Many anxious questions bounce around seniors’ minds every fall—mostly about their college application essays. How does a person conclude a college essay? Is it good to end an essay with a summary? Is it good to end an essay with a question? Specifically, how should you begin your Common App essay? And, just as important—how to end your Common App essay?
Honestly, these are the wrong questions. To know how to end a Common App essay, you have to know how to begin it. To begin it, you also must know how to carry it through the middle. In short, there’s no part that’s more important than any other. They’re all linked together.
A person who leaves a lasting impression with an admissions official will understand all of this.
Let’s talk about essay structure, but not academic essay structure. Let’s talk about college application essay structure.
You probably already feel comfortable with writing an academic essay. Our schools do a good job of burning that structure into the minds of middle- and high school students all over the nation. You know the drill, but let’s review it: Start with introduction (always end with the thesis!), go to body paragraph 1, then body paragraph 2, then body paragraph 3, and finally the conclusion (always provide a restated thesis). You might even have been taught to preview your points in the introduction, and then review your points in the conclusion as well. That’s a mistake, but let’s skip over that for now.
Well, the college application essay isn’t an academic essay, not like that. It isn’t even referred to as an essay. The Common Application calls it “the personal statement”. The University of California calls theirs “personal insight questions”.
What does that mean for you? Don’t fall into mental routines that your teachers have built inside your head. Academic essay structure has almost no relationship to college application writing. This is hard for some of us to accept.
Yes, there is some overlap between academic writing and college application writing. One, you should use claim and evidence in both. This means that if you make a general statement, you should follow it up with concrete evidence. Two, you should strive for as much specificity as possible. Writing the villain kicked the dog is general; writing the villainous stepfather stupidly kicked the angry pit bull is specific. And three, the so-called “cycle of evidence” remains the same for both types of writing: 1) set up the evidence, 2) provide the evidence, then 3) analyze the evidence. That’s so important that it bears repeating: you should always provide original, incisive analysis following your evidence.
But in most other ways, the personal statement (or personal insight questions) are exactly that: personal. You have to provide some stories about your life, and stories aren’t academic. If it feels like a journal, well, that’s because it is—a very insightful, smart, well-written journal.
The structure of the personal statement is flexible. Below you will find one structure that you can rely upon, no matter what topic you select. It’s not mandatory, but many high school students have relied upon it.
- Paragraph 1: Begin with an anecdote from your life, a moment of conflict. Write it using sensory description.
- Paragraph 2: Go backwards in time, into the background. Describe your experience in this topic, maybe including your childhood. Talk about how you ultimately arrived at that moment of conflict.
- Paragraph 3: Explain how you resolved the moment of conflict, and what sort of tools (emotional, intellectual, physical) you developed to do that.
- Paragraph 4: Story time is over. This is the place to show off your intelligence. Analyze your experience, relate it to other experiences via analogies, ask rhetorical questions. Be sure to give them the best of your brain.
- Paragraph 5: The future. Discuss what you’ve learned from your experience in this topic, and how it’s going to influence you at university, in your career, and beyond.
Remember that admissions officials read these personal statements by the truckload every night. Yours is, for better or worse, being compared with every other personal statement in the stack. If you follow this structure, you will leave a lasting impression with your statement.
What you can do to get better at writing college admissions personal statements
The best thing you can do is to read other people’s personal statements. There are many books and websites full of sample essays. Read the good, read the bad, read the in-between. Read them with friends. Read at least twenty. Ask yourself where they succeeded and where they failed. Ask yourself why.
Another thing you can do is to write multiple versions of the same personal statement. Approach it from different perspectives, using different tones and different outlines. If you’re a perfectionist, this exercise will be especially helpful. It’ll teach you that perfection is impossible in the world of writing. It’ll also teach you the importance of the idea that the perfect is the enemy of the good. (Better to be on the side of the good.)
To improve the versatility of your writing skills, try doing a few exercises looking at the same topic from different modes, or points of view.
Let’s pick a silly topic. Say you want to persuade the reader not to buy a hippopotamus. (It’s not that silly: they’re angry, aggressive creatures.) You could challenge yourself to write about the topic in several ways:
- Compare and Contrast. Pit a hippopotamus against a parrakeet.
- Process Analysis. Lead us through the laborious process of taking care of a hippopotamus.
- Poetic. Wax lyrical about the semiaquatic mammal’s horrid nature.
- Argumentative. Write a classic persuasive essay, with claim and evidence, why we should steer clear of them.
- Informative. Select facts that illustrate their nasty nature, but don’t comment or analyze.
You get the picture. A mature writer should be able to mine his or her own experience, then shape it to whatever is needed.
One thing you shouldn’t do is rely upon artificial intelligence. AI tools are good at producing slick sentences, but they’re bad at presenting details, transmitting emotion, or analyzing experience. Its output text lacks personality, which makes sense, since AI doesn’t have a personality (for now). Besides, why would you want to hand over control of the most important essay you’ll probably ever write to somebody or something else? Keep that power for yourself.
First drafts should be expansive and fun. They should also contain more words than needed.
Let that sink in. Always write more than you need; this allows you the wiggle room to edit unneeded words out of the essay. Sometimes applicants know the Common Application word count limit is 650 words, and then panic when their first draft goes to 700 words. In reality, that’s not enough: write 800 words, at the very least, for the first draft.
When editing down, there are two types of edits: structural and line-by-line. Do the structural edits first. Sit with an experienced editor and decide if every part of the personal statement has meaning to the whole outcome. Be ruthless; if it’s off topic, cut it.
After that, if you still need to reduce, do a line-by-line edit. This is a fine art that can be learned. Read the following first draft:
“Yes, of course I know how,” is what I said to my research mentor when he asked me if I knew how to optimize the XRD. The truth was, I did not know how to optimize the XRD, and so I went back to my computer 2 minutes later and went through 3 youtube videos and a catalogue of how to optimize an XRD, simply because I did not want him to think less of me.
That’s 76 words. Here’s an edited second draft:
I looked my research mentor in the eye and lied, saying that I absolutely knew how to optimize the XRD. I was afraid to disappoint him, and YouTube is the world’s secret teacher anyways.
That’s only 34 words. It contains the same ideas, delivered in less than half the words. You can learn to do this too. How?
- Replace dependent clauses with phrases or single adjectives
- Use a single well-chosen and sophisticated verb instead of ten less precise words
- Reduce the repetition: optimize the XRD is used three times in the first draft, but only once in the second draft
Some people can do this alone; others need some editorial help.
Finally, we come back to the first question—how do you end your personal statement with a bang? There are many choices. You could end with a general statement of positivity about the future. You could end by repeating the lesson you’ve learned from your experience, and how you want to carry it into the future. Or you could end the way that this blog has ended—by returning to the first idea you stated, and finally answering the question that it poses.
Whichever way you choose, remember that your personal statement is probably the most important piece of writing you will do in high school—so take care that it is the best it can possibly be!
If you’re interested in personalized assistance to make your essay shine, please check out out our College Essay Help service.
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