(This article has been updated to reflect the new 650-word limit for the Common Application)
TheNew York Times has been rife this season with articles about the college application essay. The Common Application’s newly reinstated 650-word guideline is the topic of much conversation, as are general themes and strategies for the personal statement.
It is now early November. Some early application deadlines have come and gone, and November 15 deadlines are around the corner. Is your high school senior still stuck or struggling with his or her personal statement?
Many people, not just college applicants, have a hard time writing about themselves. Yet that’s exactly what you need to do when writing a personal statement. No matter how much you might not like it, your personal statement is about you. There’s really no way around it.
Today I will provide some assistance and resources to help any college applicant to get those 650 words written.
1. Relax! Have fun!
“It’s all about loosening up,” says a California college professor in Crafting an Application Essay That ‘Pops’, a New York Times article which reported on the recommendations of 5,000 admissions officers and counselors who gathered at the latest NACAC conference. I couldn’t agree more.
To help students have fun with their personal statements, Stanford University has come up with an interesting twist: They ask applicants to write a letter to their future freshman roommates.
Here are some samples, quoted in the article, of how students approached the essay:
“If you want to borrow my music, just ask. If you want to borrow my underwear, just take them.”
“I eat ice cream with a fork, and I drink orange juice right after I brush my teeth just for the sour taste.”
“If you have anything other than a Dodgers poster on the wall, I will tear it down.”
Note that all these lines are written in the first person – unfortunately to some, a required element of writing about yourself. And note that all the lines are unique. It’s unlikely that two applicants would have written the same thing.
Here’s the key to writing a great essay: Write something no one else could have written.
If that sounds like a daunting task, loosen up! Take a cue from Stanford’s essay question, no matter what topic you choose to write about. All you have to do is tell stories about yourself.
2. How NOT to Start your College Application Essay
One common pitfall students fall into is trying to write an essay about their reasons for applying to school, instead of simply telling a story. One of my recent clients started her essay to graduate school with, “I am applying to the XX school for several reasons.” I coached her to simply start telling her story. This approach made the project a lot easier, and made her essay a lot more interesting!
Here’s the start of an essay that meets this requirement:
When I went to Fall Out Boy’s Chicago radio show, there was the comment from the drummer, “The girl from New York is here.” When I fought my way to the front of the crowd in Florida, there was the bassist’s point of his finger at me as he mouthed one of my favorite lyrics: “I still hate you.”
This opening line works because it tells a story no one else could tell. It brings us into a world unique to the applicant. And it sets us up to think something interesting is going to happen in this essay. The reader is compelled to read the next line.
Contrast this to an alternate version of the essay that might have read, “Music is one of my passions, and because of that I attend a lot of rock concerts. My favorite band is Fall Out Boy.”
You might laugh, but version two is the way many college essays read. Or, to avoid boring the committee, applicants swing the other way: “Raindrops heated by the flashing lights above, falling abundantly and without end, singeing my hair, my skin, my eyes…”
Here’s a tip: If you are not a brilliant creative writer, just stick to the facts. They will set you free.
3. Doing it in 650 Words
The Common Application now sets a 650-word limit for a college application essay. The more you stick to a story – a story that is directly linked to the point you want to make in your essay – the easier it will be to stay within that limit — and to knock the socks off the admissions committee!
The New York Times’ “The Choice” blog provides spot-on advice for how to stay succinct in Advice on Whittling Your Admissions Essay. Read this article immediately if you are over the limit and unsure of how to cut your writing down to size!
You might also gain some breathing room from Matt Flegenheimer’s October 28, 2011 article, College Application Essay as Haiku? For Some, 500 Words Aren’t Enough.
Need Help with your Personal Statement for College?
If you’re still stuck, panicked, or unsure, consider getting some help. The Essay Expert’s Ivy-educated consultants are skilled in working with students to craft essays that say more than you might even imagine can be said in 650 words. Just try us!
As the government begins its crackdown on essay mill websites, it’s easy to see just how much pressure students are under to get top grades for their coursework these days. But writing a high-scoring paper doesn’t need to be complicated. We spoke to experts to get some simple techniques that will raise your writing game.
Tim Squirrell is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and is teaching for the first time this year. When he was asked to deliver sessions on the art of essay-writing, he decided to publish a comprehensive (and brilliant) blog on the topic, offering wisdom gleaned from turning out two or three essays a week for his own undergraduate degree.
“There is a knack to it,” he says. “It took me until my second or third year at Cambridge to work it out. No one tells you how to put together an argument and push yourself from a 60 to a 70, but once you to get grips with how you’re meant to construct them, it’s simple.”
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The goal of writing any essay is to show that you can think critically about the material at hand (whatever it may be). This means going beyond regurgitating what you’ve read; if you’re just repeating other people’s arguments, you’re never going to trouble the upper end of the marking scale.
“You need to be using your higher cognitive abilities,” says Bryan Greetham, author of the bestselling How to Write Better Essays. “You’re not just showing understanding and recall, but analysing and synthesising ideas from different sources, then critically evaluating them. That’s where the marks lie.”
But what does critical evaluation actually look like? According to Squirrell, it’s simple: you need to “poke holes” in the texts you’re exploring and work out the ways in which “the authors aren’t perfect”.
“That can be an intimidating idea,” he says. “You’re reading something that someone has probably spent their career studying, so how can you, as an undergraduate, critique it?
“The answer is that you’re not going to discover some gaping flaw in Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 3, but you are going to be able to say: ‘There are issues with these certain accounts, here is how you might resolve those’. That’s the difference between a 60-something essay and a 70-something essay.”
Critique your own arguments
Once you’ve cast a critical eye over the texts, you should turn it back on your own arguments. This may feel like going against the grain of what you’ve learned about writing academic essays, but it’s the key to drawing out developed points.
“We’re taught at an early age to present both sides of the argument,” Squirrell continues. “Then you get to university and you’re told to present one side of the argument and sustain it throughout the piece. But that’s not quite it: you need to figure out what the strongest objections to your own argument would be. Write them and try to respond to them, so you become aware of flaws in your reasoning. Every argument has its limits and if you can try and explore those, the markers will often reward that.”
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Fine, use Wikipedia then
The use of Wikipedia for research is a controversial topic among academics, with many advising their students to stay away from the site altogether.
“I genuinely disagree,” says Squirrell. “Those on the other side say that you can’t know who has written it, what they had in mind, what their biases are. But if you’re just trying to get a handle on a subject, or you want to find a scattering of secondary sources, it can be quite useful. I would only recommend it as either a primer or a last resort, but it does have its place.”
Focus your reading
Reading lists can be a hindrance as well as a help. They should be your first port of call for guidance, but they aren’t to-do lists. A book may be listed, but that doesn’t mean you need to absorb the whole thing.
Squirrell advises reading the introduction and conclusion and a relevant chapter but no more. “Otherwise you won’t actually get anything out of it because you’re trying to plough your way through a 300-page monograph,” he says.
You also need to store the information you’re gathering in a helpful, systematic way. Bryan Greetham recommends a digital update of his old-school “project box” approach.
“I have a box to catch all of those small things – a figure, a quotation, something interesting someone says – I’ll write them down and put them in the box so I don’t lose them. Then when I come to write, I have all of my material.”
There are a plenty of online offerings to help with this, such as the project management app Scrivener and referencing tool Zotero, and, for the procrastinators, there are productivity programmes like Self Control, which allow users to block certain websites from their computers for a set period.
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Look beyond the reading list
“This is comparatively easy to do,” says Squirrell. “Look at the citations used in the text, put them in Google Scholar, read the abstracts and decide whether they’re worth reading. Then you can look on Google Scholar at other papers that have cited the work you’re writing about – some of those will be useful. But quality matters more than quantity.”
And finally, the introduction
The old trick of dealing with your introduction last is common knowledge, but it seems few have really mastered the art of writing an effective opener.
“Introductions are the easiest things in the world to get right and nobody does it properly,” Squirrel says. “It should be ‘Here is the argument I am going to make, I am going to substantiate this with three or four strands of argumentation, drawing upon these theorists, who say these things, and I will conclude with some thoughts on this area and how it might clarify our understanding of this phenomenon.’ You should be able to encapsulate it in 100 words or so. That’s literally it.”
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