College admissions officers consistently rank the personal essay as one of the most important factors in their decision to admit or reject students. It's one of the few parts of the application in which an applicant represents herself or himself not in dry statistics, but in her or his own words and ideas. A well-written personal essay transforms a student from a package of information into a real person for the committee, whose essential job it is to stand in judgment. No matter how smart and successful a student you have been, if you don't write a personal essay that quickly and effectively reveals you to be passionate, intellectually curious, and a person of strong character, you won't be asked to become a member of the university community. So, as you write your personal essay, consider these tips:
1. Think about your audience and write for them. Who are they? What is their task? Under what conditions are they reading your essay? College admissions officers read thousands of essays from hopeful applicants. And they read them over the course of a few short weeks, often according to a set of criteria that have not been made public and that are designed to reduce the pile of applications in front of them to manageable size. With a maximum of 1000 words and no more than a minute or two to create an impression, you have to make the reader's job easy and interesting and give them reason to spend more time reviewing your application. Your writing must be clean, clear, well-organized, and easy-to-read. What's more, the content of the essay must be original, compelling, meaningful, and distinctive. And, because your readers need to assess your analytical and intellectual skills, your personal essay must display the rhetorical markers of a highly-skilled thinker and communicator.
2. The personal essay turns you into a real person for the admissions committee. The person you represent yourself to be in your essay must be authentically you. But that doesn't mean it should be your deepest, most intimate, inner-most self. You're applying to become a member of a pretty special and exclusive kind of community. One, like any other community, that seeks to perpetuate its most important values. Present the wrong you to the college or university community and you'll be rejected.
Instead, work hard to display essential personal qualities that are most relevant to the diverse missions of the college or university to which you are applying. Remember that universities and colleges are first and foremost institutions dedicated to the life of the mind. Words and ideas are passionately real at the university and are deeply integrated into the daily life of the people who live and work there. So any personal experience or ambition that you describe in your essay must become fodder for purposeful reflection that is of interest and use to university folk. You'll need to explain what your experience or ambition should mean to someone committed to an intellectual approach to life.
3. The personal essay is a writing genre, which means that its readers have concrete expectations of what should and should not be included in it. Ask those of your friends who have gotten great packages from the schools you want to attend to see their personal essays. Write or call the admissions department of your target schools to see if they have samples available. Use the internet to find successful samples. Prof. Allen Grove's website is a reputable place to start. He not only provides strong sample essays but explanations of how and why they work.
Once you've found great samples, study them carefully to learn how to build an essay that makes all the right moves, while signaling your originality and distinctiveness. Remember, even very proficient professional writers struggle as they learn to write in a new genre to a new audience. You may need to try (and fail) several times before you figure out how to write a truly great and authentic personal essay, one that will set you apart from the thousands of your competitors.
Dr. Eric Drown has helped students succeed at The George Washington University, UCLA, the University of Minnesota, and other great schools.
For more help writing your personal essay, call or write CaMDEN College Support Services. We offer a variety of quality programs-from reviewing and editing to start-to-finish personal essay coaching services-that will ensure that you give yourself the best chance possible of getting into the college of your dreams.
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