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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Writing Activities for Your Classroom

One reason I find my job as an English teacher meaningful is because I truly believe that a person’s ability to clearly communicate, both in person and in writing, is key to success in almost every field. Even a math major in college is going to have to write a handful of papers. Even a science major will be required to compose lab reports. My aunt, an interior design major who has successfully worked in that field for decades, wrote more papers than she ever imagined she would during her time studying the field in college.

Similarly, in their careers, most of my students are going to be asked to write at some point, whether it be e-mails, memos, letters, blog posts, social media updates, or newsletters. Very few professional jobs that don’t require a strong ability to communicate exist.  For this reason, my students and I complete what I am sure they feel is an exorbitant amount of writing. Below are some of the activities we (or at least I!) enjoy and find beneficial.

For Journals

Every Friday, my students spend ten minutes at the beginning of the class period composing an informal journal-writing assignment. I provide a prompt, but it is a suggestion; they can write about whatever they want. I read and respond to every student’s entry. While I do correct writing errors I might come across, mostly, my responses are personal in nature, and relate largely to the content. The Friday journal entries are an informal, fun way for my students to practice their writing without the pressure of a grade, and for us to get to know each other. Almost all my students enjoy writing in the Friday journals–and I enjoy reading them. Below are a few of my staple prompts.

Right Now I am…

Over the course of the last two years, I have participated in several Life in 10 Minutes workshops. Each session begins with a “Right now I am.” Essentially, writers/students write the phrase “Right now I am…” and roll with whatever comes next. It proves a good way to get any distractions, stressors, etc. off our minds so we can focus and be productive.

What I Wish My Teacher Knew About Me

I often use this prompt fairly early in the year as a way to learn important information about my students–information that could help me understand them better, teach them better, and motivate them better. I simply ask them to answer the question: “What do you wish your teachers knew about you?” I have learned which students’ parents are suffering from cancer, which students help financially support their families, which students believe they are visual learners, which students struggle with English but love science, etc. I believe this also fosters a sense of trust and openness between each individual student and me, and that helps build rapport in the class as a whole.

20 Questions

This prompt also provides a way for me to learn about my students–but also allows them to learn a bit about me. I instruct them to write 20 (school appropriate) questions for me to answer–but they must also provide their own answer. For example, they might set it up like this:

What’s your favorite color?

Me: Red

Mrs. Creasey:

They can also ask questions to which they would not yet have answers, and simply provide an explanation. For example:

Where did you go to college?

Me: I hope to apply to JMU, UVA, and GMU.

Mrs. Creasey:

In each case, when I read the journal entries, I answer all students’ questions and comment on some of their answers.

Evaluate this Course

Admittedly, this can be a scary one, because ‘ya can’t please ’em all,’ but despite the barrage of complaints and criticisms it can sometimes open you up to, it is more often extremely valuable and helpful. Near the middle of the course and sometimes again at the end of the course, I ask students to evaluate the class. I tell them to consider elements such as amount of homework, rigor, usefulness of various assignments, meaningfulness of various assignments, group work, projects, classroom atmosphere, etc. I also ask them to provide any suggestions they might have. Sometimes, they have really good ideas that I can incorporate for future students.

Advice for Future Students

One of our last journal topics of the year requests that students, having survived the semester, write a letter to future students giving them advice on how to succeed and get the most out of our class. I tell them ahead of time that I plan to anonymously incorporate their advice into a Power Point to show to the following year’s students during their first week of class (which I do). This can be a very enlightening entry to read, as it reveals what was most challenging, difficult, and meaningful to the students. Students also enjoy the authenticity of the assignment.

For Revising/Self-Awareness

Sometimes it seems students think every writer magically wrote the perfect draft the first-time around and never had to proofread, revise, or struggle. They fail to see that writing is often a messy process, and that just because you wrote something, doesn’t mean you’re done writing it. Often, there is a lot of rewriting to be done before a product can be called complete–or at least complete enough. Below are some activities to help students understand the value of the process, as well as how to engage in it.

W.O.W Writing

W.O.W is an acronym for “Watching Our Writing,” and it’s an activity designed to help students become more self-aware writers, as well as more adept revisers. You can tailor it to focus on any area(s) you wish, depending on the needs of your students. For example, maybe you are trying to teach them to replace adverbs with strong, precise verbs. Maybe you are trying to teach them to avoid to-be verbs in favor of more specific verbs. Maybe you want them to make sure they have included enough credible research in a paper, as shown in the sample chart I created and share below.

W.O.W Sheet for Research Paper

Writer’s Memo

A Writer’s Memo is an excellent way to help students identify their own purpose when they write, as well as to write deliberately and thoughtfully. When my honors students write their Gothic short stories (see below), they are instructed to attempt to emulate the works we read by either Poe, Faulkner, or Gilman, and to identify at least three Gothic elements they will incorporate into their story. In conjunction with writing this story, they are required to write a Writer’s Memo. In their memo, they have to explain, with textual support from their original stories, which author and work they emulated and in what ways, as well as what three Gothic elements they included and how. This forces them to thoughtfully engage with their own creative process, and analyze their own writing–not to mention hopefully write with a greater sense of purpose and direction.

Thank-You Letter

One way to teach the proper formatting of a letter, as well as to help students become more aware of the many people in your building who go above and beyond to help, is to assign them a thank-you letter. Each year before Thanksgiving, my students pick a teacher, coach, administrator, or other school employee to whom to write their letter. The day before our Thanksgiving break, they turn the letters in to me, and I deliver them to the designated recipients chosen by my students. The students appreciate the authenticity of this assignment (someone is actually going to read their writing other than me!), and I enjoy delivering the letters. This would also be well timed during Teacher Appreciation Week.

For Comprehension, Connection, and Application

Three purposes writing can serve in the classroom, regardless of discipline, is checking for and supporting comprehension, fostering retention, and applying concepts learned. Below are some assignments that can help achieve those goals.

R.A.F.T writing

R.A.F.T is an acronym for Role Audience Format Type, and the activity can work well for any subject area or discipline. It allows students to engage with class material, exercise creatively, and show understanding (or lack thereof, letting you know what to remediate), as well as provides an outlet for supported peer evaluation. An example is below.

RAFT writing assignment

Gothic Short Stories

This assignment allows students to demonstrate an understanding of Gothic elements and the Gothic genre, an awareness of author’s style and technique, and their purpose as an author. It also allows them to write creatively, which most find enjoyable. After we read and study a poem and story by Poe, a story by Gilman, and a story by Faulkner, students are assigned to pick one of the pieces and authors we read to emulate in their own, original short story. They are to use some of the same Gothic elements, as well as some of the same literary techniques, but to craft their own original setting, plot, characters, and theme. The Writer’s Memo, explained above, works in conjunction with this assignment.

Vocabulary Stories

After assigning new vocabulary terms to study, assign students to write an original short story, mandating that they correctly use each of their new vocabulary words in the story.

Literature Portfolios

This assignment requires students to actively engage with their reading material, as well as to draw connections between assign texts and the world at large.

For the former goal, students must keep a Reader’s Journal that consists of the author’s use of motifs, symbolism, theme, and indirect characterization. They must also choose what they believe is a quintessential passage from the text and explain its literary significance.

For the latter goal, they must write four connection pieces over the course of the semester:

  • Connect to World
  • Connect to Art
  • Connect to Literature
  • Connect to Life.

The Connect to World assignment requires that they connect the assigned text to a current event, and explain the connection. Connect to Art requires students to explain how the assigned text connects to a work of art, which could be a painting, photograph, sculpture, statue, digital artwork, etc. Connect to Literature asks students to elaborate on a parallel they see between the assign text and another novel, or a memoir, autobiography, song, poem, biography, etc. Finally, Connect to Life asks students to relate the assigned reading to their own experiences.

For Creative Writing

In my twelve years of teaching high school English, one resounding request I hear from students is the desire to do more creative writing. Below are some ways to incorporate it (preferably after students are already comfortable with poetic devices).

Recipe Poetry

Recipe poetry is a great way to work on deciphering a nonfiction text, completing math (such as fractions), and thinking creatively. To see the step-by-step plans for teaching a recipe poetry lesson, click on “Recipe Poetry” above.

Ligne Donne and Kasen Renku

Writing ligne donne (shared line) poems and Kasen Renku poems are a great way to foster cooperative learning and get your entire class involved in the writing process. To see lesson plans for these poems, click “Ligne Donne and Kasen Renku” above.

Perspective Poem

For this assignment, students look at a photograph. Instruct them to pick one item in the photograph and write a poem from its perspective. Then, have students read their poems to each other and guess what item in the photograph the poem told from.

Story Circle

This is another great way to get the entire class involved in the writing process. Tell students to put their desks in a circle, and get out a piece of paper and a writing utensil. Instruct them all to write “It was a dark and stormy night” or “It was the first day of summer break” or some other opening line of your choice on the first line. Then, set the timer for five minutes and tell them to write until the timer goes off, when they must drop their pencils–even if they are mid-sentence. Tell them to pass their papers to the left. Give them a minute or two to read what the student before them wrote. Then, set the timer for five minutes, during which they should add to the story.  Continue this process for as many cycles as you left, warning students before the end so they know they need to write the ending. At the end, return the stories to the originator, and allow students to share with the class on a volunteer basis.

 

 

Lesson Plan: Recipe Poetry

The school year is winding down, and my students (and I!) are feeling a bit squirrely. We just took our last test of the school year on Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and there are a mere six regular school days left before final exams. So what do we do with this odd in-between that doesn’t allow enough time for another full unit, but is certainly too much time to descend into the pit of meaningless movie-watching day after day? The answer is: We write.

Now, tell that to most students, and they cringe. But I’m not talking about five-page-research-paper-in-the-MLA-format writing. I’m talking about fun writing. I know, I know. If my students remember what an oxymoron is, they’d apply it to the term “fun writing.” And of course, as a writer, I’m a bit biased; I think almost all writing is fun.

But I think my students did have fun writing today. Here is what we did:

Recipe Poetry

Time:

60-70 minutes

Objective:

Students will: analyze nonfiction writing; analyze authentic texts; review and identify verbs; write using strong, specific verbs; write creatively, informally, and for enjoyment; analyze the structure and elements of an authentic, nonfiction text; work cooperatively; engage in the creative process; think critically, creatively, and abstractly; share their written work aloud

Materials:

several sheets of notebook paper, composition book, or spiral notebook for every student

writing utensil for each student

several copies of cooking magazines or various copies of different recipes

Steps:

  1. Put students into groups of three or four.
  2. Pass out magazines or recipes, so that each group has two or three magazines, or at least six to ten individual recipes.
  3. Give students five minutes in their groups to look through the recipes together, and instruct them to write down all the strong, specific cooking  verbs they come across.
    IMG_6608-1
    Some of the verbs my students pulled from the recipes they used for inspiration

    Each student should keep his or her own list.

  4. After five minutes, ask the students to call out the verbs they wrote down, and write them on the board for the class to see.
  5. Next, give students five minutes to start a new list. This time, they should write down all the units of measurement they see in the different ingredients lists.
  6. After five minutes, ask the students to call out the units they wrote down, and write them on the board for the class to see.

    IMG_6609
    Some of the units of measurement my students noticed in the recipes they read. Note the more unique ones, like “sprig” and “stalk.”
  7. Next, give students three minutes to examine the structure and format of the recipes together. They should write down elements they notice most or all of the recipes share. This should include items such as: prep time, cooking time, ingredients list, steps/process/procedure, servings, etc.
  8. After three minutes, ask students what elements a recipe should have, and write the elements on the board for the class to see.
  9. Explain to students that in a few minutes, they will write a recipe poem. A recipe poem is a poem that explains how to “cook” something abstract, such as a certain type of person, a certain emotion, or an experience. Give them some examples: a recipe for success, a recipe for a best friend, a recipe for the worst day ever, etc.
  10. Give students five minutes to brainstorm together in their groups. They should write down experiences, types of people, and emotions they think they might want to describe by way of a recipe poem.
  11. After five minutes, ask students to call their ideas out, and write them on the board for the class to see.

    IMG_6607
    A few of the topics students volunteered to share with the class, about which they planned to write their recipe poems. I myself found “superhero” and “patriot” particularly intriguing.
  12. Remind students that their recipe poem should include all the elements of a recipe, and be formatted like a recipe. Instruct them to pick a topic, but not to tell anyone else in the class what their topic is.
  13. Give students about 15 minutes to write their recipe poem, allotting more time if needed.
  14. Once everyone has finished (or mostly finished) a recipe poem, instruct students to go around in their groups and read their recipe poems aloud to their group members, still withholding the subject. After each student reads, his group members should try to guess what his recipe is for. After each group member has guessed, the poet can reveal what his topic was.
  15. After each person in each group has had a chance to share her poem with her group, ask willing students to share their recipe poems aloud with the class.

My students really seemed to enjoy this activity–so much so, that we actually have to finish tomorrow because so many students were so eager to share their poems with the class. We ran out of time!