What Every Successful College Essay Has in Common

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Let’s face it, the college essay component of the Common Application may be among the most influential 650 words one composes in a lifetime. Crafting a truly memorable and impressive “personal statement” that helps distinguish an applicant from his or her peers has become a particularly challenging feat as schools continue to be inundated with record numbers of applications each year. Yet, an increasing number of high school students struggle with this written exercise because they are seldom (if ever) asked to express anything noteworthy about themselves in an academic climate increasingly beholden to standardized tests.

The Common Application does its best to help alleviate the stressors associated with the autonomy of this assignment by offering applicants an option of five different topics to write about, each of which are meant to inspire the author to share an essential characteristic about his or herself that helps define them. Even with such creative guidelines in place, however, many applicants still struggle to understand what subject matter they should be tackling and stylistic choices they should be making in their respective essays because there are few (if any) clear indicators as to what Admissions Officers are looking for in any given year.

For the last ten years I’ve helped well over a hundred students craft their personal statements and have been confronted with countless questions about this anxiety-inducing essay of great import. “Should the essay focus on my accomplishments or can I reveal an interesting life philosophy?” “Are serious essays usually better received by Admissions Officers or can I infuse the essay with humor?” “Is it okay to include personal anecdotes and, if so, can I write about my dog?”

The truth of the matter is that there are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. The only universal truth I’ve discovered throughout my¬† experiences editing personal statements is that every successful essay possesses one inimitable trait: an authentic narrative voice. For example, one student may flounder when articulating events of serious consequence, but may be an exceedingly compelling writer when interspersing comedic flourishes into an otherwise banal story. Therefore, I encourage those embarking on this difficult assignment to try writing about a topic of genuine interest to them (rather than a topic they believe would be of interest to colleges). Adopting this approach will help an applicant discover their all-important narrative voice and enable them to write with an infectious authenticity that colleges can’t help but be intrigued by.


3 Tasks to Complete the Summer Before Senior Year


Now that the school year has officially ended, both students and parents can breath a collective sigh of relief! The summer has finally arrived and should be treated as an important time for rest, fun, and the pursuit of enriching extracurricular activities. While the three-month summer break should be just that (“a break”), there are three tasks that I always encourage prospective high school seniors to engage in over the summer to alleviate the stressful college application experience once they arrive back at school.

1) Research (and Visit) Prospective Colleges
Seniors are often surprised by how little time they actually have to complete their college applications once they return to school in the Fall. “Early” applications are often due within 6-8 weeks after school resumes (November 1st) and “Regular Decision” applications only a few months thereafter (January 1st). Because there is such a preponderance of work to finish in such a short period of time, I always encourage students to visit as many schools as possible before they commence their Senior year. Try spending a few weeks at the beginning of the summer researching prospective schools and dedicating the second half of the summer to visiting as many of those schools as possible. Remember: Colleges remain open all summer long and are expecting visitors. Make sure to take formal campus tours and log your name into their “Campus Tour” Registers (FYI: some schools place added weight on applicants who have visited their campus).

2) Prepare for Upcoming Standardized Tests
An overwhelming majority of prospective Seniors will (and should) attempt to improve upon their SAT/ACT and/or Subject Test scores at least once during the Fall of their Senior year. My advice to these students: Do not let procrastination set in! I have helped students prepare for the SAT & ACT exams for well over a decade and can say with confidence that focused students tend to experience their biggest score increases over the summer. Completing as little as 30 minutes of test prep each day throughout the summer will not only help stave off potential rust, but will enable students to demonstrably raise their all-important test scores in the Fall.

3) Begin Working on the “Personal Statement”
Perhaps the most time-consuming and challenging aspect of the entire college application experience is the 650-word “Personal Statement” section to the Common Application. Most students are not used to writing about themselves and often struggle with the exercise, at least initially. Therefore, I always encourage students to begin thinking about possible Personal Statement topics at the beginning of the summer and to attempt to craft at least one or two successful drafts of the essay by the conclusion of the summer. I will provide more tips on how to write a successful Personal Statement in a later article.


The Best Way to Teach

Benedict Carey’s recent New York Times article, “Studying for the Test by Taking It,” correctly asserts that students perform better when they are quizzed more frequently and pools together several rather conclusive studies to support this claim. Yet, many high school teachers and college professors adhere to a traditional grading model in which the majority (if not all) of a student’s grade is based on a final exam. I’ve often wondered why teachers have steadfastly supported this grading schedule. Is it because it is easier for teachers to calculate grades? Do teachers want to give students the most time possible to absorb the material?

Whatever the reason may be, delaying assessments to the end of a course is now being acknowledged as a rather inefficient and unproductive way for students to learn subject matter. That is why I applaud two University of Texas psychology professors, James W. Pennebaker and Samuel D. Gosling, for recently deciding to forego a final exam in their class of 900 students for a more rigorous daily quiz schedule. They found that, though this new schedule required a lot more work on their part, their intro psychology class performed significantly better than other psych classes that used a final exam. I urge teachers to follow this model and structure the courses around a frequent quiz schedule. I think the students just may thank them for it in the long run.