Tag Archives: applications

How to get unstuck while writing your personal statement: Part 1.

Hit a wall? (From hryck on Flickr.)

So, you’ve been working on your personal statement. You’ve brainstormed, you’ve outlined, You might even be done with your first draft. But… you’re not getting anywhere.

It’s okay if you feel a little stuck– it happens to everyone. And, people get stuck at all different points of their statement-writing process. So, I’ve written this helpful guide-series that will show you how to get unstuck, whether you haven’t chosen a topic, are hammering out your first draft, or trying to nail down your final draft. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be covering different points of typical “stickiness” and how to get unstuck from them.

If you’re stuck…. and you don’t have a topic yet:

If you’re in the very beginning stages of just formulating your topic, it’s best if you start with some brainstorming or outlining before beginning your draft. Even if you do have a topic, it’s often helpful to still brainstorm to help tweak your topic and refresh your writing muscles (and your mind).

Start thinking about how your experiences have molded and shaped you. How did your experiences during undergrad shape your maturity and understanding? If you’ve been out of school for a while, how did your later positions shape you? What sort of trajectory has your life taken thus far? What has brought you to this point? Consider your answers– how will these affect you in the future, as a law student? As a working attorney?

I’ve posed these questions to coax out a potential argument about,the wealth of material you have scattered in your resume and in your mind. The problem may well be that you have so much to choose from, it’s overwhelming. I know the temptation exists to start to work on a draft right away and, if you really feel comfortable doing this, try. However, think about what I’ve just asked here while you brainstorm– just start writing down what comes to mind in a brief, bulleted list, without the pressure of putting it into a formal draft. Think a bit and see if you can come up. Write down everything you come up with; your material, somehow, has to directly relate to you and your experience.

Then, read over and evaluate what you came up with. See how you can make this all work, and how this relates to you. Do you feel comfortable with it? Can you take it further? You may end up going through many cycles of the above process- twice, three times, you name it. Regardless of how many times you brainstorm, it’s important that you do it. By brainstorming and even brainstorming repeatedly, you will inevitably come up with something good, something you can work with, and something you can write about well.

Next week, I’ll be covering how to get unstuck when writing your first draft, part 2.

Stefanie Arr

How to write a resume.

Pens and ink. (From Keith Williamson on Flickr.)

With application season gearing up, all sorts of questions are coming up– not surprisingly, they don’t all involve personal statements. Application packets can be lengthy with lots and lots of written, edited material to keep track of– your statement, of course, as well as letters of recommendation, supplemental essays (like addenda, for instance), and your resume.

In all this hubbub, the resume is often left for last, as it is supposedly the easiest of them all. To some extent, that is true. But don’t ignore it and certainly don’t forget about it– it is representative of you by containing a wealth of information about you, making a vital document in your application.

Whether you’ve chosen to write about volunteering for an NGO or coaching the local little league team, you are free to talk about these experiences in your statement. But, you don’t want to waste valuable space (and time!) listing your entire job description. Of course, your personal statement might not even be about about your time at school or in the work force– and that makes your resume even more important.

Your personal statement is meant to highlight your personality and drive. In it, you’re encouraged to describe how your school, work, and life experiences have demonstrated your qualities or have honed and developed them. Your resume, in turn, provides the background knowledge of these experiences. While your personal statement is meant to persuade the admission counselor with a creative yet compelling argument,  your resume provides the factual evidence to back this up. It serves as a gallery of your school and work experiences, awards, and accomplishments. Your resume is where you can more explicitly state what these work and job responsibilities were / are and how they fit with these qualities emphasized in your personal statement.

A helpful way to start working on your resume is to brainstorm. Think about what each and every  role you’ve had in school, work, or elsewhere. Think carefully– what were you responsible for? What were you counted on to bring to the table? Chances are, somehow and somewhere, you were responsible for something– in some way or another, a responsibility rested totally with you. Admissions councelors want to see that you have been held responsible and accountable for a job well done in some way and that a person or team has counted on you.

Then, use action words and phrases to move your resume. Be demonstrative with your job titles, descriptions, and work history. You want to highlight these responsibilities in a way that’s dynamic, allowing you ownership of your duties. Think beyond what you’ve done but what you’ve accomplished. The following are good examples of action phrases:

  • “Performed…”
  • “Created…”
  • “Worked directly with…”
  • “Managed…”
  • “Increased…”
  • “Produced…”
  • “Handled all…”
  • “Improved…”
  • “Enhanced…”
  • “Worked alongside with [lead supervisor/director/head coordinator/etc]
  • “Expanded…”
  • “Responsible for…”
  • “Achieved…”
  • “Succeeded in…”
  • “Completed…”
  • “Secured…”

…and so on.

When writing your job descriptions, you need to highlight where and how you were directly involved in each  role– whether it was by being director or coordinator yourself, or being shift manager at Starbucks. You will need to showcase all of your responsibilities held as these will be further testament to your exceptional abilities next to your statement. By brainstorming effectively and using action phrases like the ones I’ve listed above, you’ll be well on your way.


Personal Statements: Do’s and Don’ts.

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.

Stefanie Arr

Interview by LSAT Blog

LSAT Blog by Steve Schwartz

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.

For all my dear readers out there applying for law school, LSAT Blog is one of the best resources for help with LSAT preparation on the Internet, hands down.

Stefanie Arr

How to approach your personal statement.

How to approach your personal statement. (From Voldy92 on Flickr.)

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.

Stefanie Arr

*Yes, I said “your package”. Go ahead, laugh.

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

Rules for writing an essay.

Writing. (From Jase Curtis on Flickr)

There is a lot involved when writing an essay. If there wasn’t, then writing would be easy; there wouldn’t be a need for writing classes, books, or tutors (yikes!). So, while I still have a job, writing is still hard. To make up for it, I’ve compiled a short list of basic rules to live by when writing an essay.

Avoid using contractions.
I know– I myself just used a contraction (if you forgot what a contraction is, here’s a refresher) in my header. However, when writing a paper, this is NOT the way to go. Why? Well, a paper is, basically, a serious presentation of an argument. Using contractions like “I’m” or “don’t” is too informal, which could make you sound less smart. Clearly, you can see why this would be a bad idea for a paper. This is, of course, not the case when using a direct quote, as you are using someone else’s words and phrasing and, if they themselves used contractions, that’s okay. But, for your own writing, it’s best not to use them so that you can sound as compelling, persuasive, and, yes, smart as possible.

Sentences shouldn’t be more than three lines long.
When writing a paper, you want to be as clear and clean as possible. Writing sentences that are too long can confuse your reader, and dilute what you’re trying to say. If you’re not sure whether a sentence is too long, try reading it out loud. If you find yourself losing your breath or your place, try shortening it. It’s better to have shorter sentences that are strong and to the point, than to have really long, confusing ones.

Avoid slang.
For the same reasons I’ve stated above, using slang in a paper is a terrible idea. The goal of your paper should be to address issues and arguments in the most intelligent way possible. Unfortunately, using slang like “gonna”, “ppl”, or “on the down low” isn’t going to do that. A good marker of whether a word or phrase is slang or not is to think, would this be printed in the New York Times? If yes, then you should be fine. If it’s on Urban Dictionary, then maybe not.

Stefanie Arr