You’ve taken the tests, requested the recommendations, completed the common app, and now it’s finally time to refocus on what you’ve been putting off: the essay.
While most students spend days, sometimes weeks, perfecting their personal statements, admissions officers only spend about three to five minutes actually reading them, according to Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon.
High school seniors are faced with the challenge of summarizing the last 17 years into 600 words, all while showcasing their “unique” personality against thousands of other candidates.
“It’s hard to find a balance between sounding professional and smart without using all of those long words,” says Lily Klass, a senior at Milford High School in Milford, Mass. “I’m having trouble reflect myself without sounding arrogant or rude or anything like that.”
The following tips will help applicants make the leap from ‘average’ to ‘accepted’:
1. Open with an anecdote.
Since the admissions officers only spend a brief amount of time reviewing stories, it’s pivotal that you engage them from the very beginning.
“Instead of trying to come up with gimmicky, catchy first lines, start by sharing a moment,” says Janine Robinson, writing coach and founder of Essay Hell. “These mini stories naturally grab the reader … it’s the best way to really involve them in the story.”
Let the moment you choose be revealing of your personality and character. Describe how it shaped who you are today and who you will be tomorrow.
2. Put yourself in the school’s position.
At the end of the day, colleges want to accept someone who is going to graduate, be successful in the world and have the university associated with that success. In your essay, it is vital that you present yourself as someone who loves to learn, can think critically and has a passion for things—anything.
“Colleges always say to show your intellectual vitality and curiosity,” Robinson says. “They want kids who are going to hit the ground running—zoom to class and straight out into the world. They want them hungry and self-aware.
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3. Stop trying so hard.
“One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying too hard to impress,” Robinson says. “Trust that it is those every day, specific subjects that are much more interesting to read about.”
Colleges are tired of reading about that time you had a come-from-behind- win in the state championship game or the time you built houses in Ecuador, according to Robinson. Get creative!
Furthermore, you’re writing doesn’t have to sound like Shakespeare. “These essays should read like smart, interesting 17-year-olds wrote them,” says Lacy Crawford, former independent college application counselor and author of Early Decision. “A sense of perspective and self-awareness is what’s interesting.
4. Ditch the thesaurus. Swap sophistication for self-awareness
There is a designated portion of the application section designated to show off your repertoire of words. Leave it there.
On the personal essay, write how you would speak. Using “SAT words” in your personal statement sounds unnatural and distances the reader from you.
“I think most students are torn between a pathway dividing a diary entry and a press release. It’s supposed to be marketing document of the self,” Crawford says.
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5. Write about what matters to you, not what matters to them
Crawford recommends students begin by answering the question, “if you had 10 minutes to talk to them in person, what would you say?” The admissions teams are looking for authenticity and quality of thinking.
“Theoretically, I think anything could be ‘the perfect topic, as long as you demonstrate how well you think, your logic and ability to hold readers’ attention,” Crawford says.
6. Read the success stories.
“The best advice is to read essays that have worked,” Robinson says. “You’ll be surprised to see that they’re not winning Pulitzers; they are pieces of someone. You want your story to be the one she doesn’t put down.”
Once you find a topic you like, sit down and write for an hour or so. It shouldn’t take longer than that. When you write from your heart, words should come easily.
Rawlins recommends showing the essay to a family member or friend and ask if it sounds like the student. “Take a few days and come back to it. But only do that once,” Rawlins says. “Reading it over and over again will only drive you nuts.”
7. Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.
While colleges tend to nod to disadvantaged students, roughing up your background won’t help your cause.
“It’s less about the topic and more about how you frame it and what you have to say about it, Robinson says. “The better essay is has the most interesting thing to say, regardless of a topic that involves a crisis or the mundane.”
The essays serve as a glimpse into how your mind works, how you view the world and provides perspective. If you have never had some earth shattering experience that rocked your world, don’t pretend you did. Your insights will be forced and disingenuous.
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8. Follow the instructions.
While the directions on the applications may sound generic, and even repetitive after applying to a variety of schools, Rawlins points out that every rhyme has a reason.
“They have to know that college put a lot of thought into the instructions we give them—so please follow them!” he says. “We’ve given a lot of thought to the words we use. We want what we ask for.”
9. Use this space to tell them what your application can’t.
Most colleges don’t have the time or bandwidth to research each individual applicant. They only know what you put in front of them. “If they don’t tell us something, we can’t connect the dots,” Rawlins says. “We’re just another person reading their material.”
Like Crawford, he recommends students imagining they are sitting next to him in his office and responding to the question, “What else do I need to know?” And their essays should reflect how they would respond.
At the end of the day, however, Rawlins wants students to know that the personal essay is just another piece of the larger puzzle. “They prescribe way too much importance to the essay,” Rawlins says. “It makes a massive difference—good or bad—to very few out there, so keep it in context.”
Paige Carlotti is a senior at Syracuse University.
admissions essay, college applications, Paige Carlotti, writing, VOICES FROM CAMPUS
A “Me in 30 Seconds” statement is a simple way to present to someone else a balanced understanding of who you are. It piques the interest of a listener who invites you to “Tell me a little about yourself,” and it provides a brief and compelling answer to the question “Why should I hire you?”
What Should it Include?
When well crafted, your “Me in 30 Seconds” statement will include:
- A brief personal introduction that includes your career objective or the type of position you want.
- Three or four specific accomplishments that prove you meet or exceed the requirements for that position.
- A few character traits or adaptive skills that set you apart from typical applicants.
When networking, finish your “Me in 30 Seconds” statement with probing questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no” to start a conversation that may lead to referrals or job opportunities.
WHO do you know who works in _______________?
WHAT businesses are in the area that _______________?
WHO do you know who knows a lot of people?
Other Points to Consider
Keep your “Me in 30 Seconds” statement brief. People generally listen effectively only 30 to 60 seconds, and they appreciate concise responses to questions. This indicates that you are clearly focused and waste no time getting to the point.
- Speak in the present tense to show that your skills are current and applicable in today’s market.
- Remember your audience. Adjust the level of detail and industry jargon you use according to the interest and experience of the person you are addressing.
- Avoid common claims such as: “I’m trustworthy, loyal, helpful, courteous, kind,” and so on. Not only are these claims made by most job seekers, but without detailed examples, they don’t convey your value to a potential employer.
- Make your “Me in 30 Seconds” statement natural.
It is a genuine form of communication that will help you organize everything you are into brief, coherent thoughts.
Sample “Me in 30 Seconds” statements for networking:
“My name is Randy Patterson, and I’m currently looking for a job in youth services. I have 10 years of experience working with youth agencies. I have a bachelor’s degree in outdoor education. I raise money, train leaders, and organize units. I have raised over $100,000 each of the last six years. I consider myself a good public speaker, and I have a good sense of humor. “Who do you know who works with youth?”
“My name is Lucas Martin, and I enjoy meeting new people and finding ways to help them have an uplifting experience. I have had a variety of customer service opportunities, through which I was able to have fewer returned products and increased repeat customers, when compared with co-workers. I am dedicated, outgoing, and a team player. Who could I speak with in your customer service department about your organization’s customer service needs?”
Sample “Me in 30 Seconds” statement for an interview:
“People find me to be an upbeat, self-motivated team player with excellent communication skills. For the past several years I have worked in lead qualification, telemarketing, and customer service in the technology industry. My experience includes successfully calling people in director-level positions of technology departments and developing viable leads. I have a track record of maintaining a consistent call and activity volume and consistently achieving the top 10 percent in sales, and I can do the same thing for your company.”
“I am a dedicated person with a family of four. I enjoy reading, and the knowledge and perspective that my reading gives me has strengthened my teaching skills and presentation abilities. I have been successful at raising a family, and I attribute this success to my ability to plan, schedule, and handle many different tasks at once. This flexibility will help me in the classroom, where there are many different personalities and learning styles.”
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