When I was applying to New York University’s dramatic writing program, I knew that the essay portion of my application would be especially important. My submitted pieces would be read by amazing writers who would determine my readiness for their program. For this reason, I stressed over every word of my essays to make sure that my writing was flavorful and succinct. I spent hours combing through the pages and asked my friends and teachers to read and reread all of my drafts. Thankfully, the effort was well worth it. I made it into my dream program with a merit based scholarship, and since then I’ve been motivated to help other students with their applications. I’ve conferenced with students of extremely varied writing backgrounds, and whether they were applying to Columbia or Georgia State, I shared in their joy when they got accepted. I understand the importance of having someone edit your work and know that my application material wouldn’t be half as good without the suggestions I received from others. If you need help starting the process, then let this article guide you. 

The Personal Statement

If you’re a rising high school senior then you might start to experience the overwhelming whirlwind of trying to piece together the next steps of your life. This is an emotional adventure where you look back on the last eighteen years and think about how much you’ve grown. As an eighteen-year-old, you’re probably in a completely different place mentally and emotionally than you were at the age of fourteen. The friends you’ve made, the GPA you have, and the diploma you’re about to receive are all products of your hard work and maturity. Hopefully you have dozens of great stories that define you, but Common App is looking for one. 

Your personal statement may be one of the most important things you’ve written up until this point, but that doesn’t mean it should be stressful because in a way you’ve already written it. Your personal statement represents who you are as a student, and beyond that it should show who you are as a person. Think of the best advice you’ve given a friend or the coolest speech you ever made at an assembly, and think of what your main message was. What is the principle that drives you as a person and how is that represented in a life story? Coming up with a single tagline for the past eighteen years may seem daunting, but if you take a look at your most memorable accomplishments then a pattern starts to emerge. 

Here’s an example: say you’re into basketball, you play in jazz band, and you help your mom garden on the weekends. You might think that your interests are too varied to be connected, but that might be the thing you write about. What does it feel like to be a risk-taker? How does participating in different activities make your friend group and outlook on life more fruitful? 

Another example can come from the reverse scenario. Say you’re a loner or you didn’t feel particularly inclined to join a lot of clubs. You might feel disadvantaged for not having a long list of extracurriculars, but the way you filled your time outside of school is still interesting. You can easily write about moments that took place with your family, or you can talk about how being different from your peers made you realize a deeper truth within yourself. Different colleges have different values. Whether it’s inventiveness of dedication, you will find a school that aligns with your core beliefs. 

One thing to be wary about is writing about overcoming a bad habit that doesn’t align with the school’s values. Of course schools want to read essays about triumph and growth, but in particularly extreme cases it might be wise to consider the pros and cons of the essay topic. The general rules with riskier choice material is ensuring you use appropriate language, making it clear that you are currently far removed from the bad choice, and reaffirming that the piece is overall positive. Your essay deserves a fair chance to shine; don’t let your topic distract from your writing and message. Simpler narratives can have creative and expressive take-aways.

Many of us have very clear ideas on the biggest event that took place in our lives such as moving across the country, having an adopted brother, or overcoming a disease. Others have a more subtle moment that comes to mind, but regardless of the topic you choose to write about make sure it’s a story that only you can tell. The admissions office will be reading thousands of essays, so you want yours to stand out. Colleges want to see how you’ll fit into their campus culture and represent their school, so speak on what makes you unique as a student. 

Supplementary Essays 

Standing out becomes harder when writing supplementary essays because typically the prompts for these essays are shorter in length and far more specific. One category of supplementary writing takes form in the “Why This College?” essay. This essay is a tricky one to tackle because the obvious answers are the first ones to come to mind. You want an education, duh! To conquer this question think about what draws you most to this school. If it’s the school’s prestige then perhaps talk about a specific class or program that excites you. If the location of the school is the main selling point then try to elaborate on how being in that particular place will help you learn and grow. If you’re applying to this school simply because it’s affordable and close then you can mention how growing up in close proximity to the school has given you a front row view to how they function and how their alumni impact the community. NEVER let a school think they’re your second choice. If you’re reviewing your essay and you can take out the name of the school you’re applying to then your answer is no where near specific enough. 

Other essays may be included just to get an idea of who you are or how you relate to the school’s vision. A religious school may ask about your journey with God or an art school may ask about a piece that has shaped your identity as a creator. It may be helpful to browse through the school’s website to see what kind of work they endorse and draw inspiration from there.

Remember that regardless of what you write, there is another component that is equally as important, and that is your grammar and structure. Egregious typos show a lack of care especially if they’re inconsistent with the wonderful grades you receive. On the other hand, a well written and intelligent essay may help ease the blow of some of the less than ideal spots on your transcript. If you are worried about typos then it’s always a great idea to schedule a meeting with your favorite teacher, or you can get an outside perspective from a tutoring service such as My Private Professor. A good essay is memorable, powerful, and well-edited; above all, it is achievable. The best thing to do is just start writing!

Janine Leslie is a tutor at My Private Professor, which provides individualized online & in-person tutoring to students in all subjects, including K-12 math, science, language arts, history, foreign language, AP exams, test prep, essays, & college counseling, by top tutors from top universities. www.myprivateprofessor.com