Your admissions essay should convey your unique voice.
Many college admissions applications require one or more personal essays. Each essay should convey your writing strength, personality, leadership, unique talent/experience/perspective, humor, and insight. This is not a boring English class essay that you bang out in a half hour. It should “sing,” so that the admissions officer who reads it sings your praises.
The University of California has gone from the personal statement to personal insight questions; freshman applicants now choose four of eight prompts and write no more than 350 words each. (For more info see
The Common Application, used by 619 colleges, mostly private and many of them exclusive, requires one essay on one of the following (see also http://www.commonapp.org/):
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- 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?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Some of those Common Application schools may require one or more additional essays; it is your responsibility to read the application carefully, so as to make sure of all the requirements for admission.
So, how would you approach one of these topics? Let me first mention what you should NOT do:
- Do not just list a resume of accomplishments.
- Do not create a fictional self and write what you think the reader would want to hear.
- Do not write an unfocused mess.
- Do not speak in vague generalities.
- Do not try to include all your memorized SAT words.
- Do not turn in an essay that has not been carefully reviewed, edited, and proofread.
Instead, follow these guidelines:
- Focus your essay. If it’s too broad and all-inclusive, it will sound like a list.
- Prove your overall thesis with evidence, such as detailed events, examples, facts, quotations. Convey your personality by giving your reader some insight about what your world and experience have been.
- Be specific with this evidence. Don’t just keep saying vague generalities, such as “I am a leader, because I know how to lead people . . . blah, blah, blah . . . .” Instead, here’s a great example that got one girl into UC Berkeley: “Over the last two years as S Club president, I learned that leadership responsibilities include making others accountable. When several members who had committed to the Relay for Life said they couldn’t attend the Relay, I told them, ‘That’s okay, but you will have to get someone to take your place instead.’ That was the year our team expanded from eight members to fourteen, and we raised over $1,500 to donate to the American Cancer Society.” Notice how she used details to develop her claim about leadership.
- Follow all instructions.
- Allow the prompt itself to be a mini-outline. Include all the parts requested in the prompt.
- Be yourself, but be the best of yourself there is. Show your humor. Use imagery and creative language.
- Be accurate. If you don’t fully remember details about a historical figure or fictional character, do research before you write. This is NOT first draft writing — the reader will expect time and care put into this essay.
- VERY IMPORTANT: Convey your own distinctive VOICE. Writer’s Digest suggests you think about your own distinct perspective and language and then speak from your heart.
Should Mom or your English teacher read this essay? Definitely! And in this case, I’d suggest you ask the English teacher, not your counselor, to review it for you. Your counselor probably does not have a background in writing instruction. Reserve a day to work on your essay(s), set it aside, and then review it later for a fresh perspective.
What college admissions essay topic are you working on?