1. Pick a topic you’re passionate about.
Your writing will be both easier and more genuine if you write about what you want to write about, instead of writing about what you think colleges want to hear. The most successful essays describe a moment of personal growth, difficulty, strength, or confidence, all of which people experience in vastly different ways.
If you are serious about your college essay, you will most likely be spending a fair amount of time brainstorming, writing, and editing until you make it as near perfect as possible. Understandably, this process will proceed quicker if you actually enjoy the topic you are writing about.
More importantly, if you love the topic you choose, your reader will see it in your writing: the more passion you feel for a subject, the easier it will be to express yourself. So if your greatest personal growth story occurred as you were picking out socks for the day, so be it. Perhaps you managed to find courage on a stage in front of two thousand, or maybe just two people.
Remember that this is your personal statement, your only chance to differentiate yourself as a unique individual to colleges apart from grades, test scores, and resumes. Write about a topic that excites you, and you will excite your reader.
2. Engage your reader from the first sentence.
Regardless of the topic you choose, your reader’s interest must be captured in the first sentence. Out of thousands of essays, why should yours stand out? A perfect introduction will leap out to the reader and grab their attention.
The best way to do this is through as much detail as you can muster. If you have chosen a sport or activity you excel in, show your reader through your words a split second of what participating in the activity is like. Write as if you are telling a story: what was the setting? What was the weather like? Were there other people there? What emotions were coursing through you at that exact moment?
Many students will begin their essays, “The most life-changing/important/difficult moment in my life has been___.” Over time, admissions officers will lose steam over the constant repetition, and all essays that begin as such will fail to make an impact.
Make it easier for your reader to remember you by writing a story as your introduction. The more specific detail you add in, the more the reader will get into the story and the more sold they’ll be on you.
3. Ask yourself “So What?”
As with any good essay, you should spend at least a paragraph explaining the “so what?” aspect of your essay. If you have chosen a specific activity to write about, in addition to writing about the activity itself, colleges want to know why this particular activity has made an impact on your life.
So you’ve been playing baseball for the last ten years, so what? Perhaps playing baseball taught you teamwork, or made you appreciate the value of practice and determination in achieving your goals. As this is a college essay with a point to make about your character, a substantial portion of your essay should answer the “so what?” question.
Colleges want to know how you have grown as a person through your own experiences and how they have changed you, and stating why such experiences were important to you aid in convincing admissions officers that their school could use more students like you.
If your detail and story-like aspect of your essay comes at the beginning, your “so what?” moment should wrap up your essay, connecting your activity in question with the purpose behind your choice of topic.
4. Read through your essay out loud.
It goes without saying that you should spell-check your essay before sending it off to colleges. As your personal statement is one you will presumably be using for the majority of your college applications (if your colleges use CollgeApp), there is no excuse for sending off an essay that is not completely free of mechanical and grammatical errors.
In addition to the automatic spellcheck on Microsoft Word, set time aside to read over your paper out loud. This will allow you to catch things your mind might otherwise overlook; because you are able to hear any wrong grammar or sentence structure, you are less likely to skip over it.
It is also wise to ask for a second opinion: let your parents read it, your English teacher or your friends. Ask them to read it and tell you what they thought the central message they got out of it was; if it is the same message you were hoping to send to admissions officers, your essay has succeeded.
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Your personal statement (or admission essay) is your opportunity to show the admission officers why you would be a perfect fit at the university, how you would contribute to the student body, and why the university should accept you over other candidates.
The admission officers of top universities have shared their opinion on what common mistakes the students make when writing their personal statement.
- Repeating what is written in the application form. Your essay is your opportunity to tell the admission officers something that you could not include into your application form or delve into something you wrote there. There is no point in simply retelling your application or CV.
- Not writing to the specific university. Apart from telling about yourself, your statement should also demonstrate how you would fit in at the university you are applying to. Explain one or two things about the university that make it the best one for you. Make sure that you are not writing only the general things that can be true for any university.
- Having a boring introduction. It is not a good idea to start your essay by repeating the question asked or introducing yourself. Think about something to grab the attention of the admission committee. For example, you can start from conveying something that you really believe in or describing a situation which influenced your way of thinking.
- Trying to make too many points. It is better to focus on a single well thought-out point than briefly mentioning many different ones. Think about supporting your points with various examples.
- Not sharing something about yourself. When writing you should always ask yourself if your essay reveals something about your character. Your essay should be unique and personal.
- Forgetting to proofread. Not only proofreading helps to avoid spelling, grammatical or punctuation errors, but also gives you an opportunity to check if your essay does not accidentally contain the name of another university you are applying to.
- Forcing humour. Do not try to sound witty or funny if you are not. In any case if you include a joke into your essay, be sure to ask an adult or two to read it to see if they agree with you that it is funny.
- Trying to be someone else. Don’t try to seem like a perfect student who is committed to every subject area, has numerous talents, plays multiple sports and enjoys volunteering and extra-curricular activities if it is not who you are. Just be yourself and express your genuine thoughts and feelings.
- Not answering the question. Each application form includes brief instructions on the points you are asked to cover in your essay. Make sure that your essay addresses those particular issues.
- Writing your personal statement (essay) at the last moment. It is not wise to hurry up and writing your essay the night before it is due. Start writing well in advance, take some time to think about it and return to it later to polish.
Examples of successful personal statements (admission essays)
- Personal statement of a student applying to technological university
- Motivation letter of a student applying to Biology programme.
- Admission essay of a student applying to medical programme.
- Motivation letter of a student applying to Dutch technological university.
- Motivation letter, written by a student applying for the MSc Computer Science programme.
- Motivation letter of a student enrolling in the Master's Logistics programme at a Dutch university.
- The letter of motivation of a student applying for the Natural Science programme at a Dutch university.
- Admission essay of a student enrolling in the Bachelor's IBMS programme at a university of applied sciences in Holland.
- Motivation letter of a students applying for the Arts programme taught in the Netherlands and Austria.
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