Archive for the 'Essays' Category

The Guide to the Admissions Essay/Personal Statement

By the time you start applying for college, it is a fact that your grades, standardized test scores and recommendations are well-established, meaning they cannot be changed or improved for the purposes of the college application.  What can be improved is your college admissions essay, otherwise known as the personal statement or the statement of purpose.  This piece of writing is your last chance to make your case to the admissions committee, and through this essay you can make a difference in your chances of admission.

Depending on the approach you take this aspect of your application, the essay can either help you or hurt you.  Once your academic numbers, which include your grades and standardized test scores, fall within the “acceptable” range for that particular school you are applying to, the most important piece of the admissions puzzle then becomes your college admissions essay.

Just because you are “acceptable” as an applicant does not mean you will be offered admission to the college.  Most colleges get more qualified, acceptable applicants than they can admit.  Admissions officers and deans across the board would be the first ones to admit that they turn away and reject as many qualified applicants as they accept.  So what makes or breaks the application is whether the student can demonstrate the he/she deserves the spot more than the next applicant.  Not only does this essay test your ability to write, it also provides the admissions personnel with the opportunity to see the person behind the numbers and application, helping them discern the applicant’s character and personality.

As alluded to in the previous paragraph, this piece of writing should never be regarded as a substitute for competency and consistency, traits which should have already been demonstrated through your progress in school.  No matter how excellent your essay is, you will still be required to deliver sufficiently high numbers to get you into the “acceptable” range.

However, not everyone in the “acceptable” range is the same type of applicant.  Students with higher numbers will have less to prove to the admissions committee than those with lower numbers.  Some of these applicants are a short hop away from application while others are a huge leap away. It is hard to tell how far you are from admission unless you have done an honest and objective assessment of yourself as an applicant.

After determining the goal of the essay, you have to decide whether you want to devote the essay’s limited word count to explaining weaknesses or to highlighting strengths.  That is why it is so important to figure out what you have to prove and how much you have to prove.  For example, a student with a pattern of bad grades in science courses will have a different mission than a student with a lack of extracurricular activities.

Writing the Essay

The beauty of this aspect of your application is that as far as content is concerned, this is the only part of your application where the admissions deans and officers have absolutely no particular requirements and expectations.  They are not expecting you to write about a specific topic in a specific prose or style.  This stands in sharp contrast to the academic numbers, where there is very little room for flexibility and subjectivity.  The reason why this essay is as important as it is in your arguing your candidacy and worthiness is that as the school reviews your academic accomplishments, it is this essay and the content found within that will constantly be at the back of the reviewers’ minds.  The essay gives your application context and life.  For this reason, it is imperative that you are honest and clear in this piece of writing, conveying to the readers the real “you” behind the numbers and the application.

Given that the admissions office at the schools you are applying to will have access to your English grades from high school, and have the additional avenue to assess your grasp of the English Language through the English Language and Written components of the SAT, this piece of writing must not only be grammatically and technically flawless, the content needs to exhibit intelligence, creativity and maturity.   The essay should never be a narration of events or worse yet, a book report.  Instead, the description of events or the description of an impactful book must be kept to a minimum.  The bulk of the piece of writing has instead to focus on what you have learnt from the experience.  This is an opportunity for you to show the reader not your ability to write well, it is an opportunity for you to show the reader that you can formulate thoughts and advance intelligent and insightful arguments on the basis of those thoughts, and also to share with the reader intimate details on your character and important and defining elements of your value system.

Through this essay, you have the opportunity to express the “you” that you are most proud of and you want to put forth in support of your candidacy.  As much as the fact that the big life-changing moments can be great material for the essay, basing your essay on a small event can also be very impactful.  This is as long as you convey through your writing what you learnt about yourself and the world though the experience.  So in effect writing about quiet walks with your grandmother around the park can be just as impactful as scoring the winning touchdown in a football game.  The task at hand is not to write about the “what” or the “who” but rather focusing on the significance of the “what” or “who” to you and what you learn vis-à-vis the “what” or “who.”

It is hard to provide in this book a comprehensive list of “dos” and “don’t-s” regarding the writing of the college essay but I have chosen a short list of writing tips which I feel are crucial to writing a strong and impactful essay.

Writing Tips:

  1. Do not rush through the writing process.  Split up the writing process into the following parts:
    1. Brainstorming:  Use this stage to gather your thoughts, and defining the focus of the writing and the general content.  After doing this, choose a structure for your essay and begin outlining it.
    1. Drafting:  Go through several drafts of the one piece of writing, each time fine-tuning the essay and improving on it.
    1. Revision:  In this stage, take the role of a objective reader and read over the essay, make corrections where necessary.
  1. Be concise:  You only have 600-700 words to convey your message so it is very important that you are concise in your writing, avoiding wordy quotes and overly complex phrasing and wording.
  2. Grammar:  Ensure that the piece of writing has no grammatical or spelling errors.  Pay attention to verbs (especially tense and voice-whenever possible, use active voice), use of pronouns, punctuation and write in complete sentences.
  3. Font Size:  Ensure that your writing is legible and that the font size is big enough for the admissions officers and deans to read easily.
  4. Stylistic: In order to convince the reader of your prowess in the English Language, it is important that you not only choose the appropriate wording, go to some extent to varying sentence lengths and structure to keep the reader interested.

Content Tips:

  1. Honesty is the best policy:  When writing the essay, it is important that you do not lie or exaggerate.  You should not be spending time and effort trying to figure out what the admissions deans want to hear and tailoring your essay to fit this mould.  In reality, they are not looking for anything in particular, merely wanting to understand the person behind the application and numbers.
  1. Topic:   The topic itself does not have to be overly dramatic.  However, how you dealt with the event, what you learnt from the event, and how you moved on since the event needs to be impactful and meaningful.  You could write about the most ordinary or mundane daily occurrence but yet impress the reader with your perceptive insights and lessons learnt from the occurrence.
  1. Choosing the best details and leaving out the rest:  Because of the obvious word limit, it is imperative that you minimize the description of the actual event.  So only include in the essay the part of the event that had an impact on you and not the rest of it.  If there are unique and distinctive details and those were the details that impacted you, only include those;
  1. Avoid making excuses:  The essay should never be used by the applicant to explain why he or she received bad grades in high school or the standardized test scores.  A piece of writing which focuses on the reasons for your lack of performance purely serves to highlight the weaknesses in your candidacy.
  1. Topics to avoid:  Granted that there are no expectation on the part of admissions deans and officers when it comes to the content of the essay, you can write about (i) personal issues; (ii) a book that has influenced you; (iii) a policy issue or current events issue, there are some essay topics which applicants falter when they try to use it as the basis of their college essays.  Below is a list of them:

(a)    List of accomplishments:  The application already gives you a space for you to fill up your jobs, extracurricular activities and academic awards.  There is no point repeating it here and losing the opportunity of impressing the admissions officers and deans based on another aspect of your candidacy.   Also, writing an essay solely talking about your accomplishments can make you seem arrogant and self-important.  This will annoy the reader.

(b)   Sex life:  The admissions officers and deans are probably not going to care about whether or not you have an active lifestyle.

(c)    Drug use:  It is true that every college campus has to deal with substance abuse but you should not use this essay to draw attention to your use of illegal substances, even if you talk about how you overcame an addiction.

(d) Time spent in jail: Like the drug use, although many successful applicants have had brushes with the law, this is not an aspect of your candidacy you want to highlight.

(e)    Divisive Issues:  As much as colleges like socially and politically aware students, and writing a policy-centric issue can be impactful, you should stay away from divisive and possibly offensive topics.  Given the fact that you do not personally know the reader and you do not know what he or she feels about a particular divisive issue, writing about it and lecturing the reader on it should be avoided at all costs.  Topics include abortion, capital punishment, religion, etc.

(f)    Anything overly depressing: Bearing in mind that the reader is probably going to have to read thousands of essays, having to read about something overly depressing or uncomfortable might not work in your favor.  So writing about your experience with rape, assault, divorce, drug abuse, assault, depression, attempting suicide might make the reader really uncomfortable.  This is not a feeling you want to create in the reader.

(g)   Travel Log:  Colleges like students who have been exposed and so writing about travel and explaining to the admissions committee how a particular travelling experience has had a lasting and meaningful impact on you can be a great topic.  However, very often, when students write about their travel experiences, the essays start to sound like a summary of their trip to a particular destination.  This is neither particularly interesting nor insightful.

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Selecting Schools

We interview the student to understand the student’s educational and career goals, strengths and weaknesses, and preferences and limitations.   With this information, we compose a short list of 20 schools with a description of each school and an explanation of the school’s fit for the student.  We then conference call with the student to discuss the 20 candidate schools, and any candidate schools the student has come up with independently, and together narrow the list down to 10 schools

Writing the Personal Statement

Most students procrastinate on their admissions essays because they do not know how to begin answering such broad questions and essay prompts.   Students in Asian countries are particularly prone to fear because they are not accustomed to writing about themselves and are used to rote learning .

We break down the daunting task of composing the essay by giving the student narrow, focused writing assignments.   Through these assignments, the student is allowed to reflect on his/her life experiences, gets comfortable writing about him/herself, and builds up a body of work that can be used in the final essay.

After the student submits the writing assignments to us, we discuss the most compelling events and themes from his/her life story.  We then help the student craft these elements into a cohesive essay outline.   Finally, we proofread and the final product before the student submits the essay.

Finding Scholarships and Grants

We do a thorough search of national scholarships and grants databases for any financial aid available to the student.  We also do financial aid search of every school the student applies to in order to identify any unlisted scholarships or waivers the student might be eligible for.

Preparing for the Student Visa Process

We help the student track down all of the information and documents the student will need for the consular visa application.  After submission of the application, we then help the student prepare for the consular visa interview.

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