE NAME to know about me is….” While this promises to answer the question, it’s boring. It lacks personality, color, creativity, and voice. The admissions officer reading your college essay is going to read hundreds of essays–many of which start just like that. You don’t want to bore your reader from the beginning, and you don’t want your essay to sound like everyone else’s. Make your essay stand out right from the get-go by engaging the reader’s attention with a hook–then reel the reader in by following that promising hook with an interesting essay.

Make your essay stand out right from the get-go by engaging the reader’s attention with a hook–then reel the reader in by following that promising hook with an interesting essay.

But…what’s a hook?

A hook is simply an attention-grabbing first sentence or two. It’s interesting and makes your reader want to keep reading (instead of making your reader want to yawn, roll her eyes, and say to herself, “Here we go again…”).

Here are a few tips for writing your hook:

  • Let your hook set the tone for the rest of your essay. If your essay will be funny, your hook should be funny. If your essay will be serious, your hook should be, too.
  • Your hook should relate directly to the rest of your essay. Don’t just write an interesting sentence or two and then follow it by either rewording the prompt, or writing an essay unrelated to your hook.
  • Write your hook in your own authentic voice, and continue in that voice for the entire essay.

2. It’s All About YOU

Remember, the main purpose of the personal statement is for the college to get to know you better. What kind of person are you? What are your skills and talents? What experiences have you had? Who are you? For this reason, make sure the focus of the essay is you, and use the first person (I, me, my, we, us, our). This advice may seem obvious, but there are two traps students fall into.

Trap No. 1: Writing about someone or something else

While you do have to answer the prompt, make sure you answer it in the context of your life and experience. For example, if your prompt asks about a famous figure from history you’d like to meet and why, your essay should focus more on why you want to meet that person than it should on that person himself or herself. Avoid writing a biography or an essay in praise of the person, and instead focus on why you admire them, how you aspire to embody their best traits, etc. This holds true for essays about your favorite place, your favorite word, etc. We refer to this as the 80:20 rule. Eight percent (or more!) of the essay should focus on you, while 20% (or less) can discuss the other person, place, word, etc.

Trap No. 2: Using the second person

Your college essay is about you–no one else, so use the pronouns that refer to you–“I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” “us,” and “our.” Avoid writing something like this: “You know when your mom calls you by your full name, you’re in trouble.” Instead, make it true to your experience–so we know it happened to you, and not just anyone: “I know when my mom calls me by my full name, I’m in trouble.”

3. Be Honest and Authentic

Like I mentioned above, the college wants to know about you–the real you, not just who you think they want you to be (besides–you might be wrong!). Don’t write what you think they want to read (again–you might be wrong). Be honest with who you are, the life you’ve lived, the experiences you’ve had, the dreams you dream. Be the real, authentic you. Write almost the same way you speak, for the most part–but use proper grammar, punctuation, etc. And while you might be tempted to use big words to make yourself sound smarter, don’t. Avoid using big words for the sake of using big words. They usually stick out like a sore thumb, and make your essay sound, well, weird. If you don’t know what a word means, don’t use it.

I once heard a college admissions officer give this advice: “The best essays make us laugh or make us cry. So, make ’em laugh or make ’em cry–but don’t try to be funny if you’re not.” Be true to yourself. If you’re not naturally funny, don’t try to write a funny essay. You want them laughing with you, not at you.

As a quick side note: You have to tell the truth in your college essay. It’s nonfiction. On the application, you will sign a statement that basically says everything in your application packet is true to the best of your knowledge. That holds true for your essay, too.

4. Show, Don’t Tell

Lots of students make the mistake of writing an “essay” that is really just a long list. It reads something like this: “I am a very hard-working student. If I need to get a good grade on an assignment, I will do whatever it takes. I always try my hardest. I love to play football, and work very hard at practice. I work hard both in the classroom and on the field.” And so on and so on. While those sentences tell us a lot of things, they don’t show us anything–it’s not substantiated. Instead of listing your traits, goals, dreams, etc., tell a story of a time that exemplifies the trait, goal, or dream you want the college to know about. For example, if you want the admissions office to understand you’re a hard worker, write about a time you were a hard worker–tell the story about the time that you came in for extra help after school for two weeks to understand chemical reactions, and still got your math and English homework done, and still took care of your little sister and puppy. If you want the college to know you love animals, don’t just tell them, “I love animals.” Use your essay to show the reader that love. Write a story about your time volunteering at a local animal shelter, or the time you rescued the injured turtle from the roadway, or the time you helped that little lost dog find his way home.

Instead of listing your traits, goals, dreams, etc., tell a story of a time that exemplifies the trait, goal, or dream you want the college to know about.

5. Tell a (True) Story

Think of your essay as a slice of life and use it to tell a story. It’s a snapshot from the photo album of your life. You should pick a singular experience that helps express whatever it is you want to express, as explained above.

6. Follow the Rules

Make sure your essay actually answers and addresses the prompt. Stick to the word limit, but not obsessively so. If the word limit is 500 words, it’s okay to be a little over or a little under–as long as each word is absolutely necessary. If the college says to put your full name in the upper left corner, do that. If the college says to include your social security number (SSN) at the bottom, do that. Make sure whatever formatting requirements the college lists, you follow. Also, if you plan to use the same essay for various colleges (which is permissible), make sure you modify the essay accordingly. A big mistake people make is to reuse an essay and forget to change the name of the college. For example, they might write: “I just know Virginia Tech is the college for me.” Then, they proceed to send that to both Virginia Tech and UVA. Oops…

7. Use a Strong, Varied Vocabulary

This advice actually comes verbatim from another, longer post I wrote a while back about common writing errors, but it holds true for your personal statement, so here it is:

Avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs.

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

8. Proofread

Really, this should go without saying, but I will say it anyway: Proofread. Proofread more than once. And then, proofread again. Personal statements are typically a mere 250-500 words. That’s not very long. If your short essay includes careless mistakes, it says one of two things about you.

  1. You honestly didn’t even know you made the mistake. You truly think you used the correct form of “there,” “their,” “they’re,” but you were wrong. Now, you look uneducated, or maybe even ignorant.
  2. You were simply too careless or rushed to bother reading over your essay.

Obviously, you don’t want your prospective colleges to think you’re stupid or  careless, as those aren’t particularly desirable traits in prospective students.

Also, realize that the spell checker feature doesn’t catch everything–and neither do you. You can read your essay 28 times and still miss glaringly obvious mistakes. For this reason, in addition to doing your own proofreading, you should also ask a trusted adult to read over your essay. Better yet, ask two or three trusted adults. English teachers and guidance counselors are good people to start with.

9. But What Should I Write About?

Sometimes, college essay prompts are pretty specific, making it easy to decide what to write. Other times, they are painfully vague. Some prompts may be as open as: “Write a 400-word personal statement.” That’s it. Go.

If you’re struggling with what to write about, try these exercises:

  • Brainstorm topic ideas by listing your favorite memories, funny stories, favorite vacation spots, future dreams, and goals
  • Read back through old diary or journal entries
  • Look up writing prompts online.

Keep in mind as well that it’s not what you write about, but how you write about it. Your voice, vocabulary, use of literary devices, and ideas make the essay, much more so than the topic does. I once had a student write an essay about a ball of yarn, and because she wrote it so creatively and imaginatively, it was much more interesting to read than her classmates’ essays about, well, anything. Hers is the only essay I remember from that year, because it was so unique.

It’s not what you write about, but how you write about it.

 

 

 

 

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11 Ways to Nurture Your Writing

As writers, we like to tell stories. Unfortunately, some of the most frequent stories we tell ourselves are probably about how we don’t have time to write. Or how we’re stuck in a rut, the dreaded writer’s block having taken hold. Or we’re no good at writing. Or we don’t have any ideas worth writing about. The list of stories about why we’re not writing–even though we love to write–is a long one. But these aren’t the stories we have to tell ourselves, and they’re certainly not very fun stories to write (or read). Even when you’re busier than busy, battling writer’s block (or letting it win), feeling insecure, or facing a seeming dearth of ideas, there are lots of things you can do to maintain your cherished identity as a writer, and flex your writing muscles.

Story No. 1: I Don’t Have Time

Once upon a time there was a teacher named Mrs. Creasey (that’s me!). She brought home hours of papers to grade almost every night, trained for half marathons, cared for her dogs, managed her household, volunteered once a week at a local no-kill animal shelter, and worked part-time at a local YMCA to supplement her income. You might imagine that Mrs. Creasey found little time for her writing, and you’d be right; it felt like a leisure activity for which she simply did not have the time–but she wished she did. Despite being so busy, Mrs. Creasey often missed writing, and lamented the months that would pass between even her diary entries. Truly, it was shameful. Fortunately, Mrs. Creasey eventually realized there were lots of ways she could carve out time to make writing a priority, and she still does–to this day.

Get your MFA or MALS

When I realized I was no longer making time for my writing, and how much I ached to do so, I decided the best way to make it a priority in my schedule was to get my graduate degree. If I had money wrapped up in it, and homework to do–I would make time. And I did. Earning my graduate degree in creative writing forced me to make time for writing in my busy life–and I was happy to do so. My writing became an obligation, and one I was glad to assume. No one–including myself–questioned me when I said I had homework, so I gladly made time to sit down and write the poetry, personal essays, creative nonfiction pieces, and short stories assigned to me. As an added bonus, my income slightly increased once I completed the degree.

My writing became an obligation, and one I was glad to assume. No one–including myself–questioned me when I said I had homework, so I gladly made time to sit down and write the poetry, personal essays, creative nonfiction pieces, and short stories assigned to me.

Take a Class or Workshop

If earning your degree seems too big a commitment, you might consider something a bit less demanding, like a single class or a workshop, which can yield some of the same benefits. Participating in a class or workshop provides you with a structure in which to write. If your daily schedule seems to make carving out writing time difficult, taking a class or workshop gives you the peace of mind of knowing that on Tuesday nights from 7:00-9:00 (or whenever your class/workshop takes place), you will be able to dedicate two (or however many) glorious hours to your craft.

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Last week, my friend Renee, who lives in Alaksa, spent some time in Richmond. On the final evening of her visit, we participated in a two-hour Life in 10 Minutes writing workshop.

Some of my favorite workshops in the Richmond area have been Life in 10 Minutes, the novel-writing class in which I am currently enrolled at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, and James River Writers Master Classes and Writing Shows.

Get Some Freelance Gigs

It’s amazing what you can find time for if you’re getting paid to do it and you love to do it. One way to make yourself make time for writing is to find a way to get paid for it. Check out platforms like Contently, subscribe to (and read) the Freedom with Writing e-mails, contact your local newspapers, network with other writers, take a class on freelance writing… There are lots of ways to make a little (or a lot of) money with your writing.

Story No. 2: I have Writer’s Block

In a land far, far away, there was a writer who couldn’t write. She had ideas–lots of them, but putting them into words–turning them into stories or poems or books–was a task that seemed impossible. She begged her muse to help her, but her muse seemed to have been on vacation for a long time. A very, very long time. Eventually, she realized that she was going to have to write–muse or no muse. And she tried some of the tactics below.

Journal

One way to write even when your muse seems to have deserted you is to keep a diary or journal. Don’t burden your entries with purpose or expectation–just write about your thoughts, feelings, or day.

Attend a Conference

Attending a conference can have a way of summoning your muse right back from wherever she has been hiding. Some of the most inspiring events I have attended include those put on by the Poetry Society of Virginia, and the James River Writers Annual Conference.

Read

Reading can prove an extremely effective way to inspire ideas–so read your books (and write in them). One place to start is this blog post about books every writer should read.

Story No. 3: I’m not a Good Writer

Once upon a time there was a woman named Jane Doe (I know–not very original). She used to write, but over the years, the practice had simply slipped from her routine, and though she sometimes thought about picking it back up, she didn’t really think she was that good at it, anyway. She had taken some writing classes in college, but mostly, her classmates and instructors focused on how she could improve, and while that was helpful, it also made her feel like maybe she wasn’t cut out to be a writer after all.  Nowadays, her writing was confined to e-mails and memos at work. But a small part of her still missed writing–stories and poems and personal essays. If only she were good at it…

Make Creative Friends

Making creative friends is a great way to nurture your own creativity. Fellow creatives can support you, point out what’s good in your work, and give you feedback to inspire your progress. You can also share your work with each other. Surrounding yourself with people who believe in you is a surefire way to make yourself feel more valid in your craft.

There are lots of ways to find creative friends. Consider joining a writing group such as Virginia Outdoor Writers Association, Poetry Society of Virginia, James River Writers, or a critique group. Taking writing classes or workshops is another great way to meet fellow writers.

Take a Risk

Another way to prove to yourself that you are, indeed, a “good writer” is to submit your work to journals, contests, and publications. Admittedly, this practice also opens you up to significant risk, but it gets your name out there and helps you feel validated. Plus, the recognition you earn when a piece is published or wins an award is rewarding, to say the least. And even if you meet with rejection at first (or often), I find that having work out there gives me hope. The more pieces I send out to publications, the higher their chances of finding a publication home (in my mind, anyway). I like the feeling of my work floating around out there. I like the anticipation. The fact that I have writing to send out means, at least, I am writing.

Story No. 4: I don’t have any Good Ideas

Once upon a time, there was a teacher named Mrs. Creasey (that’s me again!), who had a sticker on her classroom door so she would see it every single morning when she unlocked the door to go to work. It read: “And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt” (Sylvia Plath). Mrs. Creasey loved this quote–for her students and for herself. Another of her favorites? “It’s not what you write about, but how you write it.” Both of these quotes hold true for anyone who wants to write. You can write–you have the ideas. You just have to, ya know, do it.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” –Sylvia Plath

Observe

If you seem to be suffering from a dearth of ideas, take a notebook with you everywhere and write things down. Write anything and everything down. All your observations are fodder for future pieces.  Notate your observations in nature, things you hear or overhear, ideas you have, questions you have, names you like…

Story No. 5: No One Wants to Read What I Write, Anyway

Once upon a time, there was a writer who loved to write, and who wrote all the time–but who often felt discouraged because he was certain that despite his best efforts, no one actually wanted to read what he wrote–even if it was really, really good. It seemed no one cared. And besides–writing isn’t like a painting or a photograph or a sculpture, easy to display and share. It requires some effort on the reader’s part, some willingness to invest time, energy, and thought in the piece. Who was going to do that when they could simply watch TV, play games on their smart phone, go to the movies, or do any number of easier activities?

Start a Blog

One way to combat the sense that no one is interested in your writing is to start a blog. At least a few people will read it, and that’s nice. Plus, maintaining a blog can help hold you accountable to your writing. Knowing you have even a small audience who might be waiting for your next post can be motivation to write the next post. Besides, it feels empowering and validating to have an online presence, albeit a small one.

Use Social Media

Using social media outlets such as Facebook or Instagram can help grow your audience for your blog–or any other writing you do. Just be careful not to allow your social media accounts to steal time away from your actual writing.

And They Lived Happily Ever After…

While the above advice is nice, and can prove productive if you need a pick-me-up or a way back into writing after a hiatus or a blow to your confidence, the most important thing you can do for writing is actually write. It will be a struggle sometimes, but nothing worth doing is every easy (at least not all the time).