by David Kurz
Looking back on my 17-year old life, I remember feeling a mix of uncertainty and pressure when it came time to write the college essay. In my experience, the personal statement was uniquely difficult because – unlike SATs, GPA, AP scores, and academic achievements – it was subjective, biased, and supremely personal. My college essay sometimes seemed like a blank sheet staring me in the face, daring me to be creative, fluid, and self-revealing in the midst of a high-stakes application. The good news is that, eventually, I was able to turn this daunting undertaking into a fun exercise that let me express my personality better than any other piece of my application.
I remember deciding that I wanted my essay to capture something about me that spoke to how I was singular. Something that only Dave Kurz could write. I recall leaning back in my chair, looking around, and thinking to myself: “What makes me different?” What I settled on certainly wasn’t perfect, but it did fit the criterion I had laid out for myself; my essay literally could not have been written by anybody else because of the distinctive way only I could unite various aspects of my life story. In my case, this meant writing about everything from Hungarian history to Spanish classes to soccer to kayaking to jazz trumpet to faith, and how they had all come together to make me who I was. I also included some minor details about my life that weren’t important in their own right – for instance, my high school habit of grabbing frozen waffles while running out the door – but added a personal touch to the writing. The key was not really what I wrote about, but how my writing captured my personality.
[Continue reading for Dave’s advice, and additional tips and resources]
My Advice: Be Yourself!
With that said, here’s the best advice I can give if you’re pondering how to approach the college essay: Be Yourself! Many students feel a need to present themselves in a professional or sophisticated light in order to knock the socks off stuffy, robotic admissions officers who live a dull existence chained up in dungeons miles from light and fresh air. They think that pressing the right buttons or saying the right phrases will unlock a magical code that grants them a check-plus on the essay and an inside track to acceptance at their dream school.
The truth is that admissions officers are generally normal people who live normal lives and care about normal things! They play backyard football, laugh in front of the TV, enjoy ham-and-mushroom omelets, and crack crude jokes. I say all this to emphasize that they appreciate you for who you are, rather than for who you think they want you to be (read that twice if you need to). Janet Rapelye, Dean of Admissions at Princeton, talks about how she loves it when a college essay sounds like it’s written by a 17-year old. After all, that’s who you are when you apply! At this stage, there’s no need to come across as a polished Wall Street exec or knowledgeable medical researcher (give it a few years first).
Some Additional Tips
- Chill out! You’ll write best when you’re relaxed and the creative juices are flowing
- Keep a notebook of ideas so you can jot down potential topics as they come to mind
- Humor can definitely help! Don’t be afraid to go for a few laughs
- You don’t have to write an autobiography.. A good essay might only touch on one or two personal interests or characteristics
- Ask the question: “What makes me special or interesting? What makes me different?”
Finally, to learn more check out:
- On Writing the College Application Essay: The Key to Acceptance and the College of your Choice by Harry Bauld
- 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays, Third Edition: What Worked for Them Can Help You Get into the College of Your Choice by Staff of the Harvard Crimson
About the author: Dave is a junior at Princeton majoring in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and tutors with Princeton Tutoring. He enjoys writing and has recently seen two scientific papers accepted by well-respected, peer-reviewed journals. As a high school senior, he was accepted to some of the nation’s top universities. When Dave isn’t running around the rainforest or coral reef looking for animals, he is often blogging about his junior year abroad at http://dkurz.blogspot.com/