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  • jzlevison

The Truth About the College Essay

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

When it comes to writing the college essay, it seems like everyone has advice.

Precisely because it is personal and subjective, the essay, for many students, is the scariest part of the application. A casual survey of students applying to U.S. schools suggests it has become more so during the Covid-19 pandemic because of the perception that less reliance on standardized test scores in the admissions process means that the essay matters more.

But take a breath. As many admissions officers take pains to explain, the essay has been, and remains, just one piece of the application puzzle, an essential, but not sufficient, part of admissions deliberations. To calm and counsel students, they implore them to shut out the noise, “find your own voice,” and “tell your own truth.”

Honestly, few tasks, especially for high-schoolers, but all too often in life, feel more elusive than these. But this is advice to take to heart. Telling your truth, or “your story,” is what the essay is intended to do. The UCAS statement should be primarily academic, whereas the U.S. statement is more personal, but both seek to learn about your aptitudes, curiosities, values, and motivations, in your own words, as you understand them. With the increase in tutored and “template” writing, your personal statement, written as only you can write it, is precisely what will help your application stand out.

(Keep in mind that templates may not only interfere with your own voice, but worse, they can replace it and put you at risk of plagiarism. Having your essay flagged by a replication-seeking algorithm is the opposite of an effective application strategy!)

Getting up close and personal not only produces powerful writing, but it also sparks meaningful conversation, which is, in effect, what you want your personal statement to do. You want to write in a way that makes an impression on your readers and elicits a positive response, a desire to know more. Distance doesn’t make a sharp impression: an authentic and original voice, insight, and powerful details and examples, do. To this end, think about who your audience is: is it admissions officers? Is it faculty members and potential academic tutors? Write with this relationship in mind. If you’re applying to a school that requires interviews, know that your personal statement will likely form the basis for that very real conversation later on.

As one Oxford University admissions tutor recently said about the essay, his colleagues are not looking for artistry, but rather for content and argument. Intelligence, craft, and coherence are expected, but cleverness is not. For UCAS, a strong statement demonstrates you’re capable of doing the work, and that you bring the intellectual preparation and vitality to the course to enjoy it. The Common App essay prompts -- and the supplemental “why” and roommate essays -- are devised to help you express personal qualities that show you’ll be a valuable member of the campus community.

Start writing early -- or now! -- to give yourself time to reflect. Expect to write multiple drafts and tinker with the text, although if the prompt fits and you’re in the right frame of mind, you might get much of your statement down at the first go. Skip a title to save characters and words. Ask for feedback only when you’re ready. When you think you’re through editing, consider printing out your essay and reading it aloud as hard copy, since a tangible text may just register with you differently than something you’ve labored over on a screen. Or, record it and play it back to test for rough patches and hear the impact it makes. Proof-read it again and again, since cutting and pasting can be treacherous, and typos may be deadly.

When is your essay done? When you say so.


Do you need help with your personal statement, university research, or planning? Contact us at or at (420) 602 612 705. An initial consultation is free.

Visit the UB4U library for additional resources.


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