The Personal Essay
Next to grades, the personal essay is the key element to a student's application. Yet, all students struggle with writing it. Unlike analytical papers written for literature and history classes, the personal essay does not follow a rubric, it is not formulaic in any way. This actually makes it more difficult to write as there is no template or outline to follow.
Self-reflection is crucial
The self reflection that the essay requires of students further exacerbates their apprehension and uncertainty. Writers need to share specific stories, anecdotes, and experiences. To do this effectively, the student must dig deep and use words that may feel slightly uncomfortable. They must show that through this introspection they have come to understand themselves. The qualities and experiences unique to the writer help colleges learn more about the applicant and why this student belongs on their campus.
Probably the hardest part of writing this essay is getting enough detail on paper. Students tend to write in general, vague, even cliché-d terms. A lot of words that say basically nothing. My role is to pull those details out because they are always in there. Once prodded, students recite wonderful, exciting, dramatic stories that come to life on paper. I encourage as many visuals as possible so the reader can truly “see” and “feel” what the writer is relating. The more the reader feels, the more effective the essay.
Layering with many drafts
Writing is a process that takes time and perseverance and many drafts. But this is precisely what students heading off to college need to learn. The essays, research papers, theses, they must compose even as college freshmen will require several drafts, each one adding greater support to the previous draft. With the personal essay, each layer adds clarity and conviction culminating in a compelling narrative that flows smoothly, but also touches.
The “Why X College” Essay
While some supplemental essays ask the applicant to respond creatively to a prompt or to reflect on a given quote or statement, the vast majority of supplemental essays simply ask the student to describe why he/she wants to attend that college.
The best responses include two important points: specific interest and good fit. Students must devote time to digging through the school webpages for academic content (interesting classes, professors' research, internship opportunities) and for social content (student clubs, service activities, campus life). Applicants must ask themselves: what does this college offer that satisfies me socially? intellectually? environmentally? Addressing these questions in a persuasive manner accomplishes the specific interest component of the essay.
Once the student has identified these specific details it's even stronger to add context through personal experience with those details. If the applicant can build a bridge from where he is right now to where he will be in the next few years, the more genuine interest will shine through and the more obvious the good fit becomes.