Writing college admissions essays can be stressful for even the savviest of applicants. As competition for top-tier colleges continues to rise, so does the pressure to craft a personal statement that stands out. We get it and want to give you a method to approach your writing with more confidence. We truly believe the personal statement is an opportunity to shine and helping students tell great stories is our passion!
Over the past decade we have helped hundreds of students ACE this part of the application. Dig in on these 5 key actionable steps covering everything from how to choose the right topic to polishing your final round of revision. For even more detailed help, you can check out the next session of Write Your Way Into College.
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 may veer in new directions. Since the Common Application essay prompts barely change, there are no excuses.
Don’t forget you may have dozens of school-specific supplemental essays to complete. While it can be compressed, writing compelling college admission essays can be a 9-10 month process.
The Common Application essay prompts are often left a little vague on purpose to give you flexibility and encourage creativity. Unlike essays for English class, the most important aspect of your personal statement is you. Whichever prompt you choose, admission officers want you to tell a story that reveals your character, personality, and how you think.
One of the best ways to brainstorm your personal statement topic is by asking yourself, "What are the character strengths or core values you want to highlight in your application?" The goal is for your essay to illustrate their development by showing you both in action and in reflection.
After narrowing down your potential topics, free-write at least 2 paragraphs for each. One example of you demonstrating the character strength or core value when you were younger and one example that is more recent.
While reading too many examples can be detrimental to your writing process, try to deconstruct at least one example. Begin by analyzing what character strengths and core values the author is highlighting throughout their story.
When choosing your own topic consider which of your character strengths or core values may not be communicated in other parts of your application. Start there. Remember, while you want your essay to make an impact, the best essays are often built on seemingly ordinary experiences like shopping at Costco or making a cheesecake.
The epic structure is one of the most enduring in history. It has been used in everything from Homer's Odyssey to films like Star Wars and The Matrix. Commonly referred to as "The Hero's Journey", it is a great way to structure your personal statement. If you have one primary character strength or core value you want to highlight through one continuous narrative, this is the way to go. You can and should weave in additional character strengths and values along the way, but the defining characteristic of the Hero's Journey Structure is that the events are linked by causality.
In contrast, the events in an episodic structure are linked thematically. We refer to this as the "Curated Stories Structure." Often used in short story collections like Jame's Joyce's Dubliners or TV shows like "Law and Order", this is also an excellent way to structure your personal statement. If you want to tell multiple stories that highlight one primary character strength or core value this is the right choice. Don't worry, you will weave more in along the way here as well.
Below is a breakdown of the key stages in The Hero's Journey.
The main character in the story —in all college essays that should be You!—is living his or her normal life. There is often an issue or problem.
The action progresses and the hero continues to act as additional challenges and formative experiences present themselves, often building up to a major decision and action.
What the hero does differently with their new knowledge in their life now, and what he or she will do in the future.
“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” – Terry Pratchett
One attention grabbing technique is starting in media res which is just a fancy Latin term that means in the middle of the action. So beginning your essay in media res simply means to start in the middle of a scene without telling all the backstory or what happened prior to it. The backstory or context can either be easily assumed or if it is necessary to understand the essay, it can be filled in later through flashback or description of the past events.
In media res Example:
Managing to break free from my mother’s grasp, I charged. With arms flailing and chubby legs fluttering beneath me, I was the ferocious two year old rampaging through Costco on a Saturday morning.
Showing And Telling
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of creative writing advice. It has become a cliche, because, on the whole, it is generally pretty darn good advice. Essentially, showing means using description and action to help the reader experience a story. Telling is when a writer summarizes factual information for the reader which limits the experience. For example:
The Pithy End
Just as you want to hook a reader from the beginning, you want to end your essay on a high note. Strong endings are not necessarily abrupt, but do fairly quickly sum everything up, tie connections together and give us a last bit of insight.
Sometimes there is a “call back” to an earlier part of the essay that highlights the difference between an earlier time and the new normal. If we can do this with a nice turn of phrase that includes the hard-won wisdom, you probably have a winner.
Pay attention to the development of their main theme, structure, and rhetorical devices. Here is our breakdown of the essay about shopping at Costco. You can learn a lot from others, but don’t use these essays as a crutch. Tell your own story!
Don't be afraid to be vulnerable in your essay. Demonstrate emotional intelligence by expressing how certain experiences made you feel and your awareness of the deeper need underlying the feeling.
Even the most talented authors have editors. Ensure you are asking someone whose opinion is credible, knows you, and that you trust to give constructive, honest, and valuable feedback.
Be mindful, however, one of the biggest mistakes and causes of stress in the essay writing process is getting feedback from too many people. They all mean well, but "too many cooks in the kitchen" never works.
Be patient. Know that many exemplary essays have gone through 7-10 drafts before you have had a chance to read them.
Step away from your essay for a couple days between drafts. Fresh eyes see more clearly. And understand that just because someone else wrote ten drafts doesn’t mean you should or need to. Don't worry, at a certain point you have to trust your story.
When you actually paste your essay into the Common Application
Submit and Celebrate! 🎉
At Princeton College Consulting, our mission is to help students navigate the complex world of college admissions. Because writing a compelling Personal Statement can be one of the most impactful aspects of the whole admissions process, we have put the exact coaching method we use with our clients online. Learn how to reserve a spot in the Spring cohort of Write Your Way Into College.
If you are feeling less than relaxed about the entire college planning and application process and want more personalized, one-on-one guidance schedule a free 30-minute consultation to discuss how we can help you achieve your goals.