But make sure you feel comfortable sharing details of the experience with the admissions committee and that you can separate yourself from it enough to take constructive criticism on your essay. What do you see when you look in the mirror? The last brainstorming method is to consider whether there are particular personality traits you want to highlight.
This approach can feel rather silly, but it can also be very effective. If you were trying to sell yourself to an employer, or maybe even a potential date, how would you do it? Try to think about specific qualities that make you stand out. What are some situations in which you exhibited this trait? Looking at the Common App prompts, Eva wasn't immediately drawn to any of them, but after a bit of consideration she thought it might be nice to write about her love of literature for the first one, which asks about something "so meaningful your application would be incomplete without it.
In terms of important events, Eva's parents got divorced when she was three and she's been going back and forth between their houses for as long as she can remember, so that's a big part of her personal story. She's also played piano for all four years of high school, although she's not particularly good. As for personal traits, Eva is really proud of her curiosity—if she doesn't know something, she immediately looks it up, and often ends up discovering new topics she's interested in.
It's a trait that's definitely come in handy as a reporter for her school paper. Now you have a list of potential topics, but probably no idea where to start. The next step is to go through your ideas and determine which one will make for the strongest essay. You'll then begin thinking about how best to approach it. There's no single answer to the question of what makes a great college essay topic, but there are some key factors you should keep in mind. The best essays are focused, detailed, revealing and insightful, and finding the right topic is vital to writing a killer essay with all of those qualities.
As you go through your ideas, be discriminating—really think about how each topic could work as an essay. But don't be too hard on yourself ; even if an idea may not work exactly the way you first thought, there may be another way to approach it. Pay attention to what you're really excited about and look for ways to make those ideas work.
Once you have a bunch of "deas, you have to decide which one really stands out. If you don't care about your topic, it will be hard to convince your readers to care about it either. You can't write a revealing essay about yourself unless you write about a topic that is truly important to you. But don't confuse important to you with important to the world: a college essay is not a persuasive argument.
The point is to give the reader a sense of who you are , not to make a political or intellectual point. The essay needs to be personal. Similarly, a lot of students feel like they have to write about a major life event or their most impressive achievement. But the purpose of a personal statement isn't to serve as a resume or a brag sheet—there are plenty of other places in the application for you to list that information.
Many of the best essays are about something small because your approach to a common experience generally reveals a lot about your perspective on the world. Mostly, your topic needs to have had a genuine effect on your outlook , whether it taught you something about yourself or significantly shifted your view on something else. Your essay should add something to your application that isn't obvious elsewhere. Again, there are sections for all of your extracurriculars and awards; the point of the essay is to reveal something more personal that isn't clear just from numbers and lists.
You also want to make sure that if you're sending more than one essay to a school—like a Common App personal statement and a school-specific supplement—the two essays take on different topics. Your essay should ultimately have a very narrow focus. This means you either need to have a very specific topic from the beginning or find a specific aspect of a broader topic to focus on.
If you try to take on a very broad topic, you'll end up with a bunch of general statements and boring lists of your accomplishments. Instead, you want to find a short anecdote or single idea to explore in depth. A vague essay is a boring essay— specific details are what imbue your essay with your personality. For example, if I tell my friend that I had a great dessert yesterday, she probably won't be that interested. But if I explain that I ate an amazing piece of peach raspberry pie with flaky, buttery crust and filling that was both sweet and tart, she will probably demand to know where I obtained it at least she will if she appreciates the joys of pie.
She'll also learn more about me: I love pie and I analyze deserts with great seriousness. Given the importance of details, writing about something that happened a long time ago or that you don't remember well isn't usually a wise choice. If you can't describe something in depth, it will be challenging to write a compelling essay about it.
You also shouldn't pick a topic you aren't actually comfortable talking about. Some students are excited to write essays about very personal topics, like their mother's bipolar disorder or their family's financial struggles, but others dislike sharing details about these kinds of experiences. If you're a member of the latter group, that's totally okay, just don't write about one of these sensitive topics.
Still, don't worry that every single detail has to be perfectly correct. Definitely don't make anything up, but if you remember a wall as green and it was really blue, your readers won't notice or care. You don't have to know exactly how many dewdrops there were on the leaf. As long as you're talking about yourself, there are very few ideas that you can't tie back to one of the Common App prompts. But if you're applying to a school with its own more specific prompt, or working on supplemental essays, making sure to address the question will be a greater concern.
Once you've gone through the questions above, you should have good sense of what you want to write about. Hopefully, it's also gotten you started thinking about how you can best approach that topic, but we'll cover how to plan your essay more fully in the next step. If after going through the narrowing process, you've eliminated all your topics, first look back over them: are you being too hard on yourself? Are there any that you really like, but just aren't totally sure what angle to take on?
If so, try looking at the next section and seeing if you can't find a different way to approach it. If you just don't have an idea you're happy with, that's okay! Give yourself a week to think about it. Sometimes you'll end up having a genius idea in the car on the way to school or while studying for your U. Otherwise, try the brainstorming process again when you've had a break. If, on the other hand, you have more than one idea you really like, consider whether any of them can be used for other essays you need to write.
Eva immediately rules out writing about playing piano, because it sounds super boring to her, and it's not something she is particularly passionate about.
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She also decides not to write about splitting time between her parents because she just isn't comfortable sharing her feelings about it with an admissions committee. She feels more positive about the other three, so she decides to think about them for a couple of days.
She ends up ruling out the job interview because she just can't come up with that many details she could include.
Seven Ways to Make your College Essay Stand Out
She's excited about both of her last two ideas, but sees issues with both of them: the books idea is very broad and the reporting idea doesn't seem to apply to any of the prompts. Then she realizes that she can address the solving a problem prompt by talking about a time she was trying to research a story about the closing of a local movie theater, so she decides to go with that topic.
You've decided on a topic, but now you need to turn that topic into an essay. To do so, you need to determine what specifically you're focusing on and how you'll structure your essay. If you're struggling or uncertain, try taking a look at some examples of successful college essays. It can be helpful to dissect how other personal statements are structured to get ideas for your own , but don't fall into the trap of trying to copy someone else's approach. Your essay is your story—never forget that. As I touched on above, the narrower your focus, the easier it will be to write a unique, engaging personal statement.
The simplest way to restrict the scope of your essay is to recount an anecdote , i. For example, say a student was planning to write about her Outward Bound trip in Yosemite. If she tries to tell the entire story of her trip, her essay will either be far too long or very vague. Instead, she decides to focus in on a specific incident that exemplifies what mattered to her about the experience: her failed attempt to climb Half Dome. She described the moment she decided to turn back without reaching the top in detail, while touching on other parts of the climb and trip where appropriate.
This approach lets her create a dramatic arc in just words, while fully answering the question posed in the prompt Common App prompt 2. Of course, concentrating on an anecdote isn't the only way to narrow your focus. Depending on your topic, it might make more sense to build your essay around an especially meaningful object, relationship, or idea. Another approach our example student from above could take to the same general topic would be to write about her attempts to keep her hiking boots from giving her blisters in response to Common App prompt 4.
Rather than discussing a single incident, she could tell the story of her trip through her ongoing struggle with the boots: the different fixes she tried, her less and less squeamish reactions to the blisters, the solution she finally found. A structure like this one can be trickier than the more straightforward anecdote approach , but it can also make for an engaging and different essay.
When deciding what part of your topic to focus on, try to find whatever it is about the topic that is most meaningful and unique to you. Once you've figured that part out, it will guide how you structure the essay. To be fair, even trying to climb Half Dome takes some serious guts. Remember that the point of the college essay isn't just to tell a story, it's to show something about yourself.
1. Analyze the prompt thoroughly
It's vital that you have a specific point you want to make about what kind of person you are , what kind of college student you'd make, or what the experience you're describing taught you. Since the papers you write for school are mostly analytical, you probably aren't used to writing about your own feelings. As such, it can be easy to neglect the reflection part of the personal statement in favor of just telling a story.
Yet explaining what the event or idea you discuss meant to you is the most important essay —knowing how you want to tie your experiences back to your personal growth from the beginning will help you make sure to include it. It's not enough to just know what you want to write about—you also need to have a sense of how you're going to write about it.
Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay | The Princeton Review
You could have the most exciting topic of all time, but without a clear structure your essay will end up as incomprehensible gibberish that doesn't tell the reader anything meaningful about your personality. There are a lot of different possible essay structures, but a simple and effective one is the compressed narrative, which builds on a specific anecdote like the Half Dome example above :. Start in the middle of the action. Don't spend a lot of time at the beginning of your essay outlining background info—it doesn't tend to draw the reader in and you usually need less of it than you think you do.
Instead start right where your story starts to get interesting. I'll go into how to craft an intriguing opener in more depth below. Briefly explain what the situation is. Now that you've got the reader's attention, go back and explain anything they need to know about how you got into this situation. Don't feel compelled to fit everything in—only include the background details that are necessary to either understand what happened or illuminate your feelings about the situation in some way.
Finish the story. Once you've clarified exactly what's going on, explain how you resolved the conflict or concluded the experience. Explain what you learned. The last step is to tie everything together and bring home the main point of your story: how this experience affected you. The key to this type of structure is to create narrative tension—you want your reader to be wondering what happens next.
A second approach is the thematic structure, which is based on returning to a key idea or object again and again like the boots example above :. Establish the focus. If you're going to structure your essay around a single theme or object, you need to begin the essay by introducing that key thing. You can do so with a relevant anecdote or a detailed description.
Touch on times the focus was important. The body of your essay will consist of stringing together a few important moments related to the topic. Make sure to use sensory details to bring the reader into those points in time and keep her engaged in the essay. Also remember to elucidate why these moments were important to you.
Revisit the main idea. At the end, you want to tie everything together by revisiting the main idea or object and showing how your relationship to it has shaped or affected you. Ideally, you'll also hint at how this thing will be important to you going forward. To make this structure work you need a very specific focus. Your love of travel, for example, is much too broad—you would need to hone in on a specific aspect of that interest, like how traveling has taught you to adapt to event the most unusual situations.
Whatever you do, don't use this structure to create a glorified resume or brag sheet.
However you structure your essay, you want to make sure that it clearly lays out both the events or ideas you're describing and establishes the stakes i. Many students become so focused on telling a story or recounting details that they forget to explain what it all meant to them. Your essay has to be built step-by-step, just like this building. For her essay, Eva decides to use the compressed narrative structure to tell the story of how she tried and failed to report on the closing of a historic movie theater:.
The key to writing your first draft is not to worry about whether it's any good—just get something on paper and go from there. You will have to rewrite, so trying to get everything perfect is both frustrating and futile. Everyone has their own writing process. Maybe you feel more comfortable sitting down and writing the whole draft from beginning to end in one go. Maybe you jump around, writing a little bit here and a little there. It's okay to have sections you know won't work or to skip over things you think you'll need to include later.
I mentioned this idea above, but I can't emphasize it enough: no one writes a perfect first draft. Extensive editing and rewriting is vital to crafting an effective personal statement. Don't get too attached to any part of your draft, because you may need to change anything or everything about your essay later. Also keep in mind that, at this point in the process, the goal is just to get your ideas down.
Wonky phrasings and misplaced commas can easily be fixed when you edit, so don't worry about them as you write. Instead, focus on including lots of specific details and emphasizing how your topic has affected you, since these aspects are vital to a compelling essay. One part of the essay you do want to pay special attention to is the introduction.
Your intro is your essay's first impression: you only get one. It's much harder to regain your reader's attention once you've lost it, so you want to draw the reader in with an immediately engaging hook that sets up a compelling story. You'll probably recognize this term if you studied The Odyssey: it basically means that the story starts in the middle of the action, rather than at the beginning.
A good intro of this type makes the reader wonder both how you got to the point you're starting at and where you'll go from there. These openers provide a solid, intriguing beginning for narrative essays though they can certainly for thematic structures as well. But how do you craft one?
Try to determine the most interesting point in your story and start there. If you're not sure where that is, try writing out the entire story and then crossing out each sentence in order until you get to one that immediately grabs your attention. Anonymous , University of Virginia.
This intro throws the reader right into the middle of the action. The author jumps right into the action: the performance.
You can imagine how much less exciting it would be if the essay opened with an explanation of what the event was and why the author was performing. Sounds like an oxymoron, right?
This type of intro sets up what the essay is going to talk about in a slightly unexpected way. These are a bit trickier than the "in media res" variety, but they can work really well for the right essay—generally one with a thematic structure. The key to this type of intro is detail. Contrary to what you may have learned in elementary school, sweeping statements don't make very strong hooks. If you want to start your essay with a more overall description of what you'll be discussing, you still need to make it specific and unique enough to stand out. Neha , Johns Hopkins University.
Both of these intros set up the general topic of the essay the first writer's bookshelf and and the second's love of Jane Eyre in an intriguing way. The first intro works because it mixes specific descriptions "pushed against the left wall in my room" with more general commentary "a curious piece of furniture". The second draws the reader in by adopting a conversational and irreverent tone with asides like "if you ask me" and "This may or may not be a coincidence. I wouldn't recommend this intro—it's a bit of a cliche.
When you start writing, don't worry about your essay's length. Instead, focus on trying to include all of the details you can think of about your topic , which will make it easier to decide what you really need to include when you edit. However, if your first draft is more than twice the word limit and you don't have a clear idea of what needs to be cut out, you may need to reconsider your focus—your topic is likely too broad.
You may also need to reconsider your topic or approach if you find yourself struggling to fill space, since this usually indicates a topic that lacks a specific focus. I dialed the phone number for the fourth time that week. I was hoping to ask you some questions about—" I heard the distinctive click of the person on the other end of the line hanging up, followed by dial tone.
I was about ready to give up: I'd been trying to get the skinny on whether the Atlas Theater was actually closing to make way for a big AMC multiplex or if it was just a rumor for weeks, but no one would return my calls. No one writes a perfect first draft. No matter how much you might want to be done after writing a first draft—you must take the time to edit. Thinking critically about your essay and rewriting as needed is a vital part of writing a great college essay. Before you start editing, put your essay aside for a week or so.
It will be easier to approach it objectively if you haven't seen it in a while. Then, take an initial pass to identify any big picture issues with your essay. Once you've fixed those, ask for feedback from other readers—they'll often notice gaps in logic that don't appear to you, because you're automatically filling in your intimate knowledge of the situation. Finally, take another, more detailed look at your essay to fine tune the language. You should start the editing process by looking for any structural or thematic issues with your essay.
If you see sentences that don't make sense or glaring typos of course fix them, but at this point, you're really focused on the major issues since those require the most extensive rewrites. You don't want to get your sentences beautifully structured only to realize you need to remove the entire paragraph. This phase is really about honing your structure and your voice. As you read through your essay, think about whether it effectively draws the reader along, engages him with specific details, and shows why the topic matters to you.
Try asking yourself the following questions:. Give yourself credit for what you've done well, but don't hesitate to change things that aren't working. It can be tempting to hang on to what you've already written —you took the time and thought to craft it in the first place, so it can be hard to let it go. Taking this approach is doing yourself a disservice, however. No matter how much work you put into a paragraph or much you like a phrase, if they aren't adding to your essay, they need to be cut or altered.
If there's a really big structural problem, or the topic is just not working, you may have to chuck this draft out and start from scratch. Don't panic! I know starting over is frustrating, but it's often the best way to fix major issues. Unfortunately, some problems can't be fixed with whiteout. Once you've fixed the problems you found on the first pass and have a second or third draft you're basically happy with, ask some other people to read it. Check with people whose judgment you trust : parents, teachers, and friends can all be great resources, but how helpful someone will be depends on the individual and how willing you are to take criticism from her.
Also, keep in mind that many people, even teachers, may not be familiar with what colleges look for in an essay. Your mom, for example, may have never written a personal statement, and even if she did, it was most likely decades ago. Give your readers a sense of what you'd like them to read for , or print out the questions I listed above and include them at the end of your essay. After incorporating any helpful feedback you got from others, you should now have a nearly complete draft with a clear arc.
At this point you want to look for issues with word choice and sentence structure:. A good way to check for weirdness in language is to read the essay out loud. If something sounds weird when you say it, it will almost certainly seem off when someone else reads it. In general, Eva feels like her first paragraph isn't as engaging as it could be and doesn't introduce the main point of the essay that well: although it sets up the narrative, it doesn't show off her personality that well.
She decides to break it down sentence by sentence:. Problem: For a hook, this sentence is a little too expository. It doesn't add any real excitement or important information other than that this call isn't the first, which can be incorporate elsewhere. Solution: Cut this sentence and start with the line of dialogue.
I was hoping to ask you some questions about—". Now you need to focus your goals to only three or four ideas — the ones that will make you the most attractive to the college admissions board. No matter what the prompt asks, you want to ensure you include those three or four ideas in your college admissions essay.
The concept is to present a few ideas very well, rather than list all your ideas poorly. A narrowly focused essay will be much more effective than a general, vague one. You should take the time to read and re-read the essay prompt, so you can answer it fully. However, you must demonstrate that you can read and follow directions. Think of that great pile of applications. The admissions officers are looking for a reason to disregard candidates. On the other hand, the prompt is designed to give you some freedom for creativity, which will allow you to work in those three or four key ideas that you have developed through tips 1 through 4.
You are encouraged to find novel ways of answering the prompt, so long as you do indeed answer the questions provided. If you need more help choosing a topic , you can find some tips on our Choosing a Topic for Your College Essay page. At this stage in the college admissions essay writing process, you have considered the goals and psychology of the college admissions board.
Now it is time to actually write the essay. The key to excellent and memorable writing is to write in fine detail. The more specific your essay, the stronger an impression it will make on the admissions board. Despite having a degree fever and being required to stay in bed, I still completed my draft speech on the possible impacts of global warming on agriculture.
The admissions officers are expecting you to celebrate yourself, to underline your strengths and personality, so they can make a quick, accurate judgment about you. Diction word choice is the fundamental structure of writing. Your word choice reveals a great deal about your personality, education and intellect. Furthermore, as an international student, you want to reassure the college admissions board that you have an excellent command of the English language remember: they want you to succeed; they need to know that you can actively participate in English-only instruction.
With this in mind, you should replace lower-level words bad, sad, thing, nice, chance with higher-level words appalling, despondent, phenomena, comforting, opportunity. You should also remove any slang or casual diction; the university is not interested in casual language in their admissions essays. In this instance, you want to show that you already have college-level writing skills. So, in writing your college application essays, you should write with the following features in mind:.
As with tip 7 , this serves two functions: 1 it distinguishes your essay from those that are poorly written; and 2 it reassures the admissions board of your excellent command of written English. This is one of the most important tips on this list. For this reason, you should ask a friend or a relative or an English teacher to look over your essay and check your:. College admissions essays require a tremendous amount of work. As you work and rework the essay, pay attention to the admission deadlines and requirements.
Every school has their own system for how and when to file your application. Do not assume that, because one school uses e-mails and PDFs, that another school does as well. The best way to stay organized through the college admissions process and at the university when courses begin is to rigorously maintain a calendar that includes:. At some point, you will file your college admissions application. With these tips, and your determined intellect, you have an excellent chance of being accepted to an American university.
Take a look at our college essay samples to get an idea of what colleges are looking for in your essay. Back InternationalStudent. Sign in to Your Account Done. Sign in. Don't have an Account? Register Now! How can I reassure the admissions board that I will succeed in their school? How will I show that I am determined and ambitious; that I will not get poor grades or drop out? How can I contribute positively to the educational experience of other students?
How might I bring honor and prestige to the university? What are my long-term goals? Might I win an award someday, or start a business, or improve a scientific process? Your answer to these questions will help you frame the content of your essay.
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