Many years ago, when I first started helping students through the college application process, I found myself up late one night, editing essays. I had read three or four at that point; my eyes had that burny-glaze that comes from staring at the computer screen for too long, and all of the claims the students made were starting to blur together. I opened the final essay of the night, expecting more of the same and suddenly, it was as if I’d been doused in a bucket of ice water. I was wide awake. The topic of this essay...was earwax.
I won’t get into the gory details. While I don’t condone--or at least don’t encourage--telling admissions officers about your bodily functions, there is an important lesson about college app personal statements to be taken from that brave student. It’s a lesson that almost every applicant with whom I’ve ever worked has needed to hear, and it has to do with understanding what the application essay is really for.
In the wake of this year’s Early Decision deadline, I’ve already seen many, many student essays. And the biggest mistake that students make is this: they write what they think a college wants to hear. Generally speaking, this approach produces formal, stilted essays, full of vocabulary words the student would never use, and covering topics that are so trite and immediately forgettable that they do the student no service at all. If your personal statement is about the American Dream, the importance of diversity, or why love matters, then chances are, it won't stand out.
The SAT scores, the transcript, the resume--those things all show what you are, and they tell a college whether or not you can go there--whether you will be able to handle the academics. The essay is the part of the application in which you actually get to show the college who you are. What are you like? What’s your personality? Would you make for a fun roommate? Be someone interesting to have in a class discussion? That’s what the essay is all about.
What’s more, you need to imagine what it’s like to be in the admissions officer’s shoes. Admissions officers have to read thousands of personal statements. Most of them all sound pretty much the same. So if an essay about earwax came across your desk...well, that’s an essay you’d be sure to remember.
Students, when you’re working on your essays, throw out any notion you had of what colleges will want to hear. What do you want to say? Challenge yourself to include specific stories and vibrant details from your experiences. Tell the reader exactly what it was like for you to be in those moments, or to do what you did. Give the reader touchstones, like the moment you first became interested in the hobby you’re describing, or how you felt when you first heard that you’d be moving to a new town in the middle of your junior year. You’ll be amazed; once you give yourself permission to just share your experience and tell it to the reader the way you’d tell it to a friend, writing the essay becomes so much easier.
Finally, take the time to make sure the reader knows why you chose this topic in the first place. Really dig deep, reflect on the experience, and try to understand how it changed you or what you learned from it. What about this makes it so significant in your life? For example, I worked recently with a new student who had an essay draft about how, because of her parents’ jobs, she changed schools three times between eighth grade and senior year. Initially, the essay was really just describing what those different schools were like; we saw what she’d been through, but it didn’t really teach us much about who she is; only what she’s done. So, we applied Katie’s famous So What? Test.
I changed schools three times.
Well, it was hard, because I kept leaving the friends that I’d made and feeling out of place.
So...for a while it made me a bit of a wallflower. I didn’t really reach out or try to make friends.
Well, now that I’m in a school I love, I’m not anymore.
I ended up meeting every kind of classmate across every walk of life. And now I know how to get along with and understand all of those people. And I’ve gained confidence to be in any situation and figure out how to make it work for me. And I think that will be important in college.
Your essay can’t just be reporting the news. Take the facts and then show us why they matter. Did this experience teach you to push yourself out of your comfort zone? Did you learn the pitfalls of leadership? Was this the moment when you discovered what you want to do in the future? Why? If you can use the So What? Test to get to that level, you’ll have an essay that really tells the admissions office who you are, what you value, and what kind of person you’ll be in the incoming class.
Bottom line: have fun and be yourself. No one likes a stuffy essay, and that’s just the kind that blurs into all the others. Think of the kinds of specific, interesting stories that are most memorable to you, and share them in your own voice. Give the reader that jolt awake that he or she needs. And find the surprising details or topic that make your essay truly stand out. You know. Like earwax.