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

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 #2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

This essay prompt seems to defy most applicants’ inclinations to brag. It is far easier to bask in success than to tell strangers about a failure. It takes confidence to acknowledge and examine your shortcomings. The description of the failure should be clear and concise. Spend the majority of the essay discussing how you responded to the failure and 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 is the most important part of this essay. Include a thorough self-analysis and introspection which shows that you are self-aware.

The point of this essay is to show that you can evaluate, learn from, and move on from your failures.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Tackling the Common App – Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

This prompt is very broad, as there are a plethora beliefs or ideas to be questioned. Was the idea you questioned your own, your family’s, or your school’s? Or was it even broader than that, such as a socially accepted or cultural norm? Whatever belief you choose to discuss, make sure it is central to your identity.

The first two parts of the prompt ask you to address why you challenged the belief in the first place. What motivated you to act? The last question basically implies, was your decision worth it? Was your action worth the consequences and efforts? If not, that is okay. College is all about questioning beliefs and testing out ideas.

By: Andrea Schiralli

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

Types of College Application Essays

Though some schools (e.g., Wake Forest, UChicago, Brown) will have their own bizarre essay prompts, most college essays can be grouped into a type, the most common being:

The Personal Statement: The first essay prompt in the Common App is a perfect example of an essay that asks students to write about themselves. It goes: “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

When responding to this prompt, choose an experience or activity that played an important role in your life but that does not appear somewhere else on your application. For example, if your transcript and extracurriculars include a lot of orchestra classes and music prizes, do not write about playing the violin. Remember, the whole point of the essay is to show admissions officers a side of you that the rest of your application does not reveal. Show that you are multidimensional human being!

Your Favorite Activity: Choose an activity you are passionate about—be it a sport, random hobby (e.g. stamp collecting), or extracurricular activity (e.g. volunteering, hiking on weekends).

When responding to this prompt, think about what you do in your free time. Why is whatever you choose to write about your favorite activity? How do you feel when you are engaged in it? Show that you have a deep passion for something and that you have an intellectual understanding of it.

Why School?: This essay prompt specifically asks you why you want to spend your prime youth years at the college in mind. The prompt may ask: “Why is this college a good fit for you?” or “Tell us about your career goals and plans you may have for your studies.” This essay allows you to show your interest in the school and why you are a good fit.

When responding to this prompt, it is crucial to do a lot of research into the school and into the specific program you are applying to. Is the major or academic program unique from how it is typically offered at other colleges? Is there a specific course or curricula requirement which 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. 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? By mentioning specific aspects of the university that appeal to you, you show that you put a good amount of thought into your application decision. So, be specific.

Here, you also want to show that if admitted, you would make positive contributions to the school community. Play upon your strengths. Are you a talented pianist who wants to join the school orchestra? Do you want to serve as a peer tutor in any subject(s)? Do you bring a fresh cultural perspective to the table? What would the school gain in accepting you?

Intellectual Curiosity: You may be asked to describe an idea, experience, or work of art that has been important to your intellectual development. When responding to this prompt, think about what some of your favorite subjects are. What do you enjoy reading up on in your free time? Is there a particular novel or academic text that  has inspired you to think differently? If so, how has it affected the way you see the world?

By: Andrea Schiralli

Key Tips for Writing Your Personal Statement Essay

Start as early in the process as possible. The more time you have to write, the more revising you can do and thus, the better your essay will be. Also, procrastinating leads to unnecessary stress.

Brainstorm and make an outline before you begin. It’s amazing how many ideas you can come up with through effective brainstorming. Jot down aspects of your personality and strengths that you really want the admissions officers to know about. Crafting an outline will allow you to view the entire skeleton of your essay. Flaws in idea flow and organization will become visible.

Make your essay your own. Think about what you care about, sparks your interests, or motivates you, and then write about it. Don’t write about what you think admissions officers want to hear.

Don’t be common. Take a risk! Don’t write what everyone else is writing about. Read essays online, ask your friends what they are writing about, and then choose something completely different.

Allow your personality to shine. This is the only part of the application that allows admissions officers to see you from your own perspective. If you are generally a funny person, feel free to to sprinkle a few witticisms or silly metaphors in your essay, but don’t attempt to write an entire satire. Remember: the essay’s purpose is to convey your intelligence, passions, and strengths—not your sense of humor.

Stay focused. This is your chance to tell the admissions officers why they should accept you. They already have your activity sheet, so avoid making your essay read like a stale grocery list of your awards and accomplishments. Rather, choose one topic that really interests you, and write about it. Stick to the main theme throughout the whole essay. Even if the question is rather broad, your answer should be narrow. Through details and real examples, your writing will reveal your passions and personality.

Have fun! College admissions essays tend to lean more toward narratives and free-form writing rather than structured academic essays. They are meant to be written from the heart, so once you figure out what to write about (arguably the most difficult part), let the words flow.

Be specific, clear, and to-the-point.

Do not exceed the word limit.

Don’t plagiarize. This should go without saying, but don’t ever copy or tweak someone else’s essay. Even if you found it buried hundreds of clicks away from an initial Google search, admissions officers have literally read thousands (if not tens of thousands) of college admissions essays in their lives and more than likely will be able to spot plagiarism. Plagiarizing is simply unacceptable in America, and a plagiarized essay will be tossed in the trash.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite! Don’t expect a flawless (or even good!) essay on your first try. The pressure will stress you out and probably contribute to a frustrating case of writer’s block. Don’t worry about trivial things you can clean up later, such as grammar or spelling. First, simply get your ideas off your head and onto paper. Then, a few hours or even a few days later, look at your work with “fresh eyes.”

Edit. Go through your entire essay a few times and Spell Check (manually after running it on the computer, for mistakes such as “they’re” vs. “their.”). Remove frivolous words such as “very,” “many,” and “interesting.” These words weaken your writing. Check for grammatical and punctuation errors. You may want to ask someone who hasn’t yet read your essay to proofread it for you, as they are more likely to catch mistakes. Even minor mistakes show a lack of care for quality in your work.

Ask a friend or teacher for an opinion. When you think you are finally done with this grueling process, find someone whose opinion you trust (a scholarly friend, an English teacher, a parent, etc.). Ask them what you can do to improve your writing, and accept their feedback gracefully. Listen carefully and consider their suggestions. In the end, it is your essay, so make sure it stays in your own voice.

Read your essay aloud. Yes, aloud. Not in your head. By reading an essay aloud, you will be able to pick up any phrases that sound awkward or wordy while noticing which areas don’t flow smoothly.

By: Andrea Schiralli