The Personal Statement - aka The College Essay By Susan Packer Davis
I have been editing personal statements for over thirty years. I was previously the Director of a small, college-preparatory high school for which I personally did all the college counseling, including application preparation and essay review, to assure the success of the school and to provide the highest level of personal attention and administrative response. During those years, the school amassed an extraordinary record of college and university acceptances and merit scholarships when, as a small, independent, solely tuition-supported, no-nonsense high school, with over 35% of the student body on school-funded scholarships and no sports program of its own, in the uber-competitive, social-climbing environment of the Westside of Los Angeles, subjected to several crises not of its own making, it should have died more than once. Apart from the university-like atmosphere of the school that encouraged independent and critical thought, the accelerated and rigorous curriculum that was clearly visible on the school’s transcripts, the highly-educated and well-trained instructors, the bright, eager and accomplished students who were deeply and creatively involved in their communities and the unique, heartfelt letters of recommendation I wrote as part of the School Report for the Common Application, what was it that “sealed the deal” for the myriad of acceptances by the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country? I believe it might have been the students’ essays, the ones that they, and I, labored over, for hours and hours, days and days, until I was sure they were perfect. The college essay has become, in the modern world of college admissions, of paramount importance.
I would never write for a student; the essay had to be his or hers, not mine. My role was to help a student clarify and amplify his or her own voice, by helping in the choice of a subject, “cleaning up” grammar, making sure there were clear transitions between paragraphs and suggesting words or phrases that would turn a “nice” essay into a powerful, compelling one. In all that time, I can recall only one essay that needed no editing whatsoever, but that student was already an extraordinary and polished writer who had every intention of pursuing that craft in college and as an adult, which, by the way, he did.
The “idea” of the essay must come first. The subject of the essay need not have “national” importance, as long as it has significance for the student. It could be a “small” story, as long as it is “large” for the student. A student should write about whatever has affected him or her in a profound way, even if the event might appear insignificant on the surface. The essay is, after all, a somewhat brief look into the internal world of the student, not a scholarly treatise. After years of being instructed not to use the pronoun “I” in essays written in school, it is sometimes hard for students to write about themselves in a very personal way, but with the proper encouragement and guidance, they learn how to do it effectively. A great deal of self-reflection is involved in the process, and for a young person on his or her way to the university and into the world at large, perhaps the most dramatic transition that exists in our society, that is a very good thing.
For the personal statement, a student should write about himself or herself in a genuine manner, without attempting to sound “lofty” in order to impress. It is the student’s actual story or a personally meaningful event, told in an artful but real way, that will garner attention, not someone else’s language or quotations. I remember reading a young woman’s essay about her close friend’s run-in with a dolphin, while he was surfing, that resulted in his paralysis. It was a beautifully written story of her role in his struggle to continue life in a wheelchair, but it ended with a quote from Rudyard Kipling that was out-of-place and inappropriate. When I asked her why she included the quote, she told me that a law student friend-of-the- family had told her it would be a good idea. The young woman in question admitted to me that she had never even read Rudyard Kipling, and, further, did not really understand the meaning of the quote. I told her to take it out, and instead write her own conclusion. She was later admitted to UCLA.
Helping students determine what to write about, and then assisting them in making that essay eminently readable and “attention-grabbing,” was for all those years, and is now, my job, one which I thoroughly enjoy. Having received the title of “Grammar Queen” from my both my students and my own children, it is obvious that I relish correcting essays for errant punctuation and style, but I also take great pleasure in figuring out what topic will be both meaningful to the student and likely to make an admissions officer sit up and take notice (after reading essay after essay after essay). The personal statement is the student’s opportunity to make himself or herself come alive and jump out of the paper, or off of the screen, on which the essay is written. To that end, not just the topic must be worth writing and then reading about; the introduction to the essay, too, must be strong and pack a punch. The introduction is perhaps the most important section of the personal statement. If the opening paragraph is weak, the reader wants to go no further; if it is forceful, the reader wants to go on, and read some more.
A student should not attempt to write his or her personal statement too early in his or her high-school career, nor should he or she try to write it too early in the year preceding the submission of college applications. Students change and evolve dramatically during their high school years, and the experience that a student should write about may not even happen until the summer prior to twelfth grade, when life-changing events often occur. Sometimes, too, students write best when there is a deadline looming, not an immediate one, of course, but one that is a month or two away. Writing a little bit “under the gun” helps a student to focus, I have found, with respect to deciding on the subject of the essay and the actual writing of it.
Finally, students should be honest in their college essays, but not too vulnerable. A student can describe a very personal experience or revelation without baring every aspect of his or her life, or soul. It is good to be mindful of who might be reading the student’s essay, both as part of the college application process, and later, should the student ever choose to run for office or otherwise become a public figure. In the college essay, a student should reveal enough about his or her internal life to let the reader know who he or she really is, without feeling too exposed, in a well-articulated and hopefully fascinating manner, so that he or she is seen as a thoughtful and serious candidate with something important to contribute, one who the reader is absolutely certain he or she wants to have on that college campus.
How to Choose Extracurricular Activities By Susan Packer Davis
How should a student go about finding the right extracurricular activities for him or her? My answer is simple: A student should do what he or she loves to do - and then expand that passion into a meaningful and significant activity or project that will be about more than him or her, something for the greater good. Volunteering just to fulfill a community service requirement or participating in a particular activity because someone else said it would “look good” on a college application will lead neither to a fulfilling life nor to a remarkable resume. Extracurricular activities should reflect who a student actually is and how he or she relates to the community, rather than superficial endeavors that contribute nothing important to anyone.
A student should resist the temptation to assemble a “laundry list” of activities or clubs in which he or she merely dabbles. A student who becomes a leader and devotes himself or herself to an organization or a student who devises a long-term project that actually improves the lives of others demonstrates initiative and commitment, and is always more interesting than a student who just shows up once a week to meetings. In addition, there is no activity in which a student must participate; everyone is different. A student who writes for a website or who teaches gymnastics or ice skating to younger students is just as important as a student government member or tennis player. As long as a student is deeply and creatively involved in one or two activities of his or her choice, he or she will grow as a person, and college admission committees will take note. While it is certainly the case that colleges and universities attempt to put together entering classes composed of students who have a real passion for something, that “something” can absolutely be a singular thing. It helps no one for a student to engage in multiple activities in a lightweight fashion only to try to impress; the student gains nothing, and admissions committees can detect such fakery a mile away.
So how does a student discover what he or she loves to do? I have found that most students actually do know what those activities are, but may have been dissuaded from pursuing them, or may not know how to express them or turn them into larger undertakings. That is where I can help. I can draw out a student’s passions by various means: asking questions, exploring a student’s past experiences with him or her and having knowledge of similar students. It is always an exciting process for me to aid a student in identifying what he or she really wants to do – and then figure out how to do it. I have over thirty years of experience in helping students find their “thing,” create projects and secure internships in their areas of interest; it is a journey that involves moving from an exploratory stage as a younger student to an advanced level of involvement as an older student. It is truly gratifying to watch a student begin to do what excites him or her, and then mature as his or her commitment evolves.
Summer is the perfect time to expand an activity in which a student is involved. When there are fewer demands on a student’s time, he or she can serve as an intern and/or do research in his or her chosen field, or take an on-going project to a higher level or a wider audience. Paid employment can also be a worthwhile enterprise, as long as the work is a student’s chosen area. Working to raise funds for a student’s own project or a charity in which he or she is involved is also a great idea. Spending a summer pursuing or funding that which he or she loves will help a student develop as a human being - and also show admissions committees that he or she is serious.
A student’s extracurricular profile should mirror who that student is and who he or she wants to be. There is no “wrong” activity except one that is not genuine. Students should not try to please anyone else with what they do when they are not studying; if they insist on following that path, their activities will be empty entries on a resume. In order for a student to be successful – do a great job - in whatever he or she does apart from schoolwork, and to be able to translate that activity into making a difference in the student’s world, that activity must come from a student’s heart. The activity must make a student happy and proud. What will follow then are a life well-lived and a truly impressive college application, one that includes both memorable activities and powerful essays written by a student who has something to write about.