By Mary Pat St. Jean  Attention rising seniors, summer is the perfect time to work on your essay! Also known as your personal statement, the essay is an opportunity for college admissions officers to get to know you and distinguish you from other applicants. It may seem challenging to decide on a topic that makes you stand out and then execute the idea in an engaging way, but with a few pointers and a step-by-step process, your essay has the potential to give your application a distinct advantage. First, consider who you are writing this for and understand that you will be a tiny boat in a sea of applications. Your admissions readers want to see a unique window into who you are and come away with an understanding of what matters to you and how you will become a contributor to your future college community. Typically, admissions officers only spend 10-15 minutes with your application, making a compelling case for you to write an opening line that grabs their attention.

Here’s a few steps one of our Strategies For College essay experts, Mary Pat St. Jean, offers to students: 

  A.  Ask yourself “What should Admissions know about me that isn’t already in my application”? It’s important to share something about yourself that is not already clear from your transcripts or application. A common mistake is writing about overused topics, such as mission trips, service experiences or extracurriculars. It’s not that these topics are off limits, but it is difficult to write about them in a way that would be seen as unique to an admissions reader. If you do write about them there has to be new information, insights or lessons learned that tell the reader more about who you are, not what you’ve done. It’s okay to ignore prompts and choose your own topic, in fact we encourage you to do so!

B. Select your story not because it’s outrageous or a “wow” moment in your life but because it has meaning to you. Being authentic about even the most mundane topics can be very powerful. Your perspective should be unique and could be about the most common topic if it reveals something new about you.

C. Paint your picture with sensory language. Using sensory descriptions lets people feel your passion and makes your writing engaging and memorable. Example: Don’t say you’re funny, show us how you’re funny with an example that uses descriptive language.

D. Find your hook. This happens in the first sentence and makes the reader want to go on to the next, and the next, etc. The reality is that most admission readers only skim your application and essay. If you hook them with a provocative opening and then continue to deliver a well conceived idea, you’re more likely to keep them engaged.

 How different is this year?
In a typical year, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors reports the college essay as fifth in importance when reviewing candidates, below rigor of course load, GPA, test scores, and class rank. Since COVID-19 has impacted the SAT/ACT test schedule, many colleges are moving to test optional review, some for more than just the 2021 class. Perhaps the essay/personal statement will take on new importance and move up the list ahead of test scores. All the more reason to do your best and get started. When asked, MaryPat’s best advice is, “Colleges know what you’ve learned at school from your transcripts; tell them what you’ve learned in life.” Your Strategies For College advisor is here to help you reveal who you are to college admissions officers!