College application essayNinth grade, the night of the big dance: “Just be yourself” my mom says, sweeping the hair back from my face, “and stand up straight.” Mixed message? Maybe, but most social exchanges require a balance between sincerity and goodwill on the one hand and finesse on the other. College application essays, or personal statements, are to a large extent social exchanges and require the same balance. Unless you get a chance to personally exhibit your talents — through your portfolio or at an athletic event, an audition, or an interview with a member of an admission committee — the essay is the closest you’ll come to introducing yourself to the people who will decide whether or not you’ll be accepted, so you want to make a good impression. As Scott Doughty, assistant director of admission at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, says, “The essay is really the one opportunity you get to talk about who you are.”

With that in mind, let’s meet your audience. Faced with piles of paperwork, difficult choices, and a looming deadline, the people who screen your applications work long hours throughout the winter months. It’s in these months between the application deadline and the day acceptance letters are mailed that, as Matthew Swanson puts it, “you really pay your dues as an admissions officer.” Swanson, an assistant director of admission at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, describes twelve-hour days of reading applications. “I’ll spend a good amount of my life, when I’m not sleeping, either thinking about or involved in that process.” By the time it’s all over, he will have reviewed more than a thousand applications. At Carnegie Mellon, fourteen staff members process fifteen thousand applications and participate in weeks of “midnight madness,” working from half past seven in the morning until midnight.

Purpose of the Essay

With so many applications to review, why do colleges add to the burden by requiring a personal statement? After all, they have plenty of other factors to consider, including grades, recommendations, and test scores. You might be surprised, however, to know just how important the essay can be. Swanson sees it as an “anchor” for the whole application and considers it to be especially useful for highly selective colleges like Williams. “We do a lot of looking at numbers but among the many, many students who are academically qualified, of which there are far more than we have spaces for, the essay can be a real touchstone for someone in my position.” In other words, if you’re on the line between acceptance and rejection, the essay can be the deciding factor. Doughty at Carnegie Mellon concurs. He feels that a strong essay, one in which it’s clear that the student has a sincere desire to attend Carnegie Mellon, is a big help when the student’s application is borderline. He adds that many applicants don’t even make the effort to proofread their essays carefully and, relying solely on the computer’s spell checker, end up spelling the school’s name like a certain summer fruit.

Showcase Your Writing Skills

Personal statements are a great opportunity to demonstrate your ability to write well. In addition to the basics — accurate spelling, consistent use of tense, subject-verb agreement, and other mechanics issues — your readers will be looking for higher-level composition skills. Whether you’re applying to an art school like the San Francisco Art Institute, a small liberal-arts school like Mills College, or a university like Carnegie Mellon, the ease and clarity with which you express yourself in writing counts. Joan Jaffe, associate dean of admission at Mills College in Oakland, California, reads essays for good sentence structure, coherent paragraphs, and logical arguments. “We really want to get a sense of the student’s writing ability,” she says.

Create a Self-Portrait

Think of the personal statement as a self-portrait or a clip from the movie of your life. This is true even at art schools, where admission decisions are often based largely on student portfolios and where admission officers learn a lot about applicants through their work. Mark Takiguchi, director of admissions at the San Francisco Art Institute, told MyRoad that his team looks at the essay as an “extension of the portfolio; together the portfolio and the essay form a picture of who the person is.”

The essay is probably your best chance to come alive to the admission committee. Doughty discusses its role in relation to the rest of the application: “The essay’s the one thing that’s different; everyone’s taken the same AP tests, the same classes Recommendations always say, ‘Hey, good kid, nice to have in class.’” Sometimes students feel pressured to mention all of their activities and accomplishments in an essay, but Swanson warns against this. As he points out, other parts of the application, such as the activity chart where you list your extracurricular activities, serve that purpose. Remember that one of your goals is to introduce yourself to the reader and hopefully form a connection. Essays that try to cover too many topics leave little room for you to develop your main idea, sacrificing depth for breadth, and leave the admission committee feeling like they don’t really know you.

Types of Essays

Admission officers are human, and like other humans they appreciate a good read. As Doughty puts it, when he finds “an essay that’s really good it’s kind of nice just to sit back and say, ‘Wow, this is different.’” An essay does not have to rely on an unusual topic for its success, however. In fact, some approaches to the personal statement are used so frequently that admission officers have come to recognize them as types. While these types have predictable pitfalls, a thoughtful writer can still surprise the reader with a smart, sincere essay that breaks the mold. Take a closer look at two of these types: the humorous essay and the personal hardship essay.

The Humorous Essay

Jaffe comments that “if the piece is funny or entertaining or in some way makes me even more interested in the student, that’s always a nice plus.” Think of humor as a powerful spice — a dash of cayenne can enhance flavor but too much can deaden your taste buds. Moreover, Swanson warns against “banking on the fact that you’re a funny person to make an impact on a college admission officer.” Gimmicks intended to call attention to your application should be used with caution or avoided entirely. Takiguchi appreciates an innovative essay but finds that the overzealous use of decorative fonts and “alternative” organizational schemes result in an essay that’s distracting and tough to get through.

The Personal Hardship Essay

Jaffe, who likes to approach every essay with a positive attitude, says that in her twenty-odd years of reading application essays, she’s seen plenty that annoy her right from the first sentence. One phenomenon in essay writing is the so-called victim syndrome. Jaffe has noticed a recent rash of essays that discuss personal trials in a manner that seems to say, “Oh, poor me, you need to admit me because this has happened to me in my life.” In her view, “They’re just coming off as whining.” Not all essays that deal with adversity read like sentimental made-for-TV movies, however; Jaffe has seen some that leave a positive impression. If you’re considering a topic that falls into this category, make sure that you’re writing about the topic because it’s fundamental to who you are and what you want to do with your life and not because you’re vying for the sympathy vote. Also, make sure that you have something more to say about the topic than how hard it’s made your life. The following thesis statements both deal with divorce and its effect on the writer, but notice the difference between the two:

  • Ever since my parents’ divorce, my mother has become overprotective and treats me like a child.
  • Ever since my parents’ divorce, both my mother and I have had to cope with a lot of strong emotions, and I’ve realized the importance of having a supportive extended family, which is why I want to major in social work.

The first statement promises an essay that does little more than show how exasperating the applicant’s mother has become and runs the risk of making the writer seem a bit self-absorbed and uncharitable. The second, on the other hand, promises to put the student’s experience with divorce in an appropriate context, showing what she’s learned from it and what it has to do with her long-term goals.

If your topic is too catastrophic, you need to be careful not to let it overshadow you. To write a successful personal statement, you should approach difficult circumstances or infamous events thoughtfully, using them to showcase your observations and ideas. Those that strike the right balance can leave a powerful impression. Doughty at Carnegie Mellon remembers one essay that dealt with the church burnings in the United States that received wide coverage in the media in the mid-1990s. The applicant wrote about her experiences rebuilding her church. Doughty was impressed because “she put herself into it, and she talked about not just how it affected her but others, [and] how much the community came together and bonded.” Besides remembering the tragic elements of this woman’s story, he remembers the idea embodied in her essay: that the congregation was “really angry at the people who did it, but they used their anger, transformed it into a dedication to rebuild and restart.” The writer was able to use her experiences to illustrate a complex thought in an engaging manner.