When writing your essays for college applications, there are a number of ways to go wrong-- and some key ways to go right. Most students spend the first three years of high-school learning how to write a five-paragraph essay. But how are you supposed to write a personal statement?? When sitting down to write a “personal essay” as prompted, many students feel at a loss as to how to organize their thoughts. Described below is a tried-and-true method that will showcase your strengths as a student while still providing an effective answer to the prompt.
In order to explain this, it might help to have an example student, and an example admissions reader. Let’s call our student Bob, and our admissions reader Laura. (Both great people.) Let’s talk about Laura, first of all.
When Laura reads a student’s personal statement, she’s not really interested in what prompt that student responded to. Behind every essay prompt, admissions readers like Laura are really asking: "Why should I accept THIS student?" Essays that go in the “YES” pile show that the student deserves to be accepted even above other qualified candidates. Some students have written essays that show they are bright, creative, motivated, and curious people; Laura puts those essays in the “Yes” pile. Some students have done their research into Laura’s University and make a point to showcase that they are exactly the kind of particular student her University wants; Laura puts those into the “Heck yes” pile. Other essays fail to show that the student is college-ready. Those essays go into the “No” pile.
Now let’s talk about Bob. Bob has decided to respond to the Common App Prompt 2: “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” Let’s say Student Bob wants to write about the time he got caught cheating as a freshman and intends to communicate how that moment compelled him to learn with integrity throughout the rest of his high-school career. As we go over the recommended outline below, keep that in mind.
OPEN WITH A HOOK: Let’s picture our admissions reader, Laura, trying to focus on her 60th essay of the day. She’s got her third cup of coffee in hand and is thinking about the grocery run she’s got to make after work. “Focus,” she tells herself. She picks up the next application and squints. “Student Bob.” With a sigh, she turns to the essay.
Now: which of the lines below is best to capture Laura’s attention?
Option 1: “When I was a freshman, I experienced a moment of failure that I will write about below.”
Option 2: “My teacher’s eyes locked with mine and narrowed. Instantly I could tell that she knew. My face flushed red and I felt sweat prickle all over my scalp. The paper Mrs. Miley dropped onto my test confirmed it. See me after class, she’d written in red.”
Which is more interesting? If you picked Option 2, chances are good that you’ll be graduating in June. For the sake of the tired admissions readers receiving your essay, you need to provide a hook that will instantly engage them. Do you want your application to be given the attention it deserves? Bob sure does. Then make sure you get your reader to care about your story immediately. Open with a sensory image, or an attention-getting phrase. "Slice" directly into the story so that they're immediately engaged.
EXPAND THE STORY: Now that you've got the reader’s attention, help your proverbial Laura understand the whole picture. What's the context of this moment? Let’s return to Student Bob. In his case, he should give us the background that lead him to this moment. What motivated him to cheat? What fears were in place that prevented him from doing an assignment honestly? What were his thoughts when he got caught by his teacher? He’s “sliced” into his story, but now he needs to bring his reader up to speed and answer any initial questions his hook created.
WHAT ELSE THIS AFFECTS: Continue to expand the story, and help your reader see what other areas of your life this touched. Give us the whole picture of who you are, and begin to show us how this changed you. In his third paragraph, Student Bob is going to want to show a fuller picture of his story. Maybe his parents put a lot of pressure on him to succeed and he doesn’t want to let them down. Maybe he spends all his time after school playing basketball and didn’t bother to study for the test he cheated on. By showing other areas of life impacted by this story, we’re beginning to see Bob as a well-rounded person: “Oh, he plays basketball too. And oh, he has a close relationship with his parents.” Perhaps in this third paragraph, Bob also describes an inspiring conversation he had with his teacher where she addressed some of his fears; maybe after that, he made a resolution to change his cheatin’ ways. Laura is now thinking, “Oh, he is teachable and willing to listen to advice. Oh, he is motivated to implement healthy changes.” This third paragraph should start to bring in your strengths, and turn the essay in a positive direction.
HOW THIS CHANGED YOU: This is the place to really showcase your strengths. Using the story you've been telling, show us how you matured, strengthened, and developed as a result. Sometimes, it can be hard to really play up your strengths without sounding arrogant. But Bob doesn’t have to worry about that. Why? Because he started off his essay being candid about how he failed; that means, when he starts to describe his successes, he looks like the come-back kid, and we’re rooting for him to succeed! In this paragraph, Bob is going to want to use tons of evidence to prove he changed. First he’s going to describe his new study methods, and time management strategies. Then, he’s going to mention specific classes he started getting better grades in, like Biology. THEN (this is the part that moves Laura’s hand towards the “YES” pile), he writes about how his new focus in Biology made him so interested in the subject that he started researching Biology concepts like Immunotherapy outside of class. (Admissions readers like Laura LOVE hearing that you did research outside of class.) From there, Bob discusses an internship he found doing DNA research and talks about the tutoring club he started after school for other would-be cheaters like himself.
CONCLUDE: Tie up the essay by looking towards your future. How has this experienced prepared you for success in college? Student Bob returns to his original narrative and reflects on how much he’s changed since Freshman year. He mentions some of the specific lessons he’s learned that have prepared him for higher learning. Bob ends in an artful way, bringing up an image from his hook: “I recently collected a letter of recommendation from the same teacher who caught me cheating in 9th grade. She’d paper-clipped a note to the envelope with a new red-inked message. I’m proud of you, she wrote. I’m so glad I’ve learned enough in four years to change those words in red.” As Admissions Reader Laura finishes the essay, she tears up, grabs a tissue, and slaps Bob’s essay in the “Heck Yes” pile.
First: know that, behind every essay prompt, the admissions readers are really asking: "Why should I accept THIS student?" You need to show them in your essay that you have the qualities they are looking for-- and if you don't already know what those are, research the school to find out what kind of character qualities they value in students.
HOOK: Open with a sensory image, or an attention-getting phrase. Admissions officers read tons of these essays, so you need to make sure yours gets them interested right away. "Slice" directly into the story so that they're immediately engaged.
EXPAND THE STORY: Now that you've got their attention, help us understand the whole picture. What's the context of this moment?
WHAT ELSE THIS AFFECTS: Continue to expand the story, and help us see what other areas of your life this touched. Give us the whole picture of who you are, and begin to show us how this changed you.
HOW THIS CHANGED YOU: This is the place to showcase your strengths. Using the story you've been telling, show us how you matured, strengthened, and developed as a result. Make sure to provide evidence and specific details so that your changes are verified with facts.
CONCLUDE: Tie up the essay by looking towards your future. How has this experienced prepared you for success at college?