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The effective college essay

Congratulations! You are officially a high school senior—everything you have worked toward is coming to fruition, and the end is in sight!

With this end, however, comes a new beginning—college. You are about to begin submitting college applications to two- and four-year institutions. And while grades, rank, test scores, and extracurricular activities are extremely important, they do not provide admissions offices and/or scholarship committees with enough information. That is why colleges and scholarship committees ask you for essays and personal statements.

Your essay is your story, and your story is your voice. It fills the gaps, giving colleges and scholarship committees a clearer picture, not only who you are as a person but the extent to which you have grown through persistence in the face of adversity.

Your essay must:

  1. Create a favorable emotional response for the reader (i.e. “I like this person. I want this person at my school.”)
  2. Articulate key life experiences that have led to personal growth and connect to personal interests, values, and strengths. Note: spend time reflecting on these before selecting the topic about which you want to write.
  3. Show how that personal growth leads to important life lessons.
  4. Use a concise, key experience(s).
  5. Have a clear “shift.” A “shift” is a moment where things change.
  6. Clearly articulate lessons learned.
  7. Show future implications (i.e. what you will do now that you carry these lessons learned with you).
  8. Be error-free. Always allow a trusted mentor or teacher to review your drafts before submitting as final.

A personal statement is not just a story. While it may entertain your reader, it also informs them. As you brainstorm for these essays, think about (1) the lessons you have learned, (2) the resolve you have had, (3) the truths you have come to know as a result of these experiences, and (4) how you will take these lessons learned and implement them in your life moving forward.

And as you write your college essay, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Deconstruct your life experiences into all the different emotions, feelings, thoughts, and sensations connected to them.
  2. Avoid the “I’ll write what the committee wants to hear” trap.
  3. Think about how your words will affect someone you have never met before. How might the reader’s interpretation and your intent match, and how they might differ?

This is one of the most important essays you will write in your lifetime, so give it the attention it deserves. Good luck!