College Admissions Essays and Personal Statements:
How to Make Your Topic Fly
The New York Times sponsors a blog exclusively for college-bound students. It’s called The Choice. Just last month, a student shared the topic she chose for her Common Application essay, and why she stuck with it even when friends and family didn’t share her enthusiasm. The student, named Sush Krishnamoorthy, is hoping her essay will get her into Stanford. Her topic: a 24-hour plane flight she took by herself. Sush didn’t share many other details about her topic (or essay), but I think it’s a good one. Here are five reasons why I love her idea:
1. Her topic is “mundane.” In her post, Sush said she felt pressure to find an “offbeat” topic for her CommonApp essay. Often, students believe they need to write about topics or experiences that would impress their readers. The opposite, however, is true. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but writing about “mundane” or everyday topics almost always results in more engaging and memorable essays. Learn more about how to find everyday topics and why they are so powerful in my post, The Power of Mundane Topics. (more…)
This fall, one of my tutoring students taught me a lesson about how cheating on these essays can backfire–even if you don’t get caught.
He wanted to write his essay for the Common App on a trip he took to Guatamala to work with poor children. At one point, he confessed that he had not gone on that trip, but that his father had gone.
When I looked at him as though I thought he was nuts, he told me, in his defense, “I helped him pack!”
What? Are you kidding me?
This student kept insisting that he had no other interesting experiences that he could write about. (If you have read anything on my blog, you know that everyone has umpteen topic possibilities, and that you don’t need to travel the globe to have them.)
I gave him a brief lecture about how this was completely unethical, but he only smiled and told me that “all my friends are doing this.” (If this situation weren’t more complicated than I’m describing here, I would have booted him out on the spot.)
College Admissions Essays:
How To Fine Edit Your College Application Essay
You are finally finished with your essay. It’s time to copy it into the online application and send it off. You’ve worked hard. Why not make sure it’s fabulous? Follow this checklist to double check that it’s as good as it should be:
- Read your prompt (the question) one more time. Often a prompt will ask you to answer more than one question, or address several points. Make sure you address or answer them all!
- Did you make your point? (Yes, that’s the same thing as your “main point.”) You should be able to state it in a sentence or two. And it should be stated somewhere in your essay as well. If you can’t do this, chances are your essay is too broad, and too broad means boring.
- Do you prove the (main) point you are making in your essay? Did you provide examples as “evidence”?
- When you give examples in your essay, or describe something, are you specific? Use details!
College Admissions Essay
Title or No Title?
I like titles. But they need to be good. A title should be short and witty. Not cutesy. The tone of the title and essay should match. The best ones don’t give away too much about the essay, and only hint at what’s to come. Do not use questions. And don’t even think about a title that sounds anything like “My College Admissions Essay.”
Now, how do you think of a title, a good title? Brainstorm ideas by playing off words that link to your theme, message or topic.
Example: A student wrote an essay about how he broke his wrist playing football, and how he learned more about the game sitting on the bench that season. Theme: How bad things can result in good things/How you can learn from a new perspective. (This “theme” is also a Universal Truth or “life lesson”. Check out this post on Universal Truths to see if you have one hidden in your essay.)
Make a quick list of words from the essay that you could play around with: break, benched, football, sports, view, injury, hurt, new perspective…Let yourself “free associate,” which means you list key words and sayings that come to mind when you say one of them, such as “break.” Try the word in different tenses, in common phrases, in pop culture phrases (titles of movies, books, songs, etc.) and even clichés can work. Also, skim your essay for catchy phrases that might work. Try mixing up a couple keys words to make your own phrase. You can also use the Internet to brainstorm ideas–just Google your keywords or phrases. Have fun with it.
Breaking Away (movie title)
The Big Break
UPDATE: The University of California announced NEW essay prompts for 2016-17. Read about how to answer them HERE.
This post is now outdated. The information is no longer relevant!!
College Admissions Essays
How to Answer Prompt #1 for the College Application Essay
for the University of California:
“Describe the World You Come From”
Only read this if you are applying to a UC (University of California school, such as UCLA, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Irvine, Santa Cruz, etc.).
There are two college essay prompts for their required personal statements for incoming freshmen.
Here is some advice regarding the first one:
Prompt #1 (freshman applicants)
Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
Read this closely. Note that it asks you to describe one thing and then tell about another–so there are two points you need to address in your essay.
When you describe the world you come from, think of this in a figurative sense.
Do not just write about your hometown.
Instead of the word “world,” try substituting it for the word “community” or “background.”
As a “community,” almost anything can be your world (a mini-community of shared activities, people, passions or places), from your yoga class to your bedroom to your job washing dishes to your grandmother’s kitchen making tortilla soup to your two moms.
It’s wide open. Just pick a topic.
Also, the examples they give, “family, community or school” are just that, examples.
Do not write a little about each of these.
And do not just write about “my family” or “my school.” Way too broad.
Write about your uncle’s magic shop in an underprivileged neighborhood, or the Scrabble club you started at your school even though you are the world’s worst speller, or the old movie theater in your town where you first fell in love with cinema and the power of a visual story.
(Check out the link at bottom of this post to my Tumbler blog with images and quotes to spark ideas for what makes your world.)
Quickie World-As-A-Community-Finder: What do you like/love to do? Where do you do it? Who do you do it with? Bingo! You have just landed on one of your worlds!
Another way to think about your world would be to show how your background has been challenging on some level–and how that has shaped and defined who you are.
In a way, your world is your life with its unique set of issues, obstacles or challenges.
Think of the saying: “Welcome to my world.”
If you have one piece of your life that shapes your “world” in a major way—something from your personal, cultural, educational, etc. background—and that colleges would understand you better if they knew what that was like, consider writing about it.
The world of living with two gay dads.
The world of living with an autistic sister.
The world of living with a bi-polar mom.
The world of living with immigrant grandparents.
The world of living on food stamps.
The world of living with perfectionists/slobs/religious nuts/alcoholics/seven siblings/foster home/military parents/home-schooling/white parents and you are asian/constant moving/famous mom, etc.
To write this type of “world” essay, pick a real-life example of a “time” in your life/world when that issue affected you, start your essay describing that specific incident or moment, then go into how dealing with that reality has affected you.
You might be surprised what comes out of you–and how it makes you feel.
I have had students who have written about almost all of these “life” issues.
Their essays have been intense and often soul-searching, but also memorable and meaningful.
Although I think the bulk of your college application essay should focus on this world, and how it has affected you, also address the second part about your dreams and aspirations.
This has the potential to be general and boring, so make sure to talk specifically about how you will apply the lessons (values, skills, ideas, insights, etc.) you have learned in your world to your future.
(Hint: It wouldn’t hurt if you can show how these dreams and aspirations link to your specific college goals. For example, if your “world” is hanging out in your parent’s garage fixing an old truck, mention how the problem-solving skills you learned there will help your aspirations to be some type of engineer one day.)
If you are one of those A-type overachievers (hey, it’s OK, these UCs are insanely competitive!) who still feels insecure about understanding the UC prompts, check out this 50-minute video of a counselor guru spelling it all out at a convention for college admissions folks.
Just don’t let her freak you out too much. Definitely good info here, but I say overkill.
It’s also from 2007, though prompts are the same. Your choice: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zo6NI4wHf4&feature=related
Here are some more helpful posts for answering UC Prompt #1:
See if this video from the UC Admissions Department helps.
I think it might give you an idea of what they want from the two personal statements, but not a lot on how to deliver it. That part is left up to you, as far as I can tell.
(Tips from video: “Be thoughtful, clear, succinct and provide depth.” “Just be honest.” “Focus on a strength.” “Write about what makes you different.” “I wrote from my heart.” All great stuff—the only thing missing is any direction, instruction or support for students on how to do all this in 500 words.)
*Also, if you are still looking for a “world” to write about, there are lots of ideas in the comments. Definitely worth scrolling through to see what others are thinking of writing about. Thanks for sharing all your ideas!
I believe you can write these UC essays on your own. But if you feel like you would like my personal help with them or other college application essays, find details on my Services page.
Best of luck! Janine Robinson
College Application Essays:
They Are Easier Than You Think!
A friend just told me his daughter was not going to apply to the UC (University of California) schools because she would need to write two college admissions essays.
Instead, she was going to stick to the Cal state schools, which don’t require essays.
What a tragedy, I thought.
These aren’t that hard to write!!
Here’s what I would say to try to change his mind, and tell his daughter:
These college application essays (also known as personal statements) don’t have to be perfect.
Shoot for mediocre if it takes the pressure off. Just find a little story to tell about yourself, something that happened one time, and pound it out.
Stick to the first person; describe what happened.
Then, explain what it meant to you, how you thought about it, what you learned, how it changed you (even if just a little bit.)
Voila! An essay!
Of course, if you can go back, re-read it, take out the boring parts, amp it up with colorful details, cut extra words, carve out a main point, read it out loud, listen to the flow, find a nifty metaphor to life, allude to interesting ideas, fix it up, work on it—you will have an even better essay.
And did I mention all my other informative posts on this blog are designed to help you write a killer essay?
(Look for specific topics in the “Find Help By Topic” listing on the right.)
Check out my super helpful Jumpstart Guide to help get you started on your college application essay or personal statement!
College Application Essays
How Far Out Should You Go?
Interesting post on the New York Times’ blog on college admissions, called The Choice.
The article was about whether to include your random interests–ranging from an obsession with Lady Gaga to riding 100 bus routes in Seattle to a collection of old National Geographic mags–in your college applications.
The post quotes college counselors advising students to include their “hidden extracurriculars” in the “interests” section, as though that’s really radical. Depending on the interest, I believe it could work best as an essay topic.
In my opinion, what you care about, and spend your time pursuing, tells more about you than recounting your mission trip to Costa Rica or the time you won the big cross country race.
If you write an essay about an offbeat topic (a passion, an obsession, a hobby…), chances are you not only will reveal a telling piece of your personality, but also show the reader how you think and what you value.
WARNING: Do not simply try to be cute, odd or quirky. Not matter how offbeat your topic, make sure your points remain serious and thoughtful. Show restraint.
Check out these 5 Top Tips on Finding Topics.
(Personally, I would avoid a sensational topic such as Lady Gaga, since she is distractingly bizarre and it would be hard to keep your focus on serious issues.)
Check out this post to find my super helpful brainstorm guide on finding topics for your college application essays! Good luck!
This might be overkill, but a company called EnglishClub.com posted an entire, online crash-course in writing college admissions essays on their site. It claims to be from a professional essay-writing service (EssaysEdge) that you would pay big bucks to use. Click on the car crash for the course:
You don’t necessarily need to read or work the entire course, but click on topics that might help you. I thought their advice on writing conclusions, “Conclusions: Do’s and Don’ts” was pretty solid.
College Admissions Essays
A Step-By-Step Guide to Telling Your Story
Step 1: Write down 3-5 “defining qualities” about yourself.
Think of how one of your parents would sum you up to a stranger.
My Julie, why, she’s creative, ambitious, caring and has a mean stubborn streak. (You can use short phrases, too. “always tries hard,” “takes risks,” “is a fast study.”)
Step 2: Take one of those qualities and try to think of a time–it doesn’t have to be earth-shaking and probably only lasted about 5 minutes or so–when that quality was challenged, or formed, or tested, proven, or affected/changed.
HUGE HINT: Think about a problem, or an obstacle, conflict, challenge or some type of trouble, that involved you and that quality.
Step 3: If you can find an interesting moment, incident, experience or story to convey about a time when things went wrong for you, BINGO, you could have found a great topic!
ANOTHER HUGE HINT: The incident does not have to be when you fell off a cliff or were hit by a car.
Problems can take many forms, including a personal idiosyncrasy, or phobia, a challenge, or something (big or little, real or in your mind) that tried to stop you from doing something you wanted.
I will stop here. But in a nutshell, you can now relay the problem (in story form, called an “anecdote”) and then explain what you learned, and why, by dealing with it.
Yes, it’s a bit formulaic, but this might help you get going. Read my other posts, How to Write an Anecdote, Show don’t Tell, and Mundane Topics for more great advice.
Use the “Find Help By Topic” index (over to the top right) to find the posts that will help you the most. Some are about finding topics (Do you know the secret of using a “mundane” topic, yet?). Others have great writing advice for once you start your rough draft (The Ladder of Abstraction can help you structure your personal narrative!). A few are about polishing your essay. And there are many more in between.
If you have the time, I would actually recommend starting at the very end of this blog and scroll and skim through them, the older posts. Some of my best stuff is way down there.
Don’t want to pressure you, but the clock is ticking!!