Most selective colleges require you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application.
It may sound like a chore, and it will certainly take a substantial amount of work. But it's also a unique opportunity that can make a difference at decision time. Admissions committees put the most weight on your high school grades and your test scores. However, selective colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades—too many to admit. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities, to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.
Telling Your Story to Colleges
So what does set you apart?
You have a unique background, interests and personality. This is your chance to tell your story (or at least part of it). The best way to tell your story is to write a personal, thoughtful essay about something that has meaning for you. Be honest and genuine, and your unique qualities will shine through.
Admissions officers have to read an unbelievable number of college essays, most of which are forgettable. Many students try to sound smart rather than sounding like themselves. Others write about a subject that they don't care about, but that they think will impress admissions officers.
You don't need to have started your own business or have spent the summer hiking the Appalachian Trail. Colleges are simply looking for thoughtful, motivated students who will add something to the first-year class.
Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay
1. Write about something that's important to you.
It could be an experience, a person, a book—anything that has had an impact on your life.
2. Don't just recount—reflect!
Anyone can write about how they won the big game or the summer they spent in Rome. When recalling these events, you need to give more than the play-by-play or itinerary. Describe what you learned from the experience and how it changed you.
3. Being funny is tough.
A student who can make an admissions officer laugh never gets lost in the shuffle. But beware. What you think is funny and what an adult working in a college thinks is funny are probably different. We caution against one-liners, limericks and anything off–color.
4. Start early and write several drafts.
Set it aside for a few days and read it again. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer: Is the essay interesting? Do the ideas flow logically? Does it reveal something about the applicant? Is it written in the applicant’s own voice?
5. No repeats.
What you write in your application essay or personal statement should not contradict any other part of your application–nor should it repeat it. This isn't the place to list your awards or discuss your grades or test scores.
6. Answer the question being asked.
Don't reuse an answer to a similar question from another application.
7. Have at least one other person edit your essay.
A teacher or college counselor is your best resource. And before you send it off, check, check again, and then triple check to make sure your essay is free of spelling or grammar errors.
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About Rob FranekRob Franek, Editor-in-Chief at The Princeton Review, is the company's primary authority on higher education. Over his 24-year career, he has served as a college admissions administrator, test prep teacher, author, publisher, and lecturer. Read more and follow Rob on Twitter: @RobFranek
Examples of Awesome Personal Statements
Article Type: Tasty Bits
Write your own awesome personal statement with our COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAY LAB, which will guide you through the process, providing tips and even more examples along the way.
Before you start, check out our own sample essays—or scroll down for the Best of the Web. Whether you're an athlete, a minority, or no one special (or, uh, probably some combination), we've got you covered.
No One Special
Some are surprising and some are clever, but they're all good examples of a "hook," not the kind with the pointy mustache but something that writers use to grab their reader's attention and make them want to keep reading.
Grab Them with the First Line
Stanford Magazine compiled the following list of great opening lines written by hopeful Stanford applicants.
Essays That Worked
Connecticut College posts a list of college essays “that worked.”
More Essays that Worked
Hamilton College provides access to some of their favorite application essays.
Other Resources for College Essay Writing
Writing the Personal Statement
The Purdue Online Writing lab offers a guide to writing all kinds of personal statements.
UC Berkeley Has a Say
Check out the University of California at Berkeley’s guide to writing the personal statement.
Application Tips: Tackling the Personal Essay
Abc.com provides some good tips on approaching the personal essay.
10 Tips for Writing the College Application Essay
The famous U.S. News & World Report offers some writing advice.
The Elements of Style
Flip through this famous guide to writing by William Strunk, Jr. that many students and teachers use. Read the 1918 version for free online.
Get Your Writing On
Some great handbooks on writing by writing guru Andrea Lunsford.
A Guide to Grammar and Writing
A cool interactive guide to grammar.
The University of Chicago’s guide to grammar.