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Writing College Admissions Essays that Take First Place--A Personal Statement Checklist

Congratulations on your move toward a college degree. And congratulations on seeking support for writing your admissions essay/personal statement. The squeaky motor gets the oil, so you will be slick and running sleekly in a just a few days…in plenty of time to submit and relax before transferring from a community college or crossing over from high school to higher learning.

While the application and entry process is exciting, it is also rigorously demanding… when it comes to writing the prompted essays. But instead of getting intimidated, remember, it is a process with a series of many laps around the track. Do the steps one at a time, on time, and even ahead of time; be just as rigorous as the entry requirements are; and use the following as a checklist throughout the entire personal statement writing process, and you will create a worthy piece of writing that will smoothly slide you right into the institution of your choice.

1. Use that fine machine (your head): get ahead, start ahead.

___Start early. If they application and essay are due in three months, start working on it in two.

2. Start small.

___If the task seems overwhelming, choose an easy, quick, or interesting part of the task. Then you will have a momentum that will push you forward into the larger, more time consuming tasks. For example, you know your name, address, and (maybe) what you want to major in. Fill out the application.

3. Read X3 before you start to build.

___The first time, read the directions and the prompt choices for the personal statement(s) you have to write as if you are reading a magazine for fun.

___The second time, read the prompt choices as if you are reading a catalog and shopping for the one (best) item (prompt)…. Choose the one topic that you feel you have the most to write on, the one you like, the one you are drawn to.

___The third time, read with a highlighter or pen: highlight or underline the key words in the prompt’s introductory sentences and the key action words (those words that tell you to do something). For example, if the prompt reads as follows, you would mark it like this [I use brackets here for highlighting]:

…Is there [anything] you would like us to know [about you or your academic record] that you have not had the opportunity to [describe] elsewhere in this application? What is [your intended major]? [Discuss] [how your interest in the field developed] and [describe] any [experience you have had in the field] – such as volunteer work, internships and employment – and what you have gained from your involvement….

4. Make notes…and make them visible.

___You now have the (five, here) parts to list on a big piece of paper or cardboard that you then prop up or tape up on your wall or pc. (I always do this—tape the required points on my computer; then I can constantly refer to it as I am writing. It keeps me on track—on topic.)

5. Consider your audience.

___As with any writing, you decide your tone based on who will be reading the work. In this case, you are submitting to a committee of readers who read stacks and stacks of these things. So…

6. Be real. Be honest. Be engaging. Be positive. Be fresh.

I know, I know. I hate it too when someone tells me to be myself. (Who else would I be?) The point is to avoid pretense, avoid b.s. (lies), and avoid whining, begging, and angry, bitter, resentful tirades.

The readers want to know who you are, how you would fit, and what you would bring to the university.

___Brainstorm a list of true details, writing them on the left side of a piece of paper. On the right side, note next to each item how that makes you a perfect candidate for the place. (The left side is negative, too. The right side is the balance, turning the negatives into positives.)

7. Engage.

Granted, when we writers begin drafting, we may not necessarily begin with the opening paragraph. We scribble the lines we remember, the body, the conclusion, topic sentences, important buzz words, or anything else that comes to mind. But when you do get to the opener, it must be as outstanding, alluring, inviting, and original as possible.

I promise I know what I’m talking about here. As a/an (former) Associate Professor of college English, I assisted hundreds of students with both graduate and undergraduate application packets and processes--teaching workshops on the entrance essays, tutoring students in the complete process in the colleges’ learning centers, even receiving students in my home (where they still continue to approach me for consultation and support).

So I have seen/see many students get accepted to Berkeley, Cornell, Stanford, State, and other private and public institutions—based on their essays, which I helped them to write and (ugh) rewrite using the standards and guidelines of the major institutions of higher learning (and this handy manual of caveats I have compiled over the years). And those essays start with unique, engaging intros—that follow these tricks:

___Get rid of all abstractions (now also considered clichés in the academic arena…since they have been driven into the ground by overuse). Avoid using the “success” “achieve” “lifelong dream” terms, words, and phrases. The panel knows you want/need these. They expect it is a given, and would probably have group heart attacks if someone wrote he/she was applying to be unsuccessful, to achieve nothing, and to listlessly idle, having no dream whatsoever. (Okay, you get my point, right?)

___Erase the “I am an immigrant who needs to make my parents proud” clichés. (I promise you, this strategy is empty and useless. I have received students needing entry essay help who are immigrants, children of immigrants, products of immigrant DNA, victims of immigrant mentality….every first draft I read started with this kind of intro. And I’ve only helped about 500 students with this exact same opener. Imagine the weary tsk-ing and head shaking of the board member who reads thousands!)

The bottom line is this: asking to be admitted because you experienced--and are slamming the board with--a number of boo-hoo poor me hardships is the same as going to a job interview and answering questions about what skills you bring to the job by crying that you need to feed your kids. How does your need qualify you? It doesn’t.

___And/or, forget the “I was neglected, abused, poor, hungry, ugly, fat…” opener. Same lecture as above applies here, too. Unless…

___You can turn the negative into a positive. If you have to be real, and the victim thing is part of your story, show how that pain/struggle/torture contributed to who you are today and to what you bring to the school. But do it later in the essay and do it in passing, in mention, in brief…and then move on. So, how do you open a personal statement?

___ By opening the essays with a metaphor, a narrative, or appropriate facts and statistics that will make the essay(s) stand out, appeal to the board, and give those readers something interesting…you have a better chance of them saying to each other, “Hey, did you read that Joe Blow essay?” and of them putting it in the “YES” pile.

Consider this: what running theme(s) would best represent you? For example, would you, like Helen Zhang did, use a water metaphor to represent your immigrating from a country where you were going with the flow of running your own company, then moved to a country where you started over, re-built the ship from scratch, beat the hell out of those choppy stormy seas, and are now sailing, headed for helping others to row to safe shores?

Or would you, like Celestino Garcia, use a food/feeding metaphor to show how getting your fingers broken by a cruel (and insane) uncle who then forced you to do farm work and refused to feed you has instead driven you to culinary school, to prepare lovely meals for feeding today’s children even worse off than he was without food?

Or do you prefer to open with a description, as Sarah Choi did, for example, of living in the projects, looking through a cracked window at the police lights every night you sat to do grade school homework—till one day you made it out, still keeping in mind (and writing it back in at the end of your essay) the sirens and lights and project life from whence you came, so you can, when you graduate, return to the projects and aid others in escaping the flashing lights and flashes of gunfire?

8. You’ve got their attention. Now make your point. Boldly.

___Here’s where your thesis comes in. Once you have used an original description, metaphor, statistic, fact, or definition to open, wrap up the intro with a declarative, confident statement. For example,

“This is why I want to attend Oxford.” will not help you make your way into Oxford. Again, it’s obvious you want to attend/be accepted, and that’s not reason enough to be accepted.

But “With this experience, with excellent grades, with a steady volunteer record, and with a pro-active attitude, I will make dynamic, positive, and supportive contributions to the community at Oxford, and later, to the community at large.” will give you the horsepower you need to finish the essay and to get accepted.

9. You’ve done the hard part. Follow through to the finish.

___The body of your essay will now have the theme/line of reasoning it needs to follow. If it helps, print the thesis in large lettering, and tape this up, too. It is the main point you will now prove with examples of

__your g.pa.

__your outstanding performance awards

__your volunteer experience (where, when, etc.)

__your tutoring, interning, or work-related experience

__your influences/reasons for getting into the field

__any points the prompt asks for

10. Accelerate using anything you have/know/have done.

The support (body of the essay) is most important nowadays, to give you the boost you need to compete. For instance, a number of schools/majors are impacted. Computers and business, for example, have students neck-and-neck in fierce competition for a seat in the department.

So when there are 500 applicants with the same 4.0 g.p.a, the same awards, and the same backgrounds and work experience, you need to use facts (no b.s., made-up stuff) that will give you the extra speed. This is why tutoring tales help. This where volunteering cranks up the volume. This is where you use what you can to race ahead. As long as it’s truth-based. If they ask for two letters of recommendation, send three. If they ask for one way you will contribute to the university, give them two: you will help in the department, assisting the professors (for free); and you will tutor those struggling in a (related) subject you are fortunate to do well in.

10. But how do you come in 1st and keep the rules of the road?

Here’s where revising, revising, and revising again comes in. First, write all you can, all you want, all you know. Then, go back and check those instructions. How many pages must you use? What size font?

___Usually, you have a page limit that you must not go over.

___At the same time, you must cover 3-4 areas in your essay.

___Follow the instructions—to…the…letter. (This will also give you an advantage, for the instructions are there not just to get to know you but to test whether you are adept at following instructions.)

___Don’t give the readers any excuse/reason to eliminate you.

___Tighten your text. This is covered in the Mechanics section below.

11. Keep that machine well-oiled: use your pit mechanics.

___Revise the opener. Make sure it is fresh, engaging, relevant.

___Revise the thesis. Be sure it’s complete and expresses the general point.

___Revise the body (supporting evidence). Check that it addresses part of the prompt. (This is another “test”—does the applicant cover all parts of the question?)

___Rev. the paragraphs and transitions between paragraphs. Be sure each is coherent, and that all are organized and connected, and therefore easy to follow.

___Rev. the sentences. Use variety. Combine sentences for rhythm and flow.

___Rev. the diction. Get rid of useless words, extra words, abstract words. This is where you will be able to shorten the essay.

___Revise the spelling. Do not rely on the pc spellchecker! It is two e-z to Miss homonyms and readers will not be able to bare it!

___Revise the punctuation. Get a tutor for this if you need to.

___Use human mechanics, too. We have brains that are set up so perfectly that they do this thing called hypercorrection. So when we read our own drafts, our brains insist on automatically correcting and reading as correct text that has errors in it. How do you fix this? Have someone else read the work aloud. You listen carefully. When the reader stumbles, pauses, or does a “Wha…?” double-take, you stop the reader, catch the error, and change it, right then and there, in the pit stop. Before you mail it—again—re-read and revise. Re-read and revise.

___12. Mail the entry—the application (with nothing left blank), the check (not blank), and the essay (cleaned and polished)--before the deadline…

in plenty of time for the university readers to read it, laugh over it, cry over it (which does happen—I have cried over the top essays that got Sarah, Tino, Helen, and many others into law school, computer tech school, business school, and more), and except you...I mean, accept you.

Now get your motor running and win that race.

Submitted by:

Roxanne McDonald

N.H.-born prize-winning poet, creative nonfiction writer, memoirist, and award-winning Assoc. Prof. of English, Roxanne is also web content and freelance writer/founder of www.roxannewrites.com, a support site for academic, memoir, mental disability, and creative writers who need a nudge, a nod, or just ideas…of which Roxanne has 1,000s, so do stop in for a visit, as this sentence can’t possibly get any longer…….

admin@roxannewrites.com





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