Lesson 7: Getting Personal in Your College Essay
Everyone knows the typical advice “show, don’t tell,” when it comes to writing an effective college essay.
I know, you’ve heard it all before. Admission officers read tons of essays, and many of them are similar to each other. You want your essay to stand out – to be one of the interesting ones.
“Show, don’t tell” is easier said than done. At the same time, you have to make sure you don’t fall into the trap of “laying it on too thick.” This comes across as unconvincing and can end up hurting your chances in the end.
When I was working on my college essays, I got loads of advice from all over, but a strong majority of it conflicted with other advice. It left me confused and unsure of what to do. I’ve concluded that vague advice like this is useless.
Because while your achievements are an important factor, even more important than those is how you present yourself, and what you’ve done.
If you’re like most students I work with, by the time you’re writing your college essays, you won’t have much control over your test scores, grades, and recommendation letters.
However, the essay is your blank slate to show the admissions officers why they should want you at their school, and to show them who you really are.
I know we just covered the rough draft, but, at this point, you should start thinking about refining it. Take some time to make sure that you’ve truly gotten personal in your essay – that you’re showing the admission officers who you really are. The last thing you want to do is present a polished image that will be difficult for them to relate to.
Here are 5 tips I’ve developed over the years to help my students get personal in their college essays:
1. Remember this is an essay about you.
Whether the application asks about a defining moment in your life, or for page 237 of your autobiography, or for a nutritional analysis of your favorite breakfast cereal, the goal is the same. They want to learn about you as a person. Take the time to think about it:
What do you want to tell them about yourself besides your grades and test scores? What did your teachers and other recommenders leave out of their recommendation letters? Take this chance to show colleges what you have to offer.
2. Keep your audience in mind.
Every author writes for a specific audience, and you have to keep that audience in mind. You just thought about your audience as you read #1 above. Who are the admission officers? You’re writing for their eyes only, so keep in mind that they’ll spend many long days and nights reading application after application.
At competitive colleges, the vast majority of applicants are turned away, so it’s important to make sure you stand out.’ll won’t blend into the crowd. Hit your readers with an attention-grabbing first sentence, one that makes them want to keep reading.
3. Paint a picture to capture a moment.
When writing your essay, it’s easy to fall into the trap of laundry-listing reasons why you’re great, and why School X should accept you.
This is really boring.
Always keep your audience, the admission officers, in mind – they’re overworked and forced to read thousands of similar essays. The goal of your essay should be to engage the reader, to make yourself stand out, and to make him or her want to meet you. The best way to do this is by telling a story, but it doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering tale of pulling a child from a burning building or climbing Mount Everest.
(If you have a story like this, great! However, if you’re like other 99.9% of us, don’t worry.)
Since the vague “show, don’t tell” advice is true, you’ll need to show the admissions officers something about you.
The best way to do this is to put them in your shoes. Let your readers see themselves at a specific moment in your life. Let them read between the lines of page 237 of your autobiography. Bring them to the breakfast table, and let them eat Corn Flakes with you.
(No, not literally. I’m sure you don’t want to see them after they first wake up.)
Then, use these images to support the points you want to make. How did this experience help to shape the person you are — and the person you’d like to become by attending your dream school?
Some of the best essays I’ve seen are about seemingly boring events. What matters is whether these events are important to YOU. You make the event interesting by including lots of details and colorful anecdotes. Reflect on your experiences and connect your essay to your dreams and who you are as a person.
4. Really, don’t be afraid to get personal.
When it comes to college essays, few topics are off-limits. Admissions officers read tons of essays every year about how sitting in the front row in biology class and paying close attention helped a student turn things around.
Write about your emotions, your innermost thoughts, the kinds of things most people don’t know about you. By being honest and letting them see “the real you,” you’ll form a connection that has the potential to make them want you at their school.
5. Leave an impression.
You want to know which college essays really stand out from the competition? The ones the admissions officers are still thinking about while they’re cooking dinner that night. So, pay close attention to your last few sentences. Give them a hook, something to remember you by, before you let them go.
YOUR ACTION STEP
As you review rough drafts of your college essay, ask others for feedback about whether it feels like anyone could have written it, or whether it truly feels like it was written by a unique individual – a real, specific person they’d want to meet.
Like I’ve said before, it really helps to use the active voice as much as possible. You want colleges to feel your presence and personality. And keep asking yourself whether your tone and style communicate the values and aspects of your personality that you want to show colleges.
In my premium college essay course, I give you a template for how to write personal college essays. Because while every essay must be different and unique to the individual, there are some common mistakes students make that lead essays to be repetitive. These kinds of essays don’t really saying much about the student. So, in my premium college essay course, I give you a complete guide on how to structure personal college essays. You can sign up at collegeadmissionstoolbox.com/essaycourse
And, in my next lesson, I’ll give you some tips on things to watch out for, because I keep seeing students make the same mistakes over and over again, and it really drives me crazy!
Talk to you soon,