Personal Statements & Essays
- Some colleges don’t require an essay (examples: public community colleges, most 4 year public universities do NOT require or ask for an essay).
- Some colleges ask you to write one essay (examples: many liberal arts colleges/universities, selective colleges/universities, some 4 year public universities do require an essay)
- Some colleges ask you to reply to an essay prompt in addition to the personal statement (example: UTK the personal statement is optional; the essay is required).
- Some colleges require a supplemental essay in addition to the college essay (many selective universities require this).
- Some colleges/universities require an essay when applying to a specific program (honors programs, nursing, etc).
Categories of Essays:
Personal Statement: An essay you write to show a college admissions committee who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their school. (could be 200-300 words)
College Essay: Basically the same as a personal statement (can be used interchangeably but if not, a college essay is usually 500- 650 words). (The Common App essay is one of these.)
Essay Prompt: A question or statement that your college essay is meant to respond to.
Supplemental Essay: An extra school or program specific essay beyond the basic personal statement.
Common Questions about Essays in General:
How much do essays matter? Essays matter because they are an opportunity to differentiate you from other college applicants. It provides you with an opportunity to STAND OUT.
What are colleges looking for in an essay?
- Who is this person?
- How can they contribute to our college community?
- Can this person write?
What should your essay be about?
- YOU. Not grandma; not your little sister; not your great uncle.
How much will the essay “count” in the college admissions process?
- Colleges that holistically review applications are going to spend time (5 minutes on average; yes, that’s not a typographical error) reviewing your essay and supplemental materials.
- It is probably between 10- 25% of the “weight” of the application. A holistic review looks at the essay, the recommendations, your grades, the rigor of coursework.
- If your grades are bad, an outstanding essay is not going to get you admitted to an Ivy-League school.
- If you write a bad essay, it MAY affect your college admission.
Do’s & Don'ts of Writing an Essay/Personal Statement
Choose a topic that will highlight you
- Don’t focus on the great aspects of a particular college, the amount of dedication it takes to be a doctor, or the number of extra curricular activities you took part in during high school.
- Do share your personal story and thoughts. Take a creative approach and highlight areas that aren’t covered in other parts of the application (like your high school records).
- Don’t try to cover too many topics. This will make the essay look like a resume that doesn’t profile any insight into you personally.
- Do focus on one aspect of yourself so the readers can learn more about who you are. Remember that readers must be able to find your main idea and follow it from beginning to end. Ask a parent or teacher to read just your introduction and tell you what he or she thinks your essay is about.
Show, don’t tell
- Don’t simply state a fact to get an idea across, such as “I like to surround myself with people of a variety of backgrounds and interests.”
- Do include specific details, examples, and reasons to develop your ideas. For the example above, describe a situation when you were surrounded by various types of people. What were you doing? With whom did you talk? What did you take away from the experience?
Use your own Voice
- Don’t rely on phrases or ideas that people have used many times before. These could include statements like, “There is so much suffering in the world that I feel I have to help people.” Avoid overly formal or business-like language, and don’t use unnecessary words.
- DO write in your own voice. For the above example, you could write about a real experience that made you feel you had to take action.
- DON’T plagiarize. Admissions officers will be able to tell.
Ask a teacher or parent to proofread
- DON’T turn in your essay without proofreading it, and don’t rely only on your computer’s spell check to catch mistakes. Even the best spell check programs aren’t error free.
- DO ask a teacher or parent to proofread your essay to catch mistakes. You should also ask the person who proofreads your essay if the writing sounds like you.
Common Application Essay Prompts for the 2022-2023 Application Cycle:
Note: If you apply to colleges using the Common Application, you will select one of these essay prompts. You can begin working on these now.
Note: Some colleges use these essay prompts within their own application (see UTK).
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
There is no right or wrong choice here. Pick the one that most resonates with you.
Proofread and Revise Your Essay
It is important to take the time to proofread and revise your essay before submitting. To make your essay truly stand out, ask yourself the following questions, adapted from Rebecca Joseph, PhD.
- Does your essay start with a story that hooks us in from the first paragraph?
- If you start in the past, do you get to the present very quickly? Scholarship & admission committees what to know about the recent you, not the 5 year old you (although I’m sure you were adorable). Great essays can start more recently and weave in past events.
- If you are writing about your community or family, do you share about yourself or are you more focused on telling stories about other people? Scholarship committees want to learn about you, not just the people around you.
- Do you only tell one story, and not try to tell your entire life story?
- If you are writing about an obstacle or a challenge you have overcome, do you get to how you responded and made a difference in the life of your community by the second or third paragraph of the essay? Scholarship & admissions committees want to know who you are and how you make an impact drawing upon your obstacles to challenges.
- Do you have a metaphor that goes through the entire piece? Does this metaphor reveal who you are and what you offer to potential colleges? You can embed this metaphor throughout your piece.
- Can I close my eyes and picture your story? Does it make you sound unique and not like anyone else applying? Can I see your leadership and the power of what you will offer to a college campus?
- Endings: Do you end with a bang? Do you make it clear by the end you have goals and aspirations that drive you? Do you end leaving the reader with the desire to get to know you more?
Examples of Challenges Students Might Face (From the College Essay Guy):
- Discrimination based on being a minority (race, sexual orienation, nationality, etc.)
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Joblessness or unemployment
- Moving a lot and having no real place to call home
- Having to work to pay for groceries
- Parents or siblings fighting a lot
- School or neighborhood violence
- Illness (you or someone close to you)
- Being afraid to come out as lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender
- Having an extremely shy personality
- Natural disaster (hurricane, earthquake)
- Car crash
Home invasion or break-in
- Physical Injury
- Mental Illness
- Sibling Rivalry
- Getting Rejected
- A learned difference or disability
- Controlling behavior from family or friends
- Destructive behavior/bullying/cyberbullying
- Peer Pressure
- Lack of access to educational resources
- Parents not supportive of your dreams
Note: I’m not saying you shouldn’t write about these, but it can be more difficult to stand out with these topics:
- Dealing with the death of dad/grandfather, sister, etc.
- Adjusting to a new school
- Adapting to a new culture in a new country
- Sports injury
- Failing to meet someone’s expectations.