The purpose of the college essay is to introduce yourself to the Admissions Officer (and committee) who is evaluating your application. It is a chance for them to hear from you, so that you can tell them who you are, what is important to you, and why it’s important to you in your own words. These essays/statements vary in style depending to which country you are applying. Research is important to be aware of those differences.
The clearest example of this is the Personal Statement. At its core, the Personal Statement anchors your application. It is your opportunity to bring everything together, the place where you have done in your extracurricular activities, which classes you have chosen to take throughout your high school career, and even why you have chosen the teachers you have chosen to write on your behalf all make sense. This is where the Admissions Committee can start to answer the question, “How does this student define themselves?”
It is also worth noting that different essays address different things. Your Personal Statement will not be covering the same information as the “Why this college?” essay. The “Why?” college is more concerned with your fit for the school you are interested in attending. This is the essay where you should be thinking about the research you have done about a specific school and then showing the Admissions Officer (and committee) that you would not only succeed on their campus, you will thrive.
What should I write about?
That depends on the essay question. The first thing to note is that you should always answer the question in front of you. How? By telling them the story that most appeals to you and that captures you best. Remember, the story itself is not as important as what that story says about you.
What should I do?
- Be positive: Talk about things that you are passionate about.
- Remember your audience: While there are some things at our school that are “totally obvious” to you, they may not be as clear to someone who is thousands of miles away.
- Keep your focus: You should not try to fit everything that you are into an essay, instead think about the key parts of you that you are trying to highlight and focus on those.
- Answer the question you are being asked: You could have a brilliant essay about your love of turtles, but if the essay question is asking you to define E=MC2, we may have a problem.
- Be yourself: This essay should capture your voice, so just be yourself!
How do I start?
- Brainstorm: Scribble down everything you can think of about your chosen topic. Pick out the good stuff and work it into a brief outline.
- Write a rough draft. Read it to yourself out loud. Ask yourself: Does it sound like me?
- Many schools include directions on writing the essay/statement. For example, the UCAS online statement has a character limit which equates to 47 lines of 12 pt. font.
- However, don’t let word limits keep you from telling your story: Don’t limit yourself period! You and your dean can edit an essay down to a word limit after the message you want to convey has been captured.
- Your drafts are only that, drafts! So don’t worry if they need work, that’s why you have deans ☺(remember to save your drafts!)
- Don’t let others – especially your parents, teachers, and agents – decide for you about what to write. It needs to come from your heart if you are to avoid overused ideas.
Stay away from overused and predictable topics
- Your big trip to a faraway place and how it enhanced your cultural awareness, or showed you the difference of others, or how there is no place like home.
- Winning or losing the big game and how it taught you the importance of teamwork
- Your leadership/outward bound course that taught you to face your fears, meet new challenges, and rise to the occasion
- How you will work to cure cancer or achieve world peace.
Proofread it as though it is a writing exam
Obvious or frequent errors may adversely affect your chances of admission. There is really no excuse for spelling errors in such an important essay. Read your essay carefully for errors.
Personal Statements for the United Kingdom
The personal statement is the chance to tell universities and colleges why they should want you as a student. Admissions officers will want to know why the applicant is interested in the courses applied for, what the applicant has done to prepare for that course, and what the applicant hopes to do after their studies. A good personal statement is important - it could help to persuade an admissions officer to offer a place. In many cases, applicants are not interviewed, so this may be the only chance to make the case for admission.
Carefully consider the information given and the best way to present it effectively. Remember, be truthful and accurate in what is written. Suggestions from the UCAS website include:
- Include any job, work experience, placement or voluntary work you have done, particularly if it is relevant to your subject. You may want to incorporate the skills and experiences you have gained from these activities.
- Why have you chosen the courses you have listed? Remember that, although each university or college you have applied to cannot see your other choices, they will all see the same personal statement.
- What interests you about your chosen subject? This is really important and you should show your interest immediately. Include details of what you have read about the subject.
- What career plans do you have for when you complete your course of study?
- Discuss any involvement in widening participation schemes such as summer schools or mentoring activities that relate to your chosen course of study.
- How is your involvement in honors classes or other enrichment programs?
- Provide details of any accreditation received for your activity in preparation for higher education.
- Reasons for taking a gap year, if you plan to do so.
- What are your social, sports or leisure interests and how have they taught you the skills necessary for a course of study?
- What are your future plans?
Students applying to universities outside their home country
As an international student, also try to answer these questions:
- Why do you want to study in the UK?
- What evidence do you have to show that you can complete a higher education course that is taught in English or in a different language? Please say if some of your studies have been assessed in English or in the corresponding language.
- Have you had a position of authority or used your communication skills in any activity?
- If you want to send more information such as a CV, send it directly to your chosen universities or colleges after UCAS has sent you your welcome letter and Personal ID/application number. Do not send it to UCAS.
How to format a personal statement
Enter up to 4,000 characters (this includes spaces) or 47 lines of text (this includes blank lines). Preview the text and the system will indicate how many characters are still available or if too many characters have been used. It is not required to use all the spaces.
Do not use features such as bold, italic or underlined text or foreign characters. These types of formatting or foreign characters will be removed from the text when once pasted on to the application and saved. Prepare your personal statement offline using a word-processor and copy and paste this into the Applysystem. When entering a personal statement directly into Apply, save it to prevent work being lost.
Make sure that your personal statement is your own work
UCAS will, along with other verification, check for identity and academic qualifications, as well as test applications to detect plagiarism. If they have cause to question your application, they will inform all the universities and colleges to which you have applied. They will then take the action they consider to be appropriate. They will also contact you by email.
Dos and don'ts when writing your personal statement
- Do create a list of your ideas before attempting to write the real thing.
- Do expect to produce several drafts before being totally happy.
- Do ask people you trust for their feedback.
- Do check university and college prospectuses, websites and entry profiles, as they usually tell you the criteria and qualities that they want their students to demonstrate.
- Do use your best English and do not let spelling and grammatical errors spoil your statement.
- Do be enthusiastic - if you show your interest in the course, it may help you get a place.
- Don't feel that you need to use elaborate language. If you try too hard to impress with long words that you are not confident using, the focus of your writing may be lost.
- Don't say too much about things that are not relevant - if you think that you are starting to, take a break and come back to your statement when you feel more focused.
- Don't lie - if you exaggerate you may get caught out at an interview when asked to elaborate on an interesting achievement.
- Don't rely on a spellchecker as it will not pick up everything - proof read as many times as possible.
- Don't leave it to the last minute - your statement will seem rushed and important information could be left out.
- Don't expect to be able to write your personal statement while watching TV or surfing the Internet - this is your future, so make the most of the opportunity to succeed.
Essays for the United States
Find a Topic
Universities genuinely want to know who the applicant is. Although it is difficult to believe, admissions officers do not have an "ideal student" in mind. They want a variety of students. Grade-point averages and SAT scores do not give them all the information needed. They want to know what kind of person an applicant is, what aspirations they have, what struggles they may have gone through, and what is important to that applicant. They ask applicants to write an essay about themselves because they want more personal information. This essay is not as factual as a personal statement for the United Kingdom, it is far more narrative.
Points specific to the College Application Essay
This first impression counts – try to engage the reader straight away. Start with things such as an observation, an opinion, a dialogue, a confession, or a thoughtful question.
Remember, this is continuous writing. Use a variety of sentence lengths and structures and logical paragraph breaks. Do not use bullet points or listing.
Tell a ‘story’ that weaves in a lot of information about you. This is a chance to show who you really are.
If you know exactly what you want to write about, you are lucky. Use that topic. Be sure to consider the traditional but appropriate and effective topics such as academic achievements, extracurricular activities, travel and work experiences, and life changing events.
Also think of more subtle accomplishments:
- What kind of student are you?
- In which class did you learn to think, to study?
- What do you do with your free time?
- What have you done for the past two summers?
- What is unusual about your family?
- What words would you use to describe your personality?
- What kinds of friends do you have?
- Do you belong to any organizations outside high school?
- What jobs have you held?
- What have you learned about organizing your time?
- Who is your most unusual friend?
- What magazines, newspapers, columnists, or authors do you like to read?
- What are some of the failures or disappointments in your life?
- Do you have any plans for the future?
- Who has been influential in your life?
- Do you manage your own money?
- What responsibility do you have at home?
- What do you do for other people?
- What does music mean to you?
- What do you read or write on your own?
- How have you changed in the last four years (besides physically)?
- Are you interested in world affairs, computers, the arts, sports, or animals?
Narrow Your Topic
You only have 500-650 words for this essay. You cannot write about everything that has ever happened to you. You need to answer the question you are being asked.
If you cover too much, you will be forced into being superficial. Do not say, "I like school. I am a leader. I play basketball. I've travelled to Nepal, Ghana, Iowa, and South Africa. I play the violin. I work every weekend. I believe in responsibility. I want to be famous." Pick one or two or, at most three important things about yourself and concentrate on them.
Show, Don't Tell
Convince the admissions board of your virtues. At the same time, you do not want to sound as if you are bragging. You will feel like a fool if you say "I am a wonderful student, diligent, hardworking, good natured, an asset to any classroom, interested in real learning, thrifty, trustworthy, and brave." In fact, you are likely to feel self-conscious using any positive adjectives about yourself.
You need to know and apply the writing principle of "Show, Don't Tell." The rule is that you should give the readers such convincing evidence that they draw the conclusions you want them to draw. If you give the college all the evidence of your virtues, you never need to list them. Besides, the college will be much more convinced that the virtues are real if you give examples rather than a list of glorious adjectives about yourself. Remember that the admissions board is reading hundreds of applications and you must make yours memorable.
Specifics make a piece of writing memorable. This basic principle of good writing should be applied to writing the college essay. Be specific and give examples. Tell the truth about yourself as specifically as possible.
For example, you might be embarrassed to say, "I'm extremely responsible." Instead you could say, "Last summer, I was put in charge of 12 ten-year-old girls for a three day hike." When the college admissions board reads your example, they will come to the conclusion, "Ah, some adult must have felt this applicant could be responsible for a dozen children's health and safety for several days. This sounds like a responsible person." Give them the evidence and examples and they will reach the right conclusion.
Describe What You Have Done
You probably wish you had some exciting, glamorous, brave, outstanding achievement that you could write about for the colleges. But the truth is you are only 17 or 18 years old and no one expects you to have accomplished grand acts by this age. Significant events can be hidden in ordinary events, depending on how you understand and use the experiences.
You do not need a long list of flashy experiences. What you have experienced is not as important as what you have done with the experience. Real maturity depends on how you understand what has happened, and whether your experiences have changed perceptions.
Colleges want to know how applicants have reacted to their experiences. For example, many students have failed some test or course. Colleges would like to know what you did with that failure. Did you mope? Blame the teacher? Quit doing homework because you were angry at the failure? Did you see the failure as a warning, an impetus, or a challenge?
Focus on Yourself
If you feel self-conscious writing the essay, you may be tempted to dodge the task of writing about yourself and write, instead, about something related to you. For example, you might feel more comfortable writing about a group or organization that you belong to than about yourself. One student wrote about her dad changing jobs frequently, instead of describing how moving affected her. Do not do this. Focus on yourself.
Work on the First Sentence
There are two opposing approaches to making a strong first sentence. The first suggestion is that you spend hours on the first sentence because it sets the tone and direction of the essay. The reasoning is that you need to know where you are going before you begin. The problem with this approach is that students become paralyzed trying to find the "perfect beginning."
The second suggestion is that you begin anywhere and write the first sentence last. The reasoning is that you need to get started, and you do not know what you will end up saying until you have finished the essay. So, you might as well write the first sentence when it is easier to write. You may discover that your essay really begins in the middle of the second or third paragraph, and you can cut out all the preliminaries. You may go back and forth between trying to write a perfect beginning and just trying to get started. No matter what you do, when you finish the essay, go back to the beginning and work on the first sentence. Cut out all wordiness. Make it specific. Check the grammar.
Final Bit of Advice
Meet your deadline. In order to do this, you need to start far earlier than you think. We suggest you take some time in the summer break between Grade 11 and Grade 12 to write your statement. We do have a voluntary essay workshop at our school. We do encourage you to attend especially if you are unsure of how to get started, what topic to use, and how to avoid procrastination. The solution is just to begin.
Be yourself! Let the interviewer learn more about you as a person. Tell the interviewer about your interests, skills, abilities, dreams and goals. Have a clear understanding of why you want to go to university and why you are interested in this particular school. Be prepared to talk about yourself beyond what’s in the application.
Know Your Topic
If you wrote it in your Personal Statement, you may be asked about it. This is especially true for the UK.
Do your homework!
Study all the information sent by the university and carefully review university guidebooks before arriving at the interview. Be informed and do not ask any question that is already answered in the college catalog or view book.
Prepare a list of 3 to 5 questions that reflect what is important to you. These will help you to decide if the school is a good match for you.
What to bring to the interview
Bring a copy of your high school transcript, a school profile (available in the Secondary Division Office), results of your SAT’s, TOEFL and/or ACT admission tests, a list of extracurricular activities and samples of your work (if appropriate).
- When possible, save interviewing at your top-choice schools for last. This will give you some time to gain interview experience and become more confident with the process.
- Do not try to interview or visit more than two schools in one day and schedule enough travel time so that you are prompt in your appointments.
- Dress so that you feel comfortable, but be neat. Be on time – better yet, be early!
- Always introduce yourself and shake hands with the interviewer. If your parents are with you, introduce them.
- The interview is for you. If your parents are with you they should wait outside the office until the interviewer invites them in.
- Relax – it is not so bad! Remember this is your opportunity to learn more about the college and for the college to learn more about you. Let the interviewer know more than just what he or she will find in your college application.
- Be prepared to discuss your academic record, personal and academic accomplishments, test scores, interests/activities, and career goals.
- Remember to maintain good eye contact.
- Listen carefully and answer all the questions honestly and confidently. Use more than one or two words to answer questions.
- Do not be afraid to say you do not know the answer.
- Be sincere. Remember that honesty is always the best policy.
- At the end of the interview, thank the person for his or her time and shake hands as you leave. Ask for a business card so you can send the interviewer a thank you note when you return home.