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ILUMIN Blog

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

Filtering by Category: College Essay

9 Tips for Writing Effective College Essays

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As students come back from summer break, the topic on the minds of many seniors is the college application. As in years past, the vast majority of colleges that utilize the Common Application (and Coalition Application) require that students write a personal essay. How do you write 500-650 words about yourself? Here are some of our suggestions:

  1. Start Now — While college deadlines may seem far off—after all, January 1st is over four months away—the fall of senior year is often one of the busiest times of a high school student’s life, and you’ll be glad that you started your college application essays early. With tests, homework, standardized tests, sports, leadership activities, and not to mention a social life to manage, many seniors are overwhelmed when they add college applications on top of their towering to-do piles.  And don’t forget that some early application deadlines (like Georgia Tech’s Early Action deadline) come as early as October 15th.

  2. Show, Don’t Tell — Because you only have a limited amount of space, it’s tempting to summarize your main points or to list achievements or activities for the Common App or Coalition App essays. But anecdotes and details will help your point come across far more effectively than just stating facts or conclusions. Think about how to tell a story to illustrate your point. For example, if you want to demonstrate that you are an innovative thinker, it’s probably better to share the story of that time you helped your robotics team come up with a different way of approaching your project rather than to list all of your awards from robotics (which you will do anyways in a different section of the application).

    Think about how to help the reader imagine a poignant moment or a significant realization you had. Oftentimes, direct quotes or even internal monologue can play an important role. You might want to use metaphors or imagery, and you should certainly feel free to start your essay in medias res (in the middle of the story).

  3. Simpler is Better — While some students think that using complex or rarely used vocabulary in their essays demonstrate their high level of linguistic competence, simpler is better. Don’t be afraid to use short sentences, contractions, and an informal tone. Of course, you’ll want to vary sentence structure and length, but make sure that you are communicating clearly. Write in the active voice.  And if you don’t normally use certain vocabulary in your speech or writing, don’t debut it in your personal statement.

  4. Avoid Common Topics — As we mentioned in our previous blog past [link this to the Essay Topics to Avoid post], there are some topics that are more common than others. For example, many students take (and write about) “The Trip.” Another very common experience is a sports (or any type of competition) victory.  This is not to say that you absolutely shouldn’t write about those topics, but that you should proceed with caution, knowing that you’ll need to make a concerted effort to stand out from the crowd if you do decide to write about these topics.

  5. Avoid Negativity — Most students don’t do this consciously, but we’ve read many essays that detail a teacher’s (or parent’s or coach’s) unfairness or harshness or complained about school or family culture. While these sentiments may be completely justified, they leave a bad taste in a reader’s mouth because without knowing the student, this is the first and only impression that an admissions reader will have of this person. You don’t want to waste your one chance to make a good impression. If you do experience significant challenges because of someone else’s actions and choices, please see below.

  6. Describe Growth and Change — Tough things happen in life. People get sick and/or die. Parents get divorced. Loved ones may become addicted to alcohol or other substances. Students have disabilities and some have depression or other mental illnesses. The natural response in these circumstances is to write about the situation and describe it in detail. But that’s exactly what you should not do in your personal statement. In some cases, students should write a more detailed account of the challenging circumstance under “Additional Information,” but for the college essay, you should focus not on the particulars of the situation but on how you grew or changed from having to deal with the situation.

    The most effective essays are those that focus on growth, even if the challenge is something as mundane as stage fright, moving to a new school, or even just a crippling shyness. You’ll want to display a “before” and “after” verbal snapshot of yourself and described what caused the change or what realizations you came to during the process.

  7. Write and Re-Write — I’m the kind of writer that likes to write just one draft. I’m not a big fan of re-visiting my own writing. This approach works in writing research papers and other types of essays, but it does not work in the college essay because your subject (i.e., yourself) is evolving and changing as time progresses. Our students are always surprised when we tell them to expect to write at least five drafts of their Common App essay. In actuality, the majority of students will write ten drafts of that essay. It’s also not uncommon for students to change topics midstream, abandoning the fourth draft of one essay to start a completely different one. And there is something invaluable that happens during the re-writing process: students get to know themselves better and learn how to reflect and express themselves in this type of genre.

    One note on word count: it often helps in writing college essays to overshoot the word limit in the earlier drafts to ensure that all the content you want to include is in there before cutting it down to size when editing the later drafts.

  8. Find a Trustworthy Editor — Although too many voices giving input to your essay may muddle your thoughts, you should find one editor that you trust. This person can be a friend, a teacher, or preferably someone who is familiar with the college application process. Have them read a close-to-finished draft and give you input on content and tone. Of course, you might have grammatical issues as well, but it often helps to have someone who knows you well read your essay to see if it reflects who you really are. Anyone can help you with grammar, vocabulary, and phrasing, but only someone who knows you can give you accurate input as to the content.

  9. Read the Final Version Aloud — It may sound crazy to do this, but this is one of my best tips for students before they submit their applications. I often catch errors or awkward phrasing in my own writing when I read it out loud. Because a college essay is an informal, memoir-style piece of writing, it should sound natural read aloud, almost like a short story or something you’d share with a friend (but written in a more polished form). Give it a try—what do you have to lose?

We have many more tips for students as they work on their college essays.  Contact ILUMIN Education for more suggestions: info@ilumineducation.com OR (408) 479-4742.

MAKE SURE YOU AVOID THESE COLLEGE ESSAY TOPICS

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Have you ever thought about what happens to your college applications and essays once you send them off? There are real human beings reading (and skimming over) every word on your application. The sentences that you wrote and re-wrote, the witty jokes that you inserted, the catchy introduction that you stressed over—they will all be read by an admissions officer….a tired, weary admissions officer who has hundreds of applications in her office waiting for her attention.

So how can your essay make you a memorable and attractive candidate? Here’s our best advice:

Write the essay that only YOU can write.

Our friends in admissions tell us that there are some essays that they seem to have read a thousand times already. There are many students who participate in athletics or are involved in trips or community service projects abroad. While it doesn’t mean that these topics are completely off-limits, it does mean that you should try your best to brainstorm other ideas. Failing that, you should think long and hard about how to personalize it to your situation. Here are some clichéd themes that we’ve seen over and over again that students use when writing about these experiences.

  1. The big game: It doesn’t matter whether you won or lost, it only matters that you tried hard, bonded as a team, learned endurance, etc. Alternately, as you crossed the finish line (or scored the winning goal or basket), you realized that all the early hours spent sweating in the gym was worth it.

  2. The trip: Traveling to India (or any other country) gave you a whole new perspective. Alternately, you realized what true poverty is and now you’re grateful for all of your opportunities. Or, you thought you were going to teach the kids/orphans/refugees but found instead that they taught you valuable lessons.

  3. Another topic that we often advise students to steer clear of is what we call the “The Three D’s: Death, Divorce, and Depression.” The mistake that many make when writing about these experiences is that the focus tends to be on the “dramatic event” versus on how the student grew and changed from the challenge. So we will often read sad and moving tributes to a beloved grandparent or a parent who passed away too young, but that type of writing tells us very little about the student himself or herself. Alternately, a student will dwell on their traumatic experiences with divorce (statistically, around 50% of American students have had this experience) or on a bout of depression (surprisingly common) without realizing that many others have unfortunately had the same struggles. If you must write about one of The Three D’s, make sure that your essay is focused on your own growth through the challenge.

And finally, there are two types of essays that you should avoid at all costs.

  1. My life story: Chronicles detailing your entire timeline will cause already tired eyes to glaze over. For example, “I was born in a small town in Mississippi to military parents. Two years later, we moved to San Diego, California, and I spent a lot of time on the beach. When I was five, my parents were transferred to Ohio, and I started kindergarten, which is also when I started playing soccer, etc. etc.” Does this make you want to keep reading?

  2. My love story: We understand. Your breakup or the story of how you got together with your boyfriend or girlfriend is probably the most dramatic, challenging, interesting (to you), or emotionally vulnerable experience of your life so far. However, this type of essay has no place in a college application. These types of essays tend to read not only as self-absorbed and unaware but also inappropriate. One Stanford admissions officer I’ve met has even cited an essay about a breakup as the main reason a top student from a prestigious private school was rejected.

I don’t mean to make fun of these topics, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t write about your significant experiences. But if you do write an essay on one of these clichéd topics, ask yourself: can someone else have written this essay? What makes this essay MINE? What unique character trait or quirk does it showcase?

Believe it or not, writing college essays can be fun! If you’re able to reflect on your life and tell your story well, it will also make a difference in your admissions results.
Of course, ILUMIN Education can help - reach out to us to set up a free consultation and we can help you get started on writing the right essay that will tell your genuine story and help you reach your college goals. Click HERE to reach out and set up an appointment!

College Essay Brainstorming: Creating a Life Map

Elton Lin

One of my classes for my Masters of Teaching program at BIOLA had us complete a “Life Map.” It was a framework and tool to help us identify significant moments in our life that helped inform our view of the world and ourselves. It was a really moving assignment that helped me to see in one big picture view everything that was important in my life. 

As I started teaching college essay writing, I realized that I needed a tool to help my students first identify the events that made them who they are. So I adapted the Life Map tool as a college essay brainstorming exercise. 

When we think about core memories, I want you to think of Inside Out. Riley, the main character, experiences a life event that gets logged as a memory. If it’s especially tinted with an emotion, that memory (signified by a little ball that records a short video of the event) becomes a Core Memory.

A Core Memory then becomes a part of Riley’s Long Term Memory and eventually fuels one of her “Personality Islands.” 

Here’s a clip of that whole process here.


I love that movie in so many different ways, but my favorite thing is how it’s a really creative (and fairly accurate) way to represent personality and memory to children. So with this life map, what I want you to do is ferret out your Core Memories. 


Use the following exercise to brainstorm out all the your important life moments and your “Core Memories.” 


1. List!
Grab a sticky note pad. For the next 15-20 minutes, as fast as you can go, fill out one life event or core memory per sticky note. Try to get through as many sticky notes as you can. 

What are some clear and important memories you have?
•    Times you moved
•    First day of ____
•    Last day of _____
•    Family vacations
•    Family troubles
•    Important classes
•    Important extracurricular
•    Start or end of a job or program or extracurricular activity
•    Start or end of a hobby
•    Successes and wins
•    Disappointments and hurts
•    Major changes or shifts in mood or relationships
•    Family or cultural traditions
•    A day when everything changed

2. Map!
- On a blank sheet of paper, create 3-4 columns to represent every 3 - 4 years of your life. For example, this student broke it up into these years:  0- 10, 11 - 17, 18 -22, 22+. 

 

- Place the sticky notes in chronological order. If you want to, you can rewrite your negative experiences in a different color, so you can see the frequency of negative events in your life or if one era of your life had more positive or negative experiences. 

- Circle the most important life events that have made some lasting impact today. These events will be the topics for your college essay. 

It’s important to begin first with the important stories you have to share and then figure out which prompt to answer—it’s a more organic and authentic way of writing a heartfelt and honest college essay.

Here’s an example (I know, she has more than 2 colors and her ages aren’t very clear, but you can get an idea of what the final product looks like):

3. Write! 
Now you will have a large sheet of paper with a ton of sticky notes on it—each one containing an important Core Memory. It’s these memories that will become the building blocks of your college essay! Pick one memory and start writing your first draft.

Congratulations - you've completed the most challenging part of the essay process and now you're well on your way to completing your essay! 

- John and Lynn Chen

If you have more questions about brainstorming college essays, or want to chat with an Ilumin Counselor about how to craft the perfect application please contact us here

THE UNOFFICIAL GUIDE TO THE 2017 UC PERSONAL STATEMENTS

Elton Lin

After over a decade of having the same personal statement prompts (I would know, it was the same ones I used when I applied over 10 years ago), the UCs have finally decided to update their prompts!

BUUUUUUUTTTTTTTTT……it’s not all great. The new “Personal Insight Questions” (gone are the days of “personal statements” when we have “personal insights” to explore) have a few caveats. And we're here to walk you through the changes, and help you get started on writing your UC personal statements with this “Unofficial Guide to the New 2017 UC Personal Statements.”

 This guide will help you:

  1. Understand the major changes
  2. Know what UC Readers actually want
  3. Have a shortcut to really really knowing what each prompt is asking
  4. Create a Life Map to ferret out your best stories to share
  5. Choose which 4 UC Prompts you should answer
  6. Start writing your “Personal Insight” essays

So, What Are The Major Changes?

I’m GLAD you asked!

For Incoming Freshmen of Fall of 2017, the UC Personal Statements have changed their format and questions. They now are asking EIGHT “personal insight questions” instead of two broad questions. You need to choose FOUR of those questions to answer. 

Because having more choices is never debilitating, right?

Oh yeah, and you have only 350 words per prompt. Max. Compared to the 650 max on common app, you’re really just writing four blurbs about yourself.

But not is all bad news!

The pros are the prompts are way better. Before, students wrote abstract ruminations about how the world they come from somehow shaped their aspirations. Students often sacrificed examples and details trying to cover the entire scope of the prompt. These updated questions are more genuine and are easier to answer because they’re more specific. Which means now, hopefully, your answers will be more specific too.

It’ll just be more laborious because you need to write more essays--short, pithy essays at that. Short essays are harder since it’s easier to data-dump rather than exercise judgment. But the prompts help ground you to one experience, so that’s nice.

So in sum:

 

So, What Do UC Readers Really Want in an Essay?

They want concrete examples. Specific details. Clear insights. They want visceral examples that will, in the words of the UC, “express who you are, what matters to you and what you want to share with UC.” Stories that will conjure your soul and spirit before the eyes of the reader, and help serve as proof that you meet their 14-Point criteria. Narratives that will ultimately inform their decision to admit you or not.

The UC Reader wants to know who you are and what matters to you. The reader will be asking questions about you, such as: “Are you curious? Courageous? Do you take initiative or are you a follower? Why did you choose the path you chose? What are you passionate about and why? How do you react to setbacks and failures?” And then the follow up question is: “How do I know that’s true?”

So you need two major parts of your essay. You need to tell a good story. And you need to explain what that means about who you are. You need to give clear-as-day specifics of what you’ve done. So that way the UC Reader can tell another: “This student is an impassioned leader. How do I know that? Well, he had this powerful and clear example of how he… [INSERT STORY HERE]”

See how that works? A strong example is now proof that you are who you say you are. A good story is now concrete evidence you belong to their campus. So give them one. Or four.

So, without further ado….

The Personal Insight Questions for 2017…..As Episode Titles

The prompts are pretty confusing since they’re one giant block of text. I figured they could each use a title. One of my favorite TV shows was FRIENDS growing up, and each episode is titled: “The One With…” or “The One Where..” Like “The One Where Nana Died Twice” or “The One With The Jellyfish.” You get the picture.

 

In that same vein, I decided to title each prompt like it was a TV episode. Hopefully it’ll help ground you in a clear, specific example of sorts. Enjoy.

Prompt 1: The Time I Led or Helped A Group: Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.  

Prompt 2: The Time I Created Something Cool or Solved That Hard Problem: Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.  

Prompt 3: The Time I Showcased My Special Skill: What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  

Prompt 4: That Time I Learned, Did or Overcame Something Extraordinary Outside of School: Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Prompt 5. That Time The Struggle Was Real And I Worked Through It: Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Prompt 6.  That Time My Favorite Subject Became My Favorite Subject: Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

Prompt 7. That Time I Helped My Community Become Better: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  

Prompt 8. That Time I Proved To The World I’m One-of-a-kind: What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

Annndddd, I bet a few of you are feeling like this now:

 

UC Essay Brainstorming Tool--Which Prompts Should I Choose?

Okay. Don’t panic. I know looking at the eight different prompts can be overwhelming. How do you know which four to choose?

 I have always found it more useful to help students approach the essay inside-out instead of outside in. What I mean by that is it’s more authentic when you begin with your memories and then match them to a prompt. When start outside of yourself and use the prompt to remember a story—it sometimes becomes forced, inauthentic, and false.

So, before you use this UC Essay Brainstorming Tool, you are going to need a list of significant memories or moments in your life.

Lucky for you, I’ve adapted a process called a Life Map to help you do that. It uses sticky notes and crafting, and it originally was a counseling tool that I’ve now adapted into an essay tool. Because that’s how teachers roll.

So. Stop Right Now.

 

Step 1: Complete your Life Map Exercise —then come back here.

Have Core Memory list handy? Okay, let’s move on.

College Essay Archetypes

To help narrow it down, we have three main college essay archetypes that show up either in the Common App Prompts or private college supplemental essay prompts.

1.       My Story-Significant life events that shape who you are. What makes you you?

2.       My Community-Significant times in which you led or helped a community become better or solve a problem. Your contributions to a group.

3.       My Future-Significant times in your life in which you began to discover your life’s purpose and calling in terms of a career. Think of classes you’ve taken, clubs you’ve participated in, programs you attended, and projects you did in one field of study.  Think about why this has led you to choose the major you want and why.

Almost all prompts can fit into one of those three categories. So remember, we are moving inside out. Take your memory list, and work with the next part.

Step 2: For the tool, under each section, list a significant Core Memory that could fall under that kind of prompt.

Step 3: Now you’ve organized your memories, you can finally choose your prompts. We have categorized the 2017 UC Personal Insight Questions under these three main college essay archetypes. Identify the prompts your memories best fit. Please note that some prompts show up in more than one category.

And there you have it—you have identified which prompts you want to answer (hopefully). 

How To Start Drafting:

Once you got your prompts, you can start drafting. My students’ least favorite part, but with this tool, I hope it’ll be easier.

Follow this format. Copy and paste the following into a separate document and free write from there. 

Prompt (copy and paste prompt here):

Memory (150-200 words): Ground us in what happened. Narrate dialogue, descriptions, and details.

Reflection (150-200 words): Reflect on what this memory says or shows about who you are and what your aspirations are. Answer the reflection questions listed below by the UC (and the ones in bolded are written by me). The UC Provided an additional worksheet here

Reflection Questions

Prompt 1: Leadership

1. The Time I Led or Helped A Group: Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.  

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or a taking lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about your accomplishments and what you learned from the experience.  What were your responsibilities?

Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities.  For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

My questions: How did you manage conflict or communicate clearly? How did you practice perspective taking and empathy? How did you foster kindness, harmony, forgiveness, unity and teamwork?

 

Prompt 2: Creativity

2. The Time I Created Something Cool or Solved That Hard Problem: “Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.  

Things to consider:  What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?

How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?

My questions: What inspired you to create something new? How did you go about it? Was it successful-why or why not?

What problem did you identify? Why was this problem significant? What was your process to try and come up with a solution? Was the solution successful-why or why not? What does this process showcase about your passion, your intellect, and your heart?

 

Prompt 3: Talent or Skill

3. The Time I Showcased My Special Skill: What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you?

Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?

My questions: What started your interest in this skill and why did you keep on doing it? How did this skill begin to shape and inform other areas of your life? What has this skill taught you? How has it changed your outlook on yourself, others, and the world?

 

Prompt 4: Educational Opportunity or Barrier

4. That Time I Learned or Did Something Extraordinary Outside of School: Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you — just to name a few.

If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strived to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

My questions: What was especially thought-provoking about this experience? How did it confirm one way or the other your career goals? How did you showcase your passion or interest in this certain area of study?

 

Prompt 5: Significant Challenge

5. That Time The Struggle Was Real And I Worked Through It: Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?

If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends, or with my family?

My notes: Reserve answering this question ONLY for truly significant life experiences. You can’t write about failing a test or getting a low grade in class. The topic here applies more to some truly traumatic life experience that few teenagers have to go through—to the point that it actually impeded on other areas of your life. Give this topic the gravitas and respect it deserves.

My questions: What were your beliefs about yourself and the world before this event happened? What was lost or gained because of this episode? How did you heal or work through this difficult life circumstance? Who are you now because of it and how does it inform your beliefs about others and the world? Because of this, what hopes do you have for yourself and others?

 

Prompt 6: Favorite Subject

6.  That Time My Favorite Subject Became My Favorite Subject: Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

Things to consider: Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom — such as volunteer work, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or activities — and what you have gained from your involvement.

Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)?

My questions: What was especially thought-provoking about this class? How did it confirm one way or the other your career goals? How did your part in the class showcase your passion or interest in this certain area of study?

 

Prompt 7: Community

7. That Time I Helped My Community Become Better: What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  

Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place – like your high school, hometown, or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?

Why were you inspired to act?  What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?

My questions: What problem did you identify that this community was facing? What was your process to try and come up with a solution? Was the solution successful-why or why not? What does this process showcase about your passion, your intellect, and your heart?

How did you manage conflict or communicate clearly? How did you practice perspective taking and empathy? How did you foster kindness, harmony, forgiveness, unity and teamwork?


 

Prompt 8: Unique

8. That Time I Proved To The World I’m One-of-a-kind: What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

Things to consider: Don’t be afraid to brag a little. Even if you don’t think you’re unique, you are — remember, there’s only one of you in the world. From your point of view, what do you feel makes you belong on one of UC’s campuses? When looking at your life, what does a stranger need to understand in order to know you?

What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge, or opportunity that you think will help us know you better? We’re not necessarily looking for what makes you unique compared to others, but what makes you, YOU.

My questions: What is an experience or quality that really sets you apart and why? What values does this event or quality showcase about you? Who are you now because of it and how does it inform your beliefs about others and the world? Because of this, what hopes do you have for yourself and others?

 

And there you have it! Hopefully you have at least some drafts and ideas to begin tackling the 2017 UC Personal Insight Questions! Writing is a process, and so give yourself plenty of time to revisit these steps and revisit your essays.

I know there’s still a lot of panicking going on, but hopefully after this Unofficial Guide to the 2017 UC Personal Statements, these new essays won’t be something you’re panicking about. 

Update: If you wanted these brainstorming exercises in a word document so it's easier to work through--you can access the file here. Also in there is some insights on how to best structure a college essay as well. Enjoy!

- John and Lynn Chen

If you have more questions about the new UC application essays, or want to chat with an Ilumin Counselor about how to craft the perfect application please contact us here

 

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?!­

Introducing: the ILUMIN College Application Bootcamp

Elton Lin

This year we're going to introduce a new workshop that will improve the quality of a student's college application and help him or her finish well before the deadlines. 

Introducing... the ILUMIN College Application Bootcamp! It sounds scary, but our goal is to help students get a head start - the students who start early, ALWAYS write better essays. In the span of four days, students will:

  1. Learn what admissions officers are looking for and how to write effective college essays.
  2. Complete multiple drafts of the two University of California application essays and the main Common Application personal statement (private schools).
  3. Complete a resume they can submit with most college applications.
  4. Enter in all the required information for both the University of California application and the Common Application.
  5. Have a plan for how to complete the "Why Us?" essay which is required for most private school admissions.
  6. Have access to experienced consultants who will provide feedback on all their work.

This is an exclusive workshop for our students and will help them SUBMIT BETTER APPLICATIONS and REDUCE STRESS during of the college admissions season. After the bootcamp, students will continue working one-on-one with our consultants to further develop and polish their essays and submit their application on-time. 

The workshops are tentatively scheduled for:

June 8-11
August 10-13

Contact us if you have any questions! Looking forward to the coming application season!