1. Pick a topic you’re passionate about.
Your writing will be both easier and more genuine if you write about what you want to write about, instead of writing about what you think colleges want to hear. The most successful essays describe a moment of personal growth, difficulty, strength, or confidence, all of which people experience in vastly different ways.
If you are serious about your college essay, you will most likely be spending a fair amount of time brainstorming, writing, and editing until you make it as near perfect as possible. Understandably, this process will proceed quicker if you actually enjoy the topic you are writing about.
More importantly, if you love the topic you choose, your reader will see it in your writing: the more passion you feel for a subject, the easier it will be to express yourself. So if your greatest personal growth story occurred as you were picking out socks for the day, so be it. Perhaps you managed to find courage on a stage in front of two thousand, or maybe just two people.
Remember that this is your personal statement, your only chance to differentiate yourself as a unique individual to colleges apart from grades, test scores, and resumes. Write about a topic that excites you, and you will excite your reader.
2. Engage your reader from the first sentence.
Regardless of the topic you choose, your reader’s interest must be captured in the first sentence. Out of thousands of essays, why should yours stand out? A perfect introduction will leap out to the reader and grab their attention.
The best way to do this is through as much detail as you can muster. If you have chosen a sport or activity you excel in, show your reader through your words a split second of what participating in the activity is like. Write as if you are telling a story: what was the setting? What was the weather like? Were there other people there? What emotions were coursing through you at that exact moment?
Many students will begin their essays, “The most life-changing/important/difficult moment in my life has been___.” Over time, admissions officers will lose steam over the constant repetition, and all essays that begin as such will fail to make an impact.
Make it easier for your reader to remember you by writing a story as your introduction. The more specific detail you add in, the more the reader will get into the story and the more sold they’ll be on you.
3. Ask yourself “So What?”
As with any good essay, you should spend at least a paragraph explaining the “so what?” aspect of your essay. If you have chosen a specific activity to write about, in addition to writing about the activity itself, colleges want to know why this particular activity has made an impact on your life.
So you’ve been playing baseball for the last ten years, so what? Perhaps playing baseball taught you teamwork, or made you appreciate the value of practice and determination in achieving your goals. As this is a college essay with a point to make about your character, a substantial portion of your essay should answer the “so what?” question.
Colleges want to know how you have grown as a person through your own experiences and how they have changed you, and stating why such experiences were important to you aid in convincing admissions officers that their school could use more students like you.
If your detail and story-like aspect of your essay comes at the beginning, your “so what?” moment should wrap up your essay, connecting your activity in question with the purpose behind your choice of topic.
4. Read through your essay out loud.
It goes without saying that you should spell-check your essay before sending it off to colleges. As your personal statement is one you will presumably be using for the majority of your college applications (if your colleges use CollgeApp), there is no excuse for sending off an essay that is not completely free of mechanical and grammatical errors.
In addition to the automatic spellcheck on Microsoft Word, set time aside to read over your paper out loud. This will allow you to catch things your mind might otherwise overlook; because you are able to hear any wrong grammar or sentence structure, you are less likely to skip over it.
It is also wise to ask for a second opinion: let your parents read it, your English teacher or your friends. Ask them to read it and tell you what they thought the central message they got out of it was; if it is the same message you were hoping to send to admissions officers, your essay has succeeded.
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The personal statement is a crucial part of university applications in the UK. It’s your chance to show what makes you unique, besides your birth name and UCAS ID. In just 4,000 characters you have to convince your chosen university that you are the best applicant, and that they should make you an offer immediately. These 4,000 characters are your only chance, so your personal statement needs to be good. Really good. Here are some tips on how to write a truly outstanding piece.
1. Make a draft without a character counter.
When I started writing, I thought it would be a good idea to start with the character counter turned on, so I wouldn’t go over the 4,000 limit. First mistake… After 3,500 characters I started panicking because I was only halfway through my story. So I turned off the character counter and continued writing. At the end I had 7,000 characters instead of 4,000, but I had written down everything I wanted to say, and I only had to delete some words and compress it. That’s far easier than inserting more ideas while keeping it under 4,000 characters at the same time. By the way, the final version was 3,999 characters!
2. Take your time.
Do not rush it. A superb personal statement will not be ready in a couple of hours. Or even a couple of days. It took me more than a month to complete the version I finally sent in. Sometimes it’s worth taking a break for a few days, then coming back to it afresh.
3. Find the perfect words and expressions.
It sounds more professional and elegant if you use ‘accomplish’ rather than ‘do’, or ‘presume’ rather than ‘think’. As an international applicant, it was even more difficult since English is not my native language, but there are some useful translation and synonym programs on the internet to help with this. I used Google Translate primarily, which includes a great deal of synonyms if you translate words from English to another language. But this synonym thing should be carefully performed, as using too many fancy words could make your statement sound overdone and difficult to read.
4. Concentrate on your strengths.
In these 4,000 characters you are trying to sell yourself to the university. A perfect product proposer is all about how great that thing is, and it’s the same with your personal statement. You should write about your experiences, your knowledge and your future plans. You should NOT write, “I wanted to learn Spanish but I gave it up after a week” or “I am not very good at maths, but I think this is understandable since I hate it so much.”
5. Find the perfect opening sentence.
Starting with something funny, interesting, unusual or surprising will give a good first impression. But do not try to squeeze something funny out of your brain; that is useless. The perfect opening sentence will just hit you in a random moment, when you have already worked hours and hours on your personal statement. So, just wait and do not overthink it.
6. Make it your own work, voice and ideas.
I suggest that you should not read any other personal statements before writing the first few drafts of yours. It will simply give you a false idea. You are most definitely unique, and it is worthless to follow some set rules or patterns, or someone else’s ideas. After all, this is about you, not somebody else.
7. Be honest.
Do not write that you are fluent in Spanish if you can only say “I love you” in Spanish. Do not write that you are good at problem-solving if your sole example is a trick of carrying five bottles in one hand. If you are good, you are good the way you are. There is no need to create a false image, and indeed the truth will always come out sooner or later.
8. Get someone to proofread your statement.
Your parents, your teachers, your friends, your enemies… The more people you show it to, the more feedback you will get, and the better the final version will be. Of course, some advice will be better and some less so, but it is easier to ask many people first, and differentiate later.
9. Read it out loud many times.
It helped me a lot when I read my personal statement out to my family and friends. When you are writing it sentence by sentence, you might not realize that there is no cohesion between your paragraphs. But when you read it out, all the vague parts will magically appear, so you can correct them.
10. Once you submit your university application, stop reading it!
I’d recommend not reading it for a few months once you’ve sent it in. You might feel it’s not as good as you thought previously, but this is normal. Waiting to hear from universities is the worst part of the whole process (even worse than completing the application form…). After you get the offer you wanted (which you will surely get, I know!), you will know that your application was just perfect the way you sent it.
To sum up, be yourself and write honestly about your experiences. Use your own voice, because that is who you are, and the universities are interested in you, not an ideal text based on a “how to write a personal statement” article…
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