With the 2015-16 college admissions season officially underway, many rising high school seniors are beginning to tackle one of the most critical, confusing, and stressful parts of the college application: The personal statement.
The personal statement, traditionally the main Common Application essay, is the application component in which students have the most control and the best opportunity to let the university get to know a little more about them. While the main Common Application essay uses predetermined prompts, they’re broad enough that students can pretty much write about whatever they want, as long as it relates back to their chosen essay question.
Why the Personal Statement Is Important
When students think about what it takes to get into college, the first thing that usually comes to mind is good grades and test scores. While those “hard factors” are critical, holistic review also takes into account “soft factors,” or the application elements that aren’t so easily quantified, like essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and more. The essay is the most important soft factor that colleges consider, according to NACAC’s most recent State of College Admissions report.
The essay or personal statement, when used properly, can give admissions officers additional insight into who a student is as a person, what motivates him or her, and, more practically, how that student communicates and follows directions. An amazing personal statement isn’t going to guarantee a spot in the freshman class, but it can positively impact a student’s application, while a poor personal statement can, along with other elements, really hurt a student’s chances of gaining admission. This is why the personal statement shouldn’t be taken lightly. Students really need to put a lot of effort into writing a great essay in order to enhance their chances of admission.
Here are five tips to help college-bound high school seniors write a great personal statement essay.
1. Reveal something new about yourself.
We say this every year, because it’s one of the essay tips that students struggle with the most. In an attempt to show a specialty or passion, students can often be redundant and spend the length of the essay reiterating something else that’s already in the application. If marching band is on your activity list, the college already knows you enjoy music, so don’t spend your essay writing about what it means to play flute in the band. Take this opportunity to give the admissions office insight into something new about you. Whether it’s how your religion impacts your education, how a mentor helped you realize your potential, or an event that’s shaped who you are today, write about something with substance that adds another dimension to your application.
2. Spend time brainstorming topics.
In order to reveal something new about yourself, you need to choose a meaningful and original topic. While the Common Application essay questions are helpful, it’s up to you to choose a personal topic that ties in with the Common Application prompt you’ve selected. Take time to think about what’s important to you, what people or events have shaped you, and what you think is interesting about yourself. Don’t just choose the most obvious topic, like the soccer team captain writing about winning the championship game. Instead, think of events, themes, experiences, and more that are somewhat unique to you and how they’ve impacted you.
3. Be mindful of word choice, tone, and voice.
Your essay should sound like you wrote it, so don’t overload it with long vocabulary words, complex sentence structure, or a lofty tone if that’s not how you normally write or speak. That being said, don’t be afraid to stretch your writing skills. The personal statement should demonstrate your best writing, so take your time to carefully craft an essay that clearly conveys your story and your voice. Avoid redundant words or phrases, filler words that don’t add any value, or confusing language that muddles the message.
4. Practice, practice, practice!
It’s rare that anyone’s first draft is the perfect personal statement. Just like with anything else, you get better with practice. Write often, whether it’s in a journal, blog, or other outlet, as a way to improve and evolve your writing skills. When it comes time to pen your personal statement, practice that, too. Revise, revise, and then revise again. It often takes students many drafts before they have a personal statement that demonstrates their best writing and clearly conveys the essay’s message.
5. Don’t procrastinate.
A stellar essay isn’t usually written in a day. Get a head start on your personal statement by brainstorming topics and writing your first draft during the summer before the school year starts. That way, some of the most difficult work – choosing a topic and starting the writing process – is done before you head into a hectic senior year. This also allows students to get early feedback on their essays from college counselors, before the majority of the class begins seeking advice later in the semester.
These are just a few tips that can help you write a great personal statement this fall. Remember, be yourself and write about what’s important to you – not what you think the college wants to read. For more help with application essays, contact us today for information on our counseling services, and check out our blog for additional tips!
Copyright IvyWise, LLC ©2015
Harold Ekeh scored the home run of college admissions.
He was accepted by every Ivy League school this year as well as MIT and Johns Hopkins. The 17-year-old from Long Island, New York starts at Yale University at the end of August with plans to major in molecular, cellular and developmental biology.
These days he's chatting on Facebook(FB) with his college roommate, sleeping in and walking around the house in his new hiking boots for a Yale camping trip.
Ekeh also answers lots of queries from people around the country that go something like this:
How did you do it? Can you help me? Can you help my nephew?
Related: N.Y. teen accepted to all 8 Ivy League schools
So Ekeh published an e-book entitled "Hacking College Admissions" with Victor Agbafe, a teen from North Carolina who also got into all the Ivies. Agbafe will be a freshman at Harvard this fall.
"People ask me all the time: 'how did you do it?' I wanted to be able to provide a more substantial answer," Ekeh told CNNMoney.
They partnered with the Frog Tutoring company. For every book sold, they are donating one to an underprivileged student.
The biggest tip: Start early. Literally. Both men would begin their days by 5 a.m. during their senior year in order to get more work done.
"I have a 'do it now' mindset," says Ekeh.
He is mentoring other students from his public high school and the biggest mistake he sees is that people procrastinate -- whether it's delaying studying for a test or waiting too long to start writing their college essays.
The two Ivy Leaguers also stress that you have to start getting serious in middle school. Take more and more advanced courses as early as possible. And start applying for scholarships in your junior year -- or even earlier.
Related: Making college affordable: Where the candidates stand
Want more tips? Here are the top 5 from what Ekeh shared with CNNMoney along with those from the book.
1. If you haven't started your college essay already, you're behind.
Ekeh's largest regret in his own process was that he didn't really get going on his essays until October. He wished he had started in August. Even just jotting down notes can make it easier. A lot of times it's just about getting that great first line that really makes the essay flow. Ekeh started his essay by describing the moment his mother told the family that they were moving from Nigeria to America. He was 8 at the time.
2. Prepare not to sleep a lot your senior year.
Ekeh and Agbafe describe days that would start by 5 a.m. and end around midnight. Between school, clubs, homework, athletics and family dinner, there isn't much time for college applications. That's why you have to start earlier. Ekeh says stop hitting the snooze button. The key is getting up right away and walking around the house -- or even outside -- for a few minutes to get the blood flowing.
3. Don't just Google colleges. Visit them.
A lot of schools ask applicants: Why Yale? Why Harvard? Why us? It's a lot easier to answer that if you've been to the college campus. Ekeh wishes he had realized sooner that many universities will give low-income students aid to visit their campuses. They know it's a financial burden to get there. But if you email a school and say you are really interested, they often do what they can to make it happen. Take the initiative. It helps you decide -- and makes your application stronger.
4. Do at least 1 extracurricular that isn't obvious.
Ekeh wants to be a neurosurgeon. Most of his after-school activities focused on science and research, but one of his most life-changing experiences in high school was joining Model United Nations. He learned to become a better researcher and public speaker, and he participated at a Model UN conference at Yale University, which led him to apply there and connect with current Yale students who became his mentors. While being focused in high school is good, taking some risks in your activities often makes you stand out.
5. Seek help. Many college students are willing to mentor you.
There are over 65 million Americans now with a college degree (about 30% of U.S. adults). While the college application process can seem daunting, many people have done it before. Find them. Connect with them. Ask for help. Ekeh reached out to current Yale students and former alumni of his high school who had been accepted to top schools. He asked them to read his essays and give him feedback. Now he is trying to help others. Many colleges also have Facebook pages for applicants where current students offer to help, even if you don't know them.
CNNMoney (New York) First published August 15, 2015: 8:53 AM ET