Personally Speaking: The College Application Essay

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Looming over college applicants’ minds is the daunting task of writing the college application personal statement.  Whether it’s worrying about not having anything to write about, keeping the essay within the assigned word limit, or simply the idea of sitting down and writing, each student experiences some degree of fear and trepidation. Add to this their parents’ anxieties, and you can have a serious point of contention amidst the already emotionally heightened college application process. To make this undertaking more manageable, it is important to take a deep breath and know that everyone has a story, word limits are manageable, and timing is of the essence.  Rising seniors should be considering topics now and be poised to start writing by the summer so that by the fall they can move onto the oft required supplements, and concentrate on their fall classes.

There is the common misconception that the essay must be about a major accomplishment, triumph, or discovery.  For those who have done or experienced something truly amazing, or devastating, such as saving a life, surviving an illness, overcoming a hardship, or solving a major research problem, the topic might be easy to find. For most, by the late teen years, life has been less momentous, and in many cases, this is a positive. Irrespective of the import of the subject, it is through fine details and self-reflection that all students can illuminate something about themselves that cannot otherwise be seen or heard anywhere else in the application. The Common Application offers seven prompts for students to consider, including the seventh one being open to the student’s topic of choice. Thus, there is tremendous latitude in topic selection.

For the first draft, students should not worry about anything other than getting the story onto paper. For the vast majority, the first attempt will likely be too long, grammatically imperfect, and sequentially incorrect.  These issues can be worked out through careful revisions and thoughtful consideration. Reading out loud is a helpful strategy in identifying mistakes related to word usage and inconsistent tenses.

The common phrase timing is everything is quite apropos in this context. As the essay is likely the singular way applicants can demonstrate who they are beyond grades and test scores, it would be ill-advised to rush the process. Therefore, adequate time must be allotted to each stage including the development of the topic, the writing of the first draft, and subsequent revisions. Students should use the summer months in order to fully realize each of these stages. For rising seniors, now is the time to mull things over.  

Think hard, dig deep and talk to family and friends. If you can identify the topic by the beginning of the summer, you can use July and August to write, rewrite and perfect your essay.