On a recent visit to the University of Washington, I attended the information session to gain a greater understanding of the school's priorities. It was really unlike any session I've attended (and I've been to many). The admission officer had a laser focus on one aspect of the process: the personal statement.
The one place on your college application where you can really shine, really stand out, is the essay or personal statement. As the officer mentioned, too often it is an opportunity lost.
Aayush Upadhyay, the author of Behind The Ivy Curtain: A Data Driven Guide to Elite College Admissions, analyzes a wealth of admissions-related data in this book. While the statistics are self-reported from students and would therefore not meet the standards of peer-reviewed research, they do provide tremendous insight into the process. For example, large numbers of students with 4.0 unweighted GPAs or 2400 SAT scores are admitted to elite schools; nearly equal numbers are denied admission. The difference in the applications is something beyond the numbers.
While you may not be able to control everything about your application, you have total creative control over your essay or personal statement.
The best essays are personal. They don’t need big words and don’t feel curated by admissions counselors. They allow the reader insight into some aspect of your life. Hopefully, the essay is well-written and has no major errors, but it does not need to be “perfect” writing. It does need to tell your story in a unique and engaging way. Ideally, it is memorable.
Most importantly, however, don’t allow the essay to be a reason to set your application aside and move quickly onto the next one. Don’t use big words, especially when the content isn’t there to back them up. Try to write in a casual and personal style rather than in an attempt to impress. Have a story to tell to keep your reader engaged, and make that story personal. When your reader takes a moment to think about your essay she should be able to say she knows you, even just a little bit.
Write a few essays and pick a few different subjects. The essays might touch on a small moment in time or on an obstacle that took years to overcome: the subject is important, but more important is how that moment or challenge reflects your world vision or influenced you. Try to get someone who doesn’t know you to read your essay before you submit it, and ask for feedback not on the writing style, but on what the words say about the author.
Take advantage of this opportunity. Think of the essay as your friend in the often impersonal world of college admissions. You do have something to offer and something to say. Start early and stand out.