Monthly Archives: August 2011

Choosing a personal statement topic.

What is your statement about? (From UggBoy

To say admissions essays are daunting is putting it rather mildly. The application process itself –getting transcripts and recommendation letters,  prepping for required admissions tests, making Big Decisions about Huge Life Changes– is arduous, terrifying, and seemingly life-ending.

And yet, despite of all that, you’re also expected to write about yourself.

This pressure often leads to feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and a little afraid. Perhaps you may even feel like an impostor. Where do you even start?

Alas, one does not have to begin by breathing into a paper bag.

The first step to writing a personal essay is really no different from that of research papers or essays– it all starts with brainstorming. For the personal essay, however, brainstorming means making a list.

Make a list of all the accomplishments, awards, honorable mentions, accolades, and even old-fashioned, good deeds that you’ve done so far. Think of everything you’ve ever done in the last few years that you’re even the slightest bit proud of, and write them down– and I mean everything. If you’re a former student body president, state chess champion, and director of the school play, then write those amazing things down.  But, even if you feel that you haven’t done anything that’s “good enough” to be considered, think harder. Your first step to a great personal essay is to sit down, get out a sheet of paper, and stay a while. Spend time thinking of how awesome you are, and all the equally awesome things you’ve done. Everyone’s done something worthwhile and noteworthy, whether it was volunteering to save orphans in a third-world country or being a good friend to someone in their time of need. Helping old ladies cross a street counts too. It can be anything– I mean it. Be shameless.

Keep this list handy as this will not only serve as a jump-off point for possible topic ideas but also be a helpful reminder during the application process that you CAN do this.

Once you’ve exhausted every possible feat, step away from it, take the rest of the day off, and work on other parts of your application (this is a prime example of why time management is extremely important). The next day, return to your list. What sticks out to you? What do you feel most proud of? If you’re still stuck, hand this list to someone else, anyone you’d trust to give an objective opinion. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a family member or friend–a coworker or neighbor will do. What do they think?

Circle a couple of options from your list, the ones that stand out to you (or your friend) the most. When you’ve narrowed it down to two or three, jot down a few notes on each, and go forward from there. If need be, consult your friend again or yet another person. Follow this same process of elimination until, boom, you’ve got yourself a topic and started the essay writing process. And, hopefully, you haven’t reached for that paper bag yet.

Easy? Of course not. But, at least this way, you can make a topic choice that is not rushed or haphazard and can hold the attention of your reader. Holding your reader’s attention is crucial as your reader, in this instance, is the person deciding your academic future. If you’re not content with what you’ve narrowed it down to, start the process again. There’s nothing to be afraid of starting over; however, you should certainly be afraid of writing about a topic you’re not entirely happy with which is A LOT harder to do, let alone to do successfully. Repeating the process a couple of times may be just what you need to get your gears rolling on a topic that is truly awesome.

Stefanie Arr

How to write an addendum.

Writing the news. (From ElvertBarnes on Flickr.)

“What is an addendum?” and, “how do I write one?” are two questions often posed by students when completing university applications for either undergraduate or graduate work.

An addendum is used to address certain parts of your application– either grades, attendance records, disciplinary records, and other areas– that may need further explanation due to extraordinary or extenuating circumstances. Usually an addendum is included in an application to explain issues with low grades, standardized test scores, absences, disciplinary action, or other areas that need to be answered.

The idea behind an addendum is to give insight to an admissions committee that they would not otherwise have regarding a possible problem with your application. Whether it’s a lapse in grades, poor test scores, or a long medical absence, your addendum should ideally provide answers to any possible questions or ambiguity that your application may have.

It’s important to note that, by writing an addendum, you are essentially asking the admissions committee to make an exception– that is, you’re asking them to reconsider these issues and to evaluate your application differently than they would have ordinarily.

So, as you can imagine, it is especially crucial that addenda are well written, truthful, and concise. Here are a few tips on how to write an effective addendum:

Decide whether you need an addendum.

Let’s say you did poorly during a particular semester: normally, your grades are above-average but, during a particular semester, they dipped under 3.0, due to circumstances. Why did this happen? Whether it’s because your grandmother had passed away, you missed two weeks of class due to illness, or you were stricken by a series of personal crises, these are all good and acceptable reasons to write an addendum. An addendum would address that, due to extenuating circumstances, your normally good grades suffered and, for a brief period of time, you did not do as well as you normally would have.

If you feel that a particular part of your application warrants an explanation, then you should consider writing an addendum. However, if you don’t have an actual explanation for a discrepancy in your application, then writing an addendum may not be the best idea. Addenda are to elaborate on legitimate circumstances, not excuses.

Also, don’t feel that you have to write an addendum. If your application is fairly solid and without glaring discrepancies, then, great! You are free to devote that time to something else (like your personal statement!).

Be factual.

Regardless of what your addendum is about, you must disclose all facts IN FULL. By no means should you assume that the admissions officer will simply “get” what you’re trying to say. Your goal is to explain the situation and its detrimental effects to its fullest extent and to do so as factually as possible.

This means, however, that you should not write a full-fledged argument as to why you should be considered. Argumentative tangents or emotional pleas are NOT what admissions counselors want to read, nor will they sway their decisions positively– in fact, you could risk doing the opposite. An addendum should explain what happened, as it happened, and how it affected you. That’s it. If you have a truly burning desire to argue your case and cannot go forward without presenting your argument, then perhaps this is better suited for your personal statement.

Be honest.

I addressed honesty in my previous post, but it is especially relevant in this instance. If you feel that your circumstances are so unusual that the committee might not believe you, elaborate on why they should. However, if you feel that your reason is somehow unsatisfactory, do not exaggerate. To do so would be, essentially, cheating. Also, admissions counselors pour over thousands of applications a cycle and will see through excuses and nonsense immediately. That is their job, and they do it well. If you can’t get away from possibly stretching or exaggerating your explanation, then perhaps you should reconsider writing one at all.

Following my first point, you are to explain what had happened, and how this affected you, but without embellishment or exaggeration. You can certainly make your reasons compelling, but by no means should you exaggerate them.

Be concise.

While you should write your addendum as completely as possible, its also important that its as concise as possible. Addenda should never exceed a page; in reality, they should actually only be a paragraph or two. So, in the essence of space (and the counselor’s attention span), your addendum must be to the point. There is literally no room for long, flowery prose, nor opportunity as this should be only a disclosure of facts, not an argument.

Remember, an addendum should disclose facts only as this is NOT the place to pull heartstrings or ask for absolution. Your addendum should be also be short, to the point, and, most importantly, honest.

Stefanie Arr

Personal statement tips.

Personal Statement Tips. (From Sterlic on Flickr.)

Personal statements, or admissions essays, are definitely one of the hardest parts of the admissions process, a process that is already stressful to begin with. Now that the application cycle is just beginning (everybody say, “AHH!”), I’ve provided some tips that will help you write your personal statement, and make it better and more effective.

Your essay, first and foremost, should be about yourself and your experiences. It’s about you– that’s it. Through your essay, you are given an opportunity to showcase the part of you that is not captured by your application itself. So, to begin, start thinking: how would you portray yourself to admissions counselor? What would you want them to know about you, that they wouldn’t otherwise know from your application?

Keep it simple.
Even the greatest, most venerable topics– such as, volunteering medical services to war-torn areas or aiding in critically endangered species conservation— can lose their compelling and convincing nature when written about in a convoluted, unclear fashion.

Writing simply and clearly will allow your reader to fully grasp your topic and be drawn in by what you’re saying. Bogging them down with too many details will not only confuse your reader but also lose their interest, which is the last thing you want to do– especially if your reader happens to be an admissions officer. Admissions committees go through thousands upon thousands of essays each application cycle; flowery, over-the-top prose, run-on sentences and confusing structure, will NOT resonate with them, and you’ll risk being lost in the din.

Be honest.
By honesty, I am not referring to simply the truth or even truthiness. This particular brand of honesty I’m referring to is naturalness– without pretense, hang-ups, or ‘airs’.

Admissions counselors look for confident, mature, and well-adjusted applicants who show promise. They want applicants who not only are mature now, but who will continue to mature and evolve in the future, through their institution and afterwards. Writing pretentiously actually shows the opposite of what admissions officers are looking for– that you may be unrealistic with your goals or insecure about your actual ability, or, at the very worst, immature and therefore not ready for higher education.

“So, what now?”

Keeping things simple and being honest can exist concurrently, with each point actually lends to the other. By being honest with yourself, you can avoid hyperbolic, overly-dramatic prose and, in turn, keep your writing clear and simple. By writing clearly, it will help you keep yourself in check and maintain your honesty and authenticity. With this, you will show the admissions committee that you are genuine, confident, have well-rounded experience and maturity, and, equally as important, write well.

Stefanie Arr

Paragraphs and how to use them.

Paragraphs are incredibly important– whether you’re writing a short response paper or an epic long dissertation, you need them.


Without them, your writing will seem like a long, unedited diatribe– endless lines of unorganized information that will lose your readers and your professor.

In order to fully understand what paragraphs are and how to fully use them, it’s helpful if you think of them in the following ways:

– Paragraphs are units of composition.
Think of each paragraph as a separate unit, an individual nugget or dose of information. Each new bit of information should be showcased to your reader, separately. This helps you, the writer, separate your topics and develop your overall argument in a logical and organized fashion. For the reader, your argument is more digestible and easier to read.

So, with that said…

– Paragraphs should always introduce a new idea.
Whether you are subdividing a topic at hand or introducing an entirely different topic, paragraphs should contain new, unique, pieces of information that are parts of a cohesive whole.

Some examples where your paper should have a natural paragraph break are:
– when there is a change in setting or time (such as discussing periods in history or different geographical locations)
– when you are citing and explaining a specific case as an example, or
– when you are presenting an additional argument or counter-argument
– in introduction of a set of new arguments/topics or in conclusion or them, or of your paper.

– Paragraphs should begin with topic sentences.
In order to fully accomplish what I said above, each paragraph should state its new topic within the first two sentences. By doing so, your reader will understand that you are transitioning from the previous topic to the next, how you’re doing so and why. You would also be preparing your reader (and your professor) for what you will be outlining further in the paragraph and throughout your argument as a whole.

Using transitional words or phrases are a good start. Here are a few examples:

Adding information: Also, as well, besides
Comparing ideas: Likewise, similarly
Contrasting ideas: At the same time, conversely, even so, in contrast, nevertheless,
Using an example: For example, for instance, in other words, specifically,
Continuing a previous idea: Later, meanwhile, next, subsequently, then
Following from a previous idea: accordingly, as a result, consequently, as such, therefore, thus
Concluding ideas: Finally, in short, in summary, that is, that is to say, to sum up.

Stefanie Arr