More and more colleges have made the essay portion of the application process optional. But just because your grades are stellar or you aced your SATs doesn’t mean that you should write off penning a personal statement.
“The fact is there are so many students who have similar academic records and standardized test scores,” says Carol Barash, a former college admissions officer and current CEO of Story2, an online platform that helps students create compelling first-person admissions essays.
“And when admissions officers are looking at a group of students whose numbers are all the same they make decisions based on who they imagine would be better members of their community — and the way you show what kind of community member you’ll be and the way you bring your personality to life is through your essays.”
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But, let’s face it, it’s not always easy to write about yourself — particularly when it comes to a 500-word personal statement that could make or break your college application. Yet, writing an admissions essay isn’t as scary as it seems — and it’s a lot more fun than your standard English-class paper. We asked Barash for her tips on how to craft the perfect one.
Start with you
Your essay should reflect on your past, how you’ve gotten to where you are, and where you see college taking you. “Think of your life as a journey and the key events in them,” says Barash. Then pick one of those events and start off with that.
“For the personal statement, you want to take a statement, a moment from your past that has been definitional for you,” says Barash. “It doesn’t have to be some big huge fancy or prestigious moment.”
Barash sites one of the most powerful essays she read as a college admissions officer. “It was from a girl who talked about walking into the cafeteria on the first day of ninth grade,” she recalls. “She said, All the black students were sitting to my left, all the white students were sitting to my right. Where was I with my cappuccino-colored skin, to sit for lunch? It's just a moment that everyone can relate to because you have moments in your life where the old rules don't apply anymore and you have to try something new. So the idea is to help students find those moments in their own lives, because we all have them.”
Tell a story
Once you find your hook, or story, don’t go straight to your laptop. “Do not write a five-paragraph essay that you would write for your English class — that’s just the wrong structure and voice,” says Barash. Instead, tell your story out loud, whether to a friend, into your phone or through an app like Story 2.
“Telling your story out loud unlocks your creativity; it starts your essay in a more natural and authentic voice,” she says. “Once you've told it out loud, and you've either audio recorded it or video recorded it, you transcribe it and you use that as the first draft as your essay. Then you map it, create a really solid structure and replace the abstract ideas with concrete, specific details that pertain to the real world.”
Trust your instincts
Because you want your story to be an authentic expression of yourself, you don’t want to have too many people tampering with it and giving you too much feedback. “Every adult you'll talk to will have a different idea — a different 40-year-old or 50-year-old idea — of what your essay should be like,” says Barash. “But if you’re a high-school student applying to college, you’re 17 or 18. You don’t want to sound like a 40-year-old; you want to sound like yourself. So, a lot of advice isn’t really helpful in terms of accessing your own voice and your own story and who you uniquely are.”