Answer the question
While this might seem obvious, I cannot tell you how many essays I've read that do not answer the question being asked. I know that you have a lot of essays to write for all of the schools to which you are applying, and you will clearly want to overlap as many essays as possible, but you shouldn't try to stretch one school's essay into another school's topic unless the two topics really coincide. It is a big turnoff for an admissions counselor to read an essay that was clearly written for another school.
Pick one topic
Most students will initially try to cram as many activities, awards and distinctions into their essays as possible and what ultimately results is a repetition of their activity sheets. Schools ask for an activity sheet for a reason; they want you to explain your activities there. The personal statement is really designed for you to paint a picture of who you are aside from your GPA, standardized test scores and extracurricular activities. They want to get to know you and who you are. It is important to pick one topic/instance/event/occurrence (two at the most) to illustrate what defines you as a person, and more specifically, a person whom they want to accept to their university. If you try to fit too much into your essay, you will not have enough time to expand upon and develop your examples sufficiently.
Show, don't tell
This is by far the most important piece of advice I can offer any student writing his/her essay. Show the admissions officers who you are through stories and anecdotes that demonstrate your unique characteristics; don't tell them who you are. What I mean by this is, don't say "I am a leader in my school and hold officer positions in these various clubs." While it's great that you consider yourself a leader, it is more important that you convince the admissions officer that you are through instances during which you were able to showcase your leadership abilities. If you talk about a time when you had to rally the members of a group, motivate the members of a team or even make some sort of difficult decision, that will be much more valuable that listing your qualities.
When selecting a topic for your personal statement, try really hard to avoid overused topics that won’t distinguish you from other applicants. Some of the most common topics for essays are what I call the "Outward Bound" essay and the "Tragedy" essay. A multitude of students will write an essay on a time where they had to "rough it" in the wilderness and will then try to show that this made them a stronger person who is now able to overcome obstacles. Others will write about a tragic event such as the death of a grandparent and will attempt to tug at the heartstrings of the reader. While both of these could potentially be good topics, unless you climbed Mount Kilimanjaro or had something eventful happen to you after the death of a family member, these topics should be avoided because they are way too generic. Instead, focus on something that makes you unique and something about which you can speak personally and in depth. Last year, my favorite essay was from a now-Princeton freshman who wrote about the color blue and why it was his favorite color. It was by far the most provocative, enthralling essay I've ever read. Pick something that will give the reader a glimpse at who you are, whatever that may be.
Remember the readers
Most importantly, remember the context during which the admissions officers are reading your essay: in a sea of other essays. Admissions officers receive thousands of essays to read, so not only do they not have a lot of time to devote to each essay, but they will also need a little something more to differentiate your essay from the others. Make sure you have an attention-grabbing first paragraph that describes the setting of your anecdote and immediately pulls the reader into your story. And last, but not least, PROOFREAD before you submit anything. Believe me, you do not want any spelling or grammar mistakes, and you want to avoid any mistakes with school names or campus attributes. That would be embarrassing!
Good luck and have fun with the process!
For more information on the college admissions process and test preparation issues, visit The Edge online at www.edgeincollegeprep.com or call us today at (877) 499-EDGE to inquire about our current programs.
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