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.
Here I provide some assistance and resources to help any college applicant to get those 500 words written.
1. Relax! Have fun!
"It's all about loosening up," says one 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 a 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 past 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 finger pointing 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 500 Words
The Common Application suggests a 500-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. Note that it's okay to spill over by a couple of words - but think of how impressed an admissions committee will be if you can knock their socks off in 500 or under?
If you're still stuck, panicked, or unsure, consider getting some help.