Over the past several years, I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to read countless Common Application Personal Statements from college applicants throughout Fairfield and Westchester counties. Last year, I blogged about the typical do’s and don’ts of college applications’ essays.
I stressed the importance of careful editing and engaging several sets of eyes for review of the main essay which is sent, on average, to ten institutions. The typical cautions were stressed regarding ensuring one’s tone is not accusatory, condescending, nor overly sarcastic. The importance of being one’s self and writing in an authentic voice was also highlighted.
Despite this, students continue to ask about the relevance of their chosen topic and its potential banality. Is it too commonplace to write about my family? My relationship with my pet? A particular academic obstacle?
College admissions personnel have pretty much heard it all! Sure, there will always be the exceedingly unique circumstance and accompanying story! Admissions’ committees, however, do not expect that the majority of applicants will have faced transformational life events between the ages of 0 and 17!
The topic is never as important as how one writes about it. The readers seek insight, maturity, and self-awareness. They want to know what you will contribute to their institution. And increasingly, they seem to like stories.
In my day, college prompts were asked in a straightforward manner: Why do you want to attend our institution? Responses were answered directly and concretely.
Somewhere along the way, reviewers began to crave artfully-crafted short tales. Perhaps it was the mass sharing of “Essays that Worked” via the internet or the ubiquity of the Common App. which increased application rates, causing reviewers to ask for increasingly entertaining reading material.
Either way, students today are charged with showing through their stories, as opposed to telling via narratives. Guidance counselors and English teachers have done a terrific job in preparing most students for this challenge as potential essay prompts are frequently introduced in class much earlier than college admissions season.
While it’s not the topic itself as much as how the essay is written and what it says about the writer’s value system, for students seeking to avoid typical teen-style writings, the following may prove useful:
1) The life-changing car accident---I never appreciated the frequency of vehicular incidents prior to reading Fairfield County college applications’ essays. Thanks kids for instilling the fear of God in me when I hit the road! And for the record, please try to be more mindful when behind the wheel!
2) Parental (Grand-parental) sacrifices---This essay topic, if well-written, can be poignant. If not thoughtfully considered, however, one risks sounding trite or saying more about one’s relative(s) than about oneself.
3) The lack of diversity inherent in Fairfield or Westchester Counties and the desperate desire to escape the hell of your monolithic communities. (If not careful with this essay, it’s easy to come across as pampered, negative, and unappreciative of your caregivers’ efforts to provide you with the best life they could.)
4) Using the same adjectives repeatedly throughout the essay---On-line thesauruses and proofreading are key!
5) The tendency to exaggerate/dramatize each event/situation/encounter----Phrases like the most, the best, the worst, etc. should be reserved for truly deserving circumstances.
6) The lack of self-awareness as evidenced by minimal self-reflection, humility, and/or ability to view issues from multiple perspectives---I cannot stress enough the importance of digging a little deeper and illustrating to the reader why something is meaningful to you and how it reflects your beliefs.
7) The never-ending run on sentence replete with tons of unnecessary detail---Short sentences are your friend! Indeed, they can often make your point much more powerfully than a longer, confusing sentence.
8) The use of terms such as under-privileged, Third World, needy, etc. which unwittingly portray you as ignorant at best, and mean-spirited at worst.
9) The non-existent final paragraph which fails to tie everything together and provide your essay with a main point.
Thalia Thompson, M.S., I.E.C., is the Owner of College Admissions Coaching, LLC based in Fairfield County. She has over 25 years in the field of college counseling, career development, and higher educational administration within the City and State Universities of New York.