Writing your college essay

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Writing your college essay

So you're ready to start filling out your college applications. Easy stuff first name, address, extracurricular activities. Kind of fun, right? Then you flip the page and see an entire blank piece of paper with a couple of lines typed at the top, titled "personal statement" or something equally vague. What are you supposed to write?

The other stuff in the application process was easy, cut and dried. They tell you in college admission books what the minimum SAT scores and GPAs are, so you at least have an idea of what they're looking for. But the personal statement, no one ever tells you how to crack that code. Until now.

We sat down with Alfred University's Admissions Director Kitty McCarthy to get the straight scoop on what she wants to see in your personal statement. "I would characterize the essay as being secondary to some of the academic information, but still very important," she says. "It's a good way for us to get to know potential students, especially those who don't visit the campus."


Stand out

She explains personal statements often play an important role if a student falls into what she refers to as a "grey area." If an applicant is on the border with respect to grades, activities or test scores, a strong essay can really work in his or her favor. McCarthy says not to panic if you've never excelled in English and don't aspire to being the next John Grisham or Sylvia Plath. Today's college application essays leave a lot of room for creative interpretation.

This year Alfred gave applicants the option to create their own web page and send the admissions staff the URL, or to use a single sheet of paper to express themselves. In fact, she says sometimes she gets so caught up in the stories applicants tell in their essays that she doesn't even realize they've made typos or spelled words wrong. This isn't a license to ignore basic writing rules, however, and McCarthy strongly recommends having someone else-a parent, friend, or teacher-read your essay for just these types of mistakes. If what you've written is private and you'd prefer not to show it to anyone, at least put it away for a couple of hours and then go back over it slowly to check for mistakes. One old trick is to try reading it backwards, one word at a time to eliminate careless errors such as omitting or duplicating words.


Don't be careless

Carelessness is the one thing McCarthy says is a red flag for the admissions staff. "Sometimes it's clear the student didn't spend much time on the essay, and we perceive this as a lack of interest on his or her part," she explains. She characterizes carelessness as repeated errors in spelling, grammar, and syntax. Some common mistakes McCarthy sees include reiterating information that can be found elsewhere on the application, and not answering the question presented.

The personal statement is a great opportunity to be creative, but McCarthy recommends double-checking with your prospective school if you're considering doing something really unusual. She says often students want to submit writing samples, such as poetry or papers they've previously written for an English class. This is fine, and they can enhance your application, but McCarthy says they work better in addition to the personal statement, rather than instead of.


Demonstrate good skills

As far as length goes, McCarthy says Alfred does not give guidelines on its application form. Some schools do, and she says it's a pretty good idea to stick to them-if nothing else, it shows that you can follow directions. If you're left without word length specifics, she suggests you let the topic dictate the length. Sound ambiguous? She says a page and half is usually the minimum space required for students to express themselves, and others take longer which is okay, too.

McCarthy says there used to be a perception that writing samples were more important for students in certain areas of study than others. For example, engineering and business were fields in which students wouldn't have to write well. This concept is as outdated as last year's prom dress. It's important that all potential students demonstrate basic writing skills, she says.


Think over your ideas

A good rule of thumb is to read the question or premise of the personal statement, then walk away, says McCarthy. Thinking about it for a few hours, or even having it hang around in the back of your mind, can give you a different perspective. "I tell students they'll be surprised at what will come to them if they don't just try to start writing right away," she says. McCarthy's final words of advice are have fun with your personal statement. "Many students see it as a hurdle," she says, "but I tell them to approach it like they're having a personal conversation with a friend, it's an opportunity for them to go beyond their transcript."

She adds it's her favorite part of an application review. "We have fun with it and we hope students do too." Oh yeah, and don't leave the personal statement until the last possible minute.


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