The Key to Unlocking the Personal Statement: Understanding How to Write A Personal Narrative

When applicants learn that they must write a personal statement as part of their college application, one of the first (and natural) thoughts that comes to mind is, “Am I all that interesting to talk about in 650 words?” Although it may come as a surprise, the response to this inner reflection is “YES!” This is because in the course of one’s life, countless things and events happen from the mundane to the most grandiose experiences. Therefore, personal narrative essay writing lends itself beautifully to storytelling through written expression.

In the simplest of terms, a personal narrative essay is a story that has a beginning, middle, and end that flows both logically and chronologically so that the reader can follow it with ease. There is also a key statement (also known as a thesis statement) that demonstrates to the reader why the story is worth reading and why it is important to you (the writer). You, the writer, must convey how the story you are telling has impacted you in some way, which has led to a shift in perspective on how you now see the world through a new set of eyes. Think of it as a “cause and effect” relationship. What is so great about this type of essay is that it allows you to reveal something unique, personal, or special about yourself while at the same time, giving you the chance to form a connection with your reader.

Some writing constructs that help writers to develop successful personal narratives are to include an introduction with a strong “hook” and clear thesis statement, body paragraphs (three are perfect), and a conclusion that ends with a powerful “clincher”. Within the course of the essay, descriptions, setting, plot, climax, and key players (characters) should be addressed. This type of essay is truly one of the most creative and freeing for a writer to develop…therefore, have fun when telling your story!

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

Acing the College Interview

What is the purpose of the admissions interview? The interview gives the college you’re applying to another opportunity to get to know you better, and should hence be embraced rather than feared. The interviewer will likely ask you questions about your academic and personal interests, your intended major, and how you can contribute to the school. Here, you also have the chance to ask about the school and/or the local community to further show that you have done your research. After your interview, the interviewer will write notes on your conversation, providing the school with another means of evaluating you.

What are the forms of the interview? Not all colleges offer interviews to prospective applicants, and those who do can either offer the interviews on-campus, near where you live, or online through Skype or Google Hangout. As the college applicant pool is increasingly globalized, online interviews are becoming more common. Interviews are usually 15-25 minutes long, though they may be shorter or longer.

Does the interview help international students, or does it lower their admission chances? Whether an international or American applicant, whether or not the interview increases or decreases your chances of admission fully depends on how you perform. It is thus important to fully know yourself and your interests so that you feel confident speaking about them. It is also important to possess basic conversational skills (remembering that a conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue; being polite and poised; speaking fluidly; sounding enthusiastic rather than indifferent or listless).

If the school offers the option for an interview, you should definitely take it because it shows that you are truly interested in attending. If your non-native English skills are making you hesitate in signing up for the interview, immediately vanquish such thoughts! Don’t worry about making small grammatical mistakes or that your pronunciation isn’t up to par—the interviewer wants to evaluate you as a person, not as an English speaker! Interviewers and admissions officers alike are well aware that once you spend a few months studying and living in America, your English will skyrocket anyway.

Sample Interview Questions (and what they’re really asking)

Tell me about yourself.

This deceptively simple command speaks volumes about its respondent. How do you define yourself? Do you define yourself by your ethnicity, your (religious) beliefs, your personal characteristics, your interests, your strengths, your goals, or your dreams? Your response will probably incorporate many of these elements. How you choose to convey yourself to others indirectly shows your priorities or character traits that you value the most. Don’t use hackneyed adjectives such as “persistent” or “empathetic” or a “global citizen.” In fact, don’t even describe yourself with adjectives-ever! Your actions should speak for themselves.

Why do you want to apply XX University?

Schools want to know that yes, you have done your research and that you aren’t simply applying for the school’s location, reputation, or prestige. Is the major or academic program unique from how it’s typically offered at other colleges? Is there a specific course or curricula requirement you’re itching to take? Does the department boast prominent researchers, some of whose work interests you enough to consider joining their team? Check out the website for your major’s department to get clues. Are there any special academic opportunities such as academic fraternities or dual Bachelor-Master’s programs? Also browse the college’s clubs listing and see if anything interests you. Is there an intramural sport you would like to join? Or an international club? Do any of the school’s mottos, values, or traditions speak to you? By mentioning specific aspects of the university, you show that you have put ample thought into where to spend your prime youth years.

What do you like to do for fun?

Rather than repeating interests already evident in your essays or activity’s sheet, what else do you enjoy? Are you a bookworm? An avid gardener? A promising baker who likes to create meticulous desserts? A hardcore gamer? No matter what you choose, be sure to mention what you enjoy about each activity. And as always, be specific. Don’t tell me you like to read. Tell me you’re obsessed with 19th century Russian literature. Don’t tell me you like to watch movies on the couch with your sister. Tell me your favorite moments are watching chick flicks with her while bingeing on ice cream—and then list some movies you guys adore and/or some of your favorite ice cream toppings! If you are so passionate about an interest already mentioned in the rest of your application package, you can mention it again but simply gloss over it and expand on something else. Remember, in your overall application package you want to showcase different facets of yourself to prove that you’re a multidimensional human rather than a one-trick pony.

Why do you want to major in XX?

I’m sure that you’ve already spent significant time already thinking about your intended major. Now’s the time to share what spurs your interest in this field with others. Don’t choose shallow reasons such as job security or a high salary. Rather, think about what fascinates you about this field. What about it makes it worth devoting four full years and perhaps even a lifetime to? Will the major be a stepping-stone to graduate studies or toward achieving certain career goals?

What are your academic strengths?

When discussing your academic strengths, explain how you’ve capitalized on them. If you’re an excellent organizer, how have you applied this to scheduling your activities and coursework? If you’re an excellent leader, how have you demonstrated these abilities through group projects? If you’re an excellent chemist, what particularly challenging experiments have you completed? How do you plan on continuing to use your strengths?

What are your academic weaknesses?

Colleges are aware that all humans are flawed, and they want to see that you have the drive and intelligence to succeed despite challenges. Try revealing strategies or specific approaches you’ve taken to improve your academic weaknesses. Maybe your pronunciation or grammar was skewed and you started watching more American television series to get a more natural feel for the language. Maybe learned how to make use of fragmented time to cram in more activities. Most applicants choose procrastination, which is not something you want to admit to a college who’s hoping that at least some of its students will make achievements in their field. A lot of students also choose perfectionism as a flaw, which is an obvious humble brag. Don’t be that person.

What will you contribute to this school?

Colleges want to admit students who will not only take in terms of academic resources, but who will also give to the school. How can you improve the campus community? Play upon your strengths. Are you a talented violinist who wants to join the school orchestra? Do you want to serve as a peer tutor in any subject? Do you bring a fresh cultural perspective to the table? What would the school gain in accepting you? Be specific.

Where do you see yourself five/ten years from now?

Of course, no one expects you to have your whole future figured out, and colleges understand that plans are likely to change. What they do want is students with direction, students who set goals and are motivated to achieve them. Don’t speak in general, idealistic terms such as: “I hope to positively contribute to my community and improve this world through a fulfilling career.” What’s your dream job? What are some specific activities you’d like to do? Do you want to have your own family? Do you want to travel to certain countries? Do you want to regularly see your college or high school friends? Don’t limit your plans to professional goals.

What would you change about your current school?

Think about the strengths and weaknesses of your high school. What are some of its specific problems? What are the consequences of those problems? What steps would you take to make improvements? With this question, colleges are looking for your ability to identify problems and get a better understanding of what you’re looking for in a school. By learning what you’d change, they get a chance to learn more about what matters to you. Be specific and respectful, and never talk badly about your own teachers, school, or country’s educational system.

Whom do you most admire?

From this question, colleges can get a sense of your values. Many students choose a historical figure, teacher, or parent for this response. You can be a bit bold and choose a character from a novel, a celebrity, or even a superhero if your reasons for admiring that individual are solid. What has that person done that is so worthy of your respect? What admirable traits do they possess?

What’s your favorite book?

Your entertainment interests (e.g., favorite books, movies, television shows) reveal a lot about you. When you’re answering this question, think about why you enjoyed this particular book so much. Was the plot stimulating, full of twists and turns? Was the protagonist a positive role model? Was the writing style humorous? Was the dialogue hilarious? Did you particularly enjoy the writer’s tone? Did one of the characters resonate with you? Has this book exposed you to a new genre, literary movement, author, or writing style? Has it shaped your perspectives or beliefs?

Tell me about a challenge or failure you’ve faced. Did you overcome it? How did it affect you?

Throughout your life, it is unavoidable that you will experience challenges, setbacks, and failures. As the educator Dewey used to say, “failure is just a learning opportunity.” Admissions officers want to see that you can mess up here and there but that more importantly, you can assess and grow from your mistakes. The ability to objectively consider the consequences of one’s actions and in turn learn from them is a sign of a mature individual, the type of student any college would desire in its student body.

When responding to this question, quickly and clearly describe the challenge/failure and then focus on how responded to and what you learned from that experience. Be honest in describing your reaction to the failure. Were you angry at yourself? Surprised? Did the failure motivate you to act? The lessons learned from the failure are the most important part of this essay. Include a thorough self-analysis and introspection that demonstrate your self-awareness. The point of this question is to show that you can evaluate, learn from, and move on failures.

Do you have any questions for me?

Remember that the interview is a two-way street, and don’t be afraid to show up to your interview with a small list of questions. Some things you could ask: What was most memorable about your time at the college? If you could do it all over again, would you change anything about your college experience? What was your favorite course or professor? Is there any event or activity I should definitely not miss out on? If you can’t find the answers on the school website, you could also ask questions about academic programs, specific courses, the “vibe” on campus, tidbits about the school’s customs and history, or highlights in the local community.

By: Andrea Schiralli

The New Student on Campus: 5 Tips to Be the Best Version of You!

Fast forward past the sleepless nights leading up to your arrival on campus. Fast forward past the excitement mixed with anxiety when you say goodbye to your family and friends back home. Fast forward past the flight or drive that it takes to even get to campus. Push play on the reality of what it means to actually “show up”.

One’s arrival on campus as an incoming freshman can be daunting—does the expression “being a little fish in a big pond” ring a bell? Although you may at first feel overwhelmed when having to establish your place at your new school (which is totally normal!), here are five tips on how to make the transition easier along with putting your best foot forward when meeting your roommate, classmates, teammates, professors, and academic advisor.

  1. Be polite and presentable – remember all of the manners that your parents have instilled over the years? This is the perfect time to put them to good use. Hello! How are you? Please, thank you, and nice to meet you go along way. First impressions (fortunately/unfortunately depending on how you view them) mean a lot, too; therefore be well kept when attending your first days of classes, going to ‘Meet & Greet’ student events, and checking out extra curricular activities during club fairs.
  2. Set personal and academic goals – think about certain objectives (and even write them down) as to why you have chosen your major, what you hope to learn/do at your new school, and what you hope to achieve at present and in the near future. In this way, you are putting your intentions into action and forward motion!
  3. Get social (without social media) – ask questions, introduce yourself, attend campus events, join clubs, try out for a sports team, sit with new groups of students in the dining hall, knock on your dorm mate’s door that is opposite of and next to yours…our natural inclination as humans is to sometimes hide when we are out of our comfort zone. Yet don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and make your presence known! In person opportunities to meet others is a sure way of expanding your social circle.
  4. Take care of yourself – it may seem like the last thing on your list of concerns, but one’s health and well-being should always be their first priority. Make sure that you give yourself needed time to keep up with deadlines by staying organized to prevent unnecessary stress, try your best to make healthy choices while in the dining hall (but of course a good junk food binge now and then is also part of the college experience!), avoid too much caffeine because if you consume too much, you are literally drinking up your sleep, and of course, get needed rest so that you can function at a more productive rate during your waking hours.
  5. Meet assignments and take pride in your work – although it’s normal to want to impress your professors, TAs, and even classmates, the person that you should be most concerned with impressing the most is you! Try your best to succeed, even in the face of failure. As long as you know that you have done all that you could have to realize an assignment, study for an exam, and submit a paper, you will develop a positive work ethic and self-image. You will truly surprise yourself! A word to the wise: although one aspires to achieve good grades, there are times that you may work extremely hard but the results aren’t as you have hoped. Remember that we all are human and there is always room for improvement…just as long as you are willing!

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

Accepted! Now What?! 10 Pieces of Advice to Help You Make Your Final Decision

After that dreaded period of anticipation of waiting to see if/when an acceptance letter will arrive after completing the tedious task of applying to college, you finally get your first acceptance letter followed by some others. Ah, a sigh a relief! Yet another dilemma crops up…you ask yourself the burning question over and over again, “Which school should I choose?” Yet it doesn’t end there. Seeking out additional support and advice, you also turn to nearly everyone that will listen including (but not limited to) parents, siblings, relatives, friends, teachers, and coaches.

Although choosing the school that best suites your wants and needs is one of the most important decisions that you will be faced with while shaping your academic career, it is also one of those rare moments in time in which you should feel a great sense of accomplishment because all of your hard work and efforts have paid off throughout high school and luckily, you have options.

Here are 10 pieces of advice to take both to heart and mind when making your final decision:

  1. Take your time – if you are still waiting for more options, take this time to reflect. Yet be sure to adhere to deadlines that require your response by a given due date. Make a note in your calendar so you don’t forget!
  2. Do your research – look up some information and/or review some previous info that you have already gathered on each school so that when you make your final decision, it is an informed one.
  3. Make a list of “Pros & Cons” – literally sit down with a piece of paper and pen in hand. When comparing and contrasting the various schools that you have been accepted to, write down key factors that are both positive and negative in helping you determine which school has the most “pros”…for you.
  4. Evaluate your finances – conduct specialized research on the cost of each school including tuition, housing, meal plans, and any extra fees (i.e. study abroad, use of facilities). Once you have done this, talk to your family about your financial circumstances. If you have received scholarships and other types of financial assistance, these may be your deciding factors!
  5. Talk to your most trusted group of listeners – ultimately this decision is yours to make, but it is also helpful to have a good network of people that you trust and that you feel can guide you in a positive direction.
  6. Reach out to current students & alumni – once you have narrowed down your top choices, try to reach out to current students (and even alumni) through social media in order to get some feedback about their experiences, both past and present, at your school(s) of interest.
  7. OKAY, time is now up – once the moment has arrived, you should feel confident in your decision and you should proudly be able to confirm your attendance at the school of your choice. Once you have, be sure to follow deadlines that are asked of you regarding filling out information in the school’s portal, addressing any needed documentation, and payment.
  8. Inform the other schools – take the time to let the other colleges and universities know that you will not be attending so that you can give another student the possibility to fill your spot.
  9. Take a deep breath – after making any type of important life decision, it is always helpful to literally take a breath and take some time to “decompress” in order to re-energize. 
  10. Get to graduation – although it may seem like a “done deal” now that you have been accepted to college and have given your response to attend, this doesn’t mean that you are in the clear. Finish out your high school career as best as you can!

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

Paris, Je T’aime (Part 2)

…After settling into my tiny dorm room that evening, I explored the building I would call “home” for the next ten months. In the basement were a foosball table, a pool table, and a TV. Impossible to be bored! My bedroom was simple, the kitchens simpler, yet the colored faces of the students I passed were all smiling. As I moseyed back to my room, I noticed a tall, lanky, dark haired boy opening the door to the room directly across from mine.

“Hey.” I tapped him on the shoulder before he could finish turning his key.

He spun around, evidently surprised.

“I’m Andrea. From New York. Your new neighbor,” I said pointing to my door.

“I’m just saying ‘hi’, since I’ll probably be seeing you a lot. Nice to meet you!” I said in an overly hyper manner.

Gosh. Why did I crumble into total awkwardness when speaking to a cute guy?

An amused grin spread across his fair face, and if hearts could melt, mine must have started to.

He held out his hand. “Hi, I’m Konstantin. From Russia.”

I shook his hand (firm handshake) and smiled. His hazel eyes smiled back.

“What are you doing now, Andrea?”

“Oh, I just arrived. Literally, today. I don’t know.”

“Oh! Come on, I’ll show you around. I’ll take you to the Eiffel Tower! It’s breathtaking at night.”

“Umm…”

This was supposed to be a new start, a new country, a new life. I would grasp every opportunity by the horns and live life with the attitude of my Italian professor, who would respond to any student’s bizarre, malformed sentences with: “Why not?”

Here was a Disney prince come to life asking if he could show me around the most romantic city in the world. Though shy, I was by no means a total idiot.

“Um, why not? Just give me a sec.”

I rushed to grab a light sweater, the whole time praying I wouldn’t wake up.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Paris, Je T’aime (Part 1)

Paris—the city of lights, chocolate, baguettes, art…love. What isn’t Paris known for?

During my junior year of studies at Cornell, I decided to study abroad in Paris. I had fallen in love with the French language through an elective and switched majors during my sophomore year. Although I did not meet the minimum language requirements to study in France (at least 4 semesters of the language plus a writing course), I set up an appointment with the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and promised him that I would try my hardest and not disappoint, insisting that French is a Romance Language just like the others—Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian—that I already speak. How hard could studying French literature in France with minimal grasp of the language be? I was about to find out.

As soon as I stepped foot on Parisian soil, I felt as if I were transported to a land of my “wildest dreams,” to quote the great Western philosopher Taylor Swift. I will never forget walking to the study abroad office—a joint-run Cornell, Emory, Duke, and Harvard program—on my first day in France. The mid-August sun shone upon the hundreds of year old architecture, giving the city an ethereal feel. My steps felt like floating, and I was completely high off of being in what all Parisians proudly and justifiably call “la plus belle ville du monde.”

The thirty other study abroad students and I congregated in the study abroad office—a small, three-room space in a charming, cobblestone street in St. Michel and were introduced to our advisors and then introduced ourselves to each other. 28 of the other students in the program were only staying for one semester—a short three months—and they were assigned to either live with a host family or in their own private apartments. However, a Harvard girl and I were to stay the entire academic year, so we were to live in a francophone dorm in Cite Universitaire, a foundation with over 40 dormitories each representing a different country, as in most of Europe colleges do not have their own campuses, let alone dorms. Although the French House, Monaco House or Canada House would fulfill the francophone requirement, to my surprise I was told we would live in the West African dormitory, as many on the Ivory Coast speak French as their mother tongue.

Another surprise that our advisor told us was that classes would not start for an entire five weeks! In the interim, the study abroad students were to attend daily French grammar classes and had the option to go on scheduled activities and field trips to famous museums and cities outside of Paris. This overall relaxed attitude—five weeks until class began?—set the tone for how life in France is stereotypically (and accurately so) perceived: a little bit too relaxed, yet with artistic and cultural appreciation trumping work or academics.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Real College Stories & Advice for College-bound Students

Read through posts that provide great tips, strategies, and advice about once you get accepted into college and what to expect once you begin your undergraduate journey on campus and perhaps even abroad! For any inquires, please contact us and feel free to comment!

Tackling the Common App – Prompt # 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

It is rare that one event will instantaneously transform you from adult to child, but if you have one in mind, by all means write about it. Be sure not to come off as a braggart—rather than boast about the accomplishment, mention it humbly while focusing more on an analysis of your personal growth.

There are so many types of accomplishments you can write about here. Did you reach a personal goal, whether academic, musical, or sports-related? Did you do something alone for the first time, such as travel to a new country or take care of your baby sister the whole day? Did you start your own organization or charity? Did you grow from a moment of failure (see Prompt 2)?

In 1-2 sentences of your conclusion, briefly mention why your accomplishment or event made those within your culture, community, or family start viewing you as an adult. What does it mean to be an adult in these contexts? For example, in the Jewish faith one is considered an adult after his Bat Mitzvah. In many Western families, a child is considered an adult the day he or she turns eighteen.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Supplemental Essay Example #1: Evaluate an important experience and its impact on you.

If you are ever asked to “evaluate” anything, your response must involve critical thinking and analysis. A summary of the experience is necessary to provide context, but the meat of your essay should be your discussion on how the experience affected you for the better. (College essays should always be focused on positive change and self-growth, so if an experience made you cynical or pessimistic, choose another one.).

Many students have difficulty coming up with a “significant” experience as they deem their high school lives too trivial. Even if you haven’t yet stepped into the “real world,” you’ve definitely had important moments. What about the first time you pushed yourself out of your comfort zone? Or an epiphany you had—perhaps realizing you need to make your own decisions, no matter how much they may defy your parents’ wishes? Even choosing an uncommon major can be an exciting risk to write about. Don’t worry if you haven’t rescued anyone or changed the world yet—you are still a teenager.

Don’t brag! It is too obvious when students are using their essays to show off about a success—be it scoring the winning goal in the soccer championships or being voted class president among fierce competition. These topics are fine if and only if you are very wary of your tone. In order not to come off as a self-consumed egotist, make sure to convey appreciation for the involved community, be it teammates or voters. Colleges want applicants who will play an active role in the student body, so be to include those who accompanied you toward success.

Show your character. This is your chance to reveal your personality, values, and sense of humor. While exploring an experience’s impact on you, be sure to convey a sense of self-awareness, community, and humility.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Why Embracing Writing Makes High School and College Life Infinitely Easier

After receiving a C+ on “How to Write an Effective High School Paper,” a 10th grade writing assignment that was given to my classmates and me in September, I couldn’t help but think that the year ahead was going to be a complete struggle and bore. Ugh! I thought when seeing my carefully handwritten three-page paper all marked up with red lines, symbols, and illegible comments by my English teacher. In my defense, the other students received from the C to F range, with the exception of one girl who got a B-.

Mrs. Brown (*name change to protect the innocent) positioned herself as the type of teacher who would never even dream of giving out an easy A; it would only be earned if merited. The sight of Mrs. Brown each afternoon could turn your stomach after lunch. Oh, the demands she had on us to become highly effective writers and readers with a strong command of the English language!

One day when another classmate began to zone out during her lecture, she called him out—however, through use of empathy instead of wrath. She opened up and for the first time shared a little bit of her own experience as a high school student with us. She talked about her struggles with writing and how with diligence, she transformed her weaknesses into her strength. She admitted that she too would find herself zoning out as a student only to find that she missed out “on all the learning” that she could have benefited from.

In that moment, Mrs. Brown seemed different; she crossed the line from teacher to one of us: a human. She explained how learning in general can be so much more interesting if one actually pays attention. She added that when one continuously looks at the clock or out the window, time will never pass, and learning feels like a chore, whereas when one is engaged, time passes quickly, and one even wants more of it.

The next day, when I took my seat, I determined to listen intently and perform to the best of my ability so that I too wouldn’t miss out on all of the important things I needed to learn. It worked like magic! The class period flew by, and I finally understood some key writing elements that I was previously fuzzy on.

Mrs. Brown’s class surprisingly ended up becoming my favorite that year, and I ultimately earned my A. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.  If it wasn’t for her hard but meaningful lectures, writing activities, and numerous requests of essay revisions, I don’t believe I would have developed my writing skills and passion for literary expression.

For the remainder of my high school and college career, my confidence as a writer helped me achieve better results and assisted me to reach heights never imagined. It also made my studies that much easier. Other teachers and professors would even compliment me on my abilities and command of my language expression.

So what’s the point of all of this? Writing not only becomes one of the fundamental skills that we need to use as students, but it is used in our everyday lives; both personally and professionally in all types of forms. It’s a type of communication that gives us freedom—the freedom to share our innermost thoughts and convictions with our readers.

By Marisa De Marco-Costanzo