Monthly Archives: September 2011
The admissions cycle is just about to begin and questions have already been rolling in. So, to help you navigate this often nerve-racking time, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most common do’s and don’ts for writing effective, successful admissions essays.
DON’T: Submit your statement without working on at least a couple drafts of it first. Edit your work. Even if you think your first (or even second) draft is a masterpiece — put it down and look at it again tomorrow. You are indeed your worst critic, but don’t put it off until the last minute. Submitting your first draft of anything will only amount to lots of regret, I promise. Even the most stellar students can get dinged over a poorly written statement. So, don’t be that guy.
DO: Show it to someone else. When writing, it’s very easy to miss even the biggest mistakes. Showing it to an editor, a professor, an advisor, or even a friend or colleague, can improve your essay enormously– they will often see errors that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. If you live on a deserted island or cave and really can’t find a single reliable person to read it for you, then read it out loud to yourself. Yes, you might feel weird doing it but, in actuality, reading aloud will often reveal mistakes in grammar and sentence structure are often not immediately obvious. While having someone else look over your work is the most advisable option, reading it out loud is still a much better option than not doing any of it at all.
DON’T: Be afraid to talk about yourself. As I’ve said in a previous post, your essay is the only chance an admissions counselor will have, outside of an interview, to see your true strengths and qualities as how you choose to showcase them. Given this, your job is to use your essay to present yourself and your qualities that would otherwise not be seen in your application. Don’t be afraid to allow the attractive aspects of your personality to show through; a compelling essay can mean all the difference between a ‘no’ and a ‘maybe’ or even a ‘yes’.
DO: Write about your traits and aspirations confidently. As I’ve discussed numerous times before, admissions counselors are searching for candidates who are not only studious but also mature and well-adjusted. They want to know that you’re ready for this next step and, to prove that you are, writing about yourself confidently is necessary. Never forget that your essay is, essentially, a logical argument (it is in fact a statement) so confidence in your own abilities and aptitude is key to making it effective.
DON’T: Write an overly general “Why X” essay just so you can reuse it. While it would certainly make your life easier, it would not make your application look any better. Admissions counselors go through thousands upon thousands of essays each year and many of them have been doing it for quite some time. So, their BS-detectors are pretty finely tuned, particularly to glossed-over generalizations that only vaguely suggest their schools. If there’s no way you have time to write an individually tailored “Why X” essay, then I would definitely suggest writing your essay on another topic. If a “Why X” essay is mandatory, then make the effort. You don’t want to risk being rejected for being lazy.
DO: Investigate what each school you’re applying to has to offer, and know why you want to go there, whether you’re writing a “Why X” essay or not. Regardless of why you’re applying to a particular school– because of its reputation, athletics, location, or programs offered– you need to have identifiable (and reasonable) grounds as to why you’d want to be there. Do your research. Even if you’re applying there as a “safety”, consider why are you choosing this school over any others. Of course, be sure to present your reasons with restraint– for instance, it’s one thing to be appreciative of a school’s Greek life but another to say you’re looking to get into a party school.
DON’T: Regurgitate your resume. Your statement can always include examples of work, school, and life experiences to illustrate just how serious, hardworking, and dedicated you are. However, this does not mean you can list experiences that are not relevant to your statement topic, just for the sake of including them. Your application already includes your resume, so there’s no need to list every position or internship held even if it doesn’t fit. If there’s a particular position or experience that you absolutely must talk about that you can’t seem to work into your statement, then consider reworking your topic so you can.
DO: Tell a story that illustrates your strengths, maturity, and talents. Following what I said above, it doesn’t have to include every position you’ve served or award you’ve received. Your statement can be an anecdote: a (small!) snippet of your life story, or a description of one particular experience you’ve had in school or work that is, yes, in your resume. Or, in the alternative, your statement can describe your work and school experiences if they are all part of a master plan to get you to this point. Regardless of how you choose to go about it, your statement should be one solid, cohesive argument that flows all the way through.
Recently, I’ve been interviewed by Steve Schwartz of the LSAT Blog.
The following is an excerpt from our interview:
3. How much time should one spend revising a personal statement, and how can one tell when it’s *finished*?
It’s impossible to set a firm amount of time and have that work for everyone. Everyone works at different speeds and everyone has different amounts of free time available to them. So, whether it’s one month or an entire application cycle (about four to five months), one has to allot enough time to write multiple drafts and to revise and review appropriately. It’s also important to be honest with yourself about how much time you actually have, and to be realistic with your goals. Rushing should NEVER be an option.
You can read the rest of our interview here.
The personal statement is an elusive animal; nearly every school in existence requires one and, yet, it is one of the most confusing, difficult parts of an application to get down. My previous posts cover tips on how to choose an admissions essay topic as well as some other tips on writing a successful application essay. Many of my admissions students come to me in the very beginning stages of their statements– the “I don’t even know where to begin” phase.
Much of this panic stems from approaching the personal statement off-kilter, where you are both overwhelmed by the task at hand and yet shortsighted to the exact scope of what the personal statement really is.
The one of the best way to consider your personal statement is to think of it in terms of marketing– specifically, branding. Whole programs are devoted to branding and brand management, so I won’t go into it too deeply here. For this purpose, however, here’s a teeny bit of Advertising 101:
There are thousands of products out there, many of which do the same things. For every item, device, or product, there are millions more like it, that do more or less the same thing, cost about the same, and are available at the same places. But why do people choose one product over another? Why iPhone over Android? Mercedes over BMW? Dasani water over Aquafina? Yes, there are subtle differences– functionality, appearance, and taste, to name some basic ones. But, these all do essentially the same things in terms of their abilities to communicate, transport, and quench thirst. As such, don’t have any true, fundamental differences. Yet, there are perceived differences, and those who are looking at their screens incredulously at what I just said (“Of course the iPhone/Android is better!”) are proving my point.
Effective branding has made these differences, as nuanced as they are, seem huge. One is simply cooler than the other. One is sleeker, faster, sexier. Another is purer, cleaner, more refreshing. Branding, done successfully, even allows for its products and their users to have their own “air” about them– for instance, Mac users are intrinsically different from PC users. Effective advertising campaigns allow you to acquire these ‘facts’ without having to second-guess them. And, all things (including price) being equal, when at Best Buy, the dealership, or the grocery store, you will inevitably base your decisions upon them.
So, how does this relate to you?
Every application cycle, admissions counselors search for students to fill a set amount of seats. For each applicant there are thousands more, all of whom would be doing the same thing upon admission– attending that particular school for a number of years and earning a degree. So, what differentiates you from other applicants?
Granted, hard factors like your GPA or test scores can automatically do this for you. Just as how cars are differentiated from each other in terms of class and price point, your GPA and/or test scores can differentiate you from other students, which is an unfortunate, harsh truth. However, regardless of whatever place or ranking you might have in terms of these factors, there will always be another student with very similar if not the same numbers. So, whether you have a 2.0 or a 4.0, or scored at the lowest or highest percentile, there will be another person with the same stats as you, standing in consideration for the same seat. Your test scores and GPA are hard data; like your name and date of birth, you can’t change or fudge those in your application (fudging is definitely not encouraged, by the way). However, should those things be equal (which will be, at some point), these differences will become more nuanced and depend almost solely on your personal statement. This is where the principles of branding come in.
Your personal statement should be used as your own personal advertisement, to develop and cultivate the persona you want admissions counselors to have of you. With the personal statement, you are asked to develop and market your brand, to push and sell your product– which is yourself. Standing out in a sea of similar applicants is possible with the right form of branding; yet, given the exploding rates of enrollment in education across the board, it is now more important than ever to do so.
Your personal statement is one of the only malleable, changeable parts of your application or your “package”*. While you can’t necessarily change what your GPA and test score is, you can change how you are perceived through your statement. You can single-handedly control how an admissions counselor perceives you, as an applicant and future student. Your essay is the only aspect of your application where an admissions counselor can fully grasp your personality, your aims, your maturity, and, most importantly, your voice.
To rethink your personal statement as a form of branding will help you discover ways to showcase your personality in ways that will hold the admissions counselor’s attention, your most important goal. So, use your 500 words wisely and, most importantly, compellingly. The whole application process is, after all, an exercise in persuasion so that they, the consumer, can choose you over the rest.
*Yes, I said “your package”. Go ahead, laugh.