Personal essay should set you apart
July 26, 2012 3:12PM
Updated: August 28, 2012 6:11AM
Nearly every college applicant must write a personal essay as part of the admissions process. This is often a daunting task because students are uncomfortable responding to the statement, “Tell me about yourself.”
Many students ask if anyone in college admissions reads the essays. My answer is an emphatic “Yes!”
It is an essential element of an application. The admissions committee reads your essay, and how well you express yourself can make the difference in whether or not you are accepted when competition is intense.
Picture yourself in the admissions office with thousands of applications stacked around you. Soda cans and coffee cups are piling up, and members of the committee have grown glassy-eyed from looking at hundreds of applications.
The applications start to look alike — same grades, test scores and extracurricular activities. Top-tier colleges have limited openings, and each applicant must somehow separate himself or herself from the pack to be admitted.
For example, Harvard accepts 1,650 students out of 35,000 applicants. What will set you apart from the others?
In my opinion, a well-written essay will get the most attention from the admissions committee. A 250- to 500-word essay becomes increasingly important as the competition gets tougher each year.
The essay is a chance to show the committee a part of you that isn’t reflected in the formal rankings. It is a chance to talk about yourself — your traits and values, the experiences that helped shape your life, and the experiences that inspire you for the future. The personal essay is a chance to tell them about the person behind the grades and test scores.
When I wrote my personal essay, I knew the competition would be tough, and I wanted to stand out. I spent hours thinking about it before I started writing.
With my initial draft finished, I gave it to some friends to read. Most of them were polite and said positive things: It was well-written, this is the real you, etc.
But my best friend threw it back at me and said he didn’t like it. It wasn’t me. He said I looked like everyone else applying. In short, he said it was boring.
He was right.
My initial personal essay made me look vanilla. In no way did it represent me as a person, nor did it bring out the personal accomplishments I valued most — my military service with the 101st Airborne, my time stationed at West Point, my maverick high school education or my upbringing in the South.
These were the things that made me interesting to my friends. I got the message.
I wrote and rewrote the essay at least a dozen times. It took me three weeks and a lot of introspection before I got it right. I knew when I finished my final draft that this was the one. I didn’t need anyone else read to it because I recognized the sound of my own voice.
Do not look at the preparation of your college essay as a waste of time. It is your opportunity to blow the competition out of the water.