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College personal statements have a reputation for being stressful to write. Not a completely undeserved reputation, but one that is grossly exaggerated in our view. Why? Much of the stress from writing the essay stems from failing to begin on time and not appreciating the opportunity that essays offer students. With that in mind, we offer rising seniors some advice on what function essays serve in the college application process and how they can get started on their essays early to reduce the trepidation and stress associated with writing college personal statements. 

What is the purpose of a personal statement?

The personal statement actually serves several purposes. First, it serves to provide additional information about the applicant to the colleges. It should give a sense of who the applicant is, what makes him or her tick, and what his or her passions are. Second, it demonstrates an applicant’s writing ability. Knowing how to write is an important skill for college and beyond. Colleges know that writing skills will improve at college—that is partly what it is for!—but they want to know that a student can string together a reasonably coherent essay on a subject they know well—in this case, the students themselves. Finally, a college personal statement will give colleges a sense of how a student thinks. Students will be challenged to think critically in college, and essays give admissions officers a sense of how an applicant’s thought process works. These are the purposes they serve for the college.

For students, college essays are a golden opportunity to separate themselves from the pack and make a positive impression on college admissions officers just by being themselves.

Should I just mention my accomplishments and activities in the essay?

No. Students will need to answer a question and tell a story about themselves that sheds some light on who they are as people. While the different personal statement question prompts are phrased slightly differently, in all cases students should tell a story about themselves (as it relates to the question prompt they’ve chosen to answer).

Simply restating accomplishments and activities listed elsewhere on the application will not impress colleges. First, it will not answer the question prompt (which students must do to demonstrate that they can follow basic instructions). Secondly, essays should tell colleges something that they don’t already know about the applicant, or at least address something that may have been mentioned elsewhere on the application from an entirely different angle.

Essays are an opportunity for students to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. It is a good idea to use that opportunity!

Why should rising seniors begin now? I can crank out an essay the night before a high school assignment is due with the best of them!

Because college essays are an important opportunity for students to present themselves beyond their academic statistics, scores, extracurriculars and what others say about them in letters of recommendation, it is a bad strategy to leave them to the last minute. Essays are a chance to communicate who an applicant really is. Colleges want to see what excites students and how they think about themselves and the world. They also want to read thoughtful essays. In order to make sure that essays communicate what students want them to say, and to ensure that they come across as thoughtful (and, believe us, college admissions officers can tell when an essay has been rushed at the last moment!), students will need to work on their essays and revise them until the essays are fully fleshed out.

Revision is a crucial part of the writing process. It allows students to delve deeper into what they want to communicate in their essays. Nobody—and we mean nobody—can write a perfect essay on the first go-round. In order to write a good essay that meets the needs of the essay—that is, a thoughtful and well-written essay that reveals something about who the student is as a person—students must spend time thinking about their essays, working on them, and revising them. Writing several drafts helps students think through ideas and present them more effectively on the page.

Plus, starting earlier on essays can keep the stress out of writing college essays. By starting early, students can take more time to think about the essay and find more time to work on it, even when other things are going on. Students generally have more time in the summer and can schedule in time for work and fun, whereas during the school year, students have far more commitments and less time to dedicate to really thinking and working on their essays.

What can I do right now?

  • Think about which essay prompt is most applicable to your circumstances.
  • Brainstorm possible ideas for answering the chosen question prompt.
  • Think about what the reader (college admissions officers) should take away from the essay. In other words, what do you want to emphasize about yourself in the essay?
  • Think of specific ideas for examples to include that represent the qualities you decide to emphasize in your essay. The more detailed, the better.
  • Keep records of all of the above.

The above suggestions are a few ways students can get started on their essays over the summer. Once they have accomplished the above, students will be in an excellent position to write their essays come fall with much less stress.

Happy essay writing! J

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