Ahhh, the dreaded personal essay: “describe yourself in 650 words.” While the question is reframed every year, the real goal remains the same for admissions officers. Who is the voice behind this application? The application forms have already revealed the academic background, extracurricular accomplishments, and interests of the student. This is the 650-word meet-and-greet. Don’t try to tell your whole life story or capture too much scope in this essay. Students should pick a topic that demonstrates something meaningful about them and tell that story in their own words, in their own voice. A memorable event is a good starting point but one must focus on the subtext of that event, rather than the plot itself. A college counselor, whether independent or school-assigned, will help with this, but any advisor should be presented with several possible essay topics, ideally with at least a short paragraph written about each one. A good counselor, English teacher, family friend, or college essay consultant will be able to bluntly tell your student: this one sounds contrived, but this one sounds like you, now dive deeper.
What topics should my student avoid for their personal essay?
Remember: the personal essay is an opportunity to share something about yourself. If your student brings up their GPA or just uses the essay to re-list their school activities, have them try another go. You want the admissions officer to read it and understand who you are, not what you’ve accomplished.
My student has absolutely no idea where to start. What can we do?
Consider hiring some outside help. Essay coaches can be brought in at any stage of the writing process from brainstorming to finalizing. Determine your budget and talk to other parents for references.
Word limits and character limits. How much do they matter?
We advise using every character possible: the more complete the picture the better. Aim for an essay 15% over the word limit and then use precise editing to bring it down.
- Have your student generate a list of memorable emotional moments and a separate list of seemingly mundane moments that hold specific importance. Use some of the prompts below to help generate lists.
- If you could only tell someone about one moment of your life, which would it be and why?
- If you were on a deserted island, what three things would you bring (think personal items, not survival tools)? Why?
- When have you failed? What did you learn from it?
- The good: recall a moment when you realized you were enough. When you achieved what seemed out of reach. When you felt connected to another.
- The tough: recall a moment when you realized you were really wrong about something. When you felt awfully alone. When you doubted yourself.
- Push your student to complete the personal statement essay and as many supplemental essays as possible by end of summer. Any final testing, achieving good first quarter grades, and getting recommendations and finishing the supplemental essays will make for a busy senior fall.
- Push your student to share the essay with their mentor or favorite teacher. Have them ask their reader what they learned. Their mentor will be able to direct them on how genuine the essay reads.
- Working on the supplementals? Keep every draft. A supplemental for one school could be edited slightly to work for another college. There’s nothing wrong with reusing pieces of other essays.
- Remind your student of the editing rule of 3: read once for coherence, once for tone, once for grammar. Too few reads, and you’ll miss a comma. Too many, and you’ll keep changing sentences until the original meaning is muddled. It’s a balance.
- Speaking of balance, your student should strike the right tone of formality. Don’t allow text lingo in the essay. No shorthand. No abbreviations. (Unless it’s absolutely pertinent to their topic of choice). Run multiple spell checks throughout every step of the writing process. Yet, don’t be overly formal. Limit the thesaurus usage. Be your best intellectual and mature self, but ultimately be your true self.