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Mastering the College Admissions Personal Essay

written by: LoveTheWatcher•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 12/2/2011

Writing a personal essay for college admittance doesn't have to be as intimidating as it seems. Plan and outline what you need to say for the greatest impact, and remember to breathe!

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    Get Over Your Anxiety

    There are few things more intimidating in life than facing down a stack of college admission applications. The first couple pages are easy enough (as long as you manage to remember your own name and other identifying information) but the anxiety starts to creep in somewhere around the first short-answer question you have to answer. Upon reaching the college admissions personal essay, you may find that your heart has stopped altogether.

    While most college applicants suffer from personal essay anxiety, it’s not something that ought to derail you completely. With focus and careful planning, the college personal essay is relatively easy to master.

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    Know Thy Enemy

    The first step in writing a knockout personal essay for college is to know what the essay is asking from you. Most of the time they want to know something about you - how you got to where you are, what led you into your particular field of choice or towards the particular university, etc. Be sure to read the essay prompt carefully several times and don’t be afraid to diagram it. Answer each part of their questions briefly in the margins of your prompt - just a short phrase or several words will suffice. The idea behind this is that once you finish diagramming the prompt you’ll already have a basic outline for your essay.

    It helps to have someone read over your shoulder at this point, if only to be sure that the answers you’re giving are relevant to the questions they’re asking. It will do you little good to write an essay about how much you love physics when what they really want to know is why you want to study the field and what you want to do within it.

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    Using a Road Map - Write Yourself an Outline

    Using the basic outline you created when diagramming the college admissions personal essay prompt, create one that is more in depth. While your first outline should only have a few words for each part of the question(s), your secondary outline should use one or two whole sentences. These will help you further focus your answers for your essay. Remember that you are not limited to the format presented in the essay prompt. You can change the order in which you answer the questions and focus more strongly on one or two points instead of all of them. Feel free to use a little creativity when formulating the outline of your essay, but always be sure that your essay responds accurately to the questions the essay prompt asks.

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    But They Don't Ask Any Questions!

    There are schools out there that will not offer you a clear set of questions to answer in a prompt. Some admissions personal essays will be as brief as, “Please complete a one-page personal essay and return it with your application". Don’t let these scare you, either. Your approach to these kinds of prompts is essentially the same as above. Regardless of the school or how they word their essay prompt, they want to know who you are, what kind of student you will be and why they should admit you to their university. Keeping this as the main focus of your essay, formulate an outline similar to the one described above. Schools that use these kinds of “blank slate" prompts just want to see how you’ll react to them, so don’t let them phase you. Present yourself clearly and you’ll make a good impression.

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    Other Tips for Writing a College Admissions Personal Essay

    First and foremost, be honest. College admissions boards want to know who you are; not some version of yourself that you’ve entirely made up. Don’t be tempted to make something up to make yourself seem more appealing. Admissions directors have seen it all and can spot a fake from a million miles away, so keep your answers true to life.

    Find a happy medium. Don’t be too stiff or formal, but don’t take it to the other extreme, either. Your admissions essay needs to show you as someone who is ready to be a serious student and who will perform well upon admittance. Avoid using overly casual language.

    Find a fresh set of eyes. Once you’ve completed your essay, find someone else to read it for you. Have them read the prompt several times to understand what to look for in your essay and then let them read it. They’ll be better at picking out mistakes or awkward sentences than you will be after staring at it for hours. You can be your own set of fresh eyes, too. Once you’re finished, put the essay away for several days, or even as long as a week. Come back to it later and read it again. Does it make sense? Is it an accurate representation of who you are?

    Most importantly, don’t forget to breathe. College applications are intimidating, but approach them with a level head and clear thinking and you’ll find that you really know what to say after all.