How to Write a Personal Essay for College

Despite the fact that we still have a few days before the official start of autumn, we have a feeling that the season has already begun. Classes resumed, leaves fell from the trees, and most of our consultants went to a two-month marathon of flights, visits to high school, and college fairs, which we call the travel season.

In addition, thousands of high school students across the country have begun the process of filling out college applications. Regardless of whether one of your applications is submitted to Vanderbilt, we would like to offer you some tips that we have gained by working with students and evaluating applications over the years.

Today’s tips focus on the personal essay.

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Be thoughtful, but not fretful.

As a senior, most of the achievements that will make up the bulk of your application — academic performance, test results, and participation in extracurricular programs — are said and done. In a sense, the only part of the application that you are currently in full control of is the essay. Do not let this scare you! Although an essay is a valuable tool that we use to better understand you, it is rarely, if ever, a component of “making or breaking” your application.

Keep the “personal” in a personal essay.

The general application presents six different tips for choosing when writing an essay. To be honest, we don’t really care about what you write about if you write about yourself. In other words, do not waste the entire article on the details of the life of your beloved and most experienced family member, but rather focus on how this person influenced you and your life decisions. Do not give a detailed description of your favorite community service trip, but tell us what you learned from this trip and how it changed your outlook on the world. This is one time you can be selfish – more than anything, we want to know about you!

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Don’t try to guess what the reader wants to hear.

If you ask one hundred different admission officers what their favorite type of essay is, you are likely to get one hundred different answers. Trying to figure out which topic will cause us the most excitement is like trying to guess which suits the Project Runway judges will like the most – regardless of how many times we watch, Heidi always manages to laugh. Instead of trying to play the system, focus on what excites you. If nothing else, I promise that passion will manifest.

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Feel free to be funny or creative – but don’t overreach.

If your friends tell you that you are the funniest person in the class, use this skill to your advantage. If your creative approach makes you different from your peers, let this innovation guide the structure and content of the essay. On the other hand, if every joke you make at the table in the dining room turns out to be flatter than pancakes in the Panini press, do not try to fake it. Find out what your personal strengths are and stick to them.

Tell us something we don’t already know.

When writing your essay, be sure to remember all the other parts of your application that we already have in front of us while we read it. Do not use this place to take stock of your extracurricular activities or your academic achievements if we have already seen this in your resume and transcript. We know that there is more to you than just test results and leadership roles, so tell us more!

Ask for input (but not too much).

Your parents, friends, counselors, instructors, and teachers are great people who can reflect ideas for your essay. They know how unique and entertaining you are and can help you decide how to articulate it. Keep in mind, however, that a 45-year-old lawyer does not write at all like an 18-year-old student, so if your dad ends up writing most of your essay, we will probably notice.

Edit, proof, polish, and breath.

In addition to understanding your personal psyche, the purpose of the essay is also to demonstrate your written communication skills. Treat this essay in the same way as any classroom assignment – write it in advance, check and correct it, keep track of spelling and grammar errors and make sure that it is presented cleanly and flawlessly. At the same time, do not call our office in a panic if you find a missing article or incorrectly use your own after clicking send. Due to our holistic selection process, no student will be refused on the basis of one element of his or her application; this includes typos.

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