College application essays remain a cultural mainstay even during these unprecedented times. Instead of spending hours dreading the process, Solomon consultants are ready to guide you through your first draft to the final uploaded copy.
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Most colleges require applicants to submit a one-page personal statement – with word counts ranging from 500 to 750 words or the associated character counts.
Generally, applicants must adhere to the upper limit of the word count range without exceeding it. Shorter than 500 words and you won’t look like a serious applicant, and it doesn’t allow you to adequately capture what most matters to you. If word counts aren’t given, follow the best writing practices and avoid short or overly long paragraphs.
Not following instructions and exceeding the word limit is one way to end up in the deny queue because it suggests you can’t write concisely. It’s also a good idea to stick to standard formatting and font size (like Arial 12).
Application platforms like the Common Application and the Coalition Application allow you to utilize one personal statement or essay for the colleges using those systems – it’s a good idea to note which colleges on your list have their own application and unique essays (like Georgetown or the University of California (UC) system) versus schools that participate in the Common or Coalition Applications.
Even with the common application platforms, many selective colleges will require supplemental essays ranging from 250 to 650 words.
At Solomon, our admissions consultants understand that the personal statement is well known as that annual agonizing summer activity for high school students – even often portrayed in popular movies!
We encourage and support our clients to take the time for brainstorming topics so that they craft the most unique personal statements – read more below on how to start your most effective college application essays. Make your essays work to your advantage instead of.
What College Application Essays Can Do
After you craft that perfect college application essay, otherwise known as the personal statement – showing the college admissions officers just how you match what they’re looking for along with describing what’s important to you; most selective institutions, including the Ivy League and others like MIT and Stanford, also require supplemental college application essays.
Supplemental College Essays
Supplemental essays should focus on what college admissions officers want by showing why you are applying to their college and how you decided on a specific major or academic program focus.
Supplemental college application essays can help you convey how you will uniquely contribute to the larger college or university community and your specific major or department.
Some popular majors like Computer Science will ask for a lengthier (400 – 650 words) supplement that explains the applicant’s academic goals, fit and future research plans in the field. These college-specific application essays can even ask applicants to describe one extracurricular activity in depth (usually no more than 350 additional words) beyond the standardized activities or experiences list.
Some colleges like the UC’s take their supplemental questions seriously with eight (8) distinct Personal Insight Questions or PIQs – of which they ask applicants to respond to (4) four.
The Supplemental Essay Strategy
One strategy is to start with those college applications with the greatest number of supplements and then track the questions you’ve already answered. Some students find it helpful to make a table of questions or create a visual map of each question and the overlap grouped by theme (Jamboard in the Google suite has awesome functionality).
Even though the questions might vary, they often allow you to expand on concepts or themes from your Personal Statements. The supplemental essays are another opportunity to link your activities and interests together in ways that show intellectual and extracurricular depth, something the college admissions officials look for in strong applicants.
Colleges want driven, disciplined students who are humble yet accomplished with more than just a list of disjointed single achievements. The most successful applicants have intellectual vitality activities to turn into compelling supplemental essays. Essay topics about athletics, service trips, family illness (even during COVID), divorce, sports injuries, or even those “meta” essay about writing an essay are all overdone.
Since original content is the goal, if you do decide to write about one of these topics, your baseball essay better be the best “sports” essays among the thousands the admission office has received. This makes standing out in the crowd even harder.
Because admission readers can’t probe you for further details, they rely on you to explain how their school will match your interests perfectly. The most common mistake the applicants can make on their supplement essays is to write one generic supplemental essay for all the colleges where they’re applying.
When deciding whether to accept or reject an applicant, college admissions officers want to know that you’ve researched the school and are committed to attending if admitted.
Admissions consultants like our team at Solomon, can help you focus on the less tangible, more holistic aspects like:
What have you pursued outside the classroom, and why?
What do your teachers say about you?
Do you show an intellectual spark in your essays and interests?
Addressing these questions in a descriptive and fun supplemental essay puts you ahead of the pack.
The best supplemental essays describe how you will pursue your academic interests. Be specific – mention the professors you want to work with or have as mentors. Describe your intended research and talk about any classes you would want to take at the university. Describe how you will contribute to the intellectual discourse on campus. If you want to start or join a club, say it. No college wants students who don’t engage.
Instead, they want students who will be actively involved in the social fabric of the university. Your college application essay is a great opportunity for you to describe how you will do that. And don’t forget – your essay can’t be boring either!
Always remember that there’s actually someone reading your essay behind the computer screen, and it’s essential to keep them entertained and interested in advocating for your acceptance into their college.
How to Start a College Application Essay
Starting a college application essay can be daunting. Solomon clients can brainstorm ideas with their consultant, but the best way to start is to just do it. Productive writing for application essays is done in stages or drafts.
You’ll have a chance to revise if you start early and give yourself plenty of time to share drafts with trusted editors (friends and family can give you feedback or ask you questions about what you meant in confusing passages).
Sometimes you’ve stared at a blank screen without any progress. Just talking to someone about your topic or having conversations about your experiences can spur ideas. The descriptive essays that college admissions officers want to read begin with imagery that transports the reader.
One Opportunity: The Personal Statement
The personal statement is not your typical high school essay where you’re only concerned with impressing your teacher with the knowledge and pertinent facts you’ve memorized. College admissions essays are read by overworked and tired admissions officers in an incredibly short time span, and probably at a late hour.
If you can’t catch their attention and impress them after they’ve read hundreds of others, then you’ve lost the admissions game. Keep reading for ways to win your one opportunity for a second look and longer read.
It all begins in the beginning.
The first sentence or two of your essay must be interesting. These introductory sentences need to catch the reader’s attention. If your personal statement begins with something like "Learning mathematics may not be everyone’s passion, but it is certainly mine," then the reader will move on to another application to something more interesting like “The
Examination of Rock Layers in the Grand Canyon.” The hook must make you want to read on – that’s its vital mission.
Ex. “Trapped in a cage, a sleek silhouette darts past the corner of my eye. Momentary calm gives way to sheer terror as a row of serrated, three-inch-long steak knives stare me in the face. With only steel bars and the icy sea separating me from this prehistoric beast, I freeze.”
Ex. “I will offer you $250,000 to fund your start-up, but on one condition: you must drop out of school.”
Tone. Be Informal
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the college admissions essay, since it’s an important piece of writing, needs to be formal. That’s absolutely wrong. The college application is no place for a formal newspaper article style of writing. In the most successful college application essays, the author informally speaks to the readers and tells a story.
And that’s the other key – write the personal statement in the first person! The reader is much more likely to become engaged in the story if they are made to feel a part of the narrative.
Similarly, in general, it’s best to have your college application essay written in the active voice. It makes the essay infinitely more interesting to read. Authoring your essays in the passive voice has the unfortunate effect of making the essay seem remote and academic. Boring and basic. Not what you want to be during college admissions.
All successful essays follow this basic form – the author tells the reader a story. Nobody wants to read a dry regurgitation of your individual achievements. The admissions officers have seen that already a hundred times.
What they want to read is an interesting story with specific examples of your impact, growth, and transformation. Give them a good story you yourself would want to read, and they will respond in the best way possible.
Immerse The Reader
Don’t just tell the reader about the experience you’re describing but immerse the reader in the experience. They need to feel as if they’re there. This is done through a combination of unusual descriptive verbs, nouns, adjectives, and comparisons (similes, metaphors, and associations). It is also done by mentioning significant details, which add flavor, and make the story multi-dimensional.
An essay without similes and metaphors is a dry and uninteresting essay. If you see such a dry statement, think of something from your own experience and add some meat to the bone. But remember - use metaphors and similes, but don’t use ones that have been said thousands of times before. Be original; make up your own similes and metaphors.
Ex. Instead of “I picked up my favorite book - Catcher in the Rye,” write “I picked up my worn copy of Catcher in the Rye, which to me was like that one pair of jeans you’re never quite ready to throw away”. Note that that first version sounds formal and boring, while the second adds emotion and flavor. It describes the book itself and gives a comparison, which adds another dimension to the item.
With the help of the second statement, admissions readers are now much more convinced that Catcher in the Rye is indeed the author’s favorite book.
Most successful essays have some sort of humor. Are there some exceptions? Yes. But in general, if your essay doesn’t include a couple of humorous statements that will lighten the mood, you’ve done a poor job.
Ex. “I remember hypothesis testing in Professor Ross’ class, which certainly made me think of myself as quite an intellectual freshman. Little did I know that by the end of the class, I would fully realize how hilariously little I actually knew in the beginning.”
Don’t Be Cliché!
Using statements like “This was the most transformative experience of my life” is a poor choice for college application essays. This statement has shown up in 2,562,239 college essays.
Take our word for it; we counted them ourselves. If you’re reading something and your eyes begin to roll because you realize the statement has been written a million times before, take it out. The essay must sound original, not filled with copy, and paste statements.
No Unsupportable Statements
An often-found problem of many college admissions essays is the classic unsupported statement. The essay shouldn’t make a general statement about how the author “will continue to be hardworking” without giving proof of that hard work.
As a matter of fact, it’s best not to even mention that you’re hard-working, but instead show it by describing your experience working for one full year, taking that 1.5-hour commute every day, studying until midnight, and doing long hours on the weekend. Read on for how to make sure your essay flows to a memorable ending.
How to End a College Application Essay
The narrative structure of college application essays follows a basic format. After your hook or the starting point of your story, there is then a descriptive event that interrupts the starting point, otherwise known as the status quo.
After a climactic moment of transformation, this is when you reveal the “a ha moment” or answer the “so what” question. Even though admissions officials are reading thousands of essays, they love to make inferences from masterfully crafted and nuanced stories.
Ending your essay by telling the admissions reader why the story matters or what you the applicant learned is a powerful way to leave an impression and show that you have a sense of purpose in applying to their school without always explicitly stating it.
As part of our services, Solomon admissions consultants help you craft a compelling personal statement, which will showcase your hobbies, interests, and passions in a concise and compelling manner.
We love assisting applicants in demonstrating their inner uniqueness in a beautifully written essay. An overall “show don’t tell” strategy is the best way to start and end your college application essay.