Let's establish something from the start: admissions essays are freaking hard.
Most schools don't emphasize personal essays in their academic curriculum, so it's not surprising that many students struggle with the form. Unless you're a creative writing prodigy, you may not know how to be confessional without revealing TMI, how to impress strangers without being annoying, and how to write well without sounding like a blowhard. Here are five newbie mistakes to avoid in your personal statement, courtesy of Ivy League valedictorians and admissions reps.
Stay Away From Cliches
The LA Times recently described what makes a college tour valuable, including this charming admissions rep who gave the students candid advice about what not to write in your essay. If your topic is so overused that it's become a viral eyeroll, dig deeper.
She described what not to write about in our personal essays: no more sports melodramas where it's always the crucial fourth quarter and raining hard, no journals about service trips to a third-world country where you have an epiphany while playing soccer with the locals, and no profiles of the inspiring person in your life who sounds like a better candidate for admission than you do.
I suggest writing multiple drafts to see which topic really clicks. You'll know when it happens because your writing will seem effortless, like it's flowing out of you.
Delete Inspirational Quotes
The rep added to stay away from any kind of easy-to-google quote. The best quotes are those that come from people you know in describing a slice of life or family member's memorable soundbyte. Anything someone can use in their email signature is too overdone.
She pointed out that everyone used quotes from Martin Luther King, Gandhi and the Bible: “Be the change you want to see in the world” doesn’t sound as original the thousandth time around.
Do. Not. Brag.
Business Insider interviewed admissions officers to break down why this viral, Ivy-League-approved admissions essay was so successful. One of the main factors? Being someone the admissions team wanted to meet and get to know. Your essay has to meet the friend test. After reading it, will a total stranger want to hang out with you?
"From the undergraduate committee perspective, students who stood out had only one thing in common: likability," Hirschfeld Legatt said. "By the end of the committee discussion, admissions officers would be most excited to admit — and eventually meet — students whose essays could illuminate the unique identity of the person behind the application," she continued.
If you're at all unsure, tone down the bragging. (If you are indeed amazing, they'll be able to see that in the rest of your application). Of course, you're going to have plenty of "I" statements in a personal essay, but make sure you come across humble and don't forget to give credit where it's due.
Throw Away Your Thesaurus
Another tempting thing to ignore? Trying to make yourself seem smarter by substituting your normal speech for something more academic and "impressive." Because language doesn't work like that, they'll see right through your ruse and be turned off immediately. When I work with students, I never make their writing more scholarly. In fact, I do the opposite and try to get your essay to sound like you.
His one piece of constructive feedback would be not to overdo some of the verbose descriptors. "Personally, I would advise Brittany to use less adjectives and adverbs for purposes of word economy and ease of reading, but it isn't a huge deal in this case," Ureña noted.
Start Way Earlier Than You Think
Kwasi Enin was accepted to all eight Ivies and shared his wisdom for a Reddit AMA. His main advice: start earlier than you think you should—especially if you're not a writer by nature.
I took my summer, starting in July before senior year, to craft my essay. I wrote mini-essays based on the Common App prompts from previous years. I looked at what was worthwhile out of those essays, and transferred those snippets into the prompt for the 2013-2014 year as soon as possible. Then I added all the prompts for the colleges I would apply to. I made separate word documents for all of them and started writing an essay a day in August. When the school year came, I had a whole lot of editing to do with my teachers. But it sure made the application process simple!
If you haven't started yet, don't panic. Commit to writing for 30 minutes every day and you can still meet the early admission deadline. If you're really struggling, I'm here to help.