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Cutting the first photograph, I make sure to leave a quarter inch border. I then paste it onto a polka-dotted green paper with a glue stick. For a sophisticated touch, I use needle and thread to sew the papers together. Loads of snipping and pasting later, the clock reads three in the morning. I look down at the final product, a full spread of photographs and cut-out shapes. As usual, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride as I brush my fingers over the crisp papers and the glossy photographs. For me, the act of taking pieces of my life and putting them together on a page is my way of organizing remnants of my past to make something whole and complete.
Some colleges ask for a personal statement, and others provide a choice of topics, or prompts, for a student to write about. The Common Application, which students can use for more than 700 colleges, gives a choice of seven essay prompts this year that include recounting a challenge, setback or failure and what was learned from the experience; a time when the student questioned or challenged a belief or idea; and a problem the student would like to solve.
3. Be an individual. In writing the essay, ask yourself, "How can I distinguish myself from those thousands of others applying to College X whom I don't know—and even the ones I do know?" It's not in your activities or interests. If you're going straight from high school to college, you're just a teenager, doing teenage things. It is your mind and how it works that are distinctive. How do you think? Sure, that's hard to explain, but that's the key to the whole exercise.
Since I will be studying for an entire year in Prague, I will have the opportunity to attend the annual Mezipatra, an international film festival in November that screens around a hundred top-ranking films on lesbian, bisexual, transsexual and queer themes. I feel really connected to going to this event because I crave being in an environment of like-minded people who strive to do that same thing I want to: balance the images of people typically portrayed through cliché and stereotype.
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At five, I marveled at the Eiffel Tower in the City of Lights. When I was eight, I stood in the heart of Piazza San Marco feeding hordes of pigeons, then glided down Venetian waterways on sleek gondolas. At thirteen, I saw the ancient, megalithic structure of Stonehenge and walked along the Great Wall of China, amazed that the thousand-year-old stones were still in place.
4. The Mini-Odyssey Essay: The last classic and powerful module is the good old problem-driven essay. In this type of essay, our hero (you, the writer) meets a challenge in the first paragraph and then the essay is devoted to showing us how it is solved. Let’s say Michael wanted to write not about learning to surf from his grandfather but about learning when his grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer. There’s a lot of narration that will be required for Michael to tell us about losing his grandfather—it’s too much to cram into the first paragraph. So Michael might distribute the narration chronologically, showing us first the bad news [the problem]—then zooming out to reflect; then showing us how he faced it [addressing the challenge], probably failing to adequately face it perfectly the first time, and then eventually facing it successfully [the solution].
Some students spend a lot of time summarizing plot or describing their work and the "in what way" part of the essay winds up being one sentence. The part that is about you is the most important part. If you feel you need to include a description, make it one or two lines. Remember that admission offices have Google, too, so if we feel we need to hear the song or see the work of art, we'll look it up. The majority of the essay should be about your response and reaction to the work. How did it affect or change you?
1. Introduction: Anecdote/scene: Ramya has a fun advantage to her essay—it’s unexpected. The heart of it takes place in a sports bar, and she may seem, on paper, to the admissions committee, to be an unlikely diehard football fan. So we begin… at the bar… and Ramya sets the scene: It had been a rough week at school—drama with my friend group, hard tests, orchestra practice, exhausting soccer drills—but I knew where I belonged on a Sunday. At Dee's Sports Bar in San Jose, with my dad, watching our team… She also tells us about Dee's itself, taking the chance to show the admissions committee that she has narrative skills in just noticing things: By the end of the football season, the staff knew what we wanted to sit… we were loyal to Dee's, just as we had to be loyal to the Patriots, even when they seemed to be letting us down. In telling this as a story, Ramya has given the admissions committee a human being to relate to from the jump.
With the financial stability that my part-time jobs provided my mother could stay home to raise seven children, my learning-disabled older sister could attend college, my younger sister could go on a mission trip to Korea, and my twin siblings could compete in national math competitions. I’ve seen that even as a high school student, I have so much potential to impact my family and beyond -- how one small act can go a long way.
Take a minute and think about the college or university admission officers who will be reading your essay. How will your essay convey your background and what makes you unique? If you had the opportunity to stand in front of an admission committee to share a significant story or important information about yourself, what would you say? The college application essay is your chance to share your personality, goals, influences, challenges, triumphs, life experiences, or lessons learned. Not to mention why you're a good fit for the college or university—and why it's a good fit for you. These are the stories behind the list of activities and leadership roles on your application.
Remember that stories don’t begin with a repetition of the prompt (e.g., please don’t start with, “One time when I questioned or challenged a belief or idea was …”) or a definition from a dictionary (e.g., avoid saying, “Merriam–Webster defines ‘success’ as …”); instead, you should begin with something descriptive, such as setting the scene or jumping right into the middle of the action. Then, go on to illustrate how the event took place, devoting details only to significant moments. (Life hack: Keep in mind that this is also a story and not a novel, so don’t go all Charles Dickens on this.)
“The day was May 28, 2014. My doctor told my parents that I would need Spinal Fusion Surgery with rods and screws, and it had to happen quickly. Before surgery, the doctor suggested strength training for the muscles in my back so that I’d recover faster. I immediately went to the local gym and began working with a personal trainer, Justin. I learned so much from him including how the body works and how surgery takes time to heal. After surgery, I knew that I wanted to use my experience to help others, just like Justin helped me. My ultimate goal is to own my own gym to help others, just like Justin helped me. I will also include a nutritional supplement line to make sure clients are fit inside and out. I know I will successfully reach my goals!
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Be sure to describe the event or experience that caused you to realize the gravity of the problem, the specific actions you took to plan or execute your solution (i.e., call sponsors, raise money, design graphics, speak at events), explain why solving your problem is so critical, and identify the tangible change your solution would bring to people’s lives. For example, if you care deeply about drug education because of a past experience with a friend or family member, you could outline a plan to bring young-adult speakers to your school to positively influence your peers and stress the real dangers of drugs.
Answer: This is totally normal! But feeling that you have more to say than you can fit is often a result of insufficient paring-down—that is, you probably haven’t chosen the right specific prompt to get your personal statement into particular, small territory. That’s the key: your job is to find the right question to answer, using all the prewriting tips and tricks and exercises we’ve outlined here. With the right question, you can use your Common App Essay as a window into who you are, rather than feeling burdened by the belief that you must communicate your ‘whole self’ in your application. You can’t box yourself up and hand your soul to the admission committee—but you can use those 650 words to give them some insight into some of the most important parts of you.
This is the first stanza of a piece of slam poetry my friend and I wrote and performed at our school’s rendition of TED Talks. Over lunch one day, we discovered we shared a common passion—an insistence on equality in all forms, feminism in particular. We discussed the difficulty of combating social issues, but agreed that spreading awareness was one effective method. This casual exchange evolved into a project involving weeks of collaboration. We realized that together we could make a far greater impact than we ever could have individually, so we composed a ten-minute poem aimed at inspiring people to consider important issues. We began by drafting stanzas, simultaneously editing one another’s writing, and later progressed to memorization, practicing together until our alternating lines flowed and phrases spoken together were completely synchronized. The performance was both memorable and successful, but more importantly, this collaboration motivated us to move forward to establish the Equality Club at our school. Sophomore year, our club volunteered with organizations promoting gender equality, the highlight of the year helping at a marathon for recovering abuse victims. Junior year, we met with our head of school to convey our goals, outline plans and gain support for the coming year, in which we held fundraisers for refugees while educating students. This year we are collaborating with the Judicial Committee to reduce the escalating use of racial slurs at school stemming from a lack of awareness within the student body. From this experience, I learned that it is possible to reach so many more people when working together rather than apart. It also taught me that the most crucial aspect of collaborating is believing in the same cause; the details will come as long as there is a shared passion.
Tips to consider: This is an opportunity to describe your academic and future professional interests. You may not yet be 100% certain about what you want to do, but is there a particular field that you think you want to work in, or a certain path you want to pursue after college? How have your interests and experiences influenced your choice of majors or your plans to explore in college?