Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"Seasoning" the Personal Statement

Over the past few months I’ve been working with numerous seniors as they draft their college essays.  Students begin and end the process at different rates and respond to deadline pressure in varying ways.  If your student is just starting to draft his or her essays now it’s certainly not too late—but I still recommend writing multiple drafts over a period of days or weeks if possible.  Here’s some advice about letting essays “season” or marinate between drafts and suggestions for “seasoning” the essay with one’s own unique voice:

1) Once you complete your first rough draft, put your essay aside, at least for a few days.  As you revise your draft, make sure you have included specific examples to illustrate any general observations you make.  In addition to showing what you did, however, be sure to explain WHY.  This explanation may be interwoven in the body paragraphs or be included as part of your reflection at the end of the essay.

2) Make sure to “go deep” in your conclusion by taking time to reflect on how a particular event, experience or relationship has affected you.  If you describe your personality traits or “qualities,” consider how these traits help define you and your values.  Avoid empty generalizations like “I learned that change is difficult” or “I know now never to give up.” 

3) Remember that your essay should reveal something about yourself that isn’t apparent in the rest of your application.  It’s not just a catalogue of your achievements or a suspenseful tale of struggle; instead, the topic you choose may highlight how you gained a skill or attitude.  Approach the essay as a chance to show an important side of your personality and or values.  Follow the advice from Tufts Admission Officer Dan Grayson who commented: “What I want to know can be boiled down to three broad categories--How do you think about yourself? How do you think about the world? How do you think about ideas?”  In other words, write not so much what you did, but HOW you have been affected by your engagement in the world so far.

4) Be careful not to let anyone who reads your essay write any part of it for you, even suggesting different vocabulary or phrasing.  Helping you cut out unnecessary, unclear or repetitive sections and correcting grammar mistakes is fine —re-writing whole sentences isn’t.  Your “voice,” your particular style of writing, is a critical part of the essay itself.  Stanford Admissions Director Rick Shaw explains, “We want to hear a 'voice'—that's a critical component.” 

5) But don’t worry about being “unique” with your topic or your approach.  Be yourself and write honestly—your uniqueness will come through both in how you reflect on your experience and in your voice. 

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