Everything we’re talking about here—writing, noticing mistakes, correcting them—will take you at least three and as many as five or six drafts to get right. So, Tip #6: Don’t treat your early drafts like anything close to final. That means you’re going to have to get comfortable with simply putting idea to paper, and with cutting entire paragraphs or “points” within the essay. You’ve probably never written anything like the personal statement before, and you have to promise yourself to be iterative—otherwise, you’ll lock yourself into a weaker version of the essay.
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And if you ever participated in a situation in tandem with adults and found some success (i.e., by blogging, starting a tutoring organization, or participating in political campaigns), you could discuss your experiences as a young person without a college degree in professional circles. However, avoid sounding morally superior (as if you’re the only person who went against this convention, or that you’re better than your peers for doing so).
3. The Circular Essay: In this essay, the writer begins with a scene or image or concept and then will circle back to that scene or image or concept before the end of the essay in order to make sense of the initial opening. This essay deploys suspense. Take Anita’s essay, which might open: “I spent my happiest moments lost and alone in the wilderness. How did I get here? To understand that, you’ll have to understand X, Y, Z about me…” and which might close: “...that’s how I found myself, at sixteen, lost—but entirely at home in the wild.”
Each graf was 45 words long and contained substantively the same information (applicant has wanted to be a librarian since she was a young girl). But they are extraordinarily different essays, most strikingly because the former is generic where the latter is specific. It was a real thing, which happened to a real person, told simply. There is nothing better than that.
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Throughout this guide, we’re going to refer to a few example essays. Some of these are made up but others are closely based on essays we have worked with students on over the past ten-plus years—and these students successfully met their admissions goals, including getting into multiple Ivy League and other top-tier schools. Let’s meet our students now!
In order to get into your dream school, you’ll need not only great grades and test scores but also a strong personal statement. Why? Your Personal Statement is the single loudest ‘qualitative’ element of your application. It brings to life the student—you!—behind your statistics and demographics. It’s the way you communicate with the admissions committee as a person and as a potential member of the campus community. With more people applying to colleges every year, admissions officers know they can have their pick of bright and motivated students. In addition to seeing your talents and achievements on paper, they need a chance to imagine what you might be like as a walking, talking human being.
That’s why it’s a good practice to keep a reliable collection system with you at all times as you’re preparing to write your essay. It could be your phone. It could be index cards. It could be a Moleskine notebook (if you really want to do it with panache). Just don’t store it in your own brain thinking that you’ll remember it later. Your mind may be a magnificently wonderful idea-making machine, but it’s a lousy filing cabinet. Store those ideas in one place outside your brain so that when inspiration hits you in the bathroom, in the car, on a hike—wherever—you’ll have a place to capture it and come back to it later when you need it.
There’s no reason to rush your essay. You won’t score extra point with the admissions department for finishing your essay in an hour. Unless you’ve helped write the State of the Union, your admissions essay will likely be the most influential essay you’ve written so far, at least as it relates to your own life. Give yourself at least a week to compose your essay.