The personal or life essay counts among the most dreaded parts of the college application. Study a bit hard and you can tackle SAT. Play your cards right, and you can easily land a few juicy recommendation letters. Even netting a strong GPA is relatively straightforward – put your head down and work hard.
The personal essay, however, is an entirely different game. What personal experiences do you write about when you are 17 years old and all the great adventures you hope to undertake still a few years away?
Fortunately, writing an effective college life essay is easier than you think. This article will give you some essential pointers. For a more detailed tutorial, check out this course on how to write a successful college application essay.
Understand the Requirements
Step 1: Take a deep breath and relax.
Step 2: Understand the essay requirements.
Although it may appear otherwise, a college life essay does not require you to narrate an extraordinary personal tale. Sure, a tale of immense personal sacrifice and struggle will impress the admissions committee, but what colleges are really looking for is authenticity, honesty, and a deeply personal story, howsoever mundane.
Which is to say, colleges ultimately want to know you at a personal level. They already have a picture of you as a student, artist and athlete, thanks to your academic transcripts, SAT scores and recommendation letters. What they now want to learn is your life story – your ambitions, hopes, dreams, desires and ideals.
Once you wrap your head around this little fact, you will find writing the college life essay significantly easier.
Reflect and Review
The personal essay demands deep contemplation and reflection. It is not something you can slap together within an hour. The essay requires you to tell a truly personal tale; depending on your life experiences, you may have to search long and hard for such a tale. Thus, it is wise to spend a few weeks reflecting over your life so far.
Think back to a moment that you could describe as “transformative”. It could be anything – that summer you learned the virtues of patience from your grandmother’s weekend-long baking sessions; that special friendship you had in summer camp that taught you everything you know about loyalty; that hiking trip in the winter of 2011 where you overcame significant personal challenges to reach the summit of the mountain, and so on. We like to imagine transformative moments as wide, sweeping, and melodramatic. In reality, they are usually mundane, but still leave a lasting impression.
Reflect on such moments in your life – these are the perfect fodder for a college life essay.
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Stick to the Prompt
Every college life essay has a prompt and a word limit. While you have certain leeway in writing your personal story, always make sure that you stick broadly to the original prompt.
For example, the 2014-15 Common Application lists the following prompts:
While all of these largely demand the same thing – a personal story founded on a transformative experience – they do differ slightly in their objective. The first is about your background, the second about failure, the third about principles, and so on.
Let Go in Your First Draft
The would-be novelists among you would probably know this: the first draft is mostly just to jot down writers. This is the space where you let your ideas flow without a care for things like spelling, grammar or even coherence. Tech investor Paul Graham once wrote that “Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them”. You will often come up with startling new ideas once you start writing your first draft. Don’t hold back; write as much as you want to in the first draft.
Polish Your Prose
After you are through with the first draft (and a second or third, if required), it is time to polish your prose. Colleges are not really looking for the next Cormac McCarthy, but they do require prose that is coherent, compact and shows some modicum of writing ability.
Here are some tips for polishing your prose:
- Metaphors and similes are nice, but only when used in moderation.
- Avoid clichés at all costs. If you have heard it countless times on TV, it probably should not be in your essay.
- Try to use active voice as much as possible.
- Use a hook – a quotation, an anecdote or a statistic – to grab the reader’s attention.
- Do not use big words for the sake of using big words. Admissions officers are more impressed by your ability to convey ideas clearly than the size of your vocabulary.
- Spend as much time editing as you spend writing. Make sure that you leave a few weeks between writing and editing the essay. This will give you the necessary critical distance required to edit clearly.
- Proofread as often as possible. Small spelling and grammar errors can take away from an otherwise wonderful essay.
- Write in your own voice. Your essay should look like it was written by an 18 year old, not your mom or dad.
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Additional Tips on Writing a Great College Life Essay
Before we depart, here are some additional tips to follow when writing your college life essay:
- Never resort to maudlin sentimentality. Admissions officers can smell a sappy, melodramatic story from a mile off. It not only puts them off, but also cheapens your essay.
- Be authentic. Admissions officers want to hear your side of the story, not something that was hammered in by admissions counselors and overzealous parents.
- Value substance over style. Great prose can make your essay interesting, but it cannot save an essay that lacks true substance.
- Humor is okay, as long as it is used in moderation and is in good taste.
- Write about something the admissions officers do not already know from the rest of your application. This means: Do not focus on your academic performance, that time you won the football game, or your stint in the debating society, unless it deserves additional merit.
- Be concise and specific. Do not waste the reader’s time with meandering prose and anecdotes that do not add anything to the main essay.
As a concise reflection of the transformative moments in your life, writing the personal college essay can be a daunting task. With the right guidance, however, anyone can write a winning college life essay. This 10-step writing course will give you the guidance you need to write engaging, impressive college admissions essay.