Free Advice

19 Oct 2010, by admin

Getting Ready to Write

Before you even open the window on the application form, there are two things you should do to prepare yourself to produce an excellent personal statement.

1)      Read!

Read examples of good essays in books with titles such as “50 Successful Harvard Application Essays” or “Writing an Outstanding College Application Essay” which are available at the library or most local bookstores. (You can Google or check on for other similar titles) You’re reading these not to get content ideas for what you should write about, but to calibrate your brain, and set the bar for the kind of essay you can write about your own experiences.

That type of book is generally geared toward high school students who will be applying as Freshman candidates, but transfer students will also benefit from examining the overall style, and approach to writing a compelling opening sentence regardless of content.

If you are a transfer candidate, especially if you are looking to transfer within California, a really excellent book to study on the process is: “Nothing Can Stop Me – An Open Book on Transfer Application Essays” by Marcie Wald.

2)      Brainstorm!

Use the following suggestions to just sit down and allow “stream of consciousness” to take over your brain. Write down whatever comes to mind without worrying at all about spelling, complete sentences, whether an idea is “right” or whether it will even be useful to you in an essay.

Freshman candidates can brainstorm:

  • What are your strengths?
  • What excites you?
  • What has made you proud of yourself?
  • In what ways are you special?
  • What are your skills and talents?
  • Why do your friends like you?
  • Why do your teachers like you?
  • What has it been like growing up where you live?
  • What has it been like going to your school?
  • What are you hoping to get out of the college experience?

Transfer candidates might focus on:

  • 10 things you are good at
  • Five things that are important to you in life
  • What do you hope to be doing ten years from now?
  • Five people who have made a difference in your life (why, what did you learn from them)
  • Why are you choosing your intended major? (Hint: “I can’t think of anything better/desire to make money/parents have always wanted me to” are not the best possible answers for this one!)
  • Five qualities you think a professor teaching a course in your major would appreciate seeing in a student
  • Five desirable characteristics for someone working in this field
  • What have you already done to prepare yourself for this major? (If you have had no actual experience in the field, then when did the light bulb go off – what made you decide this was the direction you want to go in life? What intellectual exposure have you had to the field — books, magazines, discussion around the dinner table, internship, lab assistant, job shadowing?)
  • What do you expect to do with it after you graduate?

If you make these lists before you start to write a single word of your essay, regardless of the prompt to which you are responding, I guarantee you will have less trouble with this assignment than if you just sit down and try to think of something to write the first time you look at an  application.

Quick Tip:

Having trouble or feeling embarrassed trying to think of all your good qualities? Try this!  Right before you start brushing your teeth every night, look straight at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself one good thing you did that day – one thing that made you feel good about yourself – and see if you can associate a one or two-word quality with that action or experience. “Generous”  “Helpful”  “Creative”  “Resourceful” – those are the kind of things you might come up with. Write it down right away before you forget, and also write down the event associated with it. At the end of a week, you will have identified seven great characteristics about yourself, and examples to go with them that you can use to show (not just tell) someone what kind of person you really are.

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At this time of year, Admission Committee members put in long hours and they have a very short time to read each application. You spend weeks putting your best effort into this.  I hate to tell you this, but very probably your whole application will be reviewed in 20 minutes at most.

Often it’s very late at night. They’ve been reading all day. There may be one space left in the class, and two applications. Both applications are equally well-qualified in terms of grades and activities – one has a strong essay, one does not. Or even let’s say both are pretty good essays, but one is full of typos and the other has been carefully proof-read. Which candidate do you think will get that one spot?

Grades are the number one qualification. Your transcript is the first thing the reader will look at, then your activities list, then the essay. A strong essay will not get you in if your grades and activities are weak. The most heart-wrenching and well-written hardship story won’t save a lousy transcript. But a dull, poorly written, or poorly proof-read one may keep you out even if your grades and activities are excellent.

You will hear that at some campuses, and for some majors, if your grades are outstanding, they may never even read your essay, and in fact this is true. But the thing is, you don’t know which ones those are, and you don’t know if your grades are that much better than the competition. Even the head of the Admissions Committee could not tell you right this minute if your essay will be read, because they don’t know until all the applications are in and they have a chance to compare the number of applicants and the number of openings. For sure, if you are applying to an impacted major, or if you are in that big middle pile (not in at first glance, but not necessarily out) then your essay will be crucial.

If your transcript is all A’s, you have been founding President of six clubs on campus and during the summer you built an orphanage in Afghanistan for the 300 children you rescued single-handedly from a terrible mountain avalanche in which all their parents had been killed…OK fine, you might rightfully assume you have a pretty good chance of being admitted to the school of your choice. But you’d be surprised how many other applicants have all A’s and a stellar set of activities. No pressure, but unless you tell that orphanage story really well, one of those other shining stars might just grab that spot you thought was yours.

At virtually every school, every application is read by more than one person. If two agree, you’re in (or out, depending on what they agree on) If they disagree, a third reader will break the tie. Or, depending on the school, sometimes that pile is reviewed & discussed in greater depth by a committee.

It’s also, important to remember that scholarship committees will read these essays too.

So, what are these weary but well-meaning people looking for when they read your essays?

They are looking to find out if you are smart enough, inclined to work hard enough and will fit in. They are also looking to see what unique contributions you will make to the student body.

The U. C. Berkeley Undergraduate Admissions site provides an excellent set of “Characteristics of a Good Personal Statement”:

And their Transfer Application site states that Berkeley seeks information about:

  • Demonstrated interest in the major
  • Choices you’ve made and what you have gained as a result of those choices
  • Exceptional personal or academic recognition
  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Unusual talent or ability
  • Leadership/service to others
  • Substantial experience with other cultures
  • Participation in an outreach program or internship
  • Your ability to overcome or manage significant challenges
  • Your ability to think analytically and write critically

Your essay needs to show (not just tell) them that you are some combination of creative, resourceful, hard-working, intelligent, unique, talented, tenacious, altruistic, committed to a cause you believe in, mature, goal-oriented, introspective, self-confident, receptive to challenges, assertive (but not aggressive!) resilient, either an inspiring leader, or an effective follower, and authentic. Those are all words I have heard application readers use in describing their desired candidates.  Piece o’ cake, right?

Last but not least, don‘t let anyone tell you that an Admissions Committee member can’t possibly really care about you. In my experience, application readers care a great deal. The problem is they only have the luxury of caring about you personally for about 20 minutes. Your task is to make whatever they know about you at the end of those 20 minutes so memorable that they very much want to include you in the world of wonderful people on their campus.

Read on for some tips about how to “show not tell” and how to get started on this all-important writing assignment.

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3 Oct 2010, by admin

Make It Your Own

A frustrated student once told me “But everyone cheats! All my friends are getting someone else who writes better than they do to write essays for them. Why shouldn’t I do that, and why won’t you do that for me?”

Having been on an admissions committee, I can assure you that any product provided for you by someone else will be inferior to something you yourself have produced, and in the end will not serve you well.

There is a story about one student who wrote a wonderful essay – although riddled with typos and grammatical errors, it was full of “heart”. He worked for a long time with a dedicated and ethical adviser to polish the tone so that he was presenting the very best word portrait of himself, such that any admissions officer would have developed a full and positive impression of this young man after reading his work.

Unfortunately, a family member later persuaded him to hire a “ghost writer” to produce an essay which the family had been led to believe was superior because it was so “slick”, “made him sound good”, and would, they presumed, be more effective in getting him admitted to a “top” school.

Unsurprisingly, three of those top schools to which he applied received multiple duplicates of that same essay, from different applicants, all of whom were immediately disqualified and barred from admission to the UC system and to any schools at which the common application was used.

Another very compelling reason to “be yourself” is that if you misrepresent your abilities to the degree that you are admitted to a school at which you will then struggle to survive, your higher education experience will not be a good one. In the long run, it is far far better to have been a successful fish in a less notable pond, than a floundering fish in a highly prestigious one.

And finally, by resorting to a fabricated piece of work, you will have robbed yourself of the incomparable feeling of accomplishment that will come when you hit “send”, and which will be magnified many times over when those “fat envelopes” of admission start arriving in your in-box.

Ask for help generating ideas on what to write about? Great! Find supportive readers who know you well to review your early drafts and offer suggestions? An excellent plan. Give your final draft to objective and critical readers for review and final polishing? Definitely!

But even through round after round of editing, be very sure that the final product remains your own. Don’t let other people put words into your mouth or alter your own unique “voice”.  In the end, you are your own best spokesperson, and the one and only person who can most effectively present your qualifications to the school that is right for you.

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It's a matter of words... for when the right words matter.