So, you’ve started to feel the pressure… Fall is right around the corner, and those application deadlines will be here before you know it. The college application process is daunting enough without having to think about writing an essay on which your entire future may depend. Many universities place a lot of emphasis on the admissions essay, which is also sometimes referred to as a personal statement. But before you start panicking, keep reading—I have a few simple tips that are sure to ease your writing.
Some people call it a tight-rope act. Others call it advertising yourself, but they also warn you not to sound too arrogant. Your high school counselor emphasizes creativity but cautions you not to be too cliche. And your English teacher tells you that a good admissions essay must be detailed, original, and universal all at once. But to you this advice is just a jumble of words and conflicting ideas. So, where do you start?
First, let me clarify: you don’t have to write a melodramatic movie script portraying your life story to grab the attention of admissions officers. And neither do you have to reveal your most traumatic or embarrassing moments. It’s actually much simpler. Instead, think of the essay as a short story. If I were to give you just one tip, it would be to show human interest. What would you share with a new love interest you were just getting to know? Which of your life experiences define you? Perhaps it’s that eye-opening trip to Europe that you took as a kid, or the inspiring science camp you went to as a youth. Tell your story just like you were talking to your friends—suspense, jokes, and bragging included.
University of Virginia’s Senior Assistant Dean and Director of International Admissions, Parke Muth explained, “Most students think of their college essay as a major motion picture. I like Nike ads. Why? It isn’t about the fact that they have spent years in research trying to find the best materials. No, it is the close up and the sweat … Not the whole world but a thin slice. Make a moment represent something bigger. The universal is in the particular as the poets would put it.”
Let’s consider a few examples of opening lines* that have stuck in the mind of college admissions officers over the years…
• “Being an ice cream addict, when I was first hired at Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”
• “I have been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old.”
• “I have old hands.”
• “Good Grief! You never would have guessed that an unassuming meek lovable loser like Charlie Brown would have an influence on anyone; but indeed he has.”
• “As an Indian-American, I am forever bound to the hyphen.”
The common denominator of these openers is that they are anything but boring. They all accomplish two things: they both excite and intrigue the reader. With a few carefully selected words, the authors: 1) introduce the main theme of the essay, 2) transition smoothly into a broader statement, and 3) unveil something unique about themselves. Just like the examples above, the hook for your admissions essay doesn’t need to be too formal, serious or logical. Instead, focus on establishing a lighthearted and imaginative tone in order to develop a compelling story that will immediately engage the admissions committee. While having old hands doesn’t directly relate to college admissions, it held the reader’s attention long enough to tell the applicant’s story.
So, take a couple moments to reflect on your past. How do you describe yourself in your Twitter profile or on your Facebook account? What photos do you post to Instagram to tell your story? Now focus on one of those details that represents something bigger about you. Once you get the juices flowing, you’ll fill a couple pages in no time!
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*Several of these opening lines first appeared in a 2008 article in Stanford Magazine.