I often get questions from students and parents who wonder why a strong personal statement is so important. After all, their students have good grades in solid courses (that is, academic core courses such as math, science, English, foreign language, social studies). They probably have AP or IB courses or took some classes at the community college.
The essay is important for at least two reasons.
First, students self-select what schools to apply to. They apply to those schools that interest them for any number of reasons and those schools where they have a chance, even a small one, of getting accepted. If your student with great grades and solid classes is applying to University Z, that means many other students, with similar grades, test scores and classes, are applying there as well. The competition then, is strong. What makes a student stand out is what they show the admissions committee about themselves – and that comes from the essay and the activities list.
Second, colleges have merit scholarships they offer to their best and brightest incoming freshman. The competition for those dollars is fierce. If everyone who is eligible has a 4.0 GPA, 2000 combined or better on the SAT or 31 or better on the ACT, how do they choose who will receive the scholarship? That’s right, they look at the other qualities a student has that makes them stand out among their peers.
Sometimes those other qualities may be so compelling and well-told that they can make a difference for a student with slightly lower scores or grades. (More so for admissions than for merit scholarships.)
So, when your student (or you!) sit down to write your college essays and activities list, take the time to make it the best you can.
If you want helpful tips, join one of my webinars for students or parents. Details can be found here.
Proofeading: a lost art? A waste of time now that there’s spell check? No – I say! Proofreading essays (reports, papers, any written communication) is important.
First, let me say that as an English major, I have a hard time using text lingo, the small “i,” no capitals, and other language shortcuts for quick communication. I will adjust, but for now I will spell things out. (OMG!) I do proofread my emails, professional communication always and personal most times, because I want to be clear about what I say. I may think I have the most interesting story to tell, but if no one can understand it, what good is the telling?
I have found that humans make the best proofreaders. Spell check is a useful tool, absolutely, but it can be dangerous if used on its own. I have read essays from people I thought were pirates based on their writing. They had sentences everywhere talking about “packing me bags for an adventure,” and “going to me friends house.” Thought they didn’t add the words “Aaaarrrrr matey,” I read the sentence with those words tacked on the end and pictured the writer sitting, typing along with a parrot on his shoulder. Why do they talk like pirates (when they are not – I checked the application)? It’s because they relied on spell check to catch their errors.
Spell check skips “pirate talk” because me is a word. Sure you’re supposed to type in “my” but spell check doesn’t care. In another essay a student thought they wrote about how their mom “puts in many hours at work.” But instead, she wrote that her mom “put sin…“!! I don’t know about you, but when I read the words, mom, sin and work in the same sentence, I do wonder what the subject of the essay is going to be!
Another issue I’ve noticed in my own writing is the auto-correct feature. Have you ever had a word automatically corrected to another word that isn’t a thing like what you were trying to write? Imagine writing to your friend, Heike, and it changes her name to Heifer. Not good! I wrote something to my sister about my mother having ice cream anemia! What is that?
So, ask people who you trust and who write well to take a look at your essays and proofread them. And if you want one final check, ask a friend to read your essay aloud to you. That way you can hear if you’re talking like a pirate!
Good writing to you!
Zinjenzo – The College (And Scholarship!) Application Guru
Ever have to start a paper and the cursor on the blank computer screen blinks at you tauntingly, “ha, ha – you can’t start, neener, neener!” Here are some ways to stop the taunting!
First of all, make sure you have the right attitude when you sit down to write, whether you type on the computer or write the old-fashioned way of taking pen to paper. Don’t add pressure when writing your college or scholarship application essays by thinking that you will sit down and write the best essay in the history of the world on your first try. Say to yourself, “I will now write a crappy first draft” and feel the stress leave you. Even the greatest writers have editors and have to do rewrites. Expect that you’ll have to do a few yourself.
Brainstorm, mind-map, make an outline, use bullet points. You can sit down and use any of these techniques to get your ideas down quickly without worrying about grammar, spelling or punctuation. Brainstorming about a topic you can write about is especially helpful because sometimes your first idea for a topic is not your best idea.
You can’t do anything with a blank page. You have to write something, anything, before you can add, delete, spell check, or proofread. Even if you sit down and free-write or stream of consciousness write (writing everything in your head, even if you start with “I don’t know what to write but I’m supposed to be thinking about…,”) that will get something on the paper. Set a timer and plan to write for just 5 minutes. You may find that once you get going, the words will flow.
Leave time for multiple drafts. Good essays, those that win scholarships, take some time to write. Anne Lamott, in her book Bird By Bird, says that “your first draft is your down draft; write it down. Your second draft is your up draft; fix it up.” Then you’ll need time to get the help of others to proofread your work. Of course, you wouldn’t give your essay to someone the night before it’s due, right? You want to show them respect and give them a few days to look it over.
These are just a few ideas to get started on your essay with the right attitude. If you have tricks that help you, let me know. I’d love to learn from you.
Good writing to you!
Zinjenzo – The College (and Scholarship) Application Guru
Yes, grammar, punctuation and spelling all count in your college and scholarship essays. But it’s even more important to talk about yourself. Often when I proofread essays for clients, I have to remind them to add “more YOU!”
To make sure you are writing about yourself, use “I” statements. Don’t write about how “one” might do something, or “you” should know something. We, the essay readers, are looking for information on who you are, what’s meaningful to you, what makes you tick.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you want to write about a person who is very important to you. That’s a good topic to select (provided you are following the directions and answering the essay prompt). But I don’t want to know all about this special person, I want to know about you! I’ve read too many essays about how incredible someone’s mom is – working two jobs, going back to school, raising three kids as a single mom – and at the end of the essay, I’m ready to give the scholarship to mom! Not the student who wrote the essay. The key is to tell the reader a little bit about what makes this person important to you, and then to write about what you learned from that person, why they are special to you, and then how you took what you learned from him/herand applied it to your life.
Another great way to tell your story and make your essay unique is to give specific details from your experiences to illustrate your story. How many high school grads applying to college could write “I am a leader,” then talk about what leadership means to them using words like organization, communication, and responsibility?? I would say thousands of students could!!
But let’s say you talk about leadership and give examples from your experience. “I am a leader. As captain of the football team I knew what it meant to motivate my teammates at practice and games. But then I tore my ACL in the second game of the year, and I couldn’t practice or play. I was still the captain but I had no idea how to help the team now. I discovered that being with the team was important and helping the new guy who took my position learn all my tricks was the way to lead. Bruce, my backup, was just a freshman and he was so nervous taking over my spot. I wanted to teach him what I knew and had learned for the last four years so our quarterback could stay upright and not be sacked. (I’m an offensive lineman and my main job is blocking.) So whenever Bruce came to me, I’d talk about the next team we were playing and the opposing player’s strengths and weaknesses….”
Or perhaps you are a leader within your family. “I am a leader. It’s my responsibility to get my brother and sister to day care and school every weekday. Let me tell you, that’s no walk in the park! One day, my brother the kindergartner is trying to be helpful by making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and so there’s peanut butter all over the kitchen and all over him. My sister, who is supposed to be in her room, is wandering around the house naked with a box of Cheerios, leaving a trail for the dog to follow. But my mom works hard, goes to work by 6am, and is studying for her college classes, so the least I can do is help her out in the mornings. Besides, as crazy as it is, I enjoy watching my brother and sister grow up….”
Both students are writing about leadership, but the examples they give allow me, the reader, to see a snapshot of their lives. The stories they tell also show me what is unique about them and their lives. When you are competing for admission to college and scholarship dollars, you want to send in an essay that only you could write. Your personal examples make the essay unique to you.
Those are my tips for now! Good writing and good luck with admissions and scholarship essays!
Zinjenzo – The College (and Scholarship) Application Guru
Once upon a time, when I sat down to write – a blog, a paper, my personal statement for grad school – I thought that my first draft was going to be the most well-written document in history, publishable the moment I finished. This self- induced pressure to have everything worked out in my head before committing it to paper was a nightmare. This pressure cooker experience lead to my head exploding and meltdowns more often than I care to remember.
Now, I know not to put so much pressure on myself. I expect my first draft to have a few gems (okay, at least one) and many areas in need of improvement. I’ve come to understand that the perfect thought in my head gets rather messed up as it travels down my arm, to my fingers, and on to the computer.
So, I take the advice of the writer, Anne Lamotte, in her book Bird By Bird. “The first draft is the down draft – you just write it down. The second draft is the up draft – you fix it up.”
This quotation freed my writing and has the power to free your writing. Don’t expect greatness when you sit down to write your first go at the topic. Plan to put down all the things you can think of on your subject, not necessarily in order, or properly punctuated or spelled correctly. This first stage is the brain dump, like taking all the pieces out of the jigsaw puzzle box. Just like the picture on the puzzle box you have the clear picture in your head of what the end project will look like, but at first, the puzzle and your writing is a big mess of jumbled pieces.
The first draft is sorting the puzzle pieces so you can see the different colors and get the edge and corners done. Then as you work, the puzzle comes together and the picture looks more and more like what’s on the box. It’s the same when you write. First get everything written down. Then sort through what you’ve written looking for the pieces that are clear and you know exactly where they go (those edge pieces).
After that, you rewrite until the picture in your head matches what you’ve written on paper. Then you share what you’ve written with others for more proofreading! It’s not an easy process, but nothing worth doing well ever is. As for me, I just hope all this makes sense to you and gives you a helpful tip or two for your writing.