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The Perfect College Admissions Essay: How to Write It Without Losing Your Mind

Mom and Dad are telling you to check out College Board’s top ten guidelines for writing a personal statement. Your English professor is assigning a two-page paper with a prompt eerily similar to that of an admissions essay. Crazy Aunt Betsy wants to show you her own statement from a million years ago. With so many pieces of advice (both good and bad) at your fingertips, it’s difficult to know what to take seriously, what to disregard and when to follow your gut. 

At Her Campus, we know how much writing your college admissions essay can make you want to pull your hair out, but keep those hands off your pretty little head. We’ve taken everything everyone’s telling you and broken it down into five simple, easy-to-digest tips to take you through the entire process, from start to finish.

1. They tell you to make yourself stand out, but you should take this as an opportunity to let your personality shine through.

Just because you haven’t spent time building an orphanage in a third world country or chairing the “Save the Dolphins” committee at your high school doesn’t mean you can’t make an impression on the acceptance committee. Open-ended prompts like “What makes you stand out?” are only scary if you allow them to be scary. If you can discuss one of your unique traits, your passion will make it seem just as important as anything else. As a pre-collegiette who loves baking, was your best summer ever spent creating the ultimate chocolate cake recipe? Put a spin on that, and write about how it taught you perseverance and the ability to take criticism.

It works: “When I applied to Connecticut College, they had a short essay asking ‘What is something about you that we wouldn’t know from the rest of your application?’ I wrote about my awesome Cher impression. I know they remembered because on the bottom of my acceptance letter someone handwrote ‘Can’t wait to see that Cher impression.’” – Marissa Alioto

2. They want to accept smart, informed collegiettes, but it’s okay to ditch some of the rules.

The tried and true five paragraph essay has its place in certain scholastic situations — and this isn’t it. Show how those ten-plus years of schooling have strengthened your writing prowess by changing up your statement’s format. What’s more? An energetic, conversational tone will make you seem like a real teenager with interesting things to say rather than a trained, robotic one who jots down exactly what she thinks people want to read. 

Don’t forget: There are many rules you should not forgo: proper grammar is more than necessary, spelling is key, and an intriguing introduction and conclusion should always bookend your essay. 

3. They ask you to tell a story, but it would be best to focus on just one aspect of that incident.
500 words may seem never-ending at first, but once you get writing, you’ll discover just how small that word allotment is. It’d be difficult to squeeze an entire experience, from beginning to end, into a personal statement that short — and you shouldn’t stress yourself trying. Hone in on the part of the story that highlights the message you took from it despite how inconsequential it may seem. Kill the unnecessary fluff, and keep your essay concise and important.

How she did it: “My college essay for Northeastern University was about when I went to the grocery store by myself while on an exchange in Brazil. Although it was a mundane moment of my trip, it showed how I gained a whole new perspective on the obstacles I had while in a foreign country.” – Brooke Kamenoff
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4. They advise you to have others edit your personal statement, but it would be best to have those people be your peers in addition to your parents.

 

While it’s the adults who may have some solid “been there, done that” advice to dole out, your friends and classmates will know the youthful tone with which you’ve been crafting your personal statement. Pay attention to their offhanded or seemingly useless comments such as, “I feel like everyone is writing about this,” or “You come off trying to sound too mature.” You may think, “so what?” but it’s those remarks that could spur you to add a unique twist to your essay or to write in language that sounds more like yours, not your mom’s.

Return the favor: Ask two or three trusted friends if they would like to exchange and edit papers. Meet up in the library after school and give each other feedback on your personal statements. Be sure everyone is honest and helpful. This is not the time to worry about hurting someone’s feelings by saying their essay is boring. However, make sure you are providing constructive criticism, not mean and unhelpful comments.

5. They say to start writing months ahead of the deadline, but you can keep rewriting until it’s just right.

Rarely does the first draft of a paper need zero changes. Your admissions essay is no different. Heed Mom’s advice about not procrastinating, and begin writing your personal statement well before it’s due. (A poorly thought out and hastily written prompt response is practically begging for a rejection letter.) Just because you do finish early, though, doesn’t mean you need to press that daunting submit button right away. Let the essay sit for a couple of days, and revisit it — multiple times. Each time will make your essay that much stronger.

A favorite tip: “The best advice is to just keep rewriting. I had my topic for a while, but I probably wrote at least four false starts before I found something I could follow through on. I ended up with something I was really proud of.” – Katherine Mirani, Her Campus Editorial Intern, Northwestern University 2015
 

Feel more at ease with the admissions essay process, but don’t know where to start? Get inspired by the topics Her Campus team members wrote on in the past, below!

“I wrote my admissions essay (the general one for the Common Application) about moving from Pennsylvania to New York during my sophomore year of high school. I talked about the changes I went through and what I learned about life outside the bubble that I had been living in. I was accepted to my first choice school that I am now attending: Pepperdine University.” – Mary Kate Glenning, Contributing Writer, Pepperdine University

 “I wrote my college essay for Amherst about the time I went bungee jumping in New Zealand. I talked about how I’m terrified of cliffs, but my friend dared me to do it and I hate turning down a challenge, a trait which has led me to eat an entire roll of cookie dough and go on a 5:00 A.M. snowshoe hike. It sounds kind of like a clichéd topic, but I tried to make it as quirky as possible, and tried to find ways to slip in other information about myself, so that the college could get to know me through my essay.” – Evelyn Kramer, Campus Correspondent, Amherst College

“I wrote my essay for the common application about what my job aspirations were through the years and how they helped shape me as a person. When I was little I wanted to be a waitress, then an actress, then president, and finally a journalist. I wanted to show that I am goal-oriented and hardworking. I was granted admission to all but two of the schools I sent my essay to.” – Allison Lantero, Contributing Writer, Boston College

“I wrote my admissions essay about the students we lost in high school due to drunk driving from a perspective of the media being the bad guys. It was different because I didn’t make it a sappy story about friends dying and going to funerals. Instead, I focused on how the media today tries to find the juicy stories and, in turn, hurt the victims within the stories.” – Kristie Demers, Campus Correspondent, North Carolina State University

“I wrote my Common Application essay about how I got interested in cut-paper artwork. Basically all of the paper shapes that it requires are based on paradigms, and that the way we see that world is shaped by paradigms as well.” – Marissa Alioto, Contributing Writer, Bowdoin College

“My family got involved in this program where you raise a future Seeing Eye dog for one year when they are a puppy. You’re just supposed to get them socialized with people and teach them a few basic commands before they go to official training. I wrote my essay from the perspective of him and talked about how ‘I’ was growing and learning and loved my family and was excited to help people in the future.” – Alexa Johnson, Campus Correspondent and Managing Editor, JMU

Sarah Weinberg is a student at San Diego State University, Class of 2012. She is attempting to overcome her aversion to multitasking as she pursues courses in Liberal Studies, Spanish, and Journalism. Sarah has always been interested in the “behind-the-scenes” aspects of the fashion and lifestyle industry with journalism being a prominent prospective path. Now, much of the time that she should spend working on homework and writing papers is instead spent pouring through magazines and lusting over ridiculously priced shoes, impeccably styled pictorials, and the glamorous lifestyles of the cover models. It isn’t unusual to find Sarah baking (anything with a large amount of chocolate), traveling (last stop: summer abroad in Granada, Spain), playing in her closet (never too old to play dress up), or hanging out with friends and family (how cute and cliché). She is currently a Style Guru for CollegeFashionista.com and is thrilled to become a writer for Her Campus.
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