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Helpful tips about college admissions, test preparation and just being a better student, leader and person from ILUMIN Education.

5 Tips For Writing Your College Personal Statement Essay

Elton Lin

Are you getting overwhelmed with even the idea of writing your college essay? I understand, because when I was in your shoes, I was too. I remember sitting in my senior year AP Lit class one day, and feeling like I just walked out of a rabbit hole with no idea what just happened the last 45 minutes. And Lit was my favorite class! All I could think about was the fact that it was October, and still had nothing to submit for any of my early action schools. Sure, I had gotten advice from my guidance counselor, older friends who were already in college, my genius of a cousin who got into Hahvad and Yale, and even my immigrant parents who didn’t know the first thing about writing a college essay. I borrowed books, scoured the Internet and got my hands on whatever I could. But in the end, I still felt overwhelmed with all of the different information and advice that I was getting, I became paralyzed out of fear that my essay wouldn’t be good enough (spoiler: it ended up great).

Here are my top 5 college essay writing tips you should keep in mind before starting your college essay. So, put down that book full of essays and read this instead!

Tip #1- Be Honest and Remember Why It’s Called a “Personal” Statement

Fear makes people do funny things. Students often get so paranoid about writing the “right” things in a college essay, that they end up writing very average and uninteresting essays. I once worked with a student who had a perfect GPA, near perfect test scores, was the Editor-In-Chief of their high school newspaper, and wanted to be a journalism major, but when it came to their college essay, their first draft read like a resume (one of the most common mistakes that students make when writing their college essays). Don’t be tempted to write what you think an admissions officer wants to read – it’ll be both boring and disingenuous.

My advice? Start with your laptop, get comfortable, and just let the words flow. Pretend it’s your own private blog that no one else gets to read. Back in my day, it used to be called a “diary.” I used to keep one and write down inane things like how my Lucky Charms that morning turned my milk into a delicious cereal smoothie that I wanted to bottle and sell to the kids at school or how I couldn’t decide between wearing a pink polka dot scrunchie or the one with neon green zigzags. Thoroughly exciting details from my 80’s childhood. But, every so often, I would write down things about my dreams, my struggles and my life that surprised me. And that’s when it got interesting. Because I didn’t take writing in a diary seriously, I didn’t feel the pressure. And when you don’t feel the pressure, it becomes real and something worth sharing.

Tip #2- Show One or Two Important Stories, Instead of Telling Twenty Three Different Things in Your Essay

Show, don’t tell.

I can’t stress this point enough to my students: describing yourself or your life through one or two descriptive stories does more for your essay than a whole bunch of statements ever could.

Case in point: If you’re writing your college essay about your love for Nutella, don’t start off by describing the origin of Nutella, all the reasons you love Nutella and why it’s your “cannot-live-without-it” food. Instead, tell a story about the first time you ate Nutella, that delicious, sweet, creamy, hazelnut chocolatey goodness. Straight out of the jar, from your spoon to your mouth. See how much better that sounds? How that feels? Show, don’t tell.

Tip #3- Start Your College Essay Early, Like, Summer Early

You can’t rush perfection. You can’t even rush above average. If you’re reading this in your junior year, it’s a little early to start writing, but not early enough to start thinking about your college essay. If you’re reading this in your senior year, and it’s not yet September, then you’re golden. If you’re a senior, and it’s past September, start NOW.

Don’t try to write a masterpiece on your first try. If you’re a perfectionist like me, that’s hard to swallow. But the more time you have to work with, the better your essay will be. It’s not about the quantity of drafts, but the quality of the drafts. Word length, topic, structure—throw all of that out the window the first couple times. You’ll get to it later. When you give yourself time to let your essay rest, you give yourself the opportunity to churn milk into butter.

Tip #4- Start Strong and Take Some Risks

Don’t be afraid to sound a little crazy in your first line. Just as you eat with your eyes first, the first few sentences of your college essay are what grabs the reader, and can help turn a common essay into an uncommon one.

This is one of my favorite college essay articles, because most of these one-liners are just so cool and fun to read. Of course, you’ll need to back up a great one-liner with stories later in your essay in order for it to make sense and lend itself with maximum credibility.

Some risk can pay off, but not so much that you run the risk of turning off an admissions reader (for more on how to help figure out if something is too risky, read on to the next tip). 

Tip #5- Get Feedback From Someone You Trust, But Not From More Than Two People

The worst thing that can happen to your college essay is that it becomes someone else’s essay, not yours. Remember that the best way to preserve your own voice is to really believe in your written product. Because if you start asking too many people for feedback, your head spins and suddenly, everything you once thought was right, now just sounds wrong. Limit the amount of people who read your essay to two at most three people.

So who do you ask? Whether it’s your older sister, best friend, English teacher or college counselor, pick people that you trust and aren’t afraid to give constructive criticism. Don’t take feedback personally, because something that sounded like an epiphany to you at 2 am the night before, may not have translated well on paper to your reader.

I get it, writing well is hard. Especially when so much is at stake. But it doesn’t mean that you should fear it, because we all know that saying, starting is the hardest part. But, starting is often the best part because it only gets easier from here! So, what are you waiting for?!­