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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Author Interview: Valley Haggard

V. Haggard
Founder of Richmond Young Writers, Valley Haggard is a Richmond, Virginia-based author and writing teacher.

My first introduction to Valley Haggard took place when I was a participant in her Master Class, “LIFE IN 10 MINUTES: Writing the personal essay,” at the 2015  James River Writers Annual Conference in Richmond, Virginia. I was struck by her deeply metaphorical writing style, as well as her generous, forgiving, encouraging, and inclusive view of writing—not to mention her beautifully thick, dark hair, and her eclectic fashion sense. All of this intrigued me so that when, a few months later, in February of 2016, a friend of mine gifted me with Valley’s book, The Halfway House for Writers, and invited me to join her in one of Valley’s Life in 10 Minutes Writing Workshops, I was quick to accept.

In her book The Halfway House for Writers, Valley writes about learning to “transform my self-talk…into gentle, soft, loving words, the same words I would give to anyone else” (116). This statement is so telling of the kind of person and writing teacher Valley Haggard is. She is an ally of the “writing scared” (121), an advocate for the writer who doesn’t yet know she is one, and a champion of all who are willing to risk themselves through the written word. Writers from every walk of life and every level of experience are encouraged to submit to the Life in 10 Minutes online literary magazine. Valley shares her 10-minute pieces every week here and publishes the work of her students and writers from all around the world every weekday here.I am absolutely honored to present below my interview with Richmond-based author, writing teacher, and founder of Richmond Young Writers, Valley Haggard.

Mind the Dog: You are the founder of Richmond Young Writers. Tell us a little bit about this organization. Where did the idea come from? What is its mission? What are some of its programs? How can people get involved?

Valley Haggard: Our mission at Richmond Young Writers is to share the joy and craft of creative writing with young people. We started out with a few kids and a few classes in the summer of 2009 in the art gallery of Chop Suey Books and now we are a year-round program in our own space- The Writing Room- right next door to Chop Suey Books in Carytown. All of our teachers are also writers and our classes are lively, interactive, crazy-fun, and out of the box. We do everything we can to bring storytelling, poetry, fiction, movie-making, surrealism, and all types writing to life for kids outside of deadlines, grades, and all the pressure of perfectionism. We are always trying to spread the word about the awesome things we do and raise money for our scholarship program so every kid in this city who wants to participate can.  Here’s a link to our scholarships page! http://www.richmondyoungwriters.com/scholarships/

MTD: The Halfway House for Writers is dedicated to your students, in particular, “wounded writers.”  What do you mean by that? What particular wounds are writers susceptible to?

VH: I have found that 99.9% of the writers who come to my classes have some sort of hang-up around writing…and by hang-up I mean everything from crushing insecurity, neurosis, and paralysis, to simply questioning whether or not we are actually  real writers. Somewhere along the way someone told us we weren’t good enough or that to be a real writer you have to look and act and talk and think a certain way. We think our lives are too boring, our words aren’t big enough, no one wants to hear what we have to say. These are our writing wounds. I think writers are sensitive people who feel things with a certain intensity. We crave a safe place to experiment, to play, to share our words without being shot down. The Halfway House encourages people to find or create that safe place, a place to cultivate confidence, to take creative risks and to heal.

MTD: In your book, you thank the writers who helped build “a writing world you actually want to live in.” What does that world look like?

VH: Ah, yes! The writing world I want to live in is a world where we can be honest about who we really are without being shamed, ridiculed, or stared at like we have three heads. Where we can find points of connection and overlap through our words and stories. Where we can break the isolation of hiding our true thoughts and feelings and experiences and put them down on paper  in our own words from our unique points of view. I have found the connection, the safety and the freedom of expression I always craved in my classes. As a group this is what we create together. And for me, this is truly writing heaven, writing nirvana.

Writers from every walk of life and every level of experience are encouraged to submit to the Life in 10 Minutes online literary magazine. Valley shares her 10-minute pieces every week here and publishes the work of her students and writers from all around the world every weekday here.

MTD: There are seven “Rules of the Halfway House” (7-11). How did you come up with them, and do you have one that you believe is your favorite, or the most important?

VH: I came up with the seven Rules of the Halfway House by making a list of all the things I found myself saying most frequently at the beginning of each new class. Surrender your weapons, seek shelter, free write, hand-write, skip the small talk, listen, and don’t apologize. Having put these rules to the test for some time now, I have found them solid, sound, and truly effective. The writing that pours out of students in my class when they have this structure in place has been mind-blowing, deeply beautiful, and profound. Loose structure gives us the freedom to run wild, experiment, be honest, and create. It’s hard to suss out one favorite over all the others, but perhaps I’ll choose the first because it’s also the hardest: Surrender your weapons. This is where we stop following the dictate of the voice in our head that tells us we suck, we should stop writing, that we’re wasting our time. Without this I don’t think we really have a chance at the rest.

MTD: You have written ad copy and product descriptions in the past. How did you make the move from that type of work, to writing your own magazine column and teaching writing classes?

VH: This was an overlapping, intertwined, and long transition without clear demarcation lines! Young and hungry for absolutely any kind of paid writing that came my way, I was still writing ad copy and product descriptions for the first few years that I had my own column. And then, when I had my column and was still writing ad copy, I started teaching first kids and eventually adults. My plate got so full something had to go and luckily that something was the tedious, laborious work of ad copy. Not that I regret doing that for a minute…it taught me so much! But writing a first-person column and helping people access their own story and voice and find themselves staring back from the page has been so exciting and so gratifying, I feel insanely lucky that I was eventually able to let everything else go.

MTD: In “Publication,” you write in part about a generous editor who, having accepted a story you wrote for publication, essentially rewrote it, but who was also willing to, as you put it, walk “me through the most egregious of my errors” (88), giving you the chance to write a second article. I’m sure other writers could learn from your experience and avoid the same errors at the outset. What were these errors?

VH: My basic errors were ignorance and hubris. I had not made myself familiar enough with the format of the essays and articles this publication already published. I thought I could invent a whole new style of writing and storytelling for an established magazine that already had a very particular style. Inventing new styles and voices and formats is great for creative writing, but when you are trying to submit to a publication that already knows who it is, you have to get to know them rather than expect them to get to know you. After the editor rewrote my article, I studied the changes she made, the format and style she wanted, and then imitated her basic structure after that. Each publication is different, so my best advice is to make yourself intimately familiar with what they have already done in the past so you can fall in line with what they want to do in the future.

Mind the Dog would like to thank Ms. Haggard for her generously giving of her time to answer these questions.