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Home > Undergrad > Free Essay Tips and Advice > General Tips


Be Personal
Provide Details
Be Creative
Be Honest
Tell A Story
Avoid Being Dull


Be Personal

The best way to show a committee who you really are is to make your essays personal. When you do this, your essays will automatically be more interesting and engaging, helping you to stand out from the hundreds of others the committee will be reviewing that week.

"Personalize your essays as much as possible – generic essays are not only boring to read, they’re a waste of time because they don’t tell you anything about the applicant that helps you get to know them better."

But what does it mean to make your essay personal? It means that you drop the formalities and write about something that is truly meaningful to you, include a story or anecdote taken from your life, use lots of details and colorful imagery to give it life, and, above all, be honest.

You will find a perfect example of the effectiveness of honesty in an essay you will find in our Grab Bag. This applicant writes an intensely personal account of growing up gay and Asian. He writes about his first crush, about the alienation he has endured, and about trying to suppress his sexuality. He also writes about his growth and development through all these experiences… how he has changed and how his identification with the various stereotypes of homosexuality has defined and limited his world. Importantly, he writes using his own voice and on his own terms, referring to himself at one point, for example, as a "crusading warrior princess." Did he take risks in being as honest as he was? Yes. Did the risk pay off for him? Big time. His essay was rated by our admissions team as the best essay in our entire stock.

It is very important to note, though, that, as one admissions officer put it:

"A personal epiphany, tragedy, life change, or earth shattering event is not essential to a strong essay. True, these topics often tug at the heartstrings and therefore get more notice. But I’ve read essays about a family vacation, a garden, a grandmother – even a pen! – that I’ve thought have been fabulous."

This cannot be stressed enough. Personal does not have to mean heavy, or emotional, or even inspiring. Only a small minority of students will truly have had a life-changing event to write about. Perhaps they have spent time living abroad or have experienced death or disease from close proximity. But this is the exception, not the rule.

In fact, students who rely too heavily on these weighty experiences often do themselves an injustice. They don’t think about what has really touched them or interests them because they are preoccupied with finding the topic that they think will impress the committee. They write about their grandfather’s death because they think that only death (or the emotional equivalent) is significant enough to make them seem deep and mature. But what often happens is they rely on the experience itself to speak for them and never explain what it meant to them or give a solid example of how it changed them. In other words, they don’t make it personal.

Comparing the different reactions should help you better understand what it means to "get personal" in your essay. But it can still be a hard quality to achieve and even harder to recognize in your own writing. One way to gauge the effect of your essay is to have someone objective – preferably someone who doesn’t already know you well – read it over when you have finished. Ask them if they got a sense of the kind of person you are, or if they were able to picture you as they were reading. Then ask them if the person they pictured is someone that they would want to spend the next four years with!


Provide Details

One way to make your essay instantly more personal and interesting is to use plenty of details. An essay without details is like pizza without sauce. It might fill you up but who wants to eat it?

"Details provide the color, the spice, and the life of the essays."

Using detail means getting specific. Each and every point that you make needs to be backed up by specific instances, examples, and scenarios taken from your experience. It is these details that make your story special, unique, and interesting. There is an essay in our Globe Trotters package, for example, written by someone who knew how to use details to bring his essay to life. He is very specific, even from the first sentence. He boarded a plane at "the end of July of ‘95" that took him from "Cincinnati, Ohio, to Nairobi, Kenya." Then he really expands into colorful detail in the third paragraph, describing the "hippos floating like rocks in Lake Victoria" and the "flamingos balancing knee-deep in a salt-lake." He didn’t just climb a mountain, he "hiked 17,000 feet above sea level to the peak of Mt. Kenya." This whole paragraph could have easily been boiled down to: "Living in Africa for a year was an unforgettable experience that taught me many things." This is the difference between a fun, interesting treatment of a story, and a real yawner.

Using detail also means that you back up all your claims and assertions with tangible evidence or descriptions of results. Use actual experiences or even numbers and statistics if you have them. If you have started a bridge club, for example, as one of the students in our Hobbies and Extracurricular package did, then give specific evidence of its success: "Sixteen new students learned how to play bridge; five enjoyed the game so much that they are now frequent players at duplicate games."

Many applicants write lists of the qualities they think make them unique. But all they ever really do is assert that they have these qualities. They tell us that they have them, but don’t show us.

"Give me one concrete example of a change you’ve already made. Be genuine enough to give the reader a good faith deposit on your lofty proclamations. As the saying goes, ‘if you’re gonna talk the talk, you better walk the walk.’"


Be Creative

Being different is easier than you think – after all, you are a unique person. Showing you are different is harder, but this is what will make your essay stand out. To accomplish this, it pays to take calculated risks.

"Applicants should not be afraid to go out on a limb and be themselves – even when that means incorporating humor or being a little bit controversial. They are so often afraid of making the correct impression that they edit out anything that would help their essay stand out. They submit a ‘safe’ essay that is, in reality, sterile, monotonous, and deadly boring."

Just as you need not have had an emotional, life-altering experience to make your essay personal, you also do not need to have had an unusual upbringing or background to have an unusual or interesting essay. If there is not a single thing about yourself that you feel is markedly different from any other student, don’t despair. In the end it is the way that you write about your topic that will make you interesting and unique, not what you write about. So even if you feel like you are Mr. or Ms. Joe Bloe Boring, you can still be creative by coming up with an interesting slant on an ordinary life event.

There is an essay in our Creative Types package that demonstrates an excellent example of this. The author writes about something that all of us do on a regular basis: showering. But she writes about her topic creatively enough to have gotten her into not just one, but a number of top schools.

One word of caution. In an effort to make yourself sound more unique or interesting, you may be tempted to create an image of yourself that looks great on paper but isn’t exactly accurate. It is great to be creative and different, but it far more important to be honest.


Be Honest

This point should be upheld without exception. Nothing about the application process could be more simple, more straightforward, or more crucial than this: be honest, forthright, and sincere. Admissions officers will not tolerate hype. Do not try to create a larger-than-life impression of yourself or, worse yet, of someone you think the committee would accept. You will be perceived as immature at best and unethical at worst.

"After 15 years of reading hundreds of essays a year, you develop an amazing ability to see straight through the bull."

Some of the essayists in this volume go so far in being honest that they admit to weaknesses, mistakes, and other instances that could be seen as drawbacks, even when they are not specifically asked to do so. One of the essayists from our packages, for example, writes: "I must admit that my record was not very impressive. Never before had I completed anything. I played soccer. I quit. I was a Cub Scout. I quit. I played trumpet. I quit. Karate was all I had left." His honest approach worked because it helped to explain the drive and ambition that pushed him to train for his fight. Note that he demonstrated that he did finally commit to something (karate in this case). That way, he highlights growth rather than failure.

But don't misunderstand us: being sincere does not mean that you have to admit to your every folly. Drawing attention to negatives is not a requirement of truthfulness – you can be honest and still be completely positive about yourself and your qualifications. Ultimately, it is a very personal decision. If you do call attention – in any way – to your drawbacks, be sure to get plenty of feedback from an objective person before you send your essay in. You should feel confident that you have addressed these weaknesses with finesse and have not weakened your stance.


Tell A Story

Incorporating a story into your essay can be a great way to make it interesting and enjoyable. The safest and most common method of integrating a story into an essay is to tell the story first, then step back into the role of narrator and explain why it was presented and what lessons were learned. The reason this method works is that it forces you to begin with the action. It can be tempting to write an introductory paragraph before you begin the story – but resist! These introductions rarely work.

"The applicant should never begin an essay with grand proclamations, about the nature of man and the universe. Tell a simple story and let the reader make inferences from it."

"If the first paragraph doesn’t fix my attention, like anyone doing required reading, I’m prone to begin skimming."

There are many examples in all of our packages of people who have done this well. Some writers choose a more daring approach and write their entire essay as a story, without ever stepping out of the action. One of the applicants featured in our Grab Bag package does this, and writes purely in the context of a hospital visit. There is literally no explanatory text offered. Most of the admissions officers enjoyed this essay. One "absolutely loved it," and notes the "smooth transitions" and "crisp imagery." Another, though, remarked that "it doesn’t say much of anything!" and it "is sweet, but I don’t know quite what to make of it."

If you are not comfortable writing an actual story or piece of action into your essay, you can still add interest by writing your essay to read like a story. One way to do this is to soften the language that you use… write with your real voice, informally, as though you were telling someone a story.

"Use a conversational style and easy-to-understand language to project a genuine, relaxed image."

"Make sure that your essay is readable. Don’t make us work. Give your essay momentum – make sure the parts work together and move to a point, carrying the reader along."

Like all advice, though, take this with a grain of salt. Going too far with an informal voice or incorporating humor can rub some committees the wrong way. They want to know that you are taking the process seriously. Plus, humor is highly individual – what is funny to you might be offensive to an admissions officer.

"Humor is a powerful tool, so use it wisely. Gimmicks are a big mistake, and a sarcastic or flippant tone will often offend, but real humor, inventiveness and dry wit are always in good taste."


Avoid Being Dull

"Don’t bore us! More often it is the monotonous style, and not the subject matter, that makes these essays dull."

This was by far the number one "don’t" on the list. This pitfall is, again, the result of writing for some stereotyped image of what schools want. Even the most interesting or impressive topic can be killed by writing in a dry, academic style.

"What do I hate? Large words used clumsily. Colorless adjectives and weak verbs. Long lists of activities and accomplishments."

One way to avoid this trap is to put your thesaurus away. Make it a rule only to use it when a specific word is right on the tip of your tongue but you can’t quite remember what it is. Whatever you do, do not use a thesaurus to find big words that you think will make you sound smarter.

"[One student used the] word ‘travails’ in the first sentence [and I wondered if it] was actually the first word that came to the author’s mind. It sounded immediately to me as though he had checked a thesaurus for a fancier word than ‘trials’ or ‘problems,’ and it sounded unnatural and forced. As a rule, try not to use words that you wouldn’t use in normal conversation."

Another pitfall that results in a dull essay is to do little more than list activities, interests, or achievements that can be found elsewhere in your file.

"Listings of anything are dull, no matter how impressive. Save them for the other parts of your application."

It is okay to write about an award or honor (some questions specifically ask for it), but be sure to reveal something about yourself in the process. Tell a story about what it took to get you there and how it has affected you since. Otherwise, you might get a response like this one: "Blah. Tells me little more than I would otherwise get from a list of extracurricular activities."

"[Avoid writing] an ‘I did this and I did that’ type of essay.… Essays should be about more than a running tally of accomplishments."


 
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