In our survey of 50 New York private college and university admissions officers, they said that the three most important things that make a college application essay successful are:
- Strong writing
- Authentic voice
- Unique point of view
Admissions officers complain that most of the essays they read are “too polished,” that all of the fire has been snuffed out of them, and what’s left is bland and boring.
Here are specific steps you can take to make sure your 500-word personal essay is one of the ones that works:
Strong writing. You want to grab your reader’s attention from the first sentence, so cut anything that does not get immediately into the action of the story. Like a great short story, take your reader on a short journey and guide them through a very focused story, something that is important—possibly even transformative—something that happened to you, and made a difference in your life. “Strong writing” is writing that leaves a lasting impression in the reader’s memory.
Authentic voice. The best way to write with an authentic voice is to start with your spoken voice. Tell your story into your phone or computer as if you are talking to a close friend—maybe even have your friend there to listen as you tell your story—and then write down what you said word for word. Start with that, add details that flesh out the story for someone who wasn’t there—What time of year was it? Who else was there? What did people do and say? When in doubt, talk out loud to find the words that are really your own. Forget the thesaurus; throw out everything you know about writing a five-paragraph critical essay, and just talk. If your essay sounds like you, it’s authentic.
Unique point of view. Students often say, “But I haven’t done anything really important.” Stop searching for Superman moments, and start paying closer attention to what the world looks like on a regular day from your perspective. Any moment of your life can be the heart of a great essay: a family meal, a walk home from school, or a conversation with a teacher or friend. What is it about the moment that reveals your character? Are you the person who is quiet, but holds a group together? Are you spontaneous and fun-loving, or a great organizer? Often students take for granted the simple things that make them uniquely human. Identify those things in yourself—or ask a friend—and then find moments that reveal your humanity to others.
Once you’ve found a story that works in 500 words, use details, dialogue, and description to tell the story that only you can tell. Then, read it through once carefully for spelling, grammar, and punctuation (you can’t leave this to a spell-checker), and move on to the next essay! Remember: Each personal essay on your application or supplement should reveal another part of your character; it should add something unique to the overall story told by your application package.
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