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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Eight Reasons to Earn your MFA or MALS

mfa-climbing-tree
The maple featured above was my Climbing Tree during my time at Michigan State University. Though my four years as an undergraduate student were some of the best and most formative of my life, after I graduated, I could not imagine going back to school for a graduate degree.

After I graduated from Michigan State University and began my teaching career in 2006, I could not imagine a single circumstance that would induce me to go back to school, especially while working full-time, but in 2009, I found myself itching to be a student again. I had noticed that since entering “the real world,” I was significantly less prolific in terms of the writing I was churning out, which had dwindled to the occasional diary entry. Before my entrance into the world of adulthood, I could usually fill an entire diary in a matter of just a few months, and would fill notebook after notebook with essays, poems, and stories. What had happened to me? Could I even call myself a writer anymore? I didn’t know. But I did know this: I missed writing, and I wanted to do it again. So I did what any rational person would: Put together a comprehensive writing portfolio and apply for admission to a master’s program for creative writing. I knew that with my demanding schedule, just wanting to write more would not result in actually writing more. But if I were part of a master’s program, and my grade depended on my carving out time for writing, and my reimbursement (a perk at work) for the costly classes depended on my grade, I would write. No matter how little time I had, I would write.

Before my entrance into the world of adulthood, I could usually fill an entire diary in a matter of just a few months, and would fill notebook after notebook with essays, poems, and stories. What had happened to me? Could I even call myself a writer anymore? I didn’t know. But I did know this: I missed writing, and I wanted to do it again.

My participation in a master’s degree program did indeed increase my writing motivation, inspiration, and productivity. It also benefited me in many other ways. If you are considering earning your MFA (Master of Fine Arts) or MALS (Master of Liberal Studies) in creative writing, I highly recommend it for the reasons that follow.

1. Exposure to Literature

Through the assigned readings in various graduate classes, you will be exposed to writers and literature you might not be inclined to pick up on your own, and you will grow as a writer and a reader from exposure to and study of every single one of them. I was enthralled with and enlightened by Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, for example, and to this day would likely not have read a single page of it had it not been for the capstone project I completed in my degree program, which centered on the emotional truth as evidenced by both O’Brien’s and Ernest Hemingway’s works. I can guarantee I would not have read nearly as much flash fiction or prose poetry, and I certainly wouldn’t have attempted to write any. I owe those experiences and more to my graduate degree program.

Assigned readings in various graduate classes will expose you to writers and literature you might not pick up on your own, and you will grow as a writer and a reader from this exposure.

2. Exploration of Craft

During my time in my degree program, I wrote so many pieces I never would have written in so many genres I never would have tried. A graduate degree in creative writing will require you to write in various genres; utilize a myriad of techniques employed by some of the greats; apply literary devices you might not have thought to use; and study devices, writers, and perspectives. For example, you might have a tendency, however unconscious, to write predominantly in first-person. An assignment in a class might require you to explore writing in second- or third-person. Similarly, you might write mainly personal

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Although earning my graduate degree while working full-time often meant I felt like I was barely keeping my head above water, it was worth the effort! (Above, Sadie swims in the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 2013–the year I completed my degree.)

narrative essays, but your degree program is inevitably going to expand your grasp of the craft as it demands you experiment with fictional short stories, poetry, creative nonfiction, etc. Working towards a master’s degree in creative writing will open you up to types of writing you may not have even considered before–or been aware of.

During  my degree program, I wrote so many pieces I never would have written in so many genres I never would have tried.

3. Community Building

One of the most beneficial aspects of a degree program in writing is the supportive network the experience can help create. I began my program in 2009 and completed it in 2013, and now, as many as seven years later, I still communicate with several of my former classmates, even having recently embarked upon the creation of a blogging network with one of them.

4. Teaching Opportunities

Most community colleges, colleges, and universities require their instructors to hold at least a master’s degree. In the world of writing instruction, a master’s degree and published works can sometimes be enough to at least get you noticed.

5. Increased Pay

If you don’t desire to teach at the college level, but do want to teach secondary school, for example, a master’s degree in a field related to your subject area equals a pay raise at most public schools. As an English teacher, I was granted a partial pay increase after I had completed a certain number of credits in my program, and was given the remainder of the increase after I earned the degree, which also qualified me to teach a college level dual enrollment composition class consisting of motivated and intelligent college-bound high school students.

I looked forward to my writing homework each day after work much the way one looks forward to feeling the warmth of the sun on one’s skin after a cold winter. It was a welcomed escape, a peaceful release. And because it was, indeed, also homework, no one–including myself–could argue that it wasn’t important–that I was “only writing.”

6. Resume Building

Although no agent or publishing house is going to require you to hold a master’s degree before they will consider working with you or reading your work, it does lend you credibility on your resume and in your query letter. One element of a query letter is accolades–published works, involvement in writing organizations, writing awards and recognition, etc. A master’s degree in writing is something else that bodes well for you here. It shows you take your craft seriously, are dedicated to your writing, and have a solid background in the field.

7. Craft Improvement

This one is probably a bit obvious: The more you write, the better you write. For this reason, enrolling in a master’s program in creative writing will no doubt help you improve your craft. You will have the benefit of feedback from published authors, fellow students, seasoned writing instructors, etc. Not only will you be writing on a regular basis, but you will be revising and polishing your writing on a regular basis, becoming more self-aware as a writer and as a reader.

The more you write, the better you write–and a master’s program that requires you to write can’t hurt your cause.

8. Mandatory Writing Time

I mentioned above that my initial motivation for applying for admission to a master’s program in creative writing was to make sure I would build time into my schedule to write. It worked. During my four years studying creative writing, I was prolific. How could I not be, with writing assignments due seemingly constantly and reading assignments inspiring me with each page? But the process wasn’t arduous. No, quite the opposite. I looked forward to my writing homework each day after work much the way one looks forward to feeling the warmth of the sun on one’s skin after a cold winter. It was a welcomed escape, a peaceful release. And because it was, indeed, also homework, no one–including myself–could argue that it wasn’t important–that I was “only writing.”

If you don’t have the desire to enroll in a degree program, but still need help finding time to write, check this out. 

mfa-jack
While I may have sometimes felt like I was drowning during my degree program, I felt like this when I finished: content, proud, and accomplished–and ready for a little rest, not to mention (more) writing! (Above, Jack smiles at me, happy to be spending some time in the sun on the back deck.)