How to Write a College Application Essay

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Once you’ve made the decision to begin your college education or to return to college to finish your education, you will find there are a lot of obstacles you’ll need to navigate to make it happen. One of the first and, for some, most intimidating is the personal essay (or essays) required by many colleges and universities as part of their application process. While that essay is certainly a more important aspect of your possible acceptance at some colleges than at others, it’s a smart idea to take the essay seriously.

So how should you approach your personal essay?

Well, some schools may give you more direction or prompting, but if the topic you’re given is just something vague, the best advice is to get personal. Your essay isn’t really the place to talk a lot about your achievements or your skills, although if you have a genuinely organic way to work that in, go for it! Really your essay is about you as a person. More than likely, the person in admissions who reads it is looking for something that will complete the story that they’ve already seen in your transcripts and test scores.

That means your essay is not necessarily a place to show off what you know. It’s more about showing what things mean to you and how you feel about things you’ve learned or experienced. There’s always a fine line to walk between talking about your life and playing too hard for sympathy.

If you’ve suffered a real tragedy, feel free to mention it, but be sure to put the focus on how it affected you, or how you changed because of it. Bring whatever your topic may be back to the personal aspects of as opposed to simply the fact. Perhaps you were in a horrific car accident and had to spend a great deal of time in recovery. Don’t just list the dates and times of your injuries and surgeries, talk about how you felt, what you thought, any perspectives that may have shifted for you.

Your personal essay may even be a good place to talk about failure. That may sound counterintuitive, but colleges — particularly liberal arts colleges — are often looking for students who are resilient, or who are able to question things, or grow. Use your best discretion about what you disclose, but don’t be afraid to go to your less triumphant moments to find the right subject for your personal essay.

Finally, when you write your essay try to be genuine. When you try to write too formally or use too many big words, sometimes you don’t sound like yourself anymore. Your writing becomes cold and impersonal when “personal” is often at the core of what an admissions officer is looking for. Don’t worry terribly much about showing off your vocabulary. Instead, think of the essay as a conversation. Consider how you might write to your best friend about the subject and work toward achieving that sort of tone, that level of personal connection, to your subject.