Personal Statement Essay Workshop
Presented at DeAnza College Writing and Reading Center
October 22 & 23, 2008
Welcome to the WRC! How many of you have been in here before? Well, it’s a great place to know about, and we hope you come back often ;
My name is Carroll McNeill. The last time I gave a talk to this many people was at my son’s high school graduation rehearsal. They all cheered and shouted ―thanks, Mom!‖ at the end, so feel free to do that too when we’re finished. OK?
My background. Have been helping students write application essays for over 15 years. The last 4-5 have been here at DeAnza, which I love. But even more exciting to most students in this audience, I used to work at Stanford & actually served for a year on the Admissions Committee for the Graduate School of Business – long time ago – no ―pull‖
at present, but the application reader experience is still very much the same.
Your time is valuable, so, let’s get started. Do most of you have to be in class elsewhere
Will someone please be sure to tell me when it’s about 11:15? I want to be sure to allow
plenty of time for you to ask questions.
Feel free to leave when you need to if I’m running over, OK?
How many of you are applying to UC?
Private colleges or universities?
All of what I have to say here today will be applicable to UC applications, and most will also be applicable to private universities as well.
How many of you have already started writing or at least brainstorming ideas for your essays?
Good for you. Even if you haven’t, just being here at this workshop is a good beginning.
Give yourself a break and have it done before Thanksgiving weekend . No one will be available on campus for last-minute help. UC server has been known to buckle under the onslaught. Not worth the risk.
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Start early – give yourself lots of time – can’t be done well in a day or even a week – not
unusual to go through 7-10 drafts. Often if you sleep on it a better idea or way of expressing something will come to you. Keep a pad and pencil by the bed for those middle-of-the-might inspirations! Ask for lots of help – and that’s another reason to start
early – the WRC and your faculty advisers will be totally swamped in the final week –
it’s too hard for them to read in-depth and give good advice at the last minute. You will get more of their time and better advice if you approach them early.
So, let’s start by talking about the…
Admission Reading Process
At this time of year, Admission Committee members put in long hours and they have a very short time to read each application. You spend weeks putting your best effort into this. I hate to tell you this, but the whole application will be reviewed in 20 minutes at most.
Often it’s very late at night – they’ve been reading all day – may have one place left and
two applications, equally well-qualified in terms of grades and activities – one has a
strong essay, one does not. Or even let’s say both are pretty good essays, but one is full of
typos and the other has been carefully proof-read. Which do you think will get that one spot?
Grades are the number one qualification. Your transcript is the first thing the reader will look at, then your activities list, then the essay. A strong essay will not get you in if your grades & activities are weak. The most heart-wrenching and well-written hardship story won’t save a lousy transcript. But a dull and poorly written one may keep you out even if
your grades and activities are excellent.
You will hear that at some campuses, and for some majors, if your grades are outstanding, they may never even read your essay, and in fact this is true. But the thing is, you don’t
know which ones those are, and you don’t know if your grades are that much better than
the competition. Even the head of the Admissions Committee could not tell you right this minute if your essay will be read, because *they* don’t know until all the applications are in and they have a chance to compare the number of applicants and the number of openings. For sure, if you are applying to an impacted major, or if you are in that big middle pile (not in at first glance, and not out) then your essay will be crucial.
If your transcript is all A’s, you have been founding President of 6 clubs on campus and
during the summer you built an orphanage in Afghanistan for the 300 children you rescued single-handedly from a terrible mountain avalanche in which all their parents had been killed…Ok fine, you might rightfully assume you have a pretty good chance of being admitted to the school of your choice. But you’d be surprised how many other applicants have all A’s and a stellar set of activities. No pressure, but unless you tell that
orphanage story really well, one of them might just grab that spot you thought was yours.
Every application is read by more than one person. If two agree you’re in (or out,
depending on what they agree on) If they disagree, a third reader will break the tie. Or, depending on the school, sometimes that pile is reviewed & discussed in greater depth in committee
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It’s also, important to remember that scholarship committees will read these essays too.
For the UC prompts, you can divide the thousand words any way you want so long as neither answer is less than 250 words. As long as the total does not go over 1000 words you can divide it 250/750, 500/500/, 600/400 – whatever works best for the information
you need to convey.
We’ve been told there’s about a 5% tolerance, so 1050 *might* be OK, but it’s really best to stick as close to 1000 total as possible.
Do you all know you can count your words while you write them? If you’re using Microsoft Word, go up to where it says ―Tools‖ at the top. Click on that, and then click on the option for ―Word Count‖. It will tell you right away how many words you’ve
written, or you can highlight just a portion of the text and get that information too. This year (2008) for UC transfers -- Prompt #1/ What is your intended major? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had in the field — such as volunteer work, internships and employment, participation in student organizations and activities — and what you have gained from your involvement.
Prompt #2/ Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?
The prompts this year are the same as last year, but may not be the same next year so if there are any freshmen in the audience, don’t start writing just yet!
So, what are these weary but well-meaning people looking for when they read your essays?
They are looking to find out if you are smart enough, will work hard enough and will fit in. Also looking to see what unique contributions you will make to the student body.
For example, in the UC system they have a *lot* of applicants, who are first-generation college students, have come from very different cultural backgrounds, and often have overcome serious hardships to get where they are today. So, can you see how this becomes a very common story? Even though your experience with that story may have been unique, it’s very very difficult to write about that in a way that makes *you* unique.
But if you focus on yourself, who you are, what you have become as a result of that experience rather than the very common experience itself, your essay can set you apart and make your application memorable.
Your essay needs to show (not just tell) them that you are some combination of creative, resourceful, hard-working, intelligent, unique, talented, tenacious, altruistic, committed to a cause you believe in, mature, goal-oriented, introspective, self-confident, receptive to challenges, assertive (but not aggressive!) resilient, either an inspiring leader, or an effective follower, and authentic. Those are all words I have heard application readers use in describing their desired candidates. Piece o’ cake, right?
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So, how in the word do you accomplish this?
Getting Ready to Write:
1) Read examples of good essays such as ―50 Successful Harvard Application Essays‖ or
―Writing an Outstanding College Application Essay‖ which are available at the
library or most local bookstores. You’re reading these not to get ideas for what
you should write about, but to calibrate your brain and set the bar for the kind of
essay you can write about your *own* experiences.
; 10 things you are good at
; Five things that are important to you in life
; What do you hope to be doing ten years from now?
; Five people who have made a difference in your life (why, what did you learn
; Five qualities you think a professor teaching a course in your major would
appreciate seeing in a student
; Five desirable characteristics for someone working in this field
; Why are you choosing your intended major? (Can’t think of anything better/desire
to make money/parents have always wanted me to are *not* the best possible
answers for this one)
; What have you already done to prepare yourself for this major? (If no actual
experience in the field, then when did the lightbulb go off – what made you
decide this was the direction you want to go in life? What intellectual exposure
have you had to the field (books, magazines, discussion around the dinner table,
lab assistant, job shadowing?)
; What do you expect to do with it after you graduate?
If you make these lists before you start to write a single word of your essay, I guarantee you will have less trouble with this assignment than if you just sit down and try to think of something to write.
The Actual Writing:
There’s no one best essay format.
No one best way to write this thing either.
The focus absolutely has to be *you*
Must be your own work – don’t even think about stealing anyone else’s sentences. That’s absolutely sure to backfire on you and you will be blacklisted not only at this school but any other to which you are also applying.
Avoid some common pitfalls:
(I wrote this originally as a list of ―don’t’s – then I came to the advice I was about to give
that it’s important to keep a positive tone, even when you are discussing negative experiences. So I figured I need to set a good example and re-write this list as positive instructions)
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; Avoid re-stating or re-listing things that are already in other parts of the
application. You only have a certain number of words – use them effectively
(don’t waste a single one!)
; Refrain from talking about how great the college is – they already know that –
they want to find out how great *you* are!
; Focus on what you will contribute to the university, and how you hope to put the
education you receive there to good use in the future instead of spending time
talking about what the University will give to you. They look at you as an
investment – of their time and knowledge – use this opportunity to prove to them
that you are a worthy and good investment. This application is really taking the
place of an in-person interview. Answer the questions in a way that really helps
them get to know you.
; Please, I beg of you avoid the words ―epiphany‖ and ―passion‖ like the plague!
Admission readers go nuts over those two words. Out of every thousand
applications probably 834 of them use the word passionate. Readers literally
groan when they see that word. Use a Thesaurus if you have to but by all means
find more creative ways to say you had a revelation that changed your life and
now you are really really enthusiastic about majoring in basket weaving! ; Don’t copy in the words of the prompt – goes against your word count.
; Compose first in a Word doc., not directly onto the on-line application, and fine-
tune it as you go through several revisions. Then cut and paste into application. ; Save your work every 20 minutes or so as you are working on the application –
server times out after 30 minutes (or after 30 min of inactivity?) and if the phone
rings, or you take a break to go walk the dog, you will lose your work. ; Transition statements like ―My interest in Math has been developed by…‖are a
waste of words. Your English teachers may be shocked to learn this, but these
essays do not have to follow all the rules you’ve learned in Writing classes. Not
like a typical essay for English or History class. Does not need thesis statement,
three supporting sentences and a conclusion. Paragraphs do not necessarily even
have to relate directly to each other if you are covering more than one topic. ; Personal difficulties are important formative experiences for many people, but
they can be very difficult to write about. Avoid slipping into ―woe is me‖ mode,
and definitely don’t spend words detailing very much about other people.
(coaches, mentors, family members, even situations) Fine to mention background
information, but be sure to spend most of your words on how that experience
made you who you are today (hopefully a positive outcome) Focus on what you
learned from the experience, not how awful the experience was at the time. ; Read and follow to-the-letter all instructions in the application. ; Write about recent events. On your activities list, it’s generally best not to go back
to high school unless it’s something like a State-level award in a sport or activity
that you are still pursuing at the college level, and the same is true of your essay if
at all possible (sometimes it may not be)
; Information listed elsewhere in the application does not belong in the essays. (No
need to mention ―De Anza College‖ for example – they will already know that’s
where you’re applying from.
; Accomplishments simply listed, without explanation or detail, are not going to
leave a vivid impression on the reader. You are asked to choose one and go into
depth – do so.
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; Gimmicky writing techniques, such as poems usually don’t go over very well.
Stanford once had an application essay submitted that had been written directly on
a coconut and mailed. Memorable, yes, but not at all effective. It was too hard to
; Avoid writing more about an inspirational person than yourself (e.g. your mother,
favorite uncle, etc). We’d love to admit your grandmother, but…
; Stay focused, it’s YOU they want to read about!
; Humor is great if you can pull it off and if it’s logical in the context of your essay.
But avoid being overly humorous; or overly *any*thing actually -- self-
deprecating or glorifying. Just be real.
; No need to demonstrate that you have been raised politely – don’t waste words
saying ―thank you for your time‖ or how happy you will be to get in. I guarantee
you they will not even register those words in their brain and, again, you will have
wasted the opportunity to tell them that many more words about yourself.
; Don’t use Hotmail for your application e-mail address. GMail or Yahoo are much
more reliable & give a more professional impression.
So those were some things to be careful *not* to do. What *should* you do?
Over and over again you will hear that key to a good essay is first two sentences. Must grab readers’ attention!! I cannot stress this strongly enough. As a reader, there were many nights when I was still reading at 2AM after having done nothing else the whole day. Readers are tired. Not only are they physically tired, but they are tired of reading the same thing over and over again. Essential for you to stand out. Not just your essay, but you.
Wake me up. Grab my brain and make it say ―Wow!‖ Make me laugh if you can. It’s
even OK to make me cry. Your objective is to be as compelling and memorable as possible.
I’ll say this again -- Show don’t tell. Much, much more difficult than it sounds but
essential to a really effective essay.
I’m going to read you some examples of ―Show, Don’t Tell‖
Pretend you’re that admissions committee member and it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and you’ve been reading application essays since 8AM, OK?
EXAMPLE: ―I am well-organized, a good leader, a creative thinker, and able to inspire others.‖
Still awake? You kind of have to be willing to take this person’s word for it, don’t you –
and you really don’t feel as though you know them very well.
How about this?
―When I coordinated the district-wide Effective Student Leadership Program, I designed a segment where small-group participants reported out on one aspect of the process, with the result that any participant would then be able to lead a similar workshop at their own school the following year. Repeating this presentation a month later at the State level xx Page 6 8/28/2010
allowed me to have a positive influence on student government organizations at over a hundred schools state-wide.‖
OK, that’s a first draft. It’s a little wordy. If you re-work that paragraph you could cut at
least 1/3 of the words. But can you tell how much better that shows the student’s
strengths rather than just having to take their word for it? Should the writer add that they received an award for this accomplishment? No, they should leave that out because it probably already shows on their activities list.
EXAMPLE: ―I am well-organized, able to motivate others, a good leader, and popular with my peers. As president of the Clean Campus Club it was my responsibility to recruit organize and motivate volunteers every weekend for 9 months.‖
OK, again – take their word for it in the first part, the position as Club President is already on their activities list so that’s a waste of words, and we really don’t get any sense of excitement or personal insight from this, do we.
How about this instead?
―To everyone’s surprise, it was a three way tie! Despite the downpour, all three Clean
and Green teams dashed over the finish line simultaneously just as the timer went off, trash bags overflowing, and laughter exploding from under their wildly-flapping rain slickers. No one had wanted to come out for the activity on this cold and soggy weekend, but later, high-fiving over steaming mugs of hot chocolate at the coffee shop, they all agreed the puddle jumping had been a blast. The memory of their marshmallow-whiskered grins remains even sweeter than my DASB award for having founded the most successful new club on campus that year.‖
If you’re not familiar with this club on campus that’s because I just made it up. But see
how this shows initiative, leadership, organizational skills, ability to motivate, perseverance, ability to set a good example, popularity with peers, reflective thinking, recognition by authorities, *and* creative writing skills?
Which of those two examples seemed more vivid to you? You may not always have the luxury of writing that kind of a story, but if you can use that approach to convey skills, strengths, experiences that are relevant to your application, it’s always to your advantage
to do so.
EXAMPLE: My daughter-in-law is from Vietnam. Her family story is horrific – they were
boat people who experienced some truly unimaginable horrors. Again, a relatively common story in the Bay Area. Here are three different ways she could introduce a personal statement:
―My family came from Vietnam when I was 5‖
Or, she could say ―My family suffered terrible hardships after leaving Vietnam and
coming to America as immigrants‖ Better, but still not very personal – it doesn’t set her
apart and it doesn’t feel especially compelling. No matter what wonderful things she has to say afterwards about how that experience shaped her today. She has failed to grab the reader’s attention.
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But, how about this: ―I had never seen a box of juice before. But, when the kind Canadian
sailor lifted me to safety from my mother’s arms in the middle of the typhoon, he calmed
my terror with the first grape juice I had ever tasted‖
See the difference?
EXAMPLE: Here’s an essay opener my older son could have written: ―The day my younger brother disappeared up to his armpits through a hole in the ice, I seriously considered leaving him there to flounder and freeze to death‖
EXAMPLE: And maybe the best example of all, not only did that younger brother live to write an application essay of his own, but he could have started it by saying ―When I was 19 years old I had testicular cancer‖ Attention getting, maybe, but do you see how he’s
just telling, not showing in that sentence? Much more compelling would be ―My mom
had been telling me for years ―Be sure to check your testicles!‖ so the day I felt that lump I knew something might be wrong.‖ (This is good advice for you guys, by the way)
See? Grab their attention!
Several more really excellent application essay openers:
―I was the only one in the room who had never seen a cadaver before‖
―My heart leaped to attention along with my bow, when the conductor pointed his baton at me and indicated that it was time for my violin solo to begin.‖
―As I stood in line with my elderly grandmother, her prescription in hand, I realized that
not a single person in the waiting room was speaking English‖
―When I raced blindly around the corner of the dilapidated building and saw the barrel of a pistol pointing straight at my head from five feet in front of me, I had no idea that it was only loaded with water.‖
―I spent hours staring at trash‖
―The digital readout on my chronically unreliable alarm clock said 7:32, and I knew I had overslept…again!‖
Although none of those openers directly says anything specific about the writer, each one of them is a good lead-in to an interesting and self-revelatory story which does get to the heart of the applicant who wrote it. Most importantly, they grab the readers’ attention in a
way that almost compels us to read what comes next. Expectant curiosity – that’s your
goal of what to create in the reader’s mind with those opening sentences.
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Third Essay: I also want to say something about the hidden ―third essay‖. If you look through the application you will come to a place where you are offered the opportunity to ―use this space to tell us anything else you want us to know about you or your academic record that you have not had the opportunity to describe elsewhere in the application."
I *strongly* advise you to take advantage of this opportunity!
Imagine again that you are the admission officer. You have one space left in your class, and two applications left in the pile. The one who will stand out most, and thus have the advantage, is the one who has told the reader just a bit more about themselves.
In this section you do not even have to use complete sentences. If you are explaining a gap in your records, it’s OK to say ―father lost job so I needed to work full-time for two
quarters to help support the family‖. If you are explaining an incomplete that is still on
your record: ―car accident three days before finals left me with a broken leg. Was able to complete paper due in one class, but was unable to come to campus for Chemistry final. Expect to resolve incomplete by the end of summer quarter‖
A deaf student with all A’s except for C’s in Spanish class, could explain this in the
comments section – not to evoke sympathy, but create understanding. ―I’m hearing
impaired and was not able to read the instructor’s lips because he had a moustache‖
Or ―Due to budget cuts, the Statistics class required for this major will not be offered again on this campus. I plan to attend summer school at San Jose State to complete these units.‖
Don’t use this section to elaborate on either of the other two essays. Not a place to just
stick an extra few hundred words because you couldn’t squeeze them in on the other questions.
But do use it.
My older son was born with no sense of smell, and had not written about that elsewhere in his application. Although clearly it had no direct bearing on his qualifications for admission, he used that space to write a ―letter to his future roommate‖ about how,
because of this ―disability‖ it wouldn’t matter at all if there were dirty socks or old pizza
boxes under the bed. That was a perfect example of gaining just a little extra ―edge‖, as
well as an opportunity to showcase some of his creative writing skills, and to leave the reader with a smile. Highly desirable, especially at 2AM!
Wrapping it up:
Re-read everything you wrote and for every sentence ask yourself ―Does this tell them
more about me? Overall, does this essay fill in the blanks for the rest of the application? Will they know me better as a result of this essay?
Again, watch the word count closely – if too long, will cut you off in mid-sentence (you
can see if this is happening when you input your essay onto the form – look down at the
bottom and double check that all your words are there.)
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Double check that you have followed every single instruction to the letter. When I worked with Rhodes Scholar applicants at Stanford, I realized something very interesting about the pattern of their awards. The application form had a place, very hard to see, and in very very small print, where you were asked to place a check mark next to three of your five references, indicating the ones that were academic as opposed to personal references. Many students overlooked this seemingly small detail. I did a review of ten years’ worth of applications, and interestingly, every one of the very select group of students who won these awards had followed that instruction. Not a single student who overlooked it had ever made it through the first round of consideration. Was this attention to detail a deal-breaker for the selection committee? Was attention to detail such an important consideration to them that they simply disregarded applicants who failed to follow that direction? We’ll never know.
Read through one more time – final proof-read. Run Spell Check, for sure, but do not rely on it! Read every single word. Reading it aloud is a good way to double check yourself for word use and meaning. Spell Check will not alert you to the difference between ―then‖ and ―than‖. And, oh -- talk about embarrassing…(!)…How about the student who
wrote ―I’m a really confident pubic speaker!‖ That would certainly add diversity to the class, but it was probably not what she really meant to say.
Have other people proof-read it for you, but don’t insult your proof-readers (especially if
one of them happens to be your English teacher – an excellent choice, by the way) by
giving it to them before you’ve done it yourself at least twice. People who know you well,
and will be honest with you, can tell you if it does a good job of conveying who you really are. People who don’t know you very well can do a good job of being objective about the overall feel of the essay. Come back and try to get an appointment here at the WRC to have someone here go over it with you. Thanks to the current budget crisis, Personal Statement advising will be available by appointment only this year, for the first three Fridays in November. You can sign up starting Monday of the first week in November for appointments that following Friday.
Bear in mind, and be prepared for, (a redundancy there – did any of you catch that? I
wasted at least four unnecessary words. And did you hear just now when I said ―wasted‖ and ―unnecessary‖? Another redundancy!) the fact that if you ask five different people for advice, you are likely to get five different sets of answers. In the end, the choice of words, and how to punctuate and spell them is yours -- not your parents’, not your
English teachers, just you. (Describe example of grant application I once did for a local high school which I asked five English teachers to proof-read. No wonder my kids can’t
write right! After culling through the five completely disparate sets of suggestions, in the end I felt confident that at least one expert could be found to support the way I thought it
Important piece of advice – when these people have done you the favor of reviewing your work and have offered their advice, or if you have asked someone to write you a reference letter for some reason, *thank them* afterwards for their time and their help.
Again, observe the deadline – be mindful of possible power outage/computer glitch – do stthnot wait until the very last minute. 12:02 Am Dec 1, is not 11:59 PM Nov 30. They do
not make exceptions. For every late application with a good excuse, they have ten that were on time and didn’t need excuses.
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