A little while ago, I spoke at the virtual university fair hosted by EdAgree.  Specifically, I talked about how university applicants can craft a compelling and effective personal essay to include in their applications.  This blog post is an attempt to turn my speaking notes into something that everyone can use.  Forgive me if it is a bit rough – when I have more time I’ll turn it into a more formal article.

As universities move to de-emphasize standardized test scores and embrace more holistic approaches to admissions, students are seeking ways to show off unique aspects of their personalities and backgrounds.  Writing an amazing personal essay is a great way to do this.

As you write your personal essay, there are a few “best practices” to keep in mind.

Start Thinking About it Early

I’ll begin with the most obvious and boring advice –  start thinking about your personal essay as early as possible.  The more time you have, the better.  As you read this guide, you’ll see that my suggestions can be somewhat time consuming. Remember that having a few extra weeks will make it possible to write a few practice essays, to read effective samples, and to touch up your grammar and language use.

Another benefit of giving yourself extra time is that if you are given multiple prompts to choose from – as is the case for students using the Common App – you’ll be able to explore several of them, and to experiment with different ideas.

Be Honest – Write it Yourself

Seek help wherever you can get it. You can start by having friends that have gone through the admissions process look at your work.  From there you can move on to getting pointers from alumni or current students.  As an international student, you may also wish to have someone revise your grammar and language use (see below for more on this).  Keep in mind, though, that there is a difference between critical feedback and misrepresentation.  The essay needs to be your work, and your honest reflections.

There are platforms like EdAgree that are all about advocacy and helping students.  Lean on them as they are ethical and will steer you away from any bad decisions.

Narrow Your Focus

I know you’ve lived a full and rewarding life. But you don’t have room in a personal essay to write about everything that has happened to you.  Resist the urge to list your greatest accomplishments.  That will be boring, and you’ve probably done it elsewhere in your application (where it is more appropriate).  Moreover, resist the urge to depict your entire high school life.  That’s too broad for a short essay.

Instead, focus on a specific event or aspect of your life and illustrate it in an entertaining and engaging way.  An essay with a limited focus will have plenty of room for details that capture the reader’s attention.

If you have a moment, borrow “50 Successful Harvard Application Essays” from the Open Library.  Take a look at the second essay (page 9).  Note how the author limits the scope of the essay to a few days spent in the mountains.  Though short, the essay is engaging and reveals a lot about her character.

Tell a Story

Calling this a “personal essay” can be somewhat misleading.  The very best personal essays are closer to autobiographical short stories.  This means that as you write, you should remember the fundamentals of a good story – start by establishing a setting, then depict an interesting situation with some kind of conflict, and conclude with a resolution.

Reading some good sample essays can help you become a good storyteller.  There are a few decent sources I often recommend:

  1. 50 Successful Harvard Essays
  2. 50 Successful Stanford Essays

I believe that each new edition of the Harvard book has new essays (there are five editions so far), but I’ve only read the most recent Stanford book. I’m not sure if new essays are added. 

As you read the sample stories, use a highlighter or pencil to note how the authors introduce those three elements.  Try to use some of the same techniques and structures in your own work.

Likewise, try to highlight specific details mentioned by the authors.  What did they feel while the situation was unfolding?  What did they see?  What did they hear?  What did they smell?  These details can all be compelling and interesting.  And all are appropriate to include. Students often complain that they haven’t done anything worth writing about, but with effective storytelling techniques even a mundane experience is worth relating and can reveal a lot about your character.

Fine-Tune your Grammar and Language Use

Try to eliminate all of the errors in your grammar and language use.  There a few things you can do to facilitate this:

  • Ideally, you can hire an expert proofreader to check your essay.  I can do this for you, if you like.  Just contact me for details.  Ideally, your proofreader will be able to check several versions of your work and ask questions about your intended meaning.  Proofreading of this sort really ought to be a collaborative effort.
  • You could try a mass-market proofreading service like Ediket.  That will be cheaper, but perhaps less effective.
  • You can also try a website like Grammarly.

Choose A Topic that Matters to You

Avoid choosing a topic that you think sounds good, but which you don’t really care about.  For instance, you might think your target school cares a lot about extra-curriculars. While that is probably true, it isn’t something you should write about if extra-curriculars weren’t really meaningful to you while you were a student.

Open Strong

Try to grab the reader’s attention with an interesting opening line.  Avoid starting your essay by stating your name.  They already know your name.  Avoid starting your essay by repeating the question.  They already know the question.  Instead, try something really descriptive and enticing.  For instance, here’s the opening line of the very first essay in the very first edition of the Harvard book I mentioned above:

“The putrid stench of rotten salmon wafts through the boardwalk, permeating the Five Star Café with a fishy odor.”

Yeah, it is about rotten fish, but it sure is invocative.  It makes me want to read more!

Final Advice

Talk to someone.  Remember that you’re not alone in this and that people want to help you.  Universities really do want more students.  Whatever recruiter or aggregator you are working with really wants a commission from you.  As a prospective student you have a lot of value.  Take advantage of that.

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