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10 Tips for a Standout College Admissions Essay

1. Start early!

It’s going to take you longer than you think! The average college application takes upwards of 60 hours. You can count on 4-5 drafts for your personal statement and each school you apply to typically asks for 3-4 supplemental essays as well. If you wait until the last minute you risk losing steam and burning out. Procrastinating on your college essays is like training for a marathon and arriving late on race day. You’ve worked so hard to get here, so don’t sabotage yourself when it really counts. You can’t rush the writing process, so start in the summer when you have the time and space to be your most creative self!

2. Write like you speak.

The whole point of the personal statement is to show admissions who you are beyond your grades and test scores. It should give the reader the feeling of having a conversation with you and they should walk away feeling they’ve gotten a glimpse into who you are and what you believe in. Pretend you’re talking to a smart friend and don’t try to “sound smart” by using big words you’d never use in real life. It has an alienating effect on your reader, which is the exact opposite of what you want to do in your personal statement. Recording yourself telling your story using a speech-to-text function on your computer can be a great way to capture your voice.

3. Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm!

All too often students start writing about the first topic that pops into their head without fully exploring their options. Choosing a topic that hits the mark, showcasing who you are in a positive light, and winning the hearts of admissions isn’t a decision to be taken lightly. You should spend at least an hour brainstorming, journaling, and exploring before settling on a topic. First and foremost, make sure it’s something meaningful to you that sparks your curiosity and fills your mind with possibilities. If you’re bored, your reader will be too.

4. Avoid cliches.

If the big reveal at the end of your personal story is that you learned “not to judge a book by its cover” or that “hard work pays off in the end” you’re going to leave the reader sorely disappointed. It’s important to avoid cliches in your personal statement because they’re boring and they make you seem boring. Not only will you seem boring, but maybe even a little lazy or superficial - not exactly the impression you want to give to admissions. Maybe you did learn these things, but you probably learned a lot of other, less cliche lessons too. Focus on those instead. Show off your maturity and some of the more nuanced understandings you gained from the experience.

5. Avoid common essay topics.

As soon as I realize I’m reading an essay about the big championship game, my eyes glaze over and I start thinking about what I’m going to eat for dinner. Why? Because this is one of the most common essay topics students use and therefore one of the most boring. Common topics to avoid include: the sports challenge essay, academic achievements, a rehash of your resume, “The Big Performance” (which is essentially the arts’ version of the sports challenge essay), recovering from a bad grade, and immigration stories centered around learning to accept dual identities. Yes, I’m sure this was a pivotal moment in your life, but it’s a story that MANY high school students could tell. Tell me a story that is uniquely yours.

6. Share your values.

Colleges aren’t just looking for perfect test scores and a 5.0 GPA, they’re looking for students who’ll bring their own flavor to the community. They’re looking for people who have something to add to the conversation - someone who will be a great roommate, friend, and classmate. This is where your values come in. What do I mean by values? Basically, the ideas, people, and stuff that’s important to you. For example, at this current moment, my family is my number one value. Other people might resonate with values such as justice, fun, kindness, or achievement. Our values guide our thoughts and actions and form the backbone of our identities. Make sure your essay includes a diverse array of values that highlight what you stand for.

7. Get personal.

It’s called the personal statement for a reason. You don’t have to tell your deepest, darkest secrets (and you probably shouldn’t), but you should aim to get a little vulnerable. On a vulnerability scale of 1 to 10, shoot for a 7. Not 100% cringey, but also not something you broadcast to the whole neighborhood either. What does it mean to be vulnerable? Basically, sharing something that someone might judge you for. It could be a failure, a difficult experience, an unfavorable trait, or even nerding out on a personal obsession. Don’t be afraid to dig a little deep. Personal writing takes courage. Scare yourself.

8. Get help from an adult who’s not your mom.

Socrates once said, “If knowledge is power, knowing what you don’t know is wisdom.” Truly brilliant humans know when to lean on a more experienced mentor to guide them. Having an adult lend old-person perspective to your ideas is crucial. Why? Because the people who are going to be judging your essay and making life-determining decisions on your behalf are adults. You probably have a lot of great stories to tell: Dramatic love affairs that ended in heartbreak. Your first F on a test. That time you didn’t get the lead in the play, but your best friend did, even though clearly you’re more talented. What you think is a major event big deal at 17 or 18, may not resonate with an older audience. So ask an adult. But don’t ask your mom. It can be hard to be 100% honest with her when it gets personal. Plus, she might be just a bit biased!

9. Read it aloud.

There’s something magical about hearing your story aloud. Here are 3 reasons you need to do it: 1) You’ll catch any typos or grammatical errors 2) You’ll hear when things don’t make sense 3) You’ll be able to assess whether you’ve truly captured your voice. Record yourself reading your essay and then really listen. Follow along and highlight on paper where your writing falls flat and gets boring or choppy. You’ll hear the rhythm like a song. Listen to find where it gets out of tune. Then go back and spruce it up. This is an awesome revision strategy that should not be skipped!

10. Trust yourself.

Because the personal statement is so high stakes, students can really psych themselves out. You might have a hard time getting a word on paper without that little voice in your head telling you that you sound stupid or have nothing important to say. But you must trust yourself. Trust that your experiences are important. Trust that you are smart and creative. Trust that you are enough just as you are. When you let yourself go, let yourself write, let yourself just be yourself you’ll be surprised at the creative genius you find. Everybody has a story to tell, so get out of your own way and tell it.


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