How To Start Off A College Personal Essay Format

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How To: Write Your Personal Essay


Posted by Carolyn Pippen on Wednesday, September 11, 2013

While we still have a few more days until the official beginning of fall, around here it feels a lot like the season has already begun. Classes are back in session, the leaves are falling off the trees, and most of our counselors have departed for the two-month marathon of flights, high school visits, and college fairs that we call travel season.

In addition, thousands of high school seniors across the country have begun the process of filling out college applications. Regardless of whether or not one of your applications will be submitted to Vanderbilt, we would like to offer you a few nuggets of the expertise we have acquired working with students and evaluating applications over years.

Thus we give you: The “How To” Series. Over the next several weeks, we will be posting lists of tips concerning various pieces of the application that we hope will make this process a little less overwhelming for all of you. Today’s tips focus on the personal essay.

  • Be thoughtful, but not fretful. As a senior, most of the accomplishments that will make up the bulk of your application – academic performance, test scores, and extracurricular involvement – are said and done. In a sense, the only part of the application over which you have complete control right now is the essay. Don’t let this scare you! While the essay is a valuable tool that we use to understand you better, it is rarely if ever a “make or break” component of your application.
  • Keep the “personal” in personal essay. The Common Application presents six different prompts for you to choose from when writing your essay. To be honest, we don’t really care that much what you write about, as long as you’re writing about you. In other words, don’t spend the entire essay detailing the life of your favorite and most accomplished family member, but rather focus on how that person has affected you and your life decisions. Don’t give us a detailed narrative of your favorite community service trip, but instead tell us what you learned from that trip and how it has changed your outlook on the world. This is one time when it’s okay to be self-centered – more than anything, we want to know about you!
  • Don’t try to guess what the reader wants to hear. If you ask a hundred different admissions counselors what their favorite kind of essay is, you will likely get a hundred different answers. Trying to figure out what topic will get us most excited is like trying to guess which outfits the judges of Project Runway are going to like the most – no matter how many times we watch, Heidi always manages to confound. Instead of trying to game the system, focus on the things that get you excited. If nothing else, I promise that passion will show through.
  • Feel free to be funny or creative – but don’t overreach. If your friends tell you that you’re the funniest person in the class, use that skill to your advantage. If your creativity is what sets you apart from your peers, let that innovation guide the structure and content of the essay. On the other hand, if every joke you make at the cafeteria table falls flatter than a pancake in a Panini press, don’t try to fake it. Figure out what your personal strengths are, and stick with them.
  • Tell us something we don’t already know. When writing your essay, be sure to keep in mind all of the other pieces of your application we already have in front of us while we’re reading it. Do not use this space to summarize your extracurricular involvement or your academic achievements if we’ve already seen these things in your resume and transcript. We know that there is more to you than just test scores and leadership roles, so tell us more!
  • Ask for input (but not too much). Your parents, friends, guidance counselors, coaches, and teachers are great people to bounce ideas off of for your essay. They know how unique and spectacular you are, and they can help you decide how to articulate it. Keep in mind, however, that a 45-year-old lawyer writes quite differently from an 18-year-old student, so if your dad ends up writing the bulk of your essay, we’re probably going to notice.
  • Edit, proof, polish, and breathe. Beyond gaining insight into your personal psyche, the purpose of the essay is also to showcase your written communication skills. Treat this essay just like any class assignment – write it early, proof and revise, keep an eagle eye out for spelling and grammatical errors, and make sure it is presented in a clean and polished way. That being said, do not call our office in a panic if you discovered a missing article or a misused “its” after you hit submit. Because of our holistic selection process, no student will be denied based on one element of his or her application; this includes typos.

Posted in Application Process, General Information, The College Essay and tagged: academic credentials, breathe, college applications, Common Application, essay writing, extracurricular activities, Heidi Klum, how to apply, personal essay, Project Runway


Unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your essay. Make sure that the glimpse you give the admission committee into your character, background, and writing ability is the very best possible. Here are seven tips to help you focus and make the most of your application essay.

In our experience, the main worry that applicants have is that their essay won’t stand out. This is a legitimate concern as you will likely compete with numerous applicants who have backgrounds similar to yours. Therefore, follow these tips to ensure that your essay shines in the competitive admissions process.

1. Analyze the prompt thoroughly

Take three minutes to think about the prompt. If needed, divide the prompt into phrases and look at each aspect. Why would the admissions officers ask this prompt? What do you think they want to know? How does that information relate to your ability to excel in college? Next, leave the prompt for a while and then return to it. Do you see something new? 

With so many other things in your schedule, this process can initially seem like a waste of time. However, it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If you later realize that you misread the prompt, you might need to start the writing process from scratch. 

2. Organize your writing

Like the first item, this isn’t something that should take a lot of time. This is another step that can initially seem completely skippable, but organizing your writing can save you considerable stress and frustration. A good writing plan can streamline or even eliminate the need to do any significant rewrites.

Brainstorm your anecdotes. Create a rough outline, including approximately how long each paragraph needs to be in order to complete the essay within the word count limits. Finally, figure out when you’re going to write. A paragraph a day? The whole thing next weekend? Creating a schedule, even if you need to modify it later, gets your brain in motion. 

3. Show instead of telling

When selecting anecdotes for your essay, pick vivid ones that you can tell succinctly. If a story would require 450 words of a 600 word essay, then you’re not going to have a lot of space to express self-reflection and analysis of the situation. Remember that the admissions officers are more interested in your perspective of what happened than the events themselves.

In addition, keep in mind that the admissions officers don’t know you personally, and that’s why they’re reading your essay. They want to get to know you, and the essay is your first introduction. Because of this, don’t tell them that you’re passionate about public service. Show them through strong examples. Help the admissions officers envision each example as if they’re experiencing the situation alongside you. 

4. Know your vocab

Your admissions essay should reflect command of college-level vocabulary. One of the most common mistakes that we see in essays is using advanced vocabulary almost correctly. Even among synonyms, there are shades of meaning. If you’re using a thesaurus, look online for examples of that word in action. Will it still fit into your sentence?

Avoid overdoing it. Advanced vocabulary should be the spice of the essay to give it flavor, so you’ll use plain language most of the time. Essays that are riddled with advanced vocabulary can seem pompous or even inadvertently comical to the reader. 

5. Write succinctly

Can you say what you need to say in fewer words? Can you substitute an advanced vocabulary word for a phrase? Writing concisely expresses to the admissions officers that can organize your thoughts and that you respect their time. 

6. Combine like ideas into more sophisticated sentence structures

The vast majority of the sentences in your essay should be compound, complex, or a combination of both (compound-complex sentences). Save simple sentences for instances when you need to create impact.

7. Seek qualified second opinions

You should absolutely ask others to take a look at your essay before you submit it. As we work on things, we become blind to mistakes that will be glaringly apparent to others. However, limit the number of people you ask to two or three. Asking too many people for feedback will only confuse you and result in a lower quality essay as you revise the essay according to each person’s advice. Therefore, look to individuals who have background and expertise in the college admissions process.

 

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