You may have been accepted into college—but the work doesn’t stop there. Whether you are a junior in high school, applying to 10 different schools, or a college senior, learning how to write a better, more effective personal statement is crucial. An essay prompt/cover letter either for college admission, a scholarship, an internship, or (gasp!) a job, can determine whether or not someone decides to vouch for you candidacy or completely throw your application out the window (well, maybe not literally, but still). Therefore, being the nice person that I am, I have compiled a list of tips that will make reading your application a little more worthwhile.
1. DO NOT TALK ABOUT THE FIRST THING THAT COMES TO MIND.
What do you think is the most overused answer to “Who inspires you the most?” Take a guess. “My mom is the strongest, most beautiful, blah blah blah…” Yeah, you know why I threw out that person’s application? Because he, along with 1000+ other applications I had to read today said the exact same answer.
When you write the first answer that comes to mind, chances are, so did everybody else. In order to stand out, you must avoid being trite.
2. IT’S OKAY TO BE CLICHÉ. SOMETIMES.
Okay, this seems to completely contradict #1, but it doesn’t. If your mom truly is your hero, no one is putting you at fault for that. But maybe instead of simply going to thesaurus.com and listing all the adjectives for “hard-working” (There are 50+ such words. I just checked.) add some flare and tell me a specific incident that demonstrates how your mother is the most awe-inspiring woman in the world. Because quite honestly, no woman is tougher than my mom so whatever overused statement you say is not going to convince me otherwise.
3. “SHOW, DON’T TELL.”
Okay, this is the last mom example. I promise.
“Seeing my mom struggle everyday as a single parent trying to raise 3 kids really broke my heart. I want to be able to show her that all her hard work paid off.”
“Every morning I woke up to an empty house. Every night I went to bed without someone to tuck me in. But it’s not what you think—my mother did not have a choice. Ever since my father passed away, my mother had to wake up at 5 to catch the bus, work 2 jobs in order to put my siblings and me through school, and feel embarrassed standing behind women sporting Burberry wallets while she paid with food stamps at the check-out. Now, as I hold my college acceptance letter, I’m proud of my mother. This letter represents her sleepless nights, her worn out shoes, and aching back. My success is a direct result of her hard work.”
Not only did the first example require far less time to write, it also evokes no emotion. There is no personality or flare. The reader of your application has no real connection to your essay because it fails to make a lasting impression. You want to put your audience to tears, either from pulling at their heartstrings or from laughter. You want to have an effect on them!
4. GIVE ME ALL THE JUICY DETAILS!
A strong personal statement allows your reader to get to know you. Chances are they already have your transcript and résumé, so there is no need to give a grocery list of all your achievements (that is, unless you are adding something more). Imagine you are telling a story to your best friend—you do not want to skip any details because these act as fillers for your story. Imagine watching a movie with two characters. Sure the plot is important, but the dialogue, music, props, lighting, and costume really allow the viewer to feel as if they were a part of the movie; they are totally absorbed! You want to do the same thing with your writing. You don’t want your reader to feel confused because they are unsure about the setting or who is speaking.
5. “WRITING IS RE-WRITING”
Please, please, PLEASE make sure you at least re-read what you wrote before clicking the submit button. I cannot tell you how many times I have read an engaging essay, but got lost because of all the typos. No really. Proofreading should be the minimum of what you need to do before finalizing anything because 1) It breaks my heart, 2) It makes me cringe, and 3) I am more likely to throw the application into the rejection pile. I’m not talking about using the wrong conjugation or dangling modifiers (though, that one can be irritating still) because I know that not everyone is good at writing. And that’s fine! I’m more referring to basics, such as remembering to capitalize your “I’s” or avoiding fragments. Unless you are going for a stylistic approach, breaking the rules of English grammar is generally unacceptable.
That being said, you also should not submit an application without a little bit more polishing. When you re-read what you wrote, you might find yourself tripping over some words or running out of breath—this can be fixed! If your essay is too long, try finding better adjectives or limiting the number of examples you use. It’s okay to completely re-write what you wrote; it’s not a waste of time, it’s editing and perfecting your work.
6. CATCHY OPENING
A strong opening to any piece of writing cannot be stressed enough. Especially with our average attention span lasting less than a few minutes, if I’m not intrigued by your first sentence, chances are I will not make it to your last. Think of your introductory paragraph as a first impression—you want to be remembered!
I’m borrowing this example from Franklin & Marshall College’s Writing Center:
In The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, a ruler makes decisions that greatly affect his life.
He killed his brother. He married his brother’s wife. He stole his brother’s crown. A cold-hearted murderer, he is described by his brother’s ghost as ‘that incestuous, that adulterate beast’ (I.v.42).
I don’t know about you, but the first example may or may not have put me to sleep. The second one, however, has short, succinct sentences that really grab my attention; now I intrigued to find out what happens next.
7. BE YOURSELF
Don’t be afraid to add your own flavor to your writing. Can you imagine eating a steak without all the delicious sides? I don’t know about you, but when I say, “I’m craving steak!” sure, I mean the tender, juicy, and well-seasoned meat itself, but my craving will never be satisfied if I do not get the complete meal filled with starchy potatoes and glorious greens. This is the same with your readers. They will never be able to fully grasp your personality, what’s important to you, and why they should ultimately choose you over thousands of other applicants without your condiments. Therefore, you need to give them the main course, but also remember to sprinkle in a bit of your other characteristics.