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Reviewing College Admissions Essays with Counselor

HOW TO ACE YOUR COLLEGE ESSAY

Step 1: Choosing a Topic

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”  - Ernest Hemingway
Choosing your personal statement topic that aligns with your overarching application strategy is a difficult, but vital step. Still, it doesn’t have to be as painful as Hemingway says, so don’t let yourself get bogged down in this stage. Writing and revising a compelling essay truly is a process. Unfortunately, many students (typically the best of you) get paralyzed because they want to have the perfect topic nailed down before beginning to write. Here’s what you should do instead:

Get Started Early

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.

Avoiding writing about a favorite extracurricular activity or what you want to study will save you time and effort because you will need to write about these topics in your supplemental essays.

Analyze the Prompts

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.

School-specific supplemental essay prompts can often be more pointed. The three most common supplemental essay prompts are about an extra-curricular activity, "Why Our College" and "Why That Major."

Use Character Strengths and Core Values

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. 

Deconstruct An Example

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 key is to ask yourself, “will this experience provide a vehicle for demonstrating the development of my character strengths and core values?” If yes, leave any fear of making a mistake behind. You can always come back.

Step 2: Outlining

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” - Anne Lamott
While a personal statement is a piece of creative writing, outlining your story is an important step toward a successful essay. Having a strong outline ensures a narrative structure that acts as a beacon to follow throughout the drafting and editing process. There is not necessarily one correct structure, but there are a couple classics that both allow flexibility and promote cohesiveness.

The Epic and The Episodic

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.

 Hero's Journey Structure

This structure can be broken down into 5 parts 
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Status Quo

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.

 

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 Inciting Incident

Something happens that forces the issue and causes the hero to need to act. Essentially, you are called to adventure. The hero may be hesitant or excited at first.

 

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 Mounting Challenges

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.



 

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Denouement / Insight

While there are key learnings along the way, there is often an overarching theme of the development of particular character strengths and values. This is where the hero reflects on the action.

 

 

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New Normal

What the hero does differently with their new knowledge in their life now, and what he or she will do in the future.

Check Point: Is your outline aligned with the prompt you chose? If it is, proceed with writing your first draft. If it isn’t, identify why not and consider either changing the outline or selecting a different prompt more aligned with your developing story.

Step 3: Drafting

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” – Terry Pratchett

3 Key Elements Of Your Draft

  1. The Hook 

     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. 

  2. 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:


    Telling: John was sad to see his girlfriend leave
    vs.
    Showing: John wiped tears down his face as he watched his girlfriend board the plane.

  3. 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.

     

Step 4: Editing & Revising

“I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do the pencil.” – Truman Capote
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Deconstruct Successful Essays

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! 

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Adjust Your Focus

In early drafts, it is easy to have an essay that is either too broad or too narrow in scope. The right level of focus will highlight your character strengths in a meaningful level of depth without getting lost in the weeds of details that don't advance the story.  
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Add Intellectual Vitality

One of the most important character strengths selective colleges look for in an applicant is curiosity.  Read through your essay and look for opportunities to explore how your experience may be connected to historical, literary or philosophical ideas you care about.
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Ask Rhetorical Questions

How do you sound smart in your essay without showing off? How do you communicate your personality or sense of humor? Ask yourself or your reader interesting questions within the essay. This is a secret weapon of essays that stand out.
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Get Emotional

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.

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Vary The Rhythm

Adjust sentence structure to create a flow throughout each paragraph. Include a mix of longer and more concise sentences. Use brevity to emphasize points. This trick allows you to control how your readers digest and remember your story.
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Use Literary Language

Metaphors and similes can bring your writing to life. Shakespeare was a master. To explain human behavior he said, "All the world's a stage." Just beware of mixed or dissimilar metaphors used in rapid succession which may confuse the reader.
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Avoid Clichés

It is easy to fall into the trap of using phrases that are unoriginal. That you should, “avoid them like the plague” is true, but also an example of a phrase I would revise. An exception is if you are going to explore one in more depth or actually disagree with the received wisdom it offers.
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Be Specific

Details and vivid descriptions are more engaging than generalities. Strive for "le mot juste" (the exact right word). Sometimes a snippet of actual dialogue can convey meaning, drive the narrative and reveal character better than summary.
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Kill Your Darlings

In each subsequent draft, sentences that were once essential may no longer be necessary. Even if you are proud of these sentences, don’t keep them if they no longer enhance the narrative. Be disciplined. The scissors are your partner.
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Avert Verbose Locutions

Roughly translated: stay away from excessively wordy phrases. Many students use extravagant words hoping to sound smart; it usually has the opposite effect. This doesn’t mean you can’t use your colorful vocabulary; just don’t sound like a thesaurus.
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Prefer Active Voice

Active voice is deliberate; it flows, emphasizes the subject, forges a stronger connection with the reader, and evokes emotion. Rather than “mistakes were made,” it’s usually better to own up to “I made mistakes.”
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Use Adverbs Sparingly

Instead of “He ran quickly.” try “He sprinted.” Precise language also evokes emotion. It paints a picture. Remember, “precise” isn’t synonymous with “extravagant”. In addition, when it comes to moderators (e.g. very), proceed with caution.
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Get Feedback

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.

 

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Rinse and Repeat

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. 

Step 5: Final Review

“Trust your story.” – Neil Gaiman

Mechanics Count

You have gone through the process of crafting a competitive admission essay. Now that you have completed your higher-order edits and revisions, it is time to proofread.  Focus on formatting, spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Errors of this nature sneak in during rewrites. Run a digital check, but take responsibility.

Read Out Loud

In addition to reading out loud, you can also try copying and pasting it into Google Translate. Google will read it back to you. Hearing your essay emphasizes any mistakes that may have crept through.  It's also not a bad idea to print your essay. There is a strange distinction between reading on your computer and reading on paper.

Before Hitting Submit

When you actually paste your essay into the Common Application—read your essay once again and fix any formatting errors that may have occurred in the system. You can’t be too careful. After all your hard work, you don't want careless errors to detract from your message.

Submit and Celebrate! 🎉

Student Preparing for College Admission Counseling Session

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.

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