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Preparing for College

The Essay: Your Personal Statement

As part of the application procedure you will be expected to write an essay. At the outset it is desirable to recognize the significant role the essay can play in the admission process.

Importance of the Essay

It is obvious that in the screening of applicants, priority is given to your high school record and aptitude test scores. Nevertheless, it needs to be emphasized that your essay can have a pivotal influence on the admissions process. This is especially important in borderline situations, such as when an applicant is on the threshold of being accepted, wait-listed, or rejected. There is a consensus that the essay in general has a critical role that may not always be appreciated by students because they may rely for success too heavily on their academic achievement. While grades and test scores can open up the admission gates, the essay may serve to tilt the balance in your favor. It is even possible, in some situations, that by submitting a very memorable essay, you can “write your way” into a college.

Nature of the Essay

The essay you write may need to respond to a specific topic proposed by the school to which you are applying, or you may have the option of writing on a topic of your own choice.

Where a school requests a response to a specific question, it naturally will vary from one institution to another. Moreover, the same school can change the topic periodically. Therefore, reading an essay written for a prior year may not always prove directly helpful.

When presented with one or a choice of essay topics, these may be conventional or they may be “offbeat.” In the former category are requests to write on (1) why you wish to attend college; (2) more specifically, why you are applying to this college; (3) how you define success; (4) a story about yourself; (5) who you are; (6) what life issues are of importance to you. Most conventional questions asked can serve as vehicles to bringing your personal attributes to the reader's attention.

Preparing Your Essay

At the outset, when you are preparing to write your essay, the following considerations need to be taken into account:

  • • The success of your essay depends on the manner in which you present yourself.
  • • What you want to say and how effectively you convey your message is what counts.
  • • Do not try to respond to what you think the admission committee wants to hear.
  • • Write about yourself in a forthright manner, but without baring your soul.
  • • Write about a subject that is important to you, and do so in a convincing manner.
  • • Write an essay that reflects your uniqueness as a prospective college student.
  • • Keep your essay focused on the message you wish to convey.
  • • Present your accomplishments, but don't overdo it to the point of bragging.
  • • Don't feel you must respond to an offbeat question with an offbeat essay.
  • • Feel free to insert appropriate humor, so as to add spice to your essay.
  • • Respond to an ordinary question by using a distinctive approach.

With these guidelines in mind, we will consider two important issues: selecting a topic and how to approach it.

The Essay Topic

It may prove easier to respond to a specific question posed by the school than to prepare an essay on a topic of your own choosing. When this is the case, the options are unlimited and this is why choosing a topic presents such a challenge. However, you shouldn't view this feature as a burden, but rather as a chance to “sell” yourself. It offers an opportunity to present yourself in a nonacademic context. Namely, you can, in an appropriate fashion, bring to light information about your skills, philosophy, talents, experiences, character, background, personal interests, and life goals. In other words, you have a valuable opportunity to generate a meaningful image of yourself as a unique individual. This can significantly add to the desirability of the school wanting to have you as a member of their next incoming class.

Most conventional topics discussed in essays relate to school activities, trips, and vacations. This is because they reflect the norm of a high school student's lifestyle. The key is to fit your personal message into the context of the specific topic you select.

Essay topics of a conventional nature that you may wish to write about are

  • • What career objectives do you have, and how will attending college help you achieve them?
  • • In what way will college help you fulfill your specific life goals and aspirations?
  • • What contribution can you make to the college you wish to enter?
  • • What would you write in your recommendation for admission?

In addition, you may find a topic to write about by thinking of answers to the following:

  • • What do you excel at?
  • • What do you consider to be the most impressive accomplishment so far in your life?
  • • What achievement has given you the most satisfaction?
  • • What are your strongest personal commitments?
  • • If you came into great wealth, how would you spend your life?

To decide on the topic for your essay, you may need to set aside time for undisturbed reflection. Moreover, this warm-up time should be used not only to identify the subject,but to clarify its focus so that you can say all you want in the limited space allotted (approximately 300 words).

If your efforts at initiating writing are not productive and the results of the drafts are mediocre, then you should try to approach the problem by placing the title of your topic on a page and then writing about 15 relevant questions beneath it. Leave enough space between questions for responses. The challenge is to come up with questions, and the answers can serve to generate a viable topic and draft the message you seek to send.

If the above formula to find an essay topic still doesn't produce a satisfactory response, another approach is to spend an hour or two a day for five days drafting an essay outline on five different topics, possibly using different styles. Allow the essays to “hibernate” for a weekend, then on the following Monday read them all through and select the one that most appeals to you and is most suitable for use in your application.


By the time you have to prepare your application for admission to college you will have already written numerous essays. In developing these you used your own modes of preparation. This may simply involve expressing your thoughts on a sheet of paper and handing it in, or you may have written a rough draft, set it aside, and then come back and reorganized and/or edited it. You may also have given a subject some prior thought and then prepared an outline to guide your writing. Finally, you may have used a combination of approaches to fit each particular need. In any case, you used the approach you felt most comfortable with and one that you believed to be most appropriate for the project at hand.

For your college application essay, you also have several approach options at your disposal. While the reader of your essay at the admissions office is obligated to thoughtfully review it, your challenge is to take hold of and maintain the reader's interest as he or she proceeds.

Since you wish to fit a personal image into the context of your essay, it may prove desirable to prepare an inventory of your attributes. These can be ranked in order of your estimate of their importance. Such a list may consist, for example, of the following qualities:

idealistic dedicated
broad minded motivated
competitive reliable
good listener determined
energetic tolerant
ambitious empathetic
conscientious realistic

Find a way to demonstrate your individuality by exemplifying some of your attributes in your essay. You should try to do so in a creative manner, even when you have to respond to some specific question. Thus, you need not confine yourself exclusively to a topic in its narrowest perspective. There usually is a degree of liberty afforded with any topic so as to get your personal message across.

Once you have a rough draft of your essay on paper or in your mind, you have set the basis for the next step.

Organization of the Essay

There is a simple, basic, three-step pattern that is recommended in regard to organization of your essay. It involves an introduction, where you present the general theme of your essay; the body, where you convey in-depth your message; and a conclusion, which summarizes the points you wish to emphasize.


The introduction should convey to the reader the subject of your essay in an appealing way. Your goal is to grab the reader's attention as early as possible. The most appealing essays are those that are initiated with a phrase, sentence, or idea that intensely attracts the reader's interest. The most incisive your remarks, the sharper will be the “hook” that grabs hold of the reader. Naturally, your initial remarks should be suited to the topic and the tone of your essay. The introduction should also indicate to the reader the direction in which you are heading.

Among the lead-off approaches you may consider using are to:

  • • ask one or two questions that will be responded to in the course of the essay.
  • • present a relevant real or fictional incident that will leave an impact.
  • • state an ordinary idea in a provocative manner or vice versa.
  • • use a meaningful quotation that will serve to set the tone for your essay.
  • • debunk some common assumption and then show why.

The Body

Once you have determined what you wish your reader's reaction to be, such as whether to inform, inspire, or entertain, your thoughts need to be presented in a logical order. To do this, rank your ideas in order of their importance. You can build up your ideas toward the major one, which should come at the end, rather than present it at the very outset. Start off with the second major point you wish to convey. The least significant point can be placed in the middle. Thus, in a typical essay, the body will consist of three sections. These do not have to be of equal length; each may contain one or more paragraphs with each segment aiming to convey its distinct message. Your aim should also be to link the three sections together as well as to keep your message in sight as the reader is moved forward.

The Conclusion

When finishing your essay you need to leave your reader with something substantive. This may be in the form of an impressive remark, memorable phrase, or poignant quotation. A stylish ending can remain in the reader's mind and may serve to tilt the balance of one's reaction to the essay in your favor.

Following the Draft

Having labored to prepare your draft essay, you now need to look at it objectively and determine if it conveys your thoughts in the most meaningful and impressive manner. To arrive at a decision, set your draft aside entirely for a short interlude. Then see if it meets the goal of selling your potential as a future college student. The criteria you should use to determine the suitability of your essay should be:

  1. Purpose. Does your essay meet the challenge of making a solid case for your admission?
  2. Clarity. Does the essay succeed in getting its main idea across lucidly?
  3. Focus. Does the essay keep the main message in sight for the reviewer to take note of?
  4. Organization. Does each of the parts of the essay meet its goal?
  5. Accuracy. Is the information contained in the essay accurate and clear?

If any of these goals are not met, then rewrite the text where necessary to meet deficiencies that you came across. Test your satisfaction with the revised version by

  • • reading your essay out loud. Your reaction to hearing it will clue you in to how good it really is.
  • • having another person read the essay aloud. Note their facial reaction to see if they are satisfied as they proceed.
  • • setting the revised draft aside again for an interlude and then coming back for another reading.

In rereading your essay evaluate your choice of words. You should avoid: (1) using complex or elegant words merely to impress the reader; (2) using words in unnecessary excessive numbers that do not serve to clarify your thoughts; (3) repetition, since making your point once should be enough.

The Final Check

After carefully evaluating your essay for the varied parameters that were previously defined, and critically checking your word usage, you should give your essay one final review. This should be done after a brief interlude following the last revision and editing the text. Once completed you should prepare a neat copy using a computer and laser printer. Naturally, where a hand-written copy is required, print it rather than use script, if your penmanship is poor. The goal is to make your essay look good and clearly readable. This should be done by double-spacing, making use of high-quality 8½ × 11-inch paper, and leaving a one-inch margin all around. Make sure to stay within the word guidelines set by the school. If necessary, find a way to reduce the text to meet the limit set.

The next phase involves proofreading your near-finished product. You may wish to show it to one or more responsible and qualified individuals to read it carefully and offer their frank comments.

If you still feel insecure about the state of your essay, you can set it aside while it is being reviewed by outsiders and await their comments and reaction. In making your final review, focus your attention on spelling and punctuation. If you are distracted by the meaning of the text, then try and read the sentences not only forward but also backward. This will facilitate being able to concentrate on the spelling. Particular attention should be paid to words that are similar (such as there and their). When uncertain, check a dictionary for spelling, even after spell-checking on your computer.

After receiving comments from others about your draft essay, if rewording one or two sentences or even changing several words or clarifying an idea are called for — suggestions that you agree with — by all means make them. However, if you are urged to drastically alter your essay with numerous radical alterations, try and resist making such changes that will, drastically, alter your essay into someone else's. To “polish” your essay to this point may prove self-defeating because it may raise questions in the reader's mind that the essay is too good, and whether it is really yours. By this means its value can be diluted and you may not fully benefit from your efforts at change, and possibly even be hurt.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesGuide to Medical & Dental SchoolsPreparing for College - High School: An Overview, Program Of High School Studies, Evaluating A College, Selecting A College