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College Application Essay Format Rules
The college application essay has become the most important part of applying to college. In this article, we will go over the best college essay format for getting into top schools, including how to structure the elements of a college admissions essay: margins, font, paragraphs, spacing, headers, and organization.
We will focus on commonly asked questions about the best college essay structure. Finally, we will go over essay formatting tips and examples.
Table of Contents
- General college essay formatting rules
- How to format a college admissions essay
- Sections of a college admissions essay
- College application essay format examples
General College Essay Format Rules
Before talking about how to format your college admission essays, we need to talk about general college essay formatting rules.
Pay attention to word count
It has been well-established that the most important rule of college application essays is to not go over the specific Application Essay word limit . The word limit for the Common Application essay is typically 500-650 words.
Not only may it be impossible to go over the word count (in the case of the Common Application essay , which uses text fields), but admissions officers often use software that will throw out any essay that breaks this rule. Following directions is a key indicator of being a successful student.
Refocusing on the essay prompt and eliminating unnecessary adverbs, filler words, and prepositional phrases will help improve your essay.
On the other hand, it is advisable to use almost every available word. The college essay application field is very competitive, so leaving extra words on the table puts you at a disadvantage. Include an example or anecdote near the end of your essay to meet the total word count.
Do not write a wall of text: use paragraphs
Here is a brutal truth: College admissions counselors only read the application essays that help them make a decision . Otherwise, they will not read the essay at all. The problem is that you do not know whether the rest of your application (transcripts, academic record, awards, etc.) will be competitive enough to get you accepted.
A very simple writing rule for your application essay (and for essay editing of any type) is to make your writing readable by adding line breaks and separate paragraphs.
Line breaks do not count toward word count, so they are a very easy way to organize your essay structure, ideas, and topics. Remember, college counselors, if you’re lucky, will spend 30 sec to 1 minute reading your essay. Give them every opportunity to understand your writing.
Do not include an essay title
Unless specifically required, do not use a title for your personal statement or essay. This is a waste of your word limit and is redundant since the essay prompt itself serves as the title.
Never use overly casual, colloquial, or text message-based formatting like this:
THIS IS A REALLY IMPORTANT POINT!. #collegeapplication #collegeessay.
Under no circumstances should you use emojis, all caps, symbols, hashtags, or slang in a college essay. Although technology, texting, and social media are continuing to transform how we use modern language (what a great topic for a college application essay!), admissions officers will view the use of these casual formatting elements as immature and inappropriate for such an important document.
How To Format A College Application Essay
There are many tips for writing college admissions essays . How you upload your college application essay depends on whether you will be cutting and pasting your essay into a text box in an online application form or attaching a formatted document.
Save and upload your college essay in the proper format
Check the application instructions if you’re not sure what you need to do. Currently, the Common Application requires you to copy and paste your essay into a text box.
There are three main formats when it comes to submitting your college essay or personal statement:
If submitting your application essay in a text box
For the Common Application, there is no need to attach a document since there is a dedicated input field. You still want to write your essay in a word processor or Google doc. Just make sure once you copy-paste your essay into the text box that your line breaks (paragraphs), indents, and formatting is retained.
- Formatting like bold , underline, and italics are often lost when copy-pasting into a text box.
- Double-check that you are under the word limit. Word counts may be different within the text box .
- Make sure that paragraphs and spacing are maintained; text input fields often undo indents and double-spacing .
- If possible, make sure the font is standardized. Text input boxes usually allow just one font .
If submitting your application essay as a document
When attaching a document, you must do more than just double-check the format of your admissions essay. You need to be proactive and make sure the structure is logical and will be attractive to readers.
Microsoft Word (.DOC) format
If you are submitting your application essay as a file upload, then you will likely submit a .doc or .docx file. The downside is that MS Word files are editable, and there are sometimes conflicts between different MS Word versions (2010 vs 2016 vs Office365). The upside is that Word can be opened by almost any text program.
This is a safe choice if maintaining the visual elements of your essay is important. Saving your essay as a PDF prevents any formatting issues that come with Microsoft Word, since older versions are sometimes incompatible with the newer formatting.
Although PDF viewing programs are commonly available, many older readers and Internet users (who will be your admissions officers) may not be ready to view PDFs.
- Use 1-inch margins . This is the default setting for Microsoft Word. However, students from Asia using programs like Hangul Word Processor will need to double-check.
- Use a standard serif font. These include Times New Roman, Courier, and Garamond. A serif font adds professionalism to your essay.
- Use standard 12-font size.
- Use 1.5- or double-spacing. Your application essay should be readable. Double spaces are not an issue as the essay should already fit on one page.
- Add a Header with your First Name, Last Name, university, and other required information.
- Clearly separate your paragraphs. By default, just press ‘ENTER’ twice.
Sections Of A College Admissions Essay
University admissions protocols usually allow you to choose the format and style of your writing. Despite this, the general format of “Introduction-Body-Conclusion” is the most common structure. This is a common format you can use and adjust to your specific writing style.
College Application Essay Introduction
Typically, your first paragraph should introduce you or the topic that you will discuss. You must have a killer opener if you want the admissions committees to pay attention.
Essays that use rhetorical tools, factual statements, dialog, etc. are encouraged. There is room to be creative since many application essays specifically focus on past learning experiences.
College Application Essay Body
Clearly answering the essay prompt is the most important part of the essay body. Keep reading over the prompt and making sure everything in the body supports it.
Since personal statement essays are designed to show you are as a person and student, the essay body is also where you talk about your experiences and identity.
Make sure you include the following life experiences and how they relate to the essay prompt. Be sure to double-check that they relate back to the essay prompt. A college admissions essay is NOT an autobiography:
- How did you overcome them?
- How or how much do past challenges define your current outlook or worldview?
- What did you learn about yourself when you failed?
Personal achievements and successes
- What people helped you along the way?
- What did you learn about the nature of success
- In general, did your experiences inform your choice of university or major?
- Politics, philosophy, and religion may be included here, but be careful when discussing sensitive personal or political topics.
- Academic goals
- Personal goals
- Professional goals
- How will attending the university help you achieve these goals?
College Application Essay Conclusion
The conclusion section is a call to action directly aimed at the admissions officers. You must demonstrate why you are a great fit for the university, which means you should refer to specific programs, majors, or professors that guided or inspired you.
In this “why this school” part of the essay, you can also explain why the university is a great fit for your goals. Be straightforward and truthful, but express your interest in the school boldly.
College Application Essay Format Examples
Here are several formatting examples of successful college admission essays, along with comments from the essay editor.
Note: Actual sample essays edited by Wordvice professional editors . Personal info has been redacted for privacy. This is not a college essay template.
College Admission Essay Example 1
This essay asks the student to write about how normal life experiences can have huge effects on personal growth:
Common App Essay Prompt: Thoughtful Rides
The Florida turnpike is a very redundant and plain expressway; we do not have the scenic luxury of mountains, forests, or even deserts stretching endlessly into the distance. Instead, we are blessed with repetitive fields of grazing cows and countless billboards advertising local businesses. I have been subjected to these monotonous views three times a week, driving two hours every other day to Sunrise and back to my house in Miami, Florida—all to practice for my competitive soccer team in hopes of receiving a scholarship to play soccer at the next level.
The Introduction sets up a clear, visceral memory and communicates a key extracurricular activity.
When I first began these mini road trips, I would jam out to my country playlist and sing along with my favorite artists, and the trek would seem relatively short. However, after listening to “Beautiful Crazy” by Luke Combs for the 48th time in a week, the song became as repetitive as the landscape I was driving through. Changing genres did not help much either; everything I played seemed to morph into the same brain-numbing sound. Eventually, I decided to do what many peers in my generation fail to do: turn off the distractions, enjoy the silence, and immerse myself in my own thoughts. In the end, this seemingly simple decision led to a lot of personal growth and tranquility in my life.
The first part of the Body connects the student’s past experience with the essay prompt: personal growth and challenging assumptions.
Although I did not fully realize it at the time, these rides were the perfect opportunity to reflect on myself and the people around me. I quickly began noticing the different personalities surrounding me in the flow of traffic, and this simple act of noticing reminded me that I was not the only human on this planet that mattered. I was just as unimportant as the woman sitting in the car next to mine. Conversely, I also came to appreciate how a gesture as simple as letting another driver merge into your lane can impact a stranger’s day. Maybe the other driver is late for a work interview or rushing to the hospital because their newborn is running a high fever and by allowing them to advance in the row of cars, you made their day just a little less stressful. I realized that if I could improve someone else’s day from my car, I could definitely be a kinder person and take other people’s situations into consideration—because you never know if someone is having one of the worst days of their lives and their interaction with you could provide the motivation they need to keep going on .
This part uses two examples to support the writer’s answer to the essay prompt. It ends the paragraph with a clear statement.
Realizing I was not the only being in the universe that mattered was not the only insight I attained during these drives. Over and over, I asked myself why I had chosen to change soccer clubs, leaving Pinecrest, the team I had played on for 8 years with my best friends and that was only a 10-minute drive from my house, to play for a completely unfamiliar team that required significantly more travel. Eventually, I came to understand that I truly enjoy challenging myself and pushing past complacency . One of my main goals in life is to play and experience college soccer—that, and to eventually pursue a career as a doctor. Ultimately, leaving my comfort zone in Pinecrest, where mediocrity was celebrated, to join a team in Sunrise, where championships were expected and college offers were abundant, was a very positive decision in my life.
This part clearly tells how the experience shaped the writer as a person. The student’s personality can be directly attributed to this memory. It also importantly states personal and academic goals.
Even if I do not end up playing college soccer, I know now that I will never back down from any challenge in my life; I am committed to pushing myself past my comfort zone. These car rides have given me insight into how strong I truly am and how much impact I can have on other people’s lives.
The Conclusion restates the overall lesson learned.
College Admission Essay Example 2
The next essay asks the reader to use leadership roles or extracurricular activities and describe the experience, contribution, and what the student learned about themselves.
As I release the air from the blood-pressure monitor’s valve, I carefully track the gauge, listening for the faint “lub-dub” of Winnie’s heart. Checking off the “hypertensive” box on his medical chart when reading 150/95, I then escort Winnie to the blood sugar station. This was the typical procedure of a volunteer at the UConn Migrant Farm Worker Clinic. Our traveling medical clinic operated at night, visiting various Connecticut farms to provide healthcare for migrant workers. Filling out charts, taking blood pressure, and recording BMI were all standard procedures, but the relationships I built with farmers such as Winnie impacted me the most.
This Introduction is very impactful. It highlights the student’s professional expertise as a healthcare worker and her impact on marginalized communities. It also is written in the present tense to add impact.
While the clinic was canceled this year due to COVID-19, I still wanted to do something for them. During a PPE-drive meeting this July, Winnie recounted his family history. I noticed his eyebrows furrow with anxiety as he spoke about his family’s safety in Tierra Blanca, Mexico. I realized that Winnie lacked substantial information about his hometown, and fear-mongering headlines did nothing to assuage his fears. After days of searching, I discovered that his hometown, Guanajuato, reported fewer cases of COVID-19 in comparison with surrounding towns. I then created a color-coded map of his town, showing rates across the different districts. Winnie’s eyes softened, marveling at the map I made for him this August. I didn’t need to explain what he saw: Guanajuato, his home state, was pale yellow, the color I chose to mark the lowest level of cases. By making this map, I didn’t intend to give him new hope; I wanted to show him where hope was.
The student continues to tell the powerful story of one of her patients. This humbles and empowers the student, motivating her in the next paragraph.
This interaction fueled my commitment to search for hope in my journey of becoming a public health official. Working in public health policy, I hope to tackle complex world problems, such as economic and social barriers to healthcare and find creative methods of improving outcomes in queer and Latinx communities. I want to study the present and potential future intervention strategies in minority communities for addressing language barriers to information including language on posters and gendered language, and for instituting social and support services for community youth. These stepping stones will hopefully prepare me for conducting professional research for the Medical Organization for Latino Advancement. I aspire to be an active proponent of healthcare access and equity for marginalized groups, including queer communities. I first learned about the importance of recognizing minority identities in healthcare through my bisexual sister, Sophie, and her nonbinary friend, Gilligan. During discussions with her friends, I realized the importance of validating diverse gender expressions in all facets of my life.
Here, the past experience is directly connected to future academic and professional goals, which themselves are motivated by a desire to increase access among communities as well as personal family experiences. This is a strong case for why personal identity is so important.
My experiences with Winnie and my sister have empowered me to be creative, thoughtful, and brave while challenging the assumptions currently embedded in the “visual vocabulary” of both the art and science fields. I envision myself deconstructing hegemonic ideas of masculinity and femininity and surmounting the limitations of traditional perceptions of male and female bodies as it relates to existing healthcare practices. Through these subtle changes, I aim to make a large impact.
The Conclusion positions the student as an impactful leader and visionary. This is a powerful case for the admissions board to consider.
If you want to read more college admissions essay examples, check out our articles about successful college personal statements and the 2021-2022 Common App prompts and example essays .
Wordvice offers a full suite of proofreading and editing services . If you are a student applying to college and are having trouble with the best college admissions essay format, check out our application essay editing services (including personal statement editing ) and find out how much online proofreading costs .
Finally, don’t forget to receive common app essay editing and professional admissions editing for any other admissions documents for college, university, and post-doctoral programs.
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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application
What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?
How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.
- Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
- Keep the focus narrow. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
- Be yourself. Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
- Be creative. “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
- Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.
Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .
We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.
- AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business, All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including Pine Row Press , Months to Years, and Atlanta Review .
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How to Write a College Essay | A Complete Guide & Examples
The college essay can make or break your application. It’s your chance to provide personal context, communicate your values and qualities, and set yourself apart from other students.
A standout essay has a few key ingredients:
- A unique, personal topic
- A compelling, well-structured narrative
- A clear, creative writing style
- Evidence of self-reflection and insight
To achieve this, it’s crucial to give yourself enough time for brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.
In this comprehensive guide, we walk you through every step in the process of writing a college admissions essay.
Table of contents
Why do you need a standout essay, start organizing early, choose a unique topic, outline your essay, start with a memorable introduction, write like an artist, craft a strong conclusion, revise and receive feedback, frequently asked questions.
While most of your application lists your academic achievements, your college admissions essay is your opportunity to share who you are and why you’d be a good addition to the university.
Your college admissions essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s total weight一and may account for even more with some colleges making the SAT and ACT tests optional. The college admissions essay may be the deciding factor in your application, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.
What do colleges look for in an essay?
Admissions officers want to understand your background, personality, and values to get a fuller picture of you beyond your test scores and grades. Here’s what colleges look for in an essay :
- Demonstrated values and qualities
- Vulnerability and authenticity
- Self-reflection and insight
- Creative, clear, and concise writing skills
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It’s a good idea to start organizing your college application timeline in the summer of your junior year to make your application process easier. This will give you ample time for essay brainstorming, writing, revision, and feedback.
While timelines will vary for each student, aim to spend at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing your first draft and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Remember to leave enough time for breaks in between each writing and editing stage.
Create an essay tracker sheet
If you’re applying to multiple schools, you will have to juggle writing several essays for each one. We recommend using an essay tracker spreadsheet to help you visualize and organize the following:
- Deadlines and number of essays needed
- Prompt overlap, allowing you to write one essay for similar prompts
You can build your own essay tracker using our free Google Sheets template.
College essay tracker template
Ideally, you should start brainstorming college essay topics the summer before your senior year. Keep in mind that it’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic.
If you want to write about a common essay topic, such as a sports injury or volunteer work overseas, think carefully about how you can make it unique and personal. You’ll need to demonstrate deep insight and write your story in an original way to differentiate it from similar essays.
What makes a good topic?
- Meaningful and personal to you
- Uncommon or has an unusual angle
- Reveals something different from the rest of your application
You should do a comprehensive brainstorm before choosing your topic. Here are a few questions to get started:
- What are your top five values? What lived experiences demonstrate these values?
- What adjectives would your friends and family use to describe you?
- What challenges or failures have you faced and overcome? What lessons did you learn from them?
- What makes you different from your classmates?
- What are some objects that represent your identity, your community, your relationships, your passions, or your goals?
- Whom do you admire most? Why?
- What three people have significantly impacted your life? How did they influence you?
How to identify your topic
Here are two strategies for identifying a topic that demonstrates your values:
- Start with your qualities : First, identify positive qualities about yourself; then, brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities.
- Start with a story : Brainstorm a list of memorable life moments; then, identify a value shown in each story.
After choosing your topic, organize your ideas in an essay outline , which will help keep you focused while writing. Unlike a five-paragraph academic essay, there’s no set structure for a college admissions essay. You can take a more creative approach, using storytelling techniques to shape your essay.
Two common approaches are to structure your essay as a series of vignettes or as a single narrative.
The vignette, or montage, structure weaves together several stories united by a common theme. Each story should demonstrate one of your values or qualities and conclude with an insight or future outlook.
This structure gives the admissions officer glimpses into your personality, background, and identity, and shows how your qualities appear in different areas of your life.
Topic: Museum with a “five senses” exhibit of my experiences
- Introduction: Tour guide introduces my museum and my “Making Sense of My Heritage” exhibit
- Story: Racial discrimination with my eyes
- Lesson: Using my writing to document truth
- Story: Broadway musical interests
- Lesson: Finding my voice
- Story: Smells from family dinner table
- Lesson: Appreciating home and family
- Story: Washing dishes
- Lesson: Finding moments of peace in busy schedule
- Story: Biking with Ava
- Lesson: Finding pleasure in job well done
- Conclusion: Tour guide concludes tour, invites guest to come back for “fall College Collection,” featuring my search for identity and learning.
Single story structure
The single story, or narrative, structure uses a chronological narrative to show a student’s character development over time. Some narrative essays detail moments in a relatively brief event, while others narrate a longer journey spanning months or years.
Single story essays are effective if you have overcome a significant challenge or want to demonstrate personal development.
Topic: Sports injury helps me learn to be a better student and person
- Situation: Football injury
- Challenge: Friends distant, teachers don’t know how to help, football is gone for me
- Turning point: Starting to like learning in Ms. Brady’s history class; meeting Christina and her friends
- My reactions: Reading poetry; finding shared interest in poetry with Christina; spending more time studying and with people different from me
- Insight: They taught me compassion and opened my eyes to a different lifestyle; even though I still can’t play football, I’m starting a new game
Brainstorm creative insights or story arcs
Regardless of your essay’s structure, try to craft a surprising story arc or original insights, especially if you’re writing about a common topic.
Never exaggerate or fabricate facts about yourself to seem interesting. However, try finding connections in your life that deviate from cliché storylines and lessons.
Admissions officers read thousands of essays each year, and they typically spend only a few minutes reading each one. To get your message across, your introduction , or hook, needs to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to read more..
Avoid starting your introduction with a famous quote, cliché, or reference to the essay itself (“While I sat down to write this essay…”).
While you can sometimes use dialogue or a meaningful quotation from a close family member or friend, make sure it encapsulates your essay’s overall theme.
Find an original, creative way of starting your essay using the following two methods.
Option 1: Start with an intriguing hook
Begin your essay with an unexpected statement to pique the reader’s curiosity and compel them to carefully read your essay. A mysterious introduction disarms the reader’s expectations and introduces questions that can only be answered by reading more.
Option 2: Start with vivid imagery
Illustrate a clear, detailed image to immediately transport your reader into your memory. You can start in the middle of an important scene or describe an object that conveys your essay’s theme.
A college application essay allows you to be creative in your style and tone. As you draft your essay, try to use interesting language to enliven your story and stand out .
Show, don’t tell
“Tell” in writing means to simply state a fact: “I am a basketball player.” “ Show ” in writing means to use details, examples, and vivid imagery to help the reader easily visualize your memory: “My heart races as I set up to shoot一two seconds, one second一and score a three-pointer!”
First, reflect on every detail of a specific image or scene to recall the most memorable aspects.
- What are the most prominent images?
- Are there any particular sounds, smells, or tastes associated with this memory?
- What emotion or physical feeling did you have at that time?
Be vulnerable to create an emotional response
You don’t have to share a huge secret or traumatic story, but you should dig deep to express your honest feelings, thoughts, and experiences to evoke an emotional response. Showing vulnerability demonstrates humility and maturity. However, don’t exaggerate to gain sympathy.
Use appropriate style and tone
Make sure your essay has the right style and tone by following these guidelines:
- Use a conversational yet respectful tone: less formal than academic writing, but more formal than texting your friends.
- Prioritize using “I” statements to highlight your perspective.
- Write within your vocabulary range to maintain an authentic voice.
- Write concisely, and use the active voice to keep a fast pace.
- Follow grammar rules (unless you have valid stylistic reasons for breaking them).
You should end your college essay with a deep insight or creative ending to leave the reader with a strong final impression. Your college admissions essay should avoid the following:
- Summarizing what you already wrote
- Stating your hope of being accepted to the school
- Mentioning character traits that should have been illustrated in the essay, such as “I’m a hard worker”
Here are two strategies to craft a strong conclusion.
Option 1: Full circle, sandwich structure
The full circle, or sandwich, structure concludes the essay with an image, idea, or story mentioned in the introduction. This strategy gives the reader a strong sense of closure.
In the example below, the essay concludes by returning to the “museum” metaphor that the writer opened with.
Option 2: Revealing your insight
You can use the conclusion to show the insight you gained as a result of the experiences you’ve described. Revealing your main message at the end creates suspense and keeps the takeaway at the forefront of your reader’s mind.
Revise your essay before submitting it to check its content, style, and grammar. Get feedback from no more than two or three people.
It’s normal to go through several rounds of revision, but take breaks between each editing stage.
Also check out our college essay examples to see what does and doesn’t work in an essay and the kinds of changes you can make to improve yours.
Respect the word count
Most schools specify a word count for each essay , and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit.
Remain under the specified word count limit to show you can write concisely and follow directions. However, don’t write too little, which may imply that you are unwilling or unable to write a thoughtful and developed essay.
Check your content, style, and grammar
- First, check big-picture issues of message, flow, and clarity.
- Then, check for style and tone issues.
- Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.
Get feedback from 2–3 people who know you well, have good writing skills, and are familiar with college essays.
- Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your content, language, and tone.
- Friends and family can check for authenticity.
- An essay coach or editor has specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and can give objective expert feedback.
The checklist below helps you make sure your essay ticks all the boxes.
College admissions essay checklist
I’ve organized my essay prompts and created an essay writing schedule.
I’ve done a comprehensive brainstorm for essay topics.
I’ve selected a topic that’s meaningful to me and reveals something different from the rest of my application.
I’ve created an outline to guide my structure.
I’ve crafted an introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.
I’ve written my essay in a way that shows instead of telling.
I’ve shown positive traits and values in my essay.
I’ve demonstrated self-reflection and insight in my essay.
I’ve used appropriate style and tone .
I’ve concluded with an insight or a creative ending.
I’ve revised my essay , checking my overall message, flow, clarity, and grammar.
I’ve respected the word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.
It looks like your essay ticks all the boxes. A second pair of eyes can help you take it to the next level – Scribbr's essay coaches can help.
Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.
Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.
A standout college essay has several key ingredients:
- A unique, personally meaningful topic
- A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
- Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
- Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
- Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
- A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending
While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.
You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.
Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.
You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.
If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.
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Course: college admissions > unit 4.
- Writing a strong college admissions essay
- Avoiding common admissions essay mistakes
- Brainstorming tips for your college essay
- How formal should the tone of your college essay be?
- Taking your college essay to the next level
- Sample essay 1 with admissions feedback
- Sample essay 2 with admissions feedback
- Student story: Admissions essay about a formative experience
- Student story: Admissions essay about personal identity
- Student story: Admissions essay about community impact
- Student story: Admissions essay about a past mistake
- Student story: Admissions essay about a meaningful poem
Writing tips and techniques for your college essay
Pose a question the reader wants answered, don't focus exclusively on the past, experiment with the unexpected, don't summarize, want to join the conversation.
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College Essays That Worked: See Examples
Experts say a good college essay features a student's voice and personality.
Students should know themselves and write authoritatively so they can share a sense of their lives with admissions officers. (Getty Images)
Many college applications require a personal essay, which can be daunting for students to write.
But a few simple tips, some introspection and insight into what admissions officers are looking for can help ease the pressure. U.S. News has compiled several college essay examples that helped students get into school. Shared by admissions staff or referenced from admissions websites, these essays stand out, they say, because the student voices shine, helping the school get to know the applicants.
"Students can get caught in the trap of overthinking it and write the essay that's going to impress the admissions committee," says Andrew Strickler, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College . "The best essays, the ones that really pop, are the ones that come across as authentic and you really hear the student's voice."
The essay gives schools a feel for how a student writes, but it's the content of the essay that matters most, admissions professionals say. In other words, while it's important to showcase sound grammar and writing, it's even more important to showcase your character and personality.
"I care more about their stories than if it is a perfect five paragraph essay," David Graves, interim director of admissions at the University of Georgia , wrote in an email.
Many schools give students a wide range of topics to choose from, which experts say can be beneficial in helping students find their voice.
While you want your voice to be apparent, it's wise to be aware of your tone, says Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, an admissions consulting company that works with students to craft and revise their college essays. The goal of the essay is to make a strong case for why you’re different from all the other applicants, not necessarily why you’re better, he adds.
"You have to pass the genuine likability test. Sometimes kids are so busy trying to brag or tell their story that they’re forgetting they have to sound like a likable person. That’s a very simple test, but it’s really important."
Good essays tend to be "positively emotional," he says. It's best to avoid using sarcasm because it tends to fail on college essays.
Any humor used "really has to be a very positive, witty humor, not sarcastic," which he says can be hard to pick up on in an essay.
The Perils of Using AI for Essays
Choosing the right tone can be a challenge for many students, but admissions pros encourage them not to take shortcuts to completing their essay.
Though some college professors have embraced artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT in their classrooms, Strickler says he's begun to stress in recent talks with high school audiences the importance of original work and avoiding the use of AI tools like ChatGPT to craft college essays. While it might produce a technically well-written essay and save time, your unique voice will be stripped away, and it may leave a bad impression on admissions offices as well as prevent them from truly getting to know you, he says.
Instead, Graves says, start early and take time to write it yourself, then "actually read it out loud to someone ... to listen to the rhythm and words as they are 'read.'"
Each spring on his admissions blog , Graves shares an enrolling student's essay and why it was strong. The essay excerpted below, shared with the permission of the University of Georgia, uses descriptive word choice and gives the admissions office deep insight into the student's life, their love for writing and their connection to their family, Graves says.
It was chosen as an example "to show our applicant pool how to express themselves through similes, sensory language (words that capture the senses of the reader), and emotion," Graves wrote on the blog.
Here's how the essay opened:
If you asked me what object I’d save in a burning fire, I’d save my notebook. My notebook isn’t just any notebook, it’s bubble gum pink with purple tie dye swirls, and has gold coil binding it together. But more importantly, it’s the key that unlocked my superpower, sending me soaring into the sky, flying high above any problems that could ever catch me. However, my notebook is simply the key. My real power rests in the depths of my mind, in my passion for writing. But to know how my powers came to be (not from a spider or a special rock), I must travel back to the first spark.
Four years ago, I wrote my first 6-word memoir in my eighth-grade rhetoric class. Inspired by my father’s recently diagnosed terminal illness, I wrote “Take his words, don’t take him”. It was as if all the energy of my powers surged into six meaningful words meant to honor the man that I would soon lose to a villain known as ALS. This was the first time I felt my writing. Three years ago, my dad’s disease severely progressed. The ALS seized his ability to speak and locked it in a tower with no key. The only way we could communicate was with an old spiral notebook. ...
The essay counted down each year ("three years ago," "two years ago," etc.) and concluded with this paragraph:
One month ago, I needed my powers more than ever before. I needed them to convey who I truly am for the chance at the future of my dreams as a writer. Except this time, I didn’t need the key because my powers grew into fruition. Instead, I opened my laptop only to type out one sentence… “If you asked me what object to save in a burning fire, I’d save my notebook.”
This style of storytelling, which shows not just the triumph at the end but also the conflict, struggle and evolution in between, makes for great essays, Koh says.
"The student also used an intriguing timeline (counting down years and month) to tell their story, and showed how she had grown," Graves says.
This next essay, by an anonymous writer and shared on Connecticut College 's admissions page , "manages to capture multiple aspects of the writer's personality, while not becoming overly cluttered or confusing," writes Susanna Matthews, associate director of admission at the school.
Every person who truly knows me believes that I was born in the wrong century. They call me "an old soul" because I'm a collector, attracted to books, antiques, vinyl records and anything from the 80's. But they also think I am unique in other ways. I believe it is because of the meaningful connections to my two languages and two cultures.
When we moved into our first American house, I was excited to decorate my new room. The first thing I knew I needed was a place to organize my most cherished possessions I have collected throughout my life. I searched and finally found a bookshelf with twenty-five thick sections that I could build and organize alphabetically ... Each shelf holds important objects from different parts of my life. ...
These books are a strong connection to my Brazilian heritage. They also remind me of the time when I was growing up in Brazil, as a member of a large Italian-Brazilian family.
The writer continues on, describing the types of books on each shelf, from Harry Potter to books used to learn English. They describe the bottom of the bookshelf housing some of their most prized possessions, like an old typewriter their grandfather gave them. They wonder about the words it has crafted and stories it has told.
As I grab my favorite Elvis vinyl to play, I can only wonder about the next chapter of my life. I look forward to adding new books, new friends, and a wide variety of experiences to my bookshelf.
"By placing one subject (the bookshelf) at the center of the piece, it lends some flexibility to layer in much more detail than if they had tried to discuss a few different interests in the essay," Matthews writes. "You learn a lot about the person, in a way that isn't in your face – a great thing when trying to write a personal essay."
Some colleges require a supplemental essay in addition to the personal statement. Typically, admissions pros note, these essays are shorter and focus on answering a specific question posed by the college.
The University of Chicago in Illinois allows students to submit essay prompts as inspiration for the admissions office and gives students some latitude in how they answer them. Essay prompts range from questions about the school itself to asking students to pick a question from a song title or lyric and give their best shot at answering it.
"We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions," the school's admissions website reads. "They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between."
While the University of Chicago says there is no strict word limit on its supplemental essays, other schools prefer brevity. For example, Stanford University in California asks students to answer several short questions, with a 50-word limit, in addition to answering three essay questions in 100 to 250 words.
Georgia asks for a school-specific supplemental essay that's 200-300 words in addition to a 250- to 650-word personal essay.
"Sometimes a shorter essay response is not as polished an essay, but instead is a more casual, more relaxed essay," Graves says. "In addition, sometimes a student needs to get to the point or be concise, and this helps see if they can give us their story without overdoing it."
Other schools allow for a little more creativity in how the supplemental essay questions are answered. Babson College in Massachusetts, for example, gives students a 500-word limit to answer a prompt, or they can choose to submit a one-minute video about why they chose to apply to the school.
One student, Gabrielle Alias, chose to film a "day-in-the-life" video , which she narrated to answer the prompt, "Who Am I?"
"Visiting campus twice, I know I could see myself as one of the many interesting, innovative, and enticing students that come out of Babson," she says in the video. "But who am I you ask? I am a student. I am a reader. I am a researcher. I am a music lover. ... I am Gabrielle Alias and I am excited for who I will be as a graduate of Babson."
An essay by Babson student Bessie Shiroki, seen below, describes her experience in the school's admissions office and how she immediately felt comfortable.
I immediately smiled at the sight of my favorite board game. Babsonopoly. I love the combination of strategy and luck in this traditional family pastime. Seeing this on the wall in the admissions office gave me immediate comfort; I knew I was home.
Shiroki describes what she felt set Babson College apart from other schools, such as being surrounded by "sophisticated and mature individuals" and a tight-knit, entrepreneurial environment that would help her reach her career goals.
It is natural for me to be in a small class where more than one language is spoken. I am accustomed to discussions with diverse viewpoints, open minds, and where differences are seen as advantages. I embrace my cultural uniqueness, and I will add my voice to the community. I can’t imagine not continuing this in college.
She notes that as she toured the campus and saw students studying, she could see herself as one of them, feeding off of their studious and entrepreneurial energy. She mentions that Babson's Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship class got her attention immediately and she saw it as a launch pad for a future that included running a business.
Babson recognizes the potential of their students, and FME is a great way for young entrepreneurs like me to find our place in the business world and learn from our mistakes. I am capable of this challenge and will conquer it with tenacity. I will bring my dedication, commitment, and innovative skills to Babson College.
Now it’s my turn to pass go and collect my Babson acceptance letter. I’ve found my next challenge.
Babson College offers several tips for what make good essays, including a strong "hook" to engage the reader from the start and a topic that allows you to share something that's not as obvious on your application.
When it comes to writing a college admissions essay – whether personal or supplemental – experts advise students to follow these rules:
- Find your voice.
- Write about a topic that matters to you.
- Share your personality.
- Express yourself.
- Proofread extensively.
With both traditional essays and supplemental essays, Koh says it's best to write long and work with someone you trust to edit it down. Teachers, friends and parents can all be helpful proofreaders, but experts note that the student voice should remain intact.
A good editor can help edit a long essay to keep the main message but with fewer words. “If I see 400 words, I know I’m a dozen drafts away from getting it to 650,” he says. “If I see 1200 words, we might just be one or two away. It’s at least going to be a shorter haul.”
Strickler encourages students not to stress too much over the essay or put unnecessary weight on it as part of their college application . While a strong essay helps, he says, it doesn't make or break an application.
"There's this sense that you write the most amazing essay and it gets you over the top because it opens the door to the pathway to the Magic Kingdom," he says. "But it's just one piece of a myriad of pieces that allow us to get to know a particular student and help us figure out if they're a good fit and how they're going to contribute to our community."
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10 Personal Statement Essay Examples That Worked
What’s covered:, what is a personal statement.
- Essay 1: Summer Program
- Essay 2: Being Bangladeshi-American
- Essay 3: Why Medicine
- Essay 4: Love of Writing
- Essay 5: Starting a Fire
- Essay 6: Dedicating a Track
- Essay 7: Body Image and Eating Disorders
- Essay 8: Becoming a Coach
- Essay 9: Eritrea
- Essay 10: Journaling
- Is Your Personal Statement Strong Enough?
Your personal statement is any essay that you must write for your main application, such as the Common App Essay , University of California Essays , or Coalition Application Essay . This type of essay focuses on your unique experiences, ideas, or beliefs that may not be discussed throughout the rest of your application. This essay should be an opportunity for the admissions officers to get to know you better and give them a glimpse into who you really are.
In this post, we will share 10 different personal statements that were all written by real students. We will also provide commentary on what each essay did well and where there is room for improvement, so you can make your personal statement as strong as possible!
Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized.
Personal Statement Examples
Essay example #1: exchange program.
The twisting roads, ornate mosaics, and fragrant scent of freshly ground spices had been so foreign at first. Now in my fifth week of the SNYI-L summer exchange program in Morocco, I felt more comfortable in the city. With a bag full of pastries from the market, I navigated to a bus stop, paid the fare, and began the trip back to my host family’s house. It was hard to believe that only a few years earlier my mom was worried about letting me travel around my home city on my own, let alone a place that I had only lived in for a few weeks. While I had been on a journey towards self-sufficiency and independence for a few years now, it was Morocco that pushed me to become the confident, self-reflective person that I am today.
As a child, my parents pressured me to achieve perfect grades, master my swim strokes, and discover interesting hobbies like playing the oboe and learning to pick locks. I felt compelled to live my life according to their wishes. Of course, this pressure was not a wholly negative factor in my life –– you might even call it support. However, the constant presence of my parents’ hopes for me overcame my own sense of desire and led me to become quite dependent on them. I pushed myself to get straight A’s, complied with years of oboe lessons, and dutifully attended hours of swim practice after school. Despite all these achievements, I felt like I had no sense of self beyond my drive for success. I had always been expected to succeed on the path they had defined. However, this path was interrupted seven years after my parents’ divorce when my dad moved across the country to Oregon.
I missed my dad’s close presence, but I loved my new sense of freedom. My parents’ separation allowed me the space to explore my own strengths and interests as each of them became individually busier. As early as middle school, I was riding the light rail train by myself, reading maps to get myself home, and applying to special academic programs without urging from my parents. Even as I took more initiatives on my own, my parents both continued to see me as somewhat immature. All of that changed three years ago, when I applied and was accepted to the SNYI-L summer exchange program in Morocco. I would be studying Arabic and learning my way around the city of Marrakesh. Although I think my parents were a little surprised when I told them my news, the addition of a fully-funded scholarship convinced them to let me go.
I lived with a host family in Marrakesh and learned that they, too, had high expectations for me. I didn’t know a word of Arabic, and although my host parents and one brother spoke good English, they knew I was there to learn. If I messed up, they patiently corrected me but refused to let me fall into the easy pattern of speaking English just as I did at home. Just as I had when I was younger, I felt pressured and stressed about meeting their expectations. However, one day, as I strolled through the bustling market square after successfully bargaining with one of the street vendors, I realized my mistake. My host family wasn’t being unfair by making me fumble through Arabic. I had applied for this trip, and I had committed to the intensive language study. My host family’s rules about speaking Arabic at home had not been to fulfill their expectations for me, but to help me fulfill my expectations for myself. Similarly, the pressure my parents had put on me as a child had come out of love and their hopes for me, not out of a desire to crush my individuality.
As my bus drove through the still-bustling market square and past the medieval Ben-Youssef madrasa, I realized that becoming independent was a process, not an event. I thought that my parents’ separation when I was ten had been the one experience that would transform me into a self-motivated and autonomous person. It did, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t still have room to grow. Now, although I am even more self-sufficient than I was three years ago, I try to approach every experience with the expectation that it will change me. It’s still difficult, but I understand that just because growth can be uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not important.
What the Essay Did Well
This is a nice essay because it delves into particular character trait of the student and how it has been shaped and matured over time. Although it doesn’t focus the essay around a specific anecdote, the essay is still successful because it is centered around this student’s independence. This is a nice approach for a personal statement: highlight a particular trait of yours and explore how it has grown with you.
The ideas in this essay are universal to growing up—living up to parents’ expectations, yearning for freedom, and coming to terms with reality—but it feels unique to the student because of the inclusion of details specific to them. Including their oboe lessons, the experience of riding the light rail by themselves, and the negotiations with a street vendor helps show the reader what these common tropes of growing up looked like for them personally.
Another strength of the essay is the level of self-reflection included throughout the piece. Since there is no central anecdote tying everything together, an essay about a character trait is only successful when you deeply reflect on how you felt, where you made mistakes, and how that trait impacts your life. The author includes reflection in sentences like “ I felt like I had no sense of self beyond my drive for success, ” and “ I understand that just because growth can be uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s not important. ” These sentences help us see how the student was impacted and what their point of view is.
What Could Be Improved
The largest change this essay would benefit from is to show not tell. The platitude you have heard a million times no doubt, but for good reason. This essay heavily relies on telling the reader what occurred, making us less engaged as the entire reading experience feels more passive. If the student had shown us what happens though, it keeps the reader tied to the action and makes them feel like they are there with the student, making it much more enjoyable to read.
For example, they tell us about the pressure to succeed their parents placed on them: “ I pushed myself to get straight A’s, complied with years of oboe lessons, and dutifully attended hours of swim practice after school.” They could have shown us what that pressure looked like with a sentence like this: “ My stomach turned somersaults as my rattling knee thumped against the desk before every test, scared to get anything less than a 95. For five years the painful squawk of the oboe only reminded me of my parents’ claps and whistles at my concerts. I mastered the butterfly, backstroke, and freestyle, fighting against the anchor of their expectations threatening to pull me down.”
If the student had gone through their essay and applied this exercise of bringing more detail and colorful language to sentences that tell the reader what happened, the essay would be really great.
Table of Contents
Essay Example #2: Being Bangladeshi-American
Life before was good: verdant forests, sumptuous curries, and a devoted family.
Then, my family abandoned our comfortable life in Bangladesh for a chance at the American dream in Los Angeles. Within our first year, my father was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. He lost his battle three weeks before my sixth birthday. Facing a new country without the steady presence of my father, we were vulnerable — prisoners of hardship in the land of the free. We resettled in the Bronx, in my uncle’s renovated basement. It was meant to be our refuge, but I felt more displaced than ever. Gone were the high-rise condos of West L.A.; instead, government projects towered over the neighborhood. Pedestrians no longer smiled and greeted me; the atmosphere was hostile, even toxic. Schoolkids were quick to pick on those they saw as weak or foreign, hurling harsh words I’d never heard before.
Meanwhile, my family began integrating into the local Bangladeshi community. I struggled to understand those who shared my heritage. Bangladeshi mothers stayed home while fathers drove cabs and sold fruit by the roadside — painful societal positions. Riding on crosstown buses or walking home from school, I began to internalize these disparities. During my fleeting encounters with affluent Upper East Siders, I saw kids my age with nannies, parents who wore suits to work, and luxurious apartments with spectacular views. Most took cabs to their destinations: cabs that Bangladeshis drove. I watched the mundane moments of their lives with longing, aching to plant myself in their shoes. Shame prickled down my spine. I distanced myself from my heritage, rejecting the traditional panjabis worn on Eid and refusing the torkari we ate for dinner every day.
As I grappled with my relationship with the Bangladeshi community, I turned my attention to helping my Bronx community by pursuing an internship with Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda. I handled desk work and took calls, spending the bulk of my time actively listening to the hardships constituents faced — everything from a veteran stripped of his benefits to a grandmother unable to support her bedridden grandchild.
I’d never exposed myself to stories like these, and now I was the first to hear them. As an intern, I could only assist in what felt like the small ways — pointing out local job offerings, printing information on free ESL classes, reaching out to non-profits. But to a community facing an onslaught of intense struggles, I realized that something as small as these actions could have vast impacts. Seeing the immediate consequences of my actions inspired me. Throughout that summer, I internalized my community’s daily challenges in a new light. I began to stop seeing the prevalent underemployment and cramped living quarters less as sources of shame. Instead, I saw them as realities that had to be acknowledged, but could ultimately be remedied. I also realized the benefits of the Bangladeshi culture I had been so ashamed of. My Bangla language skills were an asset to the office, and my understanding of Bangladeshi etiquette allowed for smooth communication between office staff and its constituents. As I helped my neighbors navigate city services, I saw my heritage with pride — a perspective I never expected to have.
I can now appreciate the value of my unique culture and background, and of living with less. This perspective offers room for progress, community integration, and a future worth fighting for. My time with Assemblyman Sepulveda’s office taught me that I can be a change agent in enabling this progression. Far from being ashamed of my community, I want to someday return to local politics in the Bronx to continue helping others access the American Dream. I hope to help my community appreciate the opportunity to make progress together. By embracing reality, I learned to live it. Along the way, I discovered one thing: life is good, but we can make it better.
This student’s passion for social justice and civic duty shines through in this essay because of how honest it is. Sharing their personal experience with immigrating, moving around, being an outsider, and finding a community allows us to see the hardships this student has faced and builds empathy towards their situation. However, what really makes it strong is that they go beyond describing the difficulties they faced and explain the mental impact it had on them as a child: Shame prickled down my spine. I distanced myself from my heritage, rejecting the traditional panjabis worn on Eid and refusing the torkari we ate for dinner every day.
The rejection of their culture presented at the beginning of the essay creates a nice juxtaposition with the student’s view in the latter half of the essay and helps demonstrate how they have matured. They use their experience interning as a way to delve into a change in their thought process about their culture and show how their passion for social justice began. Using this experience as a mechanism to explore their thoughts and feelings is an excellent example of how items that are included elsewhere on your application should be incorporated into your essay.
This essay prioritizes emotions and personal views over specific anecdotes. Although there are details and certain moments incorporated throughout to emphasize the author’s points, the main focus remains on the student and how they grapple with their culture and identity.
One area for improvement is the conclusion. Although the forward-looking approach is a nice way to end an essay focused on social justice, it would be nice to include more details and imagery in the conclusion. How does the student want to help their community? What government position do they see themselves holding one day?
A more impactful ending might look like the student walking into their office at the New York City Housing Authority in 15 years and looking at the plans to build a new development in the Bronx just blocks away from where the grew up that would provide quality housing to people in their Bangladeshi community. They would smile while thinking about how far they have come from that young kid who used to be ashamed of their culture.
Essay Example #3: Why Medicine
I took my first trip to China to visit my cousin Anna in July of 2014. Distance had kept us apart, but when we were together, we fell into all of our old inside jokes and caught up on each other’s lives. Her sparkling personality and optimistic attitude always brought a smile to my face. This time, however, my heart broke when I saw the effects of her brain cancer; she had suffered from a stroke that paralyzed her left side. She was still herself in many ways, but I could see that the damage to her brain made things difficult for her. I stayed by her every day, providing the support she needed, whether assisting her with eating and drinking, reading to her, or just watching “Friends.” During my flight back home, sorrow and helplessness overwhelmed me. Would I ever see Anna again? Could I have done more to make Anna comfortable? I wished I could stay in China longer to care for her. As I deplaned, I wondered if I could transform my grief to help other children and teenagers in the US who suffered as Anna did.
The day after I got home, as jet lag dragged me awake a few minutes after midnight, I remembered hearing about the Family Reach Foundation (FRF) and its work with children going through treatments at the local hospital and their families. I began volunteering in the FRF’s Children’s Activity Room, where I play with children battling cancer. Volunteering has both made me appreciate my own health and also cherish the new relationships I build with the children and families. We play sports, make figures out of playdoh, and dress up. When they take on the roles of firefighters or fairies, we all get caught up in the game; for that time, they forget the sanitized, stark, impersonal walls of the pediatric oncology ward. Building close relationships with them and seeing them giggle and laugh is so rewarding — I love watching them grow and get better throughout their course of treatment.
Hearing from the parents about their children’s condition and seeing the children recover inspired me to consider medical research. To get started, I enrolled in a summer collegelevel course in Abnormal Psychology. There I worked with Catelyn, a rising college senior, on a data analysis project regarding Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Together, we examined the neurological etiology of DID by studying four fMRI and PET cases. I fell in love with gathering data and analyzing the results and was amazed by our final product: several stunning brain images showcasing the areas of hyper and hypoactivity in brains affected by DID. Desire quickly followed my amazement — I want to continue this project and study more brains. Their complexity, delicacy, and importance to every aspect of life fascinate me. Successfully completing this research project gave me a sense of hope; I know I am capable of participating in a large scale research project and potentially making a difference in someone else’s life through my research.
Anna’s diagnosis inspired me to begin volunteering at FRF; from there, I discovered my desire to help people further by contributing to medical research. As my research interest blossomed, I realized that it’s no coincidence that I want to study brains—after all, Anna suffered from brain cancer. Reflecting on these experiences this past year and a half, I see that everything I’ve done is connected. Sadly, a few months after I returned from China, Anna passed away. I am still sad, but as I run a toy truck across the floor and watch one of the little patients’ eyes light up, I imagine that she would be proud of my commitment to pursue medicine and study the brain.
This essay has a very strong emotional core that tugs at the heart strings and makes the reader feel invested. Writing about sickness can be difficult and doesn’t always belong in a personal statement, but in this case it works well because the focus is on how this student cared for her cousin and dealt with the grief and emotions surrounding her condition. Writing about the compassion she showed and the doubts and concerns that filled her mind keeps the focus on the author and her personality.
This continues when she again discusses the activities she did with the kids at FRF and the personal reflection this experience allowed her to have. For example, she writes: Volunteering has both made me appreciate my own health and also cherish the new relationships I build with the children and families. We play sports, make figures out of playdoh, and dress up.
Concluding the essay with the sad story of her cousin’s passing brings the essay full circle and returns to the emotional heart of the piece to once again build a connection with the reader. However, it finishes on a hopeful note and demonstrates how this student has been able to turn a tragic experience into a source of lifelong inspiration.
One thing this essay should be cognizant of is that personal statements should not read as summaries of your extracurricular resume. Although this essay doesn’t fully fall into that trap, it does describe two key extracurriculars the student participated in. However, the inclusion of such a strong emotional core running throughout the essay helps keep the focus on the student and her thoughts and feelings during these activities.
To avoid making this mistake, make sure you have a common thread running through your essay and the extracurriculars provide support to the story you are trying to tell, rather than crafting a story around your activities. And, as this essay does, make sure there is lots of personal reflection and feelings weaved throughout to focus attention to you rather than your extracurriculars.
Essay Example #4: Love of Writing
“I want to be a writer.” This had been my answer to every youthful discussion with the adults in my life about what I would do when I grew up. As early as elementary school, I remember reading my writing pieces aloud to an audience at “Author of the Month” ceremonies. Bearing this goal in mind, and hoping to gain some valuable experience, I signed up for a journalism class during my freshman year. Despite my love for writing, I initially found myself uninterested in the subject and I struggled to enjoy the class. When I thought of writing, I imagined lyrical prose, profound poetry, and thrilling plot lines. Journalism required a laconic style and orderly structure, and I found my teacher’s assignments formulaic and dull. That class shook my confidence as a writer. I was uncertain if I should continue in it for the rest of my high school career.
Despite my misgivings, I decided that I couldn’t make a final decision on whether to quit journalism until I had some experience working for a paper outside of the classroom. The following year, I applied to be a staff reporter on our school newspaper. I hoped this would help me become more self-driven and creative, rather than merely writing articles that my teacher assigned. To my surprise, my time on staff was worlds away from what I experienced in the journalism class. Although I was unaccustomed to working in a fast-paced environment and initially found it burdensome to research and complete high-quality stories in a relatively short amount of time, I also found it exciting. I enjoyed learning more about topics and events on campus that I did not know much about; some of my stories that I covered in my first semester concerned a chess tournament, a food drive, and a Spanish immersion party. I relished in the freedom I had to explore and learn, and to write more independently than I could in a classroom.
Although I enjoyed many aspects of working for the paper immediately, reporting also pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I am a shy person, and speaking with people I did not know intimidated me. During my first interview, I met with the basketball coach to prepare for a story about the team’s winning streak. As I approached his office, I felt everything from my toes to my tongue freeze into a solid block, and I could hardly get out my opening questions. Fortunately, the coach was very kind and helped me through the conversation. Encouraged, I prepared for my next interview with more confidence. After a few weeks of practice, I even started to look forward to interviewing people on campus. That first journalism class may have bored me, but even if journalism in practice was challenging, it was anything but tedious.
Over the course of that year, I grew to love writing for our school newspaper. Reporting made me aware of my surroundings, and made me want to know more about current events on campus and in the town where I grew up. By interacting with people all over campus, I came to understand the breadth of individuals and communities that make up my high school. I felt far more connected to diverse parts of my school through my work as a journalist, and I realized that journalism gave me a window into seeing beyond my own experiences. The style of news writing may be different from what I used to think “writing” meant, but I learned that I can still derive exciting plots from events that may have gone unnoticed if not for my stories. I no longer struggle to approach others, and truly enjoy getting to know people and recognizing their accomplishments through my writing. Becoming a writer may be a difficult path, but it is as rewarding as I hoped when I was young.
This essay is clearly structured in a manner that makes it flow very nicely and contributes to its success. It starts with a quote to draw in the reader and show this student’s life-long passion for writing. Then it addresses the challenges of facing new, unfamiliar territory and how this student overcame it. Finally, it concludes by reflecting on this eye-opening experience and a nod to their younger self from the introduction. Having a well-thought out and sequential structure with clear transitions makes it extremely easy for the reader to follow along and take away the main idea.
Another positive aspect of the essay is the use of strong and expressive language. Sentences like “ When I thought of writing, I imagined lyrical prose, profound poetry, and thrilling plot lines ” stand out because of the intentional use of words like “lyrical”, “profound”, and “thrilling” to convey the student’s love of writing. The author also uses an active voice to capture the readers’ attention and keep us engaged. They rely on their language and diction to reveal details to the reader, for instance saying “ I felt everything from my toes to my tongue freeze into a solid block ” to describe feeling nervous.
This essay is already very strong, so there isn’t much that needs to be changed. One thing that could take the essay from great to outstanding would be to throw in more quotes, internal dialogue, and sensory descriptors.
It would be nice to see the nerves they felt interviewing the coach by including dialogue like “ Um…I want to interview you about…uh…”. They could have shown their original distaste for journalism by narrating the thoughts running through their head. The fast-paced environment of their newspaper could have come to life with descriptions about the clacking of keyboards and the whirl of people running around laying out articles.
Essay Example #5: Starting a Fire
Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire.
Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family.
Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt.
“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame.
In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him.
Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses.
That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.
This student is an excellent writer, which allows a simple story to be outstandingly compelling. The author articulates her points beautifully and creatively through her immense use of details and figurative language. Lines like “a rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees,” and “rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers,” create vivid images that draw the reader in.
The flowery and descriptive prose also contributes to the nice juxtaposition between the old Clara and the new Clara. The latter half of the essay contrasts elements of nature with music and writing to demonstrate how natural these interests are for her now. This sentence perfectly encapsulates the contrast she is trying to build: “It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive.”
In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.
There is very little this essay should change, however one thing to be cautious about is having an essay that is overly-descriptive. We know from the essay that this student likes to read and write, and depending on other elements of her application, it might make total sense to have such a flowery and ornate writing style. However, your personal statement needs to reflect your voice as well as your personality. If you would never use language like this in conversation or your writing, don’t put it in your personal statement. Make sure there is a balance between eloquence and your personal voice.
Essay Example #6: Dedicating a Track
“Getting beat is one thing – it’s part of competing – but I want no part in losing.” Coach Rob Stark’s motto never fails to remind me of his encouragement on early-morning bus rides to track meets around the state. I’ve always appreciated the phrase, but an experience last June helped me understand its more profound, universal meaning.
Stark, as we affectionately call him, has coached track at my high school for 25 years. His care, dedication, and emphasis on developing good character has left an enduring impact on me and hundreds of other students. Not only did he help me discover my talent and love for running, but he also taught me the importance of commitment and discipline and to approach every endeavor with the passion and intensity that I bring to running. When I learned a neighboring high school had dedicated their track to a longtime coach, I felt that Stark deserved similar honors.
Our school district’s board of education indicated they would only dedicate our track to Stark if I could demonstrate that he was extraordinary. I took charge and mobilized my teammates to distribute petitions, reach out to alumni, and compile statistics on the many team and individual champions Stark had coached over the years. We received astounding support, collecting almost 3,000 signatures and pages of endorsements from across the community. With help from my teammates, I presented this evidence to the board.
They didn’t bite.
Most members argued that dedicating the track was a low priority. Knowing that we had to act quickly to convince them of its importance, I called a team meeting where we drafted a rebuttal for the next board meeting. To my surprise, they chose me to deliver it. I was far from the best public speaker in the group, and I felt nervous about going before the unsympathetic board again. However, at that second meeting, I discovered that I enjoy articulating and arguing for something that I’m passionate about.
Public speaking resembles a cross country race. Walking to the starting line, you have to trust your training and quell your last minute doubts. When the gun fires, you can’t think too hard about anything; your performance has to be instinctual, natural, even relaxed. At the next board meeting, the podium was my starting line. As I walked up to it, familiar butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Instead of the track stretching out in front of me, I faced the vast audience of teachers, board members, and my teammates. I felt my adrenaline build, and reassured myself: I’ve put in the work, my argument is powerful and sound. As the board president told me to introduce myself, I heard, “runners set” in the back of my mind. She finished speaking, and Bang! The brief silence was the gunshot for me to begin.
The next few minutes blurred together, but when the dust settled, I knew from the board members’ expressions and the audience’s thunderous approval that I had run quite a race. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough; the board voted down our proposal. I was disappointed, but proud of myself, my team, and our collaboration off the track. We stood up for a cause we believed in, and I overcame my worries about being a leader. Although I discovered that changing the status quo through an elected body can be a painstakingly difficult process and requires perseverance, I learned that I enjoy the challenges this effort offers. Last month, one of the school board members joked that I had become a “regular” – I now often show up to meetings to advocate for a variety of causes, including better environmental practices in cafeterias and safer equipment for athletes.
Just as Stark taught me, I worked passionately to achieve my goal. I may have been beaten when I appealed to the board, but I certainly didn’t lose, and that would have made Stark proud.
This essay effectively conveys this student’s compassion for others, initiative, and determination—all great qualities to exemplify in a personal statement!
Although they rely on telling us a lot of what happened up until the board meeting, the use of running a race (their passion) as a metaphor for public speaking provides a lot of insight into the fear that this student overcame to work towards something bigger than themself. Comparing a podium to the starting line, the audience to the track, and silence to the gunshot is a nice way of demonstrating this student’s passion for cross country running without making that the focus of the story.
The essay does a nice job of coming full circle at the end by explaining what the quote from the beginning meant to them after this experience. Without explicitly saying “ I now know that what Stark actually meant is…” they rely on the strength of their argument above to make it obvious to the reader what it means to get beat but not lose.
One of the biggest areas of improvement in the intro, however, is how the essay tells us Stark’s impact rather than showing us: His care, dedication, and emphasis on developing good character has left an enduring impact on me and hundreds of other students. Not only did he help me discover my talent and love for running, but he also taught me the importance of commitment and discipline and to approach every endeavor with the passion and intensity that I bring to running.
The writer could’ve helped us feel a stronger emotional connection to Stark if they had included examples of Stark’s qualities, rather than explicitly stating them. For example, they could’ve written something like: Stark was the kind of person who would give you gas money if you told him your parents couldn’t afford to pick you up from practice. And he actually did that—several times. At track meets, alumni regularly would come talk to him and tell him how he’d changed their lives. Before Stark, I was ambivalent about running and was on the JV team, but his encouragement motivated me to run longer and harder and eventually make varsity. Because of him, I approach every endeavor with the passion and intensity that I bring to running.
Essay Example #7: Body Image and Eating Disorders
I press the “discover” button on my Instagram app, hoping to find enticing pictures to satisfy my boredom. Scrolling through, I see funny videos and mouth-watering pictures of food. However, one image stops me immediately. A fit teenage girl with a “perfect body” relaxes in a bikini on a beach. Beneath it, I see a slew of flattering comments. I shake with disapproval over the image’s unrealistic quality. However, part of me still wants to have a body like hers so that others will make similar comments to me.
I would like to resolve a silent issue that harms many teenagers and adults: negative self image and low self-esteem in a world where social media shapes how people view each other. When people see the façades others wear to create an “ideal” image, they can develop poor thought patterns rooted in negative self-talk. The constant comparisons to “perfect” others make people feel small. In this new digital age, it is hard to distinguish authentic from artificial representations.
When I was 11, I developed anorexia nervosa. Though I was already thin, I wanted to be skinny like the models that I saw on the magazine covers on the grocery store stands. Little did I know that those models probably also suffered from disorders, and that photoshop erased their flaws. I preferred being underweight to being healthy. No matter how little I ate or how thin I was, I always thought that I was too fat. I became obsessed with the number on the scale and would try to eat the least that I could without my parents urging me to take more. Fortunately, I stopped engaging in anorexic behaviors before middle school. However, my underlying mental habits did not change. The images that had provoked my disorder in the first place were still a constant presence in my life.
By age 15, I was in recovery from anorexia, but suffered from depression. While I used to only compare myself to models, the growth of social media meant I also compared myself to my friends and acquaintances. I felt left out when I saw my friends’ excitement about lake trips they had taken without me. As I scrolled past endless photos of my flawless, thin classmates with hundreds of likes and affirming comments, I felt my jealousy spiral. I wanted to be admired and loved by other people too. However, I felt that I could never be enough. I began to hate the way that I looked, and felt nothing in my life was good enough. I wanted to be called “perfect” and “body goals,” so I tried to only post at certain times of day to maximize my “likes.” When that didn’t work, I started to feel too anxious to post anything at all.
Body image insecurities and social media comparisons affect thousands of people – men, women, children, and adults – every day. I am lucky – after a few months of my destructive social media habits, I came across a video that pointed out the illusory nature of social media; many Instagram posts only show off good things while people hide their flaws. I began going to therapy, and recovered from my depression. To address the problem of self-image and social media, we can all focus on what matters on the inside and not what is on the surface. As an effort to become healthy internally, I started a club at my school to promote clean eating and radiating beauty from within. It has helped me grow in my confidence, and today I’m not afraid to show others my struggles by sharing my experience with eating disorders. Someday, I hope to make this club a national organization to help teenagers and adults across the country. I support the idea of body positivity and embracing difference, not “perfection.” After all, how can we be ourselves if we all look the same?
This essay covers the difficult topics of eating disorders and mental health. If you’re thinking about covering similar topics in your essay, we recommend reading our post Should You Talk About Mental Health in College Essays?
The short answer is that, yes, you can talk about mental health, but it can be risky. If you do go that route, it’s important to focus on what you learned from the experience.
The strength of this essay is the student’s vulnerability, in excerpts such as this: I wanted to be admired and loved by other people too. However, I felt that I could never be enough. I began to hate the way that I looked, and felt nothing in my life was good enough. I wanted to be called “perfect” and “body goals,” so I tried to only post at certain times of day to maximize my “likes.”
The student goes on to share how they recovered from their depression through an eye-opening video and therapy sessions, and they’re now helping others find their self-worth as well. It’s great that this essay looks towards the future and shares the writer’s goals of making their club a national organization; we can see their ambition and compassion.
The main weakness of this essay is that it doesn’t focus enough on their recovery process, which is arguably the most important part. They could’ve told us more about the video they watched or the process of starting their club and the interactions they’ve had with other members. Especially when sharing such a vulnerable topic, there should be vulnerability in the recovery process too. That way, the reader can fully appreciate all that this student has overcome.
Essay Example #8: Becoming a Coach
”Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.” Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation.
Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one.
Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand.
Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one.
I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.
At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith.
Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities.
Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension.
Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities.
Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.
This essay begins with an in-the-moment narrative that really illustrates the chaos of looking for a coach last-minute. We feel the writer’s emotions, particularly her dejectedness, at not being able to compete. Starting an essay in media res is a great way to capture the attention of your readers and build anticipation for what comes next.
Through this essay, we can see how gutsy and determined the student is in deciding to become a coach themselves. She shows us these characteristics through their actions, rather than explicitly telling us: To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. Also, by discussing the opposition she faced and how it affected her, the student is open and vulnerable about the reality of the situation.
The essay comes full circle as the author recalls the frantic situations in seeking out a coach, but this is no longer a concern for them and their team. Overall, this essay is extremely effective in painting this student as mature, bold, and compassionate.
The biggest thing this essay needs to work on is showing not telling. Throughout the essay, the student tells us that she “emerged with new knowledge and confidence,” she “grew unsure of her own abilities,” and she “refused to give up”. What we really want to know is what this looks like.
Instead of saying she “emerged with new knowledge and confidence” she should have shared how she taught a new move to a fellow team-member without hesitation. Rather than telling us she “grew unsure of her own abilities” she should have shown what that looked like by including her internal dialogue and rhetorical questions that ran through her mind. She could have demonstrated what “refusing to give up” looks like by explaining how she kept learning coaching techniques on her own, turned to a mentor for advice, or devised a plan to win over the trust of parents.
Essay Example #9: Eritrea
No one knows where Eritrea is.
On the first day of school, for the past nine years, I would pensively stand in front of a class, a teacher, a stranger waiting for the inevitable question: Where are you from?
I smile politely, my dimples accentuating my ambiguous features. “Eritrea,” I answer promptly and proudly. But I am always prepared. Before their expression can deepen into confusion, ready to ask “where is that,” I elaborate, perhaps with a fleeting hint of exasperation, “East Africa, near Ethiopia.”
Sometimes, I single out the key-shaped hermit nation on a map, stunning teachers who have “never had a student from there!” Grinning, I resist the urge to remark, “You didn’t even know it existed until two minutes ago!”
Eritrea is to the East of Ethiopia, its arid coastline clutches the lucrative Red Sea. Battle scars litter the ancient streets – the colonial Italian architecture lathered with bullet holes, the mosques mangled with mortar shells. Originally part of the world’s first Christian kingdom, Eritrea passed through the hands of colonial Italy, Britain, and Ethiopia for over a century, until a bloody thirty year war of Independence liberated us.
But these are facts that anyone can know with a quick Google search. These are facts that I have memorised and compounded, first from my Grandmother and now from pristine books borrowed from the library.
No historical narrative, however, can adequately capture what Eritrea is. No one knows the aroma of bushels of potatoes, tomatoes, and garlic – still covered in dirt – that leads you to the open-air market. No one knows the poignant scent of spices, arranged in orange piles reminiscent of compacted dunes. No one knows how to haggle stubborn herders for sheep and roosters for Christmas celebrations as deliberately as my mother. No one can replicate the perfect balance of spices in dorho and tsebhi as well as my grandmother, her gnarly hands stirring the pot with ancient precision (chastising my clumsy knife work with the potatoes). It’s impossible to learn when the injera is ready – the exact moment you have to lift the lid of the mogogo. Do it too early (or too late) and the flatbread becomes mangled and gross. It is a sixth sense passed through matriarchal lineages.
There are no sources that catalogue the scent of incense that wafts through the sunlit porch on St. Michael’s; no films that can capture the luminescence of hundreds of flaming bonfires that fluoresce the sidewalks on Kudus Yohannes, as excited children chant Ge’ez proverbs whose origin has been lost to time. You cannot learn the familiarity of walking beneath the towering Gothic figure of the Enda Mariam Cathedral, the crowds undulating to the ringing of the archaic bells. I have memorized the sound of the rains hounding the metal roof during kiremti , the heat of the sun pounding against the Toyota’s window as we sped down towards Ghinda , the opulent brilliance of the stars twinkling in a sky untainted by light pollution, the scent of warm rolls of bani wafting through the streets at precisely 6 o’clock each day…
I fill my flimsy sketchbook with pictures from my memory. My hand remembers the shapes of the hibiscus drifting in the wind, the outline of my grandmother (affectionately nicknamed a’abaye ) leaning over the garden, the bizarre architecture of the Fiat Tagliero . I dice the vegetables with movements handed down from generations. My nose remembers the scent of frying garlic, the sourness of the warm tayta , the sharpness of the mit’mt’a …
This knowledge is intrinsic. “I am Eritrean,” I repeat. “I am proud.” Within me is an encyclopedia of history, culture, and idealism.
Eritrea is the coffee made from scratch, the spices drying in the sun, the priests and nuns. Eritrea is wise, filled with ambition, and unseen potential. Eritrea isn’t a place, it’s an identity.
This is an exceptional essay that provides a window into this student’s culture that really makes their love for their country and heritage leap off the page. The sheer level of details and sensory descriptors this student is able to fit in this space makes the essay stand out. From the smells, to the traditions, sounds, and sights, the author encapsulates all the glory of Eritrea for the reader.
The vivid images this student is able to create for the reader, whether it is having the tedious conversation with every teacher or cooking in their grandmother’s kitchen, transports us into the story and makes us feel like we are there in the moment with the student. This is a prime example of an essay that shows , not tells.
Besides the amazing imagery, the use of shorter paragraphs also contributes to how engaging this essay is. Employing this tactic helps break up the text to make it more readable and it isolates ideas so they stick out more than if they were enveloped in a large paragraph.
Overall, this is a really strong essay that brings to life this student’s heritage through its use of vivid imagery. This essay exemplifies what it means to show not tell in your writing, and it is a great example of how you can write an intimate personal statement without making yourself the primary focus of your essay.
There is very little this essay should improve upon, but one thing the student might consider would be to inject more personal reflection into their response. Although we can clearly take away their deep love and passion for their homeland and culture, the essay would be a bit more personal if they included the emotions and feelings they associate with the various aspects of Eritrea. For example, the way their heart swells with pride when their grandmother praises their ability to cook a flatbread or the feeling of serenity when they hear the bells ring out from the cathedral. Including personal details as well as sensory ones would create a wonderful balance of imagery and reflection.
Essay Example #10: Journaling
Flipping past dozens of colorful entries in my journal, I arrive at the final blank sheet. I press my pen lightly to the page, barely scratching its surface to create a series of loops stringing together into sentences. Emotions spill out, and with their release, I feel lightness in my chest. The stream of thoughts slows as I reach the bottom of the page, and I gently close the cover of the worn book: another journal finished.
I add the journal to the stack of eleven books on my nightstand. Struck by the bittersweet sensation of closing a chapter of my life, I grab the notebook at the bottom of the pile to reminisce.
“I want to make a flying mushen to fly in space and your in it” – October 2008
Pulling back the cover of my first Tinkerbell-themed diary, the prompt “My Hopes and Dreams” captures my attention. Though “machine” is misspelled in my scribbled response, I see the beginnings of my past obsession with outer space. At the age of five, I tore through novels about the solar system, experimented with rockets built from plastic straws, and rented Space Shuttle films from Blockbuster to satisfy my curiosities. While I chased down answers to questions as limitless as the universe, I fell in love with learning. Eight journals later, the same relentless curiosity brought me to an airplane descending on San Francisco Bay.
“I wish I had infinite sunsets” – July 2019
I reach for the charcoal notepad near the top of the pile and open to the first page: my flight to the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes. While I was excited to explore bioengineering, anxiety twisted in my stomach as I imagined my destination, unsure of whether I could overcome my shyness and connect with others.
With each new conversation, the sweat on my palms became less noticeable, and I met students from 23 different countries. Many of the moments where I challenged myself socially revolved around the third story deck of the Jerry house. A strange medley of English, Arabic, and Mandarin filled the summer air as my friends and I gathered there every evening, and dialogues at sunset soon became moments of bliss. In our conversations about cultural differences, the possibility of an afterlife, and the plausibility of far-fetched conspiracy theories, I learned to voice my opinion. As I was introduced to different viewpoints, these moments challenged my understanding of the world around me. In my final entries from California, I find excitement to learn from others and increased confidence, a tool that would later allow me to impact my community.
“The beauty in a tower of cans” – June 2020
Returning my gaze to the stack of journals, I stretch to take the floral-patterned book sitting on top. I flip through, eventually finding the beginnings of the organization I created during the outbreak of COVID-19. Since then, Door-to-Door Deliveries has woven its way through my entries and into reality, allowing me to aid high-risk populations through free grocery delivery.
With the confidence I gained the summer before, I took action when seeing others in need rather than letting my shyness hold me back. I reached out to local churches and senior centers to spread word of our services and interacted with customers through our website and social media pages. To further expand our impact, we held two food drives, and I mustered the courage to ask for donations door-to-door. In a tower of canned donations, I saw the value of reaching out to help others and realized my own potential to impact the world around me.
I delicately close the journal in my hands, smiling softly as the memories reappear, one after another. Reaching under my bed, I pull out a fresh notebook and open to its first sheet. I lightly press my pen to the page, “And so begins the next chapter…”
The structuring of this essay makes it easy and enjoyable to read. The student effectively organizes their various life experiences around their tower of journals, which centers the reader and makes the different stories easy to follow. Additionally, the student engages quotes from their journals—and unique formatting of the quotes—to signal that they are moving in time and show us which memory we should follow them to.
Thematically, the student uses the idea of shyness to connect the different memories they draw out of their journals. As the student describes their experiences overcoming shyness at the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes and Door-to-Door Deliveries, this essay can be read as an Overcoming Obstacles essay.
At the end of this essay, readers are fully convinced that this student is dedicated (they have committed to journaling every day), thoughtful (journaling is a thoughtful process and, in the essay, the student reflects thoughtfully on the past), and motivated (they flew across the country for a summer program and started a business). These are definitely qualities admissions officers are looking for in applicants!
Although this essay is already exceptionally strong as it’s written, the first journal entry feels out of place compared to the other two entries that discuss the author’s shyness and determination. It works well for the essay to have an entry from when the student was younger to add some humor (with misspelled words) and nostalgia, but if the student had either connected the quote they chose to the idea of overcoming a fear present in the other two anecdotes or if they had picked a different quote all together related to their shyness, it would have made the entire essay feel more cohesive.
Where to Get Your Personal Statement Edited
Do you want feedback on your personal statement? After rereading your essays countless times, it can be difficult to evaluate your writing objectively. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!
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Search the site, search suggestions, the personal essay.
Unlike the rest of your application, which primarily consists of filling in boxes, the personal essay gives you the freedom to essentially write about whatever you want. No rules! Show who you are! Which sounds pretty cool, until you’re sitting there looking at a blank Word document.
While the personal essay is a great opportunity to infuse your voice into the application, I think some people (cough, me, cough) can get overwhelmed by it to the point where they don’t know how to begin. What do I write about? What makes me stand out? How can I explain all of this in only a few hundred words?
Well, as someone who eventually managed to get some words down on that blank document and turn out a decent college essay, here are a few words of advice.
1. Start by writing something.
I know, that sounds really obvious. But sometimes the hardest part of writing is just getting started – if you spend too much time criticizing your ideas before you write anything down, you won’t get anywhere. Write a few sentences, jot down some random ideas, note a couple anecdotes that might be interesting… just get something on paper that you can look back to. Maybe one of those ideas will catch, and BOOM you have an essay – or maybe you’ll look back to this list after a few weeks and think of something else that you would rather write about. That’s fine! The beginning of the creative process involves coming up with ideas, judging them comes later. Trust me, I took a class on this (really: it was a psych class called “Creativity: Madmen, Geniuses, and Harvard Students.”)
2. Think about something that has some significance to you.
Many students feel like they have to write about some huge, life-changing, important event in their lives. If you have something like this that you want to write about, that’s great! However, you can also write an awesome essay about something other than The Most Important Thing Ever. It can be the littlest things, if you explain their significance well, that actually stand out. In my case, somewhere in my essay I mentioned that I got up at 5:37am (rather than 5:30 or 5:45) because I liked prime numbers – and the first thing my admissions officer said when I walked into the room for my interview was, “So, prime numbers, huh?” That being said, remember that this is a college essay, so keep this audience and goal in mind as you write. When they finish reading, what do you want the admissions officers to know about you? Does this essay demonstrate something about who you are and what you care about? If not, you might want to go back to the drawing board.
3. Don’t be afraid to start over.
After finishing my first draft, I was glad to have something, but I wasn’t completely happy with it either. A week or two later, as I was reading over my essay again, I had an idea for a totally different topic - so I opened another document and completely started over. The second attempt was so much better, and I felt happy with how it turned out. It can be hard to scrap an initial attempt after spending so much time on it, but think of that time as just part of the process of getting to what you really want to write about.
4. Get an outside perspective.
One of the most useful things I did while working on my college essay was asking a couple people to read it over. At the time, I had two drafts that I was choosing between, and I wasn’t sure which one captured “me” better. When I asked my parents and teacher what they thought, they unanimously picked one option over the other. In the end, it’s important to have an essay that you are happy with – but sometimes having a fresh set of eyes can help you see what that is.
This is an important step! Both you, and perhaps someone who knows you well, should read over your essay and make sure it is in tip-top shape before you turn it in. There should be no grammatical or spelling mistakes – that gives the impression that you did not take your time on it. I know you’ve spent a long time on it by this point, but those last edits are super important!
The personal essay is a snippet of who you are and where you’re coming from – a snapshot for the admissions officers to look at as they read your application. It will never be able to capture everything about you, but you want to make sure that you’re giving them your best angle. So sit down, smile, and get to writing!
Reflections as a senior: my favorite moments.
Finding my "Third Place"
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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 177 college essay examples for 11 schools + expert analysis.
College Admissions , College Essays
The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.
In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article will be a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!
What Excellent College Essays Have in Common
Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.
Visible Signs of Planning
Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.
Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.
A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!
A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.
Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.
And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.
Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!
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Links to Full College Essay Examples
Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.
Common App Essay Samples
Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts.
- 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007
These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).
- 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
- 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
- 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
- 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
- 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020
Essay Examples Published by Other Websites
- 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia
Other Sample College Essays
Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.
- 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020
- 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
- 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out
University of Georgia
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
- 10 Harvard essays from 2023
- 10 Harvard essays from 2022
- 10 Harvard essays from 2021
- 10 Harvard essays from 2020
- 10 Harvard essays from 2019
- 10 Harvard essays from 2018
- 6 essays from admitted MIT students
- 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018
Books of College Essays
If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.
College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.
50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .
50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.
Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.
Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked
I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.
Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)
I had never broken into a car before.
We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.
Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.
"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"
"Why me?" I thought.
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.
Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.
But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.
Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.
Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.
What Makes This Essay Tick?
It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!
An Opening Line That Draws You In
In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).
Great, Detailed Opening Story
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.
It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.
Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.
Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight
Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."
Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.
"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.
Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice
My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.
Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."
The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.
An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future
But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.
This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.
What Could This Essay Do Even Better?
Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?
Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.
Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.
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Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.
Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.
I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.
In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).
I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.
A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.
It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.
Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.
One Clear Governing Metaphor
This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.
But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:
This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.
Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:
While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.
An Engaging, Individual Voice
This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.
Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.
I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.
Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!
For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:
Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.
Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.
Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.
Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.
In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.
The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.
Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.
Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.” The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.
Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.
4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay
How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.
#1: Get Help From the Experts
Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings . If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .
#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own
As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
- Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
- Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
- Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?
Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.
#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment
All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.
Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.
#4: Start Early, Revise Often
Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.
Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!
For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .
Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.
Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .
Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
The recommendations in this post are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links PrepScholar may receive a commission.
Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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How to Write a Personal Statement
A personal statement can be a key part of your college application, and you can really make yours shine by following a few tips.
When you're applying to college—either to an undergraduate or graduate program—you may be asked to submit a personal statement. It's an essay that gives you the chance to share more about who you are and why you'd like to attend the university you're applying to.
The information you provide in your personal statement can help build on your other application materials, like your transcripts and letters of recommendation, and build a more cohesive picture to help the admissions committee understand your goals.
In this article, we'll go over more about personal statements, including why they're important, what to include in one, and tips for strengthening yours.
What is a personal statement?
A personal statement—sometimes known as a college essay —is a brief written essay you submit along with other materials when you're applying to college or university. Personal statements tend to be most common for undergraduate applications, and they're a great opportunity for an admissions committee to hear your voice directly.
Many colleges and universities in the US, especially those using Common App , provide prompts for you to use. For example, "Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea" or "Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time" [ 1 ]. If the school you're interested in attending doesn't require prompts, you will likely want to craft a response that touches on your story, your values, and your goals if possible.
In grad school, personal statements are sometimes known as letters of intent , and go into more detail about your academic and professional background, while expressing interest in attending the particular program you're applying to.
Why is a personal statement important?
Personal statements are important for a number of reasons. Whereas other materials you submit in an application can address your academic abilities (like your transcripts) or how you perform as a student (like your letters of recommendation), a personal statement is a chance to do exactly that: get more personal.
Personal statements typically:
Permit you to share things that don't fit on your resume, such as personal stories, motivations, and values
Offer schools a chance to see why you're interested in a particular field of study and what you hope to accomplish after you graduate
Provide an opportunity for you to talk about past employment, volunteer experiences, or skills you have that complement your studies
Allow colleges to evaluate your writing skills
Bring life to a college application package otherwise filled with facts and figures
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How to write a personal statement
As we mentioned earlier, you may have to respond to a prompt when drafting your personal statement—or a college or university may invite you to respond however you'd like. In either case, use the steps below to begin building your response.
Create a solid hook .
To capture the attention of an admissions committee member, start your personal statement with a hook that relates to the topic of your essay. A hook tends to be a colorful sentence or two at the very beginning that compels the reader to continue reading.
To create a captivating hook, try one of these methods:
Pose a rhetorical question.
Provide an interesting statistic.
Insert a quote from a well-known person.
Challenge the reader with a common misconception.
Use an anecdote, which is a short story that can be true or imaginary.
Credibility is crucial when writing a personal statement as part of your college application process. If you choose a statistic, quote, or misconception for your hook, make sure it comes from a reliable source.
Follow a narrative.
The best personal statements typically read like a story: they have a common theme, as well as a beginning, middle, and end. This type of format also helps keep your thoughts organized and improves the flow of your essay.
Common themes to consider for your personal statement include:
Special role models from your past
Life-altering events you've experienced
Unusual challenges you've faced
Accomplishments you're especially proud of
Service to others and why you enjoy it
What you've learned from traveling to a particular place
Unique ways you stand out from other candidates
Admissions committees read thousands of personal statements every year, which is why being specific on yours is important. Back up your statements with examples or anecdotes.
For instance, avoid vague assertions like, "I'm interested in your school counseling program because I care about children." Instead, point out experiences you've had with children that emphasize how much you care. For instance, you might mention your summer job as a day camp counselor or your volunteer experience mentoring younger children.
Don't forget to include detail and vibrancy to keep your statement interesting. The use of detail shows how your unique voice and experiences can add value to the college or university you're applying to.
Stay on topic.
It's natural to want to impress the members of the admissions committee that will read your personal statement. The best way to do this is to lead your readers through a cohesive, informative, and descriptive essay.
If you feel you might be going astray, check to make sure each paragraph in the body of your essay supports your introduction. Here are a few more strategies that can help keep you on track:
Know what you want to say and do research if needed.
Create an outline listing the key points you want to share.
Read your outline aloud to confirm it makes logical sense before proceeding.
Read your essay aloud while you're writing to confirm you're staying on topic.
Ask a trusted friend or family member to read your essay and make suggestions.
Be true to your own voice
Because of the importance of your personal statement, you could be tempted to be very formal with structure and language. However, it's better to use a more relaxed tone than you would for a classroom writing assignment.
Remember: admissions committees really want to hear from you . Writing in your own voice will help accomplish this. To ensure your tone isn't too relaxed, write your statement as if you were speaking to an older relative or trusted teacher. This way, you'll come across as respectful, confident, and honest.
Tips for drafting an effective personal statement
Now that you've learned a little about personal statements and how to craft them, here are a few more tips you can follow to strengthen your essay:
1. Customize your statement.
You don't have to completely rewrite your personal statement every time you apply to a new college, but you do want to make sure that you tailor it as much as possible. For instance, if you talk about wanting to take a certain class or study a certain subject, make sure you adjust any specifics for each application.
2. Avoid cliches.
Admissions committees are ultimately looking for students who will fit the school, and who the school can help guide toward their larger goals. In that case, cliches can get in the way of a reviewer understanding what it is you want from a college education. Watch out for cliches like "making a difference," "broadening my horizons," or "the best thing that ever happened to me."
3. Stay focused.
Try to avoid getting off-track or including tangents in your personal statement. Stay focused by writing a first draft and then re-reading what you've written. Does every paragraph flow from one point to the next? Are the ideas you're presenting cohesive?
4. Stick to topics that aren't controversial
It's best not to talk about political beliefs or inappropriate topics in your personal essay. These can be controversial, and ideally you want to share something goals-driven or values-driven with an admissions committee.
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1. Common App. " 2022-2023 Common App Essay Prompts , https://www.commonapp.org/blog/2022-2023-common-app-essay-prompts." Accessed June 9, 2023.
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How to Start a Personal Statement
One of the first hurdles students encounter when writing college essays is how to start a personal statement. As a core element of many applications, understanding how to write a personal statement is crucial. Learning how to write a personal statement that is an authentic representation of yourself can be challenging. However, mastering this skill will help you craft personal essays that make a lasting impact on admissions officers.
Specific, actionable college essay tips can help you learn how to write a personal statement for college. If you spend time learning how to start a college essay, you’ll feel even more confident as you begin the process. So, let’s demystify just exactly how to start a personal statement.
In this guide, How to Start a Personal Statement, we’ll cover everything you need to know about personal statements, including:
- Personal statement meaning, goals, and expectations
- Common personal statement formats
- The importance of a hook and how to write one
- Steps for how to start a personal statement
- Tips for how to write a personal statement
- How to approach the editing phase
- Coming up with personal statement ideas
- Examples of personal statements and how to use them
Remember, any writing process takes time. This applies whether you’re figuring out how to start a college essay or how to write a personal statement for college. No matter what approach you take, the key to how to write a great college essay is to start early!
Now, let’s start with the basics: what is a personal statement?
What is a personal statement?
Simply put, a personal statement is a type of college application essay. But, if you’re looking for answers to, “What is a personal statement?” you probably already know that. At its core, the personal statement should be the essay that most clearly reflects your application narrative . By reading your personal statement, colleges should gain a better understanding of who you are. That means having a clear sense of your strengths, values, and interests.
However, this doesn’t mean that your personal statement needs to capture your entire life story. In fact, often, your personal statement will likely center around just one particular moment or experience. Specifically, one that has defined your identity, passions, or personal growth.
If you search for a personal statement meaning by school, you may find slightly varying definitions. However, all personal essays have the same goal. Personal essays show colleges your authentic voice while highlighting a part of yourself that isn’t captured elsewhere in your application. You’ll notice this if you read any example of a personal statement for college.
Engaging in self-reflection
To understand the personal statement meaning in the simplest terms, think of two words: self-reflection . Identifying pivotal life moments, values, and skills are all a part of how to write a great college essay. However, the process of how to write a personal statement for college takes more than just describing an experience. Instead, it forces you to find the balance between contextualizing what happened and expressing how it impacted you.
Successful personal essays will generally do two things. One, they’ll capture the meaning of your past experiences, specifically the ways you were changed and the lessons you learned. Two, they’ll connect your past experiences to your current and future goals. For many students, college applications are the first time they’ve been asked to write about themselves. So, the process of making these personal connections may seem daunting.
Preparing for the future
Knowing exactly what is a personal statement and how to write a personal statement can also help you in other facets of life. For example, consider the overlap between the college application process and the job application process. When applying to jobs, you need to highlight pertinent skills, values, and beliefs—just like in a college application essay. You can even use the skills and principles for writing a personal statement to write a cover letter (with certain nuances, of course).
For more information on the personal statement meaning, check out the application/essay page for schools on your college list. Their advice and resources can help students understand exactly what’s expected from them in these types of essays. And, many colleges will even provide their own tips for how to write a great college essay. They might also provide an example of a personal statement for college.
We’ve answered the question, “What is a personal statement?” So, now, let’s get into the personal statement format.
Personal statement format
When learning how to write a personal statement, you’ll encounter some different personal statement formats. While there is no singular or “best” personal statement format, most personal essays share a few key attributes. So, understanding these key features can greatly help students learning how to write a great college essay.
Many students’ personal statements tell stories. In fact, discovering these important stories forms a key component of how to start a college essay. Much of the work that goes into discovering how to write a personal statement starts before you even begin writing. (We’ll discuss brainstorming ideas in a later section of this guide.)
Before we dive into how to start a personal statement, we need to pinpoint the starting point for your personal statements: the prompts.
Common/Coalition Application Personal Statement
In many cases, the personal statement refers to the Common App essay or Coalition Application essay. While there are some differences between the two application portals, both follow the same personal statement format. Students will choose from a selection of college essay prompts and write an essay (650 words max). Then, they will submit that essay to every school they apply to via that particular portal. In these cases, the process of how to start a college essay begins with reading through the provided prompts.
Learning how to write a personal statement for college includes learning how to choose the best prompt for you. The personal statement topic you ultimately choose is extremely important; your topic is essentially the soul of your essay. You’d be hard-pressed to find a well-written example of a personal statement for college that wasn’t based on an impactful topic.
The Common App essay
Let’s take a closer look at how to start a college essay for the Common App. In the Common App, students have seven college essay prompts to choose from. Each of these college essay prompts allows students to share important anecdotes from their lives. Most of these college essay prompts ask specific questions, however, the seventh prompt is slightly different. Prompt #7 actually allows students to choose any topic for their essay.
10 Exceptional Common App Essay Examples
The coalition app essay.
The Coalition Application offers a similar personal statement format. Prompt #6 also asks students to submit an essay on any topic. You might think that responding to such an open-ended prompt would change your approach for how to write a great college essay. However, you can still use the college essay tips provided in this guide, no matter what prompt you decide to respond to.
The Common App and the Coalition Application are the most common personal statement formats you’ll encounter. However, some schools have their own unique personal statement format and requirements.
Coalition Essay Prompts 2023-24
Other personal statements
The method you take when figuring out how to write a personal statement will largely depend on your personal statement prompt. However, a personal statement for college isn’t always based on specific college essay prompts. You might simply be asked to share more about yourself. However, even if your personal statement format doesn’t directly ask you for a particular narrative, your essay still needs a focus. So, you should still aim to have your personal statement tell a story about some critical aspect of your identity.
That being said, always double-check the specific personal statement format and requirements for each program you apply to. For instance, if you apply to universities in the UK, the UCAS personal statement is far different from other personal essays. Namely, these personal statements focus almost entirely on academics.
When considering how to start a personal statement, look to admissions websites or university blogs for advice. Often, they’ll have a page dedicated to helpful college essay tips with insight into what they look for from students’ personal essays. For example, check out this blog from UChicago that provides tips on how to approach their quirky prompts. Additionally, check out this personal statement webinar in which an admissions officer shares helpful college essay tips.
Now, let’s define an important attribute of how to start a personal statement: the hook.
How to start a personal statement: Understanding the “hook”
It’s impossible to learn how to start a personal statement or how to write a personal statement that “wows” without a hook. A hook is an opening statement that catches the reader’s attention. It draws them in and makes them want to keep reading to see how the story unfolds. In personal essays, the hook is key to getting your reader invested in your story.
But, if the idea of coming up with a compelling hook intimidates you, don’t panic! The hook isn’t necessarily the step you need to start with when learning how to start a college essay. That being said, it forms a crucial component of the personal statement introduction. You’ll notice that almost every successful example of personal statement for college has an engaging hook.
Let’s check out some hooks that impressed to help give you a better idea of how to start a personal statement.
College Personal Statement Examples
Example of personal statement for college: hook #1.
My life is as simple as a Rubik’s Cube: a child’s toy that can be solved in 20 moves or less IF and only if enough knowledge is gained.
In this personal statement introduction, this student intrigues the reader by comparing their life to a toy. Simply by reading this hook, we can see this student’s self-reflection as well as their creativity. And, most importantly, we’re intrigued to see the connection of how and why this person is fascinated by a Rubik’s cube. In this example, the Rubik’s cube is both unique and genuinely important to the writer. Moreover, by the end of the essay, we gain some valuable insight into how this person navigates the world. And, it all started with this hook.
Example of Personal Statement for College: Hook #2
When I joined the high school swim team, I never expected to go to school dressed as Shrek.
After reading this hook, you’re probably left with more questions than answers. “What does having to be on the swim team have to do with dressing up as Shrek?” We don’t know yet! And, that’s the point. This surprising hook has the reader curious about the connection the writer will make. However, when figuring out how to start a personal statement, don’t go overboard with the shock factor. Keep in mind that personal essays can’t come from wild statements alone. Rather, they need to connect to a meaningful moment in the writer’s life.
Example of Personal Statement for College: Hook #3
At six years old, most kids I know get excited to help Blue find clues or recite Elmo’s songs on Sesame Street. So you can imagine my family’s surprise when they saw me ignoring the other kids to go belt alongside my grandfather’s mariachi trio in the backyard.
Your hook doesn’t have to be just one sentence. Rather, it might be a couple of sentences or even the first paragraph, like in this example. Keep in mind that there are no definitive rules to how to start a personal statement—other than sharing important information about yourself that will stand out to admissions officers.
Students who want to master how to write a personal statement need to learn how to craft an engaging hook. This particular hook shows how the writer is different from their peers. As the reader, we can learn a lot from just these few sentences. We already know that this writer isn’t afraid to be themselves and do what they love from a young age. This college application essay gets into much deeper themes as the narrative continues. However, the most important part of the personal statement introduction—the hook—has already done its job of pulling the reader in to learn more.
Using these examples
These are just a few successful hooks that students have used in their approach to how to start a personal statement. Each of these comes from a strong example of a personal statement for college. As you can see from each example of a personal statement for college, the best personal statement topics are unique. However, even the most quirky hooks always lead the reader into an essay of substance.
Use each example of personal statement for college to help inspire your “how to write a personal statement” journey. When considering how to write a great college essay, analyzing examples of what works can help.
Want to see how others figured out how to start a personal statement? Check out these personal statement examples as well as these Common App essay examples for inspiration.
When to write your hook
Having a hook is a crucial part of how to write a personal statement that impresses. However, coming up with your hook won’t necessarily form the first step in your process. Just as there’s no one right way of how to write a personal statement, there’s no one right way to write a hook.
When considering how to start a personal statement, you don’t need to dive into the hook right away. You may even write a whole draft of your essay before figuring out the best hook for your personal statement introduction.
So, if a hook doesn’t jump to your brain as you consider personal statement ideas, just start writing! Sometimes, it’s best to write a straightforward beginning (maybe even dry!) and then work your way backward. Remember, it doesn’t matter when you come up with it. Just be sure to add that sparkly hook to your personal statement before submitting your final draft.
Do all colleges require a personal statement?
It’s more than likely that you will need to know how to write a personal statement during the college application process. However, not every college requires a personal statement—though most top schools do.
So, before stressing about how to start a college essay, check the requirements of the schools on your college list . However, keep in mind that most of the nation’s top schools require applicants to submit a personal statement for college.
Additionally, you might want to adjust your personal statement for different programs. You’ll still submit the same personal statement for college for each school you apply to through the Common App. However, other specialized programs and applications might request a slightly different personal statement format. So, always check the admissions requirements and do your research on every school and each individual program. Your approach to how to start a college essay will depend on each program’s prompts and formats. You can also always look at an example of a personal statement for college for inspiration.
33 Colleges Without Supplemental Essays
Do colleges care about the personal statement?
A strong college application essay is extremely important in the admissions process. So, put simply, yes—colleges really do care about the personal statement. Understanding how to start a personal statement means understanding the weight that it carries. Of course, you shouldn’t let yourself get overwhelmed by the process. Rather, try to feel excited by the opportunity to truly show off your personality, skills, background, future goals, and more.
That being said, the extent to which your personal statement impacts your admissions decision will likely vary by school. For instance, some larger state schools may focus foremost on your grades or standardized test scores (due to the fact that they receive such a large volume of applicants and have more spaces available). While these schools will still care about your personal statement, other factors may have a more immediate impact on their admissions decisions.
On the other hand, top universities with smaller enrollments often place a considerable amount of emphasis on the personal statement. These schools receive more qualified applicants than the places they have available. Your personal statement lets you highlight what makes you unique and how you’ll enrich their campus community.
How to write a personal statement – Step-by-step guide
A successful personal statement for college will read as passionate and authentic. You’ll notice this in each example of personal statement for college that you read. But how exactly do you write a passionate and authentic essay?
To begin, you’ll likely brainstorm personal statement ideas and decide on your personal statement topic. However, understanding how to write a personal statement will require more than simply knowing how to start a personal statement. And remember, you can always check out an example of a personal essay for college if you’re feeling stuck.
How to write a personal statement isn’t a strict process—as seen in this personal statement webinar about rethinking your essay . However, you should follow certain key steps as you craft your essays. Following each step, and allotting yourself sufficient time to do so, will make the writing process all the better. (Tips about staying on track are just as important as the best college essay tips about writing!)
Next, we’ll walk you through the step-by-step process of how to write a personal statement. This includes brainstorming personal statement ideas, exploring personal statement topics, and reviewing and submitting your personal essays.
Ready to learn just how to write a personal statement? Let’s get started!
How to start a personal statement – First steps
Now, let’s dive into how to start a personal statement. The first steps to how to start a personal statement can be broken down into two parts:
During these steps, you’ll generate personal statement ideas and select your personal statement topics. Without a strong topic, you’ll struggle to write a genuine essay. So, let’s talk about how to generate an essay topic that highlights your passion.
Step 1: Brainstorm
How to start a personal statement begins with brainstorming a list of ideas. Each stellar example of a personal statement for college likely came from a brainstorming session. But, why is brainstorming so important?
While some personal statement requirements won’t provide specific prompts for applicants, many will, including the Common App essay. So, you should make sure to choose a great topic that directly answers the prompt.
Let’s check out some brainstorming exercises that can help you get the great ideas flowing.
The best way to choose a great topic for a personal statement for college is through your passions. If you’re stuck when it comes to pinpointing your passions, try answering this question: If you were going to host a TED talk, what would it be and why? We all know that TED talks are addicting—that’s because they’re engaging. And they’re engaging because the hosts are talking about their passions.
So, think about something you would be excited to spend 30-40 minutes discussing in front of an audience. What would you say about it? You might find using voice notes and recording yourself is easier than writing out your ideas. For some students, talking about something may feel easier than immediately putting pen to paper.
If a TED talk doesn’t get your creative juices flowing, try a classic essay brainstorming method: mind maps. You’ve likely done mind maps in your high school English class. But for those who haven’t, let’s break down the process.
First, take the prompt for your essay. For instance, maybe it asks about a challenge you’ve faced. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write the prompt on a sheet of paper. Then, next to the prompt, start writing every experience you’ve had that relates to the prompt. This is not the time to get into the details—just focus on potential topics. Even if you’re not sure if something is a perfect fit, include it! At this stage, all ideas are fair game. Later, you can narrow them down to find the topic that you have the most to write about.
Another useful brainstorming exercise for a college application essay, especially when it comes to how to start a personal statement, has to do with defining your values. Most successful personal essays center around a value that students have. Think about the values that are most important to you (loyalty, kindness, empathy, honesty, etc.). Then, create a list of 4-6 values. After that, for each of your values, come up with a list of experiences that reflect them. You can even set a timer for each value.
Alternatively, you might work backward by coming up with a list of experiences that you find were the most impactful in your life. From these experiences, you can identify values that they instilled or that you embodied. Make sure to focus on an experience that highlights something critical about who you are as a person, student, or community member. You might also consider doing this same activity for qualities or skills depending on the essay prompt.
Step 2: Free-write
Once you have your topic, it’s time to flex your writing muscles. Don’t feel constrained by the word count at this stage. In fact, forget about a hook, a conclusion, and other literary details. Now is just the time to get your ideas on paper stress-free.
Struggling with Step 2 in how to start a personal statement? You might benefit from doing a timed free write. Set a timer for 20 minutes and don’t stop writing about the topic until the time is up. Don’t stress about writing the perfect sentence or having the right flow–just keep writing on the topic at hand. You may want to do this step a couple of times if you’re still deciding on the best prompt to respond to. You won’t always find the perfect personal essay topic on the first try, and that’s okay.
However, keep in mind that some topics may read as inappropriate or cliché. If you end up choosing an overused essay topic, you may struggle to come up with a unique angle. (But that doesn’t mean these topics are entirely off-limits!) However, you should not talk about illegal or illicit behavior and never use explicit language.
While you have free range to pick an essay topic, there are certain errors you can make. Make sure you don’t join the club of students who missed the mark with their personal essays. Learn from this personal statement webinar reviewing common mistakes that students make in their personal essays. Then, you’ll know what to avoid when deciding how to start a personal statement.
How to start a personal statement – Writing & editing
You’ve gotten some answers to the question “what is a personal statement?” and learned how to start a personal statement. Now, it’s time to start a draft.
For some students, figuring out how to start a college essay is the most stressful part of writing their personal essays. Indeed, you may have to write four to six drafts of your college application essay before you’ve written a personal statement for college that makes you feel proud.
This is why our top piece of advice for how to write a great college essay is to start early. If you start early, you’ll have plenty of time to learn how to write a personal statement. You’ll also have the flexibility to write multiple drafts of your personal essays. Additionally, you’ll be able to read an example of a personal statement for college.
Time also allows you the freedom to try out multiple personal statement topics. That way, you can find the personal statement format that makes for a powerful college application essay.
In this section, we’ll provide some college essay tips for outlining your personal statement, an important step for how to start a personal statement.
One idea for how to start a college essay is to draft an outline. An outline is simply a list of the ideas that will go into each part of your essay. You can format your outline in any way that makes sense for you.
By outlining, you can remove some of the pressure around how to start a personal statement. Instead of putting pen to paper to write a whole essay , you just have to jot down what order you want your ideas to go in. Think of an outline as a sketch of a picture you want to draw. Once you have that sketch, drawing the rest of the picture is usually easier.
However, outlining is not for everyone. Some students find outlining stressful, limiting, or confusing. If you’d rather jump into writing your personal statement on a blank page, do so. At the end of the day, when figuring out how to start a personal statement, you should follow the writing process that works best for you.
Drafting Your College Essay
Regardless of whether you choose to outline your ideas, here are some tips for how to start a college essay draft:
Find a beginning, middle, and end to your story.
As we’ve shared, a strong personal statement for college tells a story about who you are and demonstrates what you would bring to a college campus.
To write a strong example of a personal statement for college, you must have a beginning, middle, and end. By this, we mean that your essay should introduce and build upon ideas until they lead to some kind of resolution usually related to your personal growth. Think about your favorite book or movie – how did the story develop and resolve itself? Make sure your personal essays do the same.
Develop your hook.
The key to how to start a personal statement is with a hook. As we shared above, a hook is an engaging personal statement introduction that catches the reader’s attention. In your outline, consider adding some ideas for potential hooks.
A hook can include, but is not limited to, any of the following types of opening sentences:
- A piece of dialogue (i.e. “Do you remember the summer we went to Turkey?” said my mother.)
- A description of a scene (i.e., The Alaskan lake was warm that summer, the sun gleaming off its gentle ripples.)
- A thought-provoking question (i.e., What makes a house feel like a home?)
- A relevant and powerful quote (i.e., When Steve Jobs said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking back,” he gave words to a struggle I have long faced.)
- An unexpected thought (i.e., I am the fourth of eleven children in my family and the first one to dream of going to college.)
Each of the above personal statement introductions is unique and original. Additionally, all of these hooks make the reader wonder what else is coming in the essay. Indeed, each of these hooks is a great idea for how to start a college essay.
When thinking about how to start a college essay, avoid using cliché or generic personal statement introductions. In general, don’t directly answer college essay prompts like “A challenge I have faced is…”. These types of personal statement introductions are so common that they tend to lose the reader’s attention quickly.
Jot down details.
After identifying a hook, begin telling your story. In your outline, include any details that make your story unique. While some students assume that personal statement topics must be very rare or ground-breaking, in most cases the details are what set essays apart.
What do you remember that can help the reader experience your story vividly? How can you evoke their senses or emotions in a way that makes them feel and remember your story? Keeping these questions in mind will unlock many tools for how to write a great college essay.
Stories are powerful not only for how they make us feel but for what they teach us. When you jot down your outline, consider what reflections or lessons you have to share. Why does your story matter? What does it demonstrate about who you are?
Your essay should be descriptive and show us what you were experiencing. However, you can also include a few lines that tell the reader what you want them to take away. Usually, these reflections come towards the end of the essay, but they can also be sprinkled throughout.
How to Write a Personal Statement – Polish and Revise
Now that you’ve learned how to start a personal statement, let’s discuss what some consider to be the most critical part of writing an essay – revising. Polishing and revising an essay are the keys for how to write a great college essay. When you look at an example of a personal statement for college, remember that the student probably spent many hours revising that essay.
When revising your personal essays, avoid getting frustrated by how long the process takes. The key for how to write a personal statement without getting too overwhelmed is to be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Just like living your story takes time, energy, and resilience, so does writing your story in a college application essay. Rather than getting frustrated, celebrate how much you have learned about how to start a college essay.
In the next section, we’ll dive deeper into college essay tips for revising your personal essays.
Step 4: Revise
If you’re wondering how to write a personal statement for college, you’re probably also wondering how to revise one. Revision is the process during which you review what you have written for errors and to check whether the ideas make sense. You might also revise to find ways to shorten your essay if it is too long or expand on ideas that you didn’t fully flesh out.
Here are some college essay tips for revision:
College Essay Revision Tips
1. take breaks.
After you write your first draft, step away from it for at least 24 hours. When we spend a long time working on a piece of writing, sometimes our brains find it hard to focus. Stepping away will give you time to let your brain rest and return to it with fresh eyes.
We also recommend taking breaks whenever you feel stuck, a condition sometimes called writer’s block. While you might feel that pushing through is the best option, stepping away for a glass of water or a stretch can rejuvenate your body and give new energy to your mind as well. Taking care of yourself is actually one of the keys for how to write a personal statement that represents your best work.
2. Make a revision checklist
Create a list of items to look for as you revise. That way, you won’t miss anything. Here are some ideas for what how to start a personal statement revision checklist:
- Structure/flow – Does the structure of my essay support its meaning? A structure can refer to the length of paragraphs, the order of ideas, or the format. Maybe your essay has a lot of dialogue, but now you have realized the dialogue is distracting.
- Repetitive language – Do you use the same words or phrases over and over again? While you may have fallen into repetition when figuring out how to start a personal statement, try varying vocabulary or rephrasing sentence structure to keep the reader interested.
- Spelling/grammar/syntax – Run your essay through an app like Grammarly and always use spell check. Look for ways to remove unnecessary words or shorten sentences. Generally, the fewer words you use to express an idea, the easier it will be for the reader to understand.
- Narrative voice – This refers to the voice you use to tell your story. Is it very informal? Do you sound like you are texting with friends? One of the keys for how to write a personal statement is to use your own voice while still remembering that you are speaking to a college admissions officer. As experts in how to write a great college essay know, avoid slang and spell out contractions for added formality.
3. Read your essay aloud
Reading your essay out loud can help you find mistakes. Even more importantly, it can also help you feel if the essay captures your voice. When you read it out loud, does your essay sound like you? Are there words in your essay that you would never use in real life? These questions can help you determine if you need to adjust the narrative voice of your essay. After all, admissions officers want to hear what you sound like, not a parent or friend.
4. Get help
Whether you’re stuck on how to write a personal statement or not, it’s always a good idea to get another set of eyes on your essay. Just be careful who you select. Make sure you are asking someone who knows how to write a personal statement and can give you the right kind of feedback.
Also, consider asking both someone who knows you well and someone who does not know you well. The person who knows you well, like a teacher, parent, counselor, or college advisor (like our team of experts at CollegeAdvisor) can make sure your voice comes across. A person who does not know you well can provide input from an outsider’s perspective. Ultimately, when you submit your college essay, you will be sending it to someone who has never met you. As such, it should make sense to people who don’t know you as well.
5. Don’t be afraid to start over
Sometimes, during the revision process, you may realize that your topic doesn’t work for you. Perhaps you realize that you were so worried about how to start a personal statement that you chose a topic you thought others wanted to read instead of one that really resonates with you. Or, maybe you just thought of a new idea for how to start a personal statement that you like a lot better. It is totally normal to redraft entire paragraphs or simply throw out the essay and start over . Even though it may seem like you have wasted time, you were learning throughout the entire process about how to write a personal statement.
Starting over might be the best approach for you and allow you to write an essay that feels more authentic . However, do not simply start over because you are being hyper-critical of yourself. Focus as much on what you like about your essay as the parts that you do not. Do not let perfectionism cause you to throw away a perfectly good essay.
On average, students learning how to write a great college essay need to write four to six drafts until they are ready to submit. However, if you have done your research on how to write a personal statement, it may take you less. After six drafts, ask yourself if you really need to keep working on the essay, or if you are letting perfectionism get the best of you. Remember, no essay is perfect. As long as your personal statement reflects your true voice and shares a compelling story about how you became who you are, you’re likely ready to submit it.
In the next section, we will dive deeper into the final steps for how to write a great college essay that you should take before hitting submit.
Step 5: Final Review & Submit
Congratulations! You’re almost ready to submit your personal statement for college. You’ve learned how to write a personal statement, brainstormed and drafted one, and revised it. Before you hit submit, here is a final checklist of questions to ask yourself:
1. Did I answer the prompt fully?
Just like you plug your answer back into a math equation to see if it works, plug your essay back into the prompt. Make sure each part of the question is being answered.
2. Did I meet the word or character count?
While it is okay to be a bit under the word count, as long as you answer the question fully, going over the word count will usually mean you cannot submit your essay.
3. Does my essay paste neatly into the application?
Before pasting your essay into the online application, we recommend pasting your essay into a Word document or Google document. Make sure to remove any formatting like bolding, italics, or comments. Left-align your essay so that it is easy to read. And, double check that spacing between sentences and paragraphs is uniform.
While these might seem like small details, they all add to the impression you make upon admissions officers about how prepared you might be to attend their school. Take advantage of the option to download the PDF summary of your application, if it exists, to ensure everything looks neat before you submit it.
If you can answer all these questions with a yes, you’re probably ready to submit your essay. Now, you can teach others how to write a personal statement, too.
How to start a personal statement
At this point, you have reviewed all the steps for how to write a personal statement for college. We’d like to remind you of some important parts of this process that will help ease any stress related to writing your college essays.
First, try brainstorming first. Writing a college essay is a lot different than most academic writing you’ll have done, and it’s natural to face some writer’s block. By taking advantage of brainstorming exercises, you can get used to the idea of writing about yourself in a low-pressure environment. Some students want to skip brainstorming because they find this step unnecessary or a waste of time.
In fact, brainstorming can help you write your essay faster because your personal statement ideas will already be on paper. Brainstorming can also help you avoid writing an essay and then realizing you do not like your topic, leading to you having to write a whole new draft.
Another key point in how to start a personal statement is to write a good “hook.” However, this doesn’t need to be the first thing that you write as you begin the drafting process. Just like writing a title sometimes is easier after you have written a paper, it can be easier to find your hook after you have fleshed out other parts of your essay.
Regardless of what approach you take, remember that the most important piece of advice for how to start a personal statement is to start early. If you begin the process early, you’ll have time to learn about personal statement format and personal statement meaning, brainstorm essay ideas, watch personal statement webinars, and review sample essays. All of these steps will help you learn how to write a personal statement that is strong and clear.
Below, we’ll help you learn more about how to start a personal statement by providing brainstorming exercises to come up with personal statement ideas.
Generating personal statement ideas
The first question many students ask when learning how to start a personal statement is how to come up with personal statement ideas. As we have mentioned, brainstorming forms a key part of this process.
Importantly, there are many ways to brainstorm. So, even if you think you do not like to brainstorm, consider revising these brainstorming methods. One of them might open up ideas for how to start your personal statement that you had never considered.
One important note is that you do not have to use college essay prompts as the starting point for your brainstorming process. While they can certainly jog your thinking, sometimes they can also limit your creativity. Since most of the Common App and Coalition App prompts are open-ended, you can usually turn most ideas into a great response to college essay prompts.
Keep reading for activities that can help you brainstorm your personal statement for college.
Here are some ideas for brainstorming personal statement topics:
1. make a timeline of important life events.
Students who ask “what is a personal statement?” are often concerned that they have to tell their entire life story in 650 words. While this is not true, your personal statement should highlight key life events. A life event can include a big change, an accomplishment, or a time of deep personal growth.
For this activity, consider making a timeline of important life events. Do so without judgment or filtering. No event is too small to include. After you have completed your timeline, consider if any event is one that you want to share in your college application essay. One of these events might be a great hook for your personal statement introduction and give you ideas for how to start a personal statement.
2. Make lists
Lists are an excellent way to brainstorm personal statement topics. Try making lists of accomplishments, challenges you have faced, people who have taught you important life lessons, values, fears, hobbies, or mistakes you have made. Remember that it is perfectly fine to talk about times when you feel you failed or made mistakes if you can show how you learned and grew from the experience.
3. Ask trusted people for ideas
Brainstorming does not have to happen alone. Ask friends, family, mentors, teachers, classmates, or others who know you well to tell you what your most important character traits are. You’d be surprised what people will share. Perhaps one of your friends sees you as adventurous because you like to take new routes to school every day, and you had never considered that to be a noteworthy trait of yours. This feedback could be the inspiration you need for how to start a personal statement.
Rather than trying to find an idea, allow yourself the freedom to free-write. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping. Write a response to any of the following questions :
- What matters to you?
- What do you want others to know about you?
- What is the hardest thing you have ever gone through? How did you get through it?
- What brings you joy?
- How have you grown or changed in the past few years?
If you feel at a loss for words, write “I don’t know” over and over until a new idea pops into your head. The idea is to allow your brain to flow without restriction or pressure. Do not judge what you write, just allow it to be. When you have completed your free-write, look through what you wrote looking for meaningful stories or learnings you might want to share.
Undoubtedly, these are just a few ideas for how to start a personal statement and find a good personal statement introduction. If none of these work, do not despair. Instead, try a different route for coming up with personal statement topics. For instance, you may try reading an example of a personal statement for college or checking out this personal statement webinar.
In the next section, we’ll discuss how to use sample essays when figuring out how to write a personal statement.
Using personal statement examples
When looking for answers to questions like “What is a personal statement?” or “How to start a personal statement?” college application essay examples can be very helpful. In this section, we’ll look at how to write a personal statement for college and identify college essay tips with the help of sample essays .
Sample Personal Essays
In this article , we review ten essays that provide ideas for how to start a personal statement. Whether writing about books or gymnastics, each example of a personal statement for college highlights a unique important aspect of a student’s life. In addition, each student provides meaningful insights into how their thinking developed over time.
How to Write a Personal Statement: 5 Personal Statement Examples
Check out this resource to see five excellent responses to the Common App college essay prompts. Note how each essay has a unique hook that captures the reader’s attention.
College Essay Examples: 10 Best Examples of College Essays and Why They Worked
Wondering how a personal statement format impacts the essay’s meaning? This essay compilation answers that question and much more, providing college essay tips based on what worked in these personal essays.
How to Analyze an Example of a Personal Statement for College
If you’re looking for ideas on how to start a personal statement, then reading sample essays is an excellent idea. However, be careful not to copy others’ work. In this section, we’ll discuss how to use these samples when you develop your own personal statement meaning and personal statement format.
First, be authentic. While it is important to find inspiration in others’ work, copying topics or phrases is dangerous. At best, it will come across as disingenuous to admissions officers, who read thousands of essays. At worst, it can get you into serious trouble.
Instead, use these samples to learn about how to write a personal statement. As you read them, ask yourself questions such as:
- Why did the writer choose this topic?
- How does the first sentence of the essay engage the reader?
- What structure does the personal statement use?
- How does this personal statement format add to the essay’s intrigue?
- What does this essay teach us about the writer?
- In what ways might this essay be an expression of the writer’s personal brand ?
Take notes as you read each example of a personal statement for college. In your notes, identify general thoughts regarding the questions “What is a personal statement?” and “How to start a college essay?” If you can answer these questions fully after reading sample essays, you’re on your way to acing your college essay.
How to Start a Personal Statement: Final Thoughts
With this article, we answered the question: “What is a personal statement?” By breaking the personal statement meaning, we found tips for approaching many kinds of college essay prompts. We also identified why personal statement meaning is important to colleges and how to write a great college essay that will help your application shine.
Even skilled writers struggle with how to write a personal statement. Personal essays are difficult not only because they require a certain level of vulnerability , but also because the personal statement format is not something we use often in our day-to-day lives. For that reason, it is difficult to know how to start a college essay.
Throughout this guide, we provided resources like personal statement webinars and sample essays. We also highlighted how to use an example of a personal statement for college in your own process. Within these samples, you’ll find lots of ideas for how to start a personal statement.
Whenever you feel overwhelmed by thinking about how to start a personal statement, remember that you are not alone. Our team can provide you with additional insights and individualized coaching about how to write a personal statement for college. With support, you will be able to express who you are and ace your personal statement. Good luck!
This article was written by Sarah Kaminski and senior advisor, Courtney Ng . Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.
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Writing the Personal Statement
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This handout provides information about writing personal statements for academic and other positions.
The personal statement, your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process, generally falls into one of two categories:
1. The general, comprehensive personal statement:
This allows you maximum freedom in terms of what you write and is the type of statement often prepared for standard medical or law school application forms.
2. The response to very specific questions:
Often, business and graduate school applications ask specific questions, and your statement should respond specifically to the question being asked. Some business school applications favor multiple essays, typically asking for responses to three or more questions.
Questions to ask yourself before you write:
- What's special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?
- What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
- When did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
- How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
- If you have worked a lot during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed to your growth?
- What are your career goals?
- Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
- Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
- What personal characteristics (for example, integrity, compassion, and/or persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
- What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
- Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school—and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?
- What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?
Answer the questions that are asked
- If you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar.
- Don't be tempted to use the same statement for all applications. It is important to answer each question being asked, and if slightly different answers are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.
Tell a story
- Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. One of the worst things you can do is to bore the admissions committee. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you'll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.
- Don't, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer, or whatever should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.
Find an angle
- If you're like most people, your life story lacks drama, so figuring out a way to make it interesting becomes the big challenge. Finding an angle or a "hook" is vital.
Concentrate on your opening paragraph
- The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader's attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.
Tell what you know
- The middle section of your essay might detail your interest and experience in your particular field, as well as some of your knowledge of the field. Too many people graduate with little or no knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the profession or field they hope to enter. Be as specific as you can in relating what you know about the field and use the language professionals use in conveying this information. Refer to experiences (work, research, etc.), classes, conversations with people in the field, books you've read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of specific information about the career you want and why you're suited to it. Since you will have to select what you include in your statement, the choices you make are often an indication of your judgment.
Don't include some subjects
- There are certain things best left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally not a good idea. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (for example, controversial religious or political issues).
Do some research, if needed
- If a school wants to know why you're applying to it rather than another school, do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.
Write well and correctly
- Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good written skills and command of correct use of language are important to them as they read these statements. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.
- A medical school applicant who writes that he is good at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away from often-repeated or tired statements.
For more information on writing a personal statement, see the personal statement vidcast .
First-year essay prompts
Common App has announced the 2023-2024 essay prompts.
Below is the complete set of common app essay prompts for 2023-2024..
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
We will also retain the optional community disruption question within the Writing section.
Looking for tips on how to approach the essay? Check out our blog !
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Common App Essay Examples + Writing Guide 2023
November 13, 2023
If there’s a surefire way to strike fear into the heart of a college-bound high school senior, it’s the prospect of writing a college personal statement. We can understand why: this is a high-stakes piece of writing that adds much-needed dimension and personality to your application’s quantitative elements, providing important insight into what type of student and community member you will be on campus. Compounding these factors is the decision of what to write about, and then, after you decide, figuring out how to express it all in under 650 words. No pressure, right? Understand that your nerves are normal, but don’t let them induce midlife crisis levels of panic–you can do this! Wondering how to write a personal statement for college? In today’s blog, we cover ten important tips. In addition, we also analyze several Common App essay examples and offer insight into what they can teach us.
College Personal Statement Tip #1: Remember your essay’s purpose.
To write the most effective piece of writing in any discipline, it’s important to understand the context in which that piece of writing is being evaluated and for what purpose. Your personal statement for college is a single subjective element of your application that helps tell the story of you, alongside other quantitative and qualitative information such as grades, test scores, teacher recommendations , and your extracurricular profile . It’s certainly true that essays can be a weighty element depending on the school you’re applying to and where you fall in relation to the rest of the applicant pool. However, since essays are often the final application piece that can be controlled, it’s common to overinflate their importance.
If your essay does its job, readers will obtain a clear sense of who you are and what you value. They’ll also have a better understanding of how you might contribute to their academic institution’s learning and social communities. Additionally, admissions officers should be able to sum up your essay’s main message in about one sentence.
College Personal Statement Tip #2: Be authentic.
You might be tired of hearing this one, but it’s the most salient piece of advice we can offer. Often, students attempt to manufacture certain application narratives, which typically wind up sounding forced or over-engineered. If you do make genuine connections between certain experiences, great! Perhaps your lifelong love of camping really did contribute to your engineering aspirations. However, if that connection doesn’t exist, don’t invent it. If you’re writing about what truly matters most to you–an experience, a passion, an idea, an important moment of growth or conflict–the different aspects of your application will naturally come together. We promise.
College Personal Statement Tip #3: Be humble and self-aware.
A self-important tone will sink an essay faster than holes in a canoe, no matter how impressive you are. The personal statement is not an opportunity to hit people over the head with accomplishments that appear elsewhere. Instead, it’s to reveal the voice of the person behind the application–what you value and think is important. Your essays are the closest admissions officers can get to having you in the room with them. Consequently, use that power wisely and let your grades, extracurricular profile, and teacher recommendations do the heavy lifting.
College Personal Statement Tip #4: Write well and with clarity.
Good writing is good writing, period. An excellent personal statement in 2023 would also have been an excellent personal statement in 2013. The criteria haven’t changed: colleges that use holistic admissions still rely on essays to obtain a sense of an applicant’s unique voice and hear their story in their own words.
However, packing your essay with figurative devices, subtle or abstract references, and complex syntax is not in your best interest. Your reader will not be sitting with your essay for 15-20 minutes appreciating its style. Instead, they’ll be reading it once–perhaps twice. They’ll synthesize its message and then move on. As such, your essay’s overall message–and its clarity–is paramount. When you do make sentence-level revisions, focus on those that will enhance your essay’s narrative or present your ideas even more clearly rather than worrying about using overly flowery language or uncommon vocabulary.
College Personal Statement Tip #5: Structure your essay in the way that makes the most sense for your story.
Too often, we see students attempting to make their essays stand out by adopting a “unique” structure or approach. However, to be quite frank, your chance of presenting admissions officers with something that they’ve never seen before has approximately the same probability as seeing a velociraptor in your backyard. Remember, they read thousands of applications per year. Their objective is not to be surprised but to get to know you . Style and presentation shouldn’t get in the way of substance.
College Personal Statement Tip #6: Trust your intuition .
When it comes to choosing topics, the way you write about any given topic often outweighs the topic itself. ( See exceptions here . ) As such, the topic that is often the most successful is the one that you feel most excited or inspired to write. In addition, many writing teachers and scholars agree that the most effective revision takes place when writers are interested and invested in their topics. Essentially, make sure you like what you’re writing about!
College Personal Statement Tip #7: Choose a topic you feel comfortable writing about.
Writing about trauma or deeply personal challenges is not a prerequisite for your application. Every student is so incredibly multidimensional with myriad stories to tell about themselves (yes, it’s true!). As such, you shouldn’t feel pressured to reveal details or experiences that you aren’t ready to write about or share. If you do elect to write about a traumatic experience or difficult circumstance, we’d advise engaging in a quick self-check. How much are you attaching yourself to this essay? In other words, if your application is not accepted to College X, will you be okay with that? If that question immediately induces self-doubt and negativity, you likely want to choose something else to write about.
College Personal Statement Tip #8: Solicit feedback.
Most professional writers ask a trusted peer, mentor, or colleague to read their work at least once before finalizing it. It can be difficult to be objective, so receiving quality feedback from an outside reader can make an important difference .
However, this tip has one important caveat: be choosy about whom you solicit feedback from. The person you ask should be familiar with the college essay genre and understand what is expected. Otherwise, it would be like asking someone who doesn’t play baseball to give you advice on your swing.
If you do ask a friend, family member, or teacher for feedback who is not familiar with college essay conventions, a great question to ask is “Does this essay sound like me?” In addition, the feedback you receive should, ideally, be very specific with well-explained reasoning. This allows you to decide if and how to use it.
College Personal Statement Tip #9: Use spell check.
An error or two won’t hurt you–we promise. We’re all humans and miss a comma here and there. However, if your essay is littered with typos that could have been remediated by running a Grammarly scan , a reader may assume you’re not serious about the application or lack attention to detail.
College Personal Statement Tip #10: Read Common App essay examples (with perspective).
How can we write a good poem without ever reading a piece of poetry? Or craft a short story without first immersing ourselves in the classics? Or develop a college personal statement without reading good examples? Well–that last one isn’t exactly rhetorical.
We’ve noticed that providing Common App essay examples is more complicated than providing examples for other types of writing. This is because college essays are often associated with a particular desired outcome. As such, students are prone to arrive at unhelpful and/or inaccurate conclusions after reading. For example: “If so-and-so got into Harvard by theming all their essays about chicken soup, then I should do the same!” or “This person used an extended metaphor, so that must be the way to do it!” What happens even more frequently is that students compare their writing styles and life experiences to others. They’ll then (falsely) conclude that they’re not good enough or interesting enough to be accepted to College X. This can result in confidence issues and unnecessary panic.
It’s also important to note that reading a college personal statement by itself is akin to watching a fish out of water. To truly understand its context, it should be read within the framework of the application. That said, to better understand the basics of the genre, it can be helpful to read a variety of Common App essay examples, observing their general structure and what they reveal about their writers. Below, we’ve included several personal statement examples along with a short breakdown of what writers can learn from each piece.
Common App Essay Examples: Essay #1
On a hot day last summer, my brother ran his bike into the mailbox. He skinned his knee, but was less worried about that and more worried about the chipped paint on his new bike. Tears welling in his eyes, he rubbed it with his finger and even more paint flaked off.
“Wait,” I said. “Wait here for just one minute.”
I had taken my brother outside because my mom was sleeping after a chemo treatment, but I ran upstairs as quickly and quietly as I could to get my box of paints. It’s a wooden box, smudged with charcoal fingerprints and streaks of acrylics. I hadn’t always been an artist, but when my art teacher noticed the designs in my notebook margins and asked if I wanted to come to an art club meeting, I decided to try it.
At that first meeting, my teacher taught us how to create a mountain sunrise. As the painting took shape, I marveled at the techniques–using my thumbprint to create the sun, crafting shadows with surprising colors, creating different effects by applying varying types of pressure to my brush. I was also surprised that focusing on my piece felt so meditative–it was the first time since my mom’s diagnosis that I hadn’t been preoccupied with whether her treatments would work or what I was going to cook my brother for dinner.
Common App Essay Examples (Continued)
“What do you want on your bike?” I asked my brother. “Instead of the scratch.” I opened up my box and pointed toward his bike. His eyes widened.
“Anything I want?” he asked.
He chose a baseball bat, and crouched next to me as I painted. When I was done, he said, “Can you paint a baseball, too? Over here.” He pointed to the other end of the bike.
“I’ll show you how.” I dipped his thumb in white and pressed it on the bike’s frame, then showed him how to use my thinnest brush to add curved red stitching.
Word spread quickly about my bike designs. My brother’s friends stopped by the house with pictures of designs that they wanted, and my neighbor’s little girls shyly approached when I was outside with my brother, asking for butterflies. I started carrying my paints around just in case. The kids always gave me something–a shiny rock they’d found, a few quarters, a special feather. It makes me smile when I look out the window and see those bikes pedaling around the neighborhood, my brother’s among them. It makes my mom smile, too. I asked what she would want painted on her bike if she had one, and she said a sunflower. I painted one on our mailbox, cheery and yellow, its stem curling around the handle and down the post.
There are always new techniques to learn and improvements to strive toward, but I feel that art is about trying to create meaning within a chosen medium. There’s so much I can’t control, but what I can do is create beauty in my life and in the lives of others. It’s why I started teaching an afterschool art class at my brother’s elementary school, why I’m currently working on a wall mural in the children’s room at the library, why I’ve taught myself graphic design skills to create posters for art club events and shows. Also, my mailbox paint creations gained so much popularity that my entire street commissioned me to do their boxes. I donated the money to cancer research, but more importantly, the designs are a beacon of support to my mom each day that she feels strong enough to walk outside and check the mail.
Although college will bring new challenges, I also know it will bring a new collection of scratched-up bikes and bare mailboxes, waiting to be painted with brightly colored designs that allow me to express myself and impact others.
What we can learn from this personal statement example:
Many students have hobbies or passions that are a defining part of their lives. This writer’s involvement in the arts, while observable in other aspects of her application (such as her extracurricular profile and advanced art classes) is given context and dimension here. Upon reading other parts of the application, the reader might wonder, Why art? What sparked this interest? Why is it so important to her? As such, the writer used a highly personal experience that she felt best illustrated art’s influence on her life.
In addition, the writer alludes to her family circumstances and responsibilities without going too in-depth. This is an excellent choice for students who may not feel comfortable sharing anything other than a basic level of information.
Finally, this student reflects throughout her essay, tying everything together at the end with just one sentence. It’s a good reminder that just a few well-placed moments of insight can go a long way.
Common App Essay Examples: Essay #2
By some people’s standards, my grandma might be considered a hoarder. When I say there is stuff everywhere at our house, I mean it: broken crystal glasses from a hundred years ago, old watch straps, a shockingly large collection of thumbtacks. Three coffee makers that haven’t worked since before I was born. A broom no one uses because it doesn’t actually sweep anything up.
Whenever I make a motion to throw something out–an empty spice jar for example, or socks with holes in them, my grandma acts personally insulted. (She has also been known to survey the trash can for offending items.) She’ll take it from me grouchily and remind me of its potential uses–spice jars can be cinnamon-and-sugar shakers! Socks are free dusters! Sometimes, though, she doesn’t have a reason beyond “I might need it someday.”
At first, I thought this statement was weird. What could we possibly need a cracked Tupperware container for? But then I learned that her attitude stems, in part, from growing up on a rural farm. Everything was repurposed, and it was common to keep things that may not have direct uses, knowing you’d likely find one at some point or another. For example, a large plastic container with a broken lid could be turned on its side and stuffed with hay for the cat in the winter, or plastic bread bags could be used to pack school lunches. Dried-up markers? Homemade watercolor paint. Egg cartons and dryer lint? Fire starters. Chipped bowl? Bird bath.
Her attitude made me interested in our collective willingness to sentence an item to the trash before finding a reuse for it. We buy cheap clothes knowing they might only last us a year. Single-use plastic still dominates, even though the vast majority of it heads to the landfill instead of being recycled. Old jeans are tossed instead of patched up and used as gardening pants, like my grandma does. The worst part is that we do all this knowing that our planet is undergoing irreversible shifts as a result of climate change. The world we’re heading toward is a world none of us can possibly be prepared for.
But what if people could be convinced to adopt my grandma’s mindset? And what would it take to inspire such behavioral changes on a large scale? I started learning about the field of neuroeconomics through books, podcasts, and a summer course at our local college, and became fascinated with the neuroscience behind decision-making. Could principles of neuroeconomics influence environmental policy? What factors could help people make long-lasting, environmentally conscious changes, and how we might facilitate them? These are massive, long-term questions. For now, was there a way to inspire my friends to start being more mindful of their consumption? To start reusing spaghetti jars and dusting with hole-y socks? And what might people be willing to donate or repurpose when there was a community effort to do so?
So, me and my grandma started advertising our services, and the response was unlike anything I could have possibly imagined. We now have a garage full of items that we either donate, sell, or repair, everything from antique dresses that my grandma soaks the stains out of to custom-patched jeans to dressers and wooden toys that need a quick sanding and fresh coat of paint. Our yard sales have become legendary and I’m the go-to kid when people have an old end table with Buzz Lightyear on it that they don’t know what to do with. “Drop it off at my grandma’s,” I say, and they do. Until I can figure out how to effect the kind of large-scale change I’d like to make, I’ll start small and keep going, hopeful that I’m making a difference one revitalized sock at a time.
If you’re naturally humorous, feel free to incorporate it into your college essay! That said, if you do write a humorous piece, avoid waiting until the last paragraph to be funny or sarcastic. Otherwise, your one joke may not be received the way you intend.
It was important to this author to demonstrate his intellectual curiosity, which he accomplished in several ways. For starters, he asked open-ended, interesting questions. Secondly, he provides examples of the formal and informal ways in which he has engaged with neuroeconomics. Finally, he attempts to create a solution to at least one of his questions. This move gives the reader an opportunity to see how his mind works, how he processes information, and in what way he might choose to use that information moving forward. Finally, he’s careful not to make future claims that are too grandiose in nature. For example: “I will single-handedly save the planet by repurposing furniture!”
Moreover, his use of vivid details and examples supports the narrative instead of acting as filler. Notice that he only provides examples of repurposable items (which are the focal point of his story). He didn’t worry about also describing what the outside of his house looks like or his grandmother’s physical attributes. When incorporating descriptive elements, it’s important to make sure that they’re serving a purpose and pulling their weight.
Common App Essay Examples: Essay #3
My life has always been punctuated by my father’s military deployments, like periods placed in the middle of sentences. I often measured time in relation to them: before, during, or after , holding my breath for my father’s departure or homecoming, for the inevitable extensions and sporadic phone calls, for the unexpected emotions and responsibilities. By the time I was in high school, my father had been gone for more of my childhood than he had been present, and in tenth grade, my parents decided to divorce.
Until then, I had always been surrounded by friends who also had an active duty parent. We didn’t have to explain to each other what the ups and downs felt like. We just knew. I knew that when Mariela’s father’s deployment got extended, she could use a trip to the beach, her favorite place, knew that one of the most painful parts of the whole deployment cycle was the anticipation, and would check in with my friends more frequently during that time, knew that the first week often felt the most discombobulated, and was usually when my mom would offer to drop off meals or help ferry kids to after-school activities. That first week was also the time when things usually went wrong: a burst pipe, a dead car battery, a broken washing machine. Murphy’s Law , my mom always said.
I had spent my entire life existing within this predictably unpredictable cycle. So, when my mom and I moved right before my junior year to a small condo ten minutes from my grandparents but 2,000 miles away from my father’s last duty station, I assumed it wouldn’t be that much different from other moves. I’d join new clubs, make new friends, get to know our neighbors.
But I was immediately confronted by a sense of otherness in a community of kids who had known each other since kindergarten. Explaining where I’d lived before–and why–either solicited shocked reactions “You’ve moved six times?” or prying questions “Why didn’t you stay with your dad?” Mentioning a deployment received a blank stare. It felt like the previous version of me, the way I’d always thought of myself–as a military kid–was no longer true, or had somehow evaporated into thin air.
Then, last spring, I had an unexpected breakthrough. My chemistry lab partner struggled with some of the steps. As I explained them to her, she visibly relaxed and shot me a thankful smile. I grinned too, because in that moment, I felt more like myself than I had in months.
Later that week, I applied for a peer tutoring position and was accepted. I feel passionate about trying to make personal connections with my students so that I can try to understand and anticipate their needs. I notice whether some students like to brainstorm ideas aloud before writing them down, or prefer when I use pictures to explain concepts. Some students appreciate small talk for a few minutes before we get started, and others need to be more efficient, trying to squeeze in a tutoring session before their after-school job. Not only that, but as I got to know my fellow tutors, I found friendship and connection. When Sophia’s brother was in the hospital, I picked her up for an afternoon movie. On the night of my piano recital, Olivia and Mary were in the front row cheering me on.
I’ve come to understand that my previous identity is still part of me, even though I now live a very different lifestyle than I did several years ago. Sometimes, I still miss being a military kid. But all the lessons I learned from that time in my life–the importance of a supportive community, empathy, kindness, and anticipating others’ needs–are always with me, informing everything I do.
This essay deals with several significant personal challenges, including military deployments, divorce, and a cross-country move. Notice that the writer contains these challenges in the first half of the essay and only includes need-to-know details. For example, we don’t need to know why her parents got divorced, or every detail of her father’s deployments. She sticks to the facts.
In addition, there should always be a purpose to sharing a challenge, which needs to be revealed in the second half of the essay. As we often can’t control our circumstances, readers are most interested in how you handled the adversity you experienced or how it has impacted your perspective.
In essays about challenges, it’s also essential to strike a mature and positive tone, which this writer certainly demonstrates. However, positive doesn’t have to mean that you have to slap a shiny bow on an unresolved issue or arrive at a forced conclusion. Positive simply means that there is some type of upward trajectory, some type of forward momentum or thinking. At the end of the essay, one has the overall sense that, even though this writer sometimes struggles with her new lifestyle, she’s ready to take on new challenges. It’s also clear that she values and prioritizes being part of a community.
Finally, this writer chose to use several figurative devices in her essay, including similes and anaphora. However, she uses them sparingly. As such, they demonstrate her writing style without overshadowing or detracting from content.
Final Thoughts – Common App Essay Examples
The college personal statement is an important part of the application that can reveal more about who you are and what you’ll bring to a college campus. Studying the genre is an essential part of being well-prepared to do your best writing, an exercise that includes understanding the essay’s purpose as well as how it will be evaluated. In addition, reading Common App essay examples can be an insightful addition to your writing process. Relax, be yourself, and know that admissions officers are eager to get to know you –the real, multidimensional, interesting person–behind the application.
Looking for more essay writing advice? Check out the following blogs:
- How to Write the Community Essay – Guide with Examples
- How to Write the Why This Major Essay + Example
- How to Write the Overcoming Challenges Essay + Example
- Why This College Essay – 7 Tips for Success
- How to Start a College Essay – 12 Techniques and Tips
- How to End a College Essay – With Examples
- College Essay
Kelsea holds a BA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Tufts University, a graduate certificate in College Counseling from UCLA, and an MA in Teaching Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Chautauqua .
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3 Tips For Writing A Grad School Essay
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3 Tips For Writing A Grad School Essay was originally published on College Recruiter .
Portrait of a serious young student writing an essay in a library. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Applying to graduate school can be a stressful process, and one reason is that it can get personal. Once you’ve completed your undergraduate education, your transcript isn’t going to change—from a numbers perspective, you’ve done your job. But when applying to grad schools, you’re faced with the tricky task of framing that job while presenting yourself and demonstrating your accomplishments in the most appealing way possible.
In this process, one of the biggest chances applicants have to express themselves is in personal statements and essays. They vary in nature depending on the program one is applying for, but they’re almost always present in some capacity. Here are a few tips on how to best represent yourself in these essays.
Simplify The Introduction
We all want to start our application essays with a bang. There’s a temptation to impress right off the bat. However, there’s a lot of advice from experienced people and publications telling you to do just the opposite by keeping the intro concise and to the point. You can always go back and add a little expression to it later, if you have the space. However, as Delece Smith-Barrow of U.S. News pointed out in a 2013 article about business school essays, a concise intro makes you less likely to ramble. As a result, you’re more likely to answer the prompt! This is advice well worth considering as you’re starting out.
Hopefully these tips help you in creating the best possible essay for your grad school application. Good luck!
Know How To Address Weaknesses
Often applicants will be asked to address failures or weaknesses, and this is never easy. Most of us want to be honest and humble without revealing any actual weaknesses! But in tackling this topic for grad school applicants, Menlo Coaching’s Alice van Harten makes a strong argument for delving into a genuine challenge or failure. She argues here that if you skirt around the topic or spin a failure into being something you did well, you’re less likely to engage the reader. Instead, when faced with a prompt like this, it’s best to make an effort to express a true setback you’ve faced in life. This answers the prompt honestly and gives you a valuable opportunity to show how you learned and grew from a negative experience.
Use Facts, Not Language
This is a crucial concept to keep in mind as you present yourself in the context of your ambitions and professional interests. USA Today’s Billie Streufert uses the example of an applicant with an interest in law who merely articulates that interest, as opposed to demonstrating work toward that interest (such as previous work at a law firm or in student government). Of course, you can’t use experiences you don’t actually have and you want to be careful not to simply repeat bullet points from a résumé. However, in elaborating on your own interests, you can demonstrate passion and drive more effectively through experiences than through pretty language about how deep your interest is.
This is a guest post by freelance writer Patti Conner. She holds an MBA from the Haas School of Business and lives in Seattle, Wash. with her husband. When she’s not writing her latest article, she can be found at her local library and kayaking through the Puget Sound.