Writing college admissions essays can induce anxiety in even the savviest of applicants. As competition for top-tier colleges continues to rise, so does the pressure to craft essays that stand out. We understand the stress associated with writing a college application essay, and as counselors, it is a privilege to guide students through the process. In fact, helping students discover and tell their best stories is our passion!
To help you begin YOUR essays, we have developed this guide specifically for writing a compelling Personal Statement. Dig in on these five key steps for essay writing so you can master everything from choosing the right topic to providing polish in your final round of revisions.
This process takes time, and the earlier you start, the better off you will be. It usually takes much longer than you think to explore ideas fully and then write multiple drafts that often veer in new directions. Since the Common Application essay prompts for 2019 – 2020 are already available, there are no excuses. Don’t forget you may have dozens of school-specific supplemental essays to complete. While it can be compressed, you should be thinking of writing college admission essays as a 9-10 month process.
The Common Application essay prompts are often left a little vague on purpose to give you flexibility and encourage you to be creative. Unlike essays for your English class, the most important aspect of your personal statement is you. Whichever prompt you choose, college admission officers want you to tell a story that reveals your character, personality, and how you think.
School-specific supplemental essay prompts can often be more pointed. If you need an example of breaking down a supplemental essay prompt, we have developed several including these for Brown, Harvard, and Yale.
Considering which prompt aligns best with your overall story, brainstorm by asking yourself what are the strengths, personal qualities or values you want to highlight in the essay. The goal is for your essay to illustrate the development of them by showing you both in action and in reflection.
Don’t let the prompts constrict your thinking on what is appropriate for a college essay, however. One brainstorming technique is to identify several tangible objects that have special significance for you. If you dig deep enough there is almost always a great and revealing story in one of them.
After you have narrowed down your topics, decide which is best for you. This just means the one you are going to explore first. Remember, while you want your essay to make an impact, your topic does not need to be earth shattering or include the biggest hardship. The best essays are often built on seemingly ordinary experiences like shopping at Costco or baking a cheesecake.
The envisioning process is both strange and abstract, but crucial to creating a successful outline. Envisioning helps you establish your central narrative that you will focus your essay on, but is actually a bit of a misnomer. While it sounds like this is something you do in your mind, it is actually best done on the page.
How does it flow? Where does it go? What is the point? Rather than spend lots of time in your head imagining how your story will unfold, do a furious free-write where nothing is censored. Whether it is similar to baking a special cheesecake (yes, that really is a topic turned in to a great college essay), or something completely different, write down everything you can remember about the experience from start to finish. Don’t worry if you think something is not important just keep writing.
If you have difficulty expanding, think of the five W's. Who was there? What were you doing, thinking and feeling? When did the action take place? Where were you? Why was it challenging? And most important, how did it affect you?
Consider this your hook to grab the admission officer's attention. Starting with an anecdote that puts the reader
Drive your essay’s success by drawing the reader into your story with a great first line. If not immediately a scene, consider using a jarring fact or statement that requires explanation.
Describe what you actually did to address the challenge described in your introduction.
Don’t trap yourself with the 5 paragraph structure, but do focus on a few central moments in time. Although you may have a million ideas and pieces of information you believe are important, it is imperative that you discern what is most significant to propel your narrative.
Show and tell. We want to see you in action (show), but also providing insight along the way (tell). The scenes or moments you choose should follow a logical structure that connects them either causally or thematically.
The conclusion should encapsulate your story. It is the bow on top that ties everything together in a clear & concise manner. This is what you have learned from the experience.
Don’t reiterate points in a list or summary however. The conclusion shouldn’t be redundant, but it should articulate how the experience has shaped who you are as a person and what you may do in the future.
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” – Terry Pratchett
Set a writing schedule. Allocate a specific and significant amount of time each week for writing. Set a word count goal. Make it achievable, yet challenging.
Immerse yourself in a comfortable workspace, free from distraction. Some students work well at home or in a library, others love to work in cafes. It is entirely up to you. Be honest with yourself and where you will work best.
Own your technology. Turn off your cell phone—at least your notifications—and any other distracting technology. There are plenty of online applications that prevent you from being distracted by the internet. If you need to listen to music to drown out noise, use lyricless music. Ambient electronic and mellow piano are good places to start.
Write in your authentic voice. Your personal statement should be well written, but less formal than an analytical essay for English class. Use language and a tone that your family and friends would recognize as you.
Take breaks. Science supports breaks. Breaks keep the mind fresh and allow us to be more productive over a longer duration of time. Structure your breaks into your work schedule and be deliberate about how you spend them. Move around, stretch, go for a walk, or anything else that gets your mind off your writing.
See how yours stacks up. Pay attention to their verbiage, sentence structure, and rhetorical devices. If you are struggling to find an example, here is our breakdown of the famous Costco Essay. Remember: don’t use these essays as a crutch. We included this step in the editing portion, as opposed to the drafting section, for a reason. Tell your story; don’t tell your version of someone else’s.
Know that many top-tier admissions essays have gone through 7-10 drafts before you have had a chance to read them.
Try to step away from your essay for a few days between drafts. Fresh eyes see more clearly. Understand that just because someone else wrote ten drafts doesn’t mean you should. Excessive editing exists and can hurt your essay.
At Princeton College Consulting, our mission is to help students navigate the complex world of college admissions. We are proud that over 93% of our students gained admission to one of their 3 top-choice colleges. If you are in need of personalized, one-on-one assistance completing your application, schedule a free 30-minute consultation.