Editor’s note: This is a guest article from Tony Budding.
Writing the personal statement for your college applications can be daunting. The questions are usually open-ended with many possible approaches. And, it could end up making the difference between acceptance and rejection.
In this article, I suggest methods for identifying the topic and writing the statement. As a former English teacher, I can tell you that reading numerous mediocre essays in a row is mind-numbing. College admissions officials have a lot of essays to read. The unexpectedly vibrant, authentic, one-of-a-kind personal statement shatters their monotony and immediately distinguishes the application. This can be yours.
First, some logic. Good writing comes from good thinking. In the case of a personal essay, good thinking comes from self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is arguably the greatest asset any man can possess. Therefore, treat the personal statement as a boon.
I believe in progress through extreme effort. You should endeavor to out-work your peers in the acquisition of self-knowledge. There are no shortcuts in this, though there are dead ends. Think of this article as a roadmap of worthy avenues and unproductive alleys.
There are two distinct phases: acquiring self-knowledge and crafting the essay. The former is intrinsically valuable, while the latter is goal oriented. That goal? To have the admissions officer finish reading your essay convinced you belong at their school.
Colleges seek students that support their charter. Ideally, these students understand their passions, challenges, and ambitions, have developed a good work ethic, and are driven by internal motivations (not grades). Such students become lifelong learners. Colleges also aim for diversity of gender, race, geography, academics, athleticism, artistic ability, and background experiences.
That’s the ideal. Your goal is to tap into your values, identify what motivates and inspires you, and demonstrate how this has fueled your pursuit of excellence in some way. The essay is short — typically 650 words or less — so it has to be narrowly focused. You will use this to your advantage by featuring only the parts of you that best convey your ideal inner student.
What Not to Do
First, let’s look at what not to do.
Don’t approach this like a typical academic essay. You are not trying to prove a point, instruct your reader, or explain a thesis. The Authority, the Educator, and the Pontificator are personas you should shun at all costs. You are not an expert in anything; you’re applying to college to learn, and the only thing worse than a pontificating professor is a pontificating student
Don’t have it all figured out. Don’t assume you know exactly what you want to do with your life. And don’t predict the future.
Don’t describe your achievements. Don’t write about something. Don’t summarize. And don’t try to be funny.
Never use absolutes (did you see what I just did there?).
Don’t try to sound like a college student. Don’t try to sound like anybody. Don’t worry if they’ll like you. Don’t lie. And don’t tell the whole truth (it wouldn’t fit anyway).
You Are the Subject
That’s a lot of “don’ts.” What’s left to write about? You.
You are the only you in the world. No one else lives inside your head, thinks exactly like you, feels just what you do, sees the world the same way, or craves the same outcomes.
You are your subject. Not the whole you. Your core values. The motivated you. The inspired you.
This is what colleges are looking for. Every one of the Common Application Essay Prompts asks for some kind of personal meaning, motivation, and/or influence. They want to get to know this you as much as possible.
Writing such an essay begins with self-knowledge, which comes from self-inquiry. Humans are a combination of common and unique elements. Through inquiry, you embark on an inner journey to identify and separate these elements. This profound effort benefits more than just the writing process. Done properly, it forms the bedrock of character upon which you build the foundation of your life.
Self-inquiry is basically asking the question “Who am I?” in as many ways as possible. There are countless ways to approach it. The following questions are examples, oriented toward young men with less experience navigating the inner realms. Start with these questions (or make up your own), but follow each answer with further inquiry. Explore your broad inner landscape with honest reflection.
1. What do you do with your discretionary time and why?
Discretionary activities often reveal inner values. When the homework is done, chores completed, and practices over, what do you do? On a lazy summer day, how do you fill the time? A similar question is, “What would you do if no one would ever find out, and why?”
If you don’t have a lot of discretionary time, switch the inquiry toward your favorite activities. In any case, ask yourself what is it about these activities that appeals to you? Why? Then keep asking why to each answer.
Why is the drill bit that digs the well of understanding. Use it early and often.
Here’s an example. Say you like to shoot hoops in your driveway. Why? Because it’s fun. Why? Well, because it feels good to make a shot. Why? Because it means I’m getting better. Why does that matter? I don’t like losing. Why? I want to win. Why? Cuz if you ain’t first, you’re last! What’s wrong with being last? Losers don’t get good jobs or have good lives.
This process uncovered a link between the fun of driveway basketball and what it takes to have a good life. My experience is that all genuine inquiries reveal some alignment between trivial choices and underlying values. It’s all interconnected, so almost any surface activity can lead to real insight.
At this point, just keep a list of your insights. They will be used later.
2. What injustices in the world are you willing to help fix?
The world is not fair. It never has been and it never will be. Some types of injustice hit your radar stronger than others. Which ones, and why? The question, though, goes one step further. Which ones are you willing to help fix?
This could manifest in a variety of ways. You might volunteer if the issue hits close to home, like child care or soup kitchens. You might research and debate if the issue is political like income disparity or immigration. Or you might decide on a career choice like medical research or international banking if product or service innovations address the need.
The key point is values-based action. It’s one thing to lament corruption in politics. It’s another to do something about it. When your interest and passions are strong enough to motivate action, you know you’re on to something significant.
3. As you think about your life to this point, what events stick out as the most meaningful and why?
What are the strongest memories that you keep coming back to? Which of your past experiences do you reflect on when making decisions in the present? What was it about these experiences that affected you so much? Again ask why?
Sometimes the strongest memories apply to a seemingly insignificant event. Don’t let this deceive you. There is a reason this memory sticks. Use it. Dig in, and keep asking why.
4. How do you define a quality life, and what is required to have it?
While this question can be a stretch for teenagers, it’s worth exploring. Think about your friends and family (both immediate and distant) — who seems the happiest and what do they have in their lives? Include things like careers, family, social activities, vacations, homes, and neighborhoods. Which combinations most appeal to you?
The reason this inquiry is so valuable is that all of life requires compromises. You can’t have it all. For example, an important, high pressure job cuts into relaxation and family time.
Remember the goal of these questions is self-knowledge. You’re not trying to plan out your life, but rather to identify your values. Which aspects pull you? Play the either/or game. A lot of money or a lot of time? A life of travel or a life with kids? Fancy cars or tons of friends? These distinctions are artificial but revealing. And ask “Why?” as often as you can.
5. No man is an island. Who has made the most impact on you and why?
No matter who you are, there are people around you working hard to help you succeed. Parents, relatives, teachers, friends, even strangers. What do they do that supports you? Why do they do it? How does that support affect you both directly and indirectly?
By recognizing their efforts, you can see not just what matters to you, but also how interconnected we are as a species. Since we’re all connected, you also have an impact on those around you. What do you want that impact to be? What do you want others saying about you, what you did for them, and the kind of person you are?
Now push that forward. If that’s the impact you want to have, what skills and experiences do you require to become that person? How well do the colleges you’re applying to fit your needs? It’s possible this inquiry could change where you apply.
Writing the Essay
When you’ve completed these inquiries, you should be able to identify common themes. These are likely the best topics to write about.
Now read the essay prompts carefully. You often have a choice. Any of them can work, so start with the one that seems the easiest (you may decide later that it doesn’t work). Create a rough outline of how you want to answer. Frame your subject in the context of where you are now, oriented toward how your college education will further you along this path. This gives the college insight into both who you are and why you’ll make a good student.
An aside: If you have no compelling answers for these inquiries, I suggest you postpone your college plans until you do. College is a huge investment of time and usually money. If you have no compelling reason to be there, wait. I wish I had. I wasted my college years even though I graduated in four years with good grades because I was not pursuing my own education. It was not until five years after graduating that I began to study for myself. Over the past 20 years, I’ve learned enough for the equivalent of several degrees, but will never regain what my college life could have been.
Top 10 Tips for College Admissions Essays
In the admissions process, US colleges and universities generally use three criteria for determining which students to accept and which to reject:
- Previous coursework – your college preparatory work and grade point average (GPA)
- Standardized test scores – SAT and ACT are the two most respected.
- Admission/Entrance essays
Of the three criteria, the college entrance essay provides you with the greatest opportunity to distinguish yourself from your competition and show off the person behind the statistics. This article will help in writing a college essay and help you boost your chances of being accepted by an American university or college
Section 1: Planning Your Essay
Tip #1: Understand the Admissions Board Psychology
When you have compiled all the pieces of your application and sent it to the college/university of your dreams, all of your hard work gets placed in a pile with hundreds of other applications. Then a small group of admissions officers will review each application, looking over the scores and coursework and reading the college application essays.
The key to convincing the admissions officers is in understanding what they are looking for. They want students who will:
- Succeed once they are admitted;
- Contribute to the educational experience of other students; and,
- Bring honor and prestige to the university once they graduate.
In your college admissions essay, you want to portray yourself as a student who will meet those needs. Of course, the specifics of what qualifies as “succeed” or “bring honor” will depend a bit on the particular university, but all admissions officers share these three goals.
Before you write your college admissions essay, take a few minutes and jot down some answers to the following questions:
- How can I reassure the admissions board that I will succeed in their school?
- How will I show that I am determined and ambitious; that I will not get poor grades or drop out?
- How can I contribute positively to the educational experience of other students?
- How might I bring honor and prestige to the university?
- What are my long-term goals? Might I win an award someday, or start a business, or improve a scientific process?
Your answer to these questions will help you frame the content of your essay.
Tip #2: Determine Your Essay Goals
Along with the three questions above, you should contemplate how you want the admissions officers to perceive you. After reading your college admissions essay, what should they think of your personality and activities?
Most students want the college admissions board to view them as responsible, dependable, and academically ambitious. These are excellent essay goals, but you should also consider the essay in relation to your classwork. If your classwork already shows that you are studious and determined (because you have taken a wide variety of advanced classes), then you may want to highlight another feature of your personality.
Along with developing an image of your character, writing the college admissions essay allows you to feature other aspects of your life that are not reflected in your pre-college coursework. Some aspects to consider:
- Have I worked at an interesting or relevant job?
- Do I belong to any clubs or organizations?
- Have I demonstrated leadership or teamwork?
- Have I demonstrated compassion or community-responsibility?
Tip #3: Distinguish Yourself from the Other Applicants
This bit of strategic thinking should be fairly easy. As an international student, you by definition are different from the bulk of American citizens who apply to American universities. However, it is not enough to simply say, “Well, I’m not from around here.” Instead, you need to reference the strengths of your home culture. You don’t need to elaborate at length; a sentence or two should be enough to ensure that the admissions board pays attention to you.
Remember that you are more than just an international student from an interesting background; you are a complete person with a lifetime of experiences. You should take some time to think about what else makes you different from most the other hundreds of students writing college admissions essays. Add those features (plays piano, excellent at football, speak five languages) to your growing list of essay goals.
Tip #4: Contribute to the University
Remember that one of the goals of the admissions board when reading college admissions essays is to find students who will enhance the educational experience of other students. In other words, how can you contribute to other students’ learning? As with tip #3, you already have an edge by being an international student.
One of the general goals of education is to broaden people’s experiences, so that they come to realize the limits of their own intellect, and then grow beyond those limits. As an international student, you offer other students an opportunity for cultural diversity. As with Tip #3, it is not enough to assume the college admissions board will recognize this benefit. You need to highlight it in your essay. Again, a sentence or two should be enough to accomplish this goal.
Again, remember that you are more than just an international student. You have so much more to contribute to the campus social and learning environment than just your home culture. Take a few moments to consider what else you may contribute.
- Maybe you are excellent at study groups or other forms of collaborative work.
- Maybe you will join a student organization or athletic team.
- Maybe you will write for a student newsletter or blog.
Whatever you feel you can contribute, add that to your list of essay goals.
Tip #5: Understand and Answer the Essay Prompt
At this point, you’ve come up with more ideas than you can possibly fit into one essay. Now you need to focus your goals to only three or four ideas – the ones that will make you the most attractive to the college admissions board. No matter what the prompt asks, you want to ensure you include those three or four ideas in your college admissions essay.
The concept is to present a few ideas very well, rather than list all your ideas poorly. A narrowly focused essay will be much more effective than a general, vague one.
Reading and answering the prompt may seem a bit obvious, but it’s often the obvious that people ignore. You should take the time to read and re-read the essay prompt, so you can answer it fully. Don’t be intimidated; unlike some college exams, the college application essay prompt is not designed to trick you. However, you must demonstrate that you can read and follow directions. Think of that great pile of applications. The admissions officers are looking for a reason to disregard candidates. Don’t let them reject you because you hastily overlooked a sentence in the essay prompt.
On the other hand, the prompt is designed to give you some freedom for creativity, which will allow you to work in those three or four key ideas that you have developed through tips 1 through 4. You are encouraged to find novel ways of answering the prompt, so long as you do indeed answer the questions provided.
If you need more help choosing a topic, you can find some tips on our Choosing a Topic for Your College Essay page.
Section 2: Writing Your Essay
At this stage in the college admissions essay writing process, you have considered the goals and psychology of the college admissions board. You have produced a list of ideas/attributes/details about yourself that colleges will find appealing. You have narrowed that list to the three or four most important ideas – the ones that will get you into your preferred college/university. Now it is time to actually write the essay.
Tip #6: Write with Specific Details
The key to excellent and memorable writing is to write in fine detail. The more specific your essay, the stronger an impression it will make on the admissions board. If you are trying to show that you are a dedicated scholar, don’t write: “I never missed an assignment deadline, no matter how poorly I was feeling the night before.” Instead you write: “In my junior year, I came down with a terrible case of pneumonia. Despite having a 103 degree fever and being required to stay in bed, I still completed my draft speech on the possible impacts of global warming on agriculture.” The latter will make a stronger impression; and people vote for the people they remember.
As you are writing your essay, ask yourself:
- Is there a specific instance or example that shows this?
- Can I add imagery (colors, shapes) to make it more interesting?
- Can I replace general nouns (“class” or “car”) with something specific (“Honors Geometry” or “Honda Civic”)?
You may be thinking, “I don’t really like to boast about my personality; I prefer to let my record speak for itself.” While you should try to avoid sounding too arrogant, the college application essay is not the time for modesty. The admissions officers are expecting you to celebrate yourself, to underline your strengths and personality, so they can make a quick, accurate judgment about you.
Tip #7: Demonstrate College-Level Diction
Diction (word choice) is the fundamental structure of writing. Your word choice reveals a great deal about your personality, education and intellect. Furthermore, as an international student, you want to reassure the college admissions board that you have an excellent command of the English language (remember: they want you to succeed; they need to know that you can actively participate in English-only instruction).
With this in mind, you should replace lower-level words (bad, sad, thing, nice, chance) with higher-level words (appalling, despondent, phenomena, comforting, opportunity). You might consider looking up SAT/ACT vocabulary words and working a handful of those into your essay.
You should also remove any slang or casual diction; the university is not interested in casual language in their admissions essays.
Tip #8: Demonstrate College-level Style
An American proverb states, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” In other words, you want to present yourself as being ready for the next job. In this instance, you want to show that you already have college-level writing skills. So, in writing your college application essays, you should write with the following features in mind:
- Write primarily in complex sentences, rather than simple or compound sentences;
- Include figurative language such as a metaphor, a simile, personification; and
- Include a trope or scheme, such as chiasmus, oxymoron or anaphora.
As with tip #7, this serves two functions: 1) it distinguishes your essay from those that are poorly written; and 2) it reassures the admissions board of your excellent command of written English.
Tip #9: Have Someone Proofread Your Essay
This is one of the most important tips on this list. Everyone who writes knows that the words in your head don’t always make it onto the page the way they should. Because you know what it should say, it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking the essay says something that it doesn’t. For this reason, you should ask a friend or a relative (or an English teacher) to look over your essay and check your:
- Grammar: did you write in complete sentences? Do all your subjects and verbs agree?
- Diction: are all the words used properly for an American audience?
- Organization: have you grouped sentences together coherently?
Tip #10: Pay Attention to Deadlines
College admissions essays require a tremendous amount of work. As you work and rework the essay, pay attention to the admission deadlines and requirements. Every school has their own system for how and when to file your application. Do not assume that, because one school uses e-mails and PDFs, that another school does as well.
The best way to stay organized through the college admissions process (and at the university when courses begin) is to rigorously maintain a calendar that includes:
- Final deadlines
- Reminders of upcoming deadlines
- Process deadlines (breaking larger tasks into smaller steps)
Bonus Tip: Post, but Don't Panic
At some point, you will file your college admissions application. After you post it, please don’t panic. With these tips, and your determined intellect, you have an excellent chance of being accepted to an American university.
Take a look at our college essay samples to get an idea of what colleges are looking for in your essay.