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Guest Blog: Tips For Writing Your Personal Essay

Posted by on Tuesday, November 22, 2011 in Admissions Committee.

Once upon a time, way back when, I was a college counselor. And although you may not have thought about it, college counselors do a LOT of writing – about college applicants, mostly. Every fall, I was responsible for writing the secondary school report for upwards of 80 seniors. My boss’s advice was “don’t get it right, get it written,” and sometimes that’s good advice for writer’s-blocked students, too.

As an admissions reader, the essay is my favorite part of any application because it’s where I get to know the parts of you that you WANT me to know – your story captures my heart and revs me up to go into battle for you. No, it’s not going to outweigh the academic portrait created by your transcript, scores, and teacher recs; and no, it might not matter as much as the years you’ve spent in marching band or Best Buddies or student government. But humans are story-tellers and story-learners by nature, so stories can help us understand and care about people and events. Your “essay” or “personal statement” gives you an opportunity to tell your story and to make me care – that’s its purpose and its value.

A few thoughts:

  • Write about something that matters to you. It will be easier to write, and your interest and excitement will infuse your writing. If a specific question is asked, make sure you answer that question, but tell your own story at the same time.
  • Make it your goal to tell us something that we would not otherwise have learned about you – who you are; how you think; what you care deeply about.
  • Don’t worry if you feel you are an ordinary high school senior with an ordinary life devoid of excitement, glamour, tragedy, or obvious essay fodder. That’s true of most kids applying to most colleges. It’s not the topic that matters, it’s how you use it as a means to reveal yourself.
  • Be personal! We want to get to know you better, and this is your chance. It’s easier to care about personal stories than abstractions. If you want to write about social or political causes, make sure they are ones in which you are personally involved, and tell how.
  • Don’t bother reading all those books of college essays – they’ll just get you panicked, and honestly, every one of those books has loads of essays I don’t find very interesting. Every reader is different, and what moves one may leave another cold. There’s no magic template, so just tell us what YOU want to say.
  • Give yourself time to draft your essay. Here’s where that “don’t get it right, get it written” thing comes in! – just blitz away to get ideas onto paper. Then put it away and leave it for a while, and then come back to it. Does it sound like you? Does it say what you want me to learn about you? Is it honest? You could ask a few people to read your essay and give you feedback – does it sound like you? Does it flow smoothly? Ask your readers to react, not revise. We want to get to know 17-18-year-olds, not your parents/teachers/outside consultants: Make sure your essay is yours, and sounds it too.  Academic honesty leads the list of institutional values for colleges.
  • Recognize that I may well be reading your essay when I am dead tired. Take as long as you need to say what you wish to say, but don’t drone! 500 words should be plenty, but no, we’re not counting.
  • We do want to see evidence that you can both think and write at the level that we expect at Vanderbilt. Proofread for spelling, grammar, usage, neatness: be sure this essay represents your best writing ability and demonstrates that you care. Whether or not you intend it to, your essay tells us lots about your mind and your values.
  • Don’t give yourself fits over your essay. It IS important, but it’s probably not going to make or break your application – that’s your transcript’s job.
  • When you’re done, you’re done. Keep a copy, send the original, and stop stewing about it. See? You got it written. That’s right!

By: Mary Comfort Stevens, Admissions Counselor, Davidson and Williamson Counties (Tennessee), Africa

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