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De-stress the College Essay

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Updated on Nov 20, 2009

College applications are stressful, and perhaps the most daunting aspect of the process is the dreaded “personal statement.” What with trying to be yourself and trying to be what college admissions officers want you to be, high school seniors often find themselves staring at a blank page for hours, days, and maybe even weeks hoping for inspiration to strike.However, although deciding who they want to be on paper can be difficult, it can also be extremely rewarding, and maybe even a little bit fun!

“We're trying to get insight about who the student is as a person,” says Oberlin College Admissions Officer Leslie Braat, “and the essay is an opportunity to learn about what's important to the student, what makes them tick, in addition to their writing skills.” For your teen to get her personality on paper, it's important she really think about who she is, what she loves, and why she wants this so badly in the first place.

So, what should teens be thinking as they stare at that blank page? Here are some hints:

  • Don't try too hard. “Sometimes it's like they have a thesaurus next to them, and they're constantly looking up a fancier word” says Braat. Write about what's important to you, in the language that you want to use – not the "argot" that you "fancy utilizing".
  • Consider your audience. Remember that establishing a rapport with your reader doesn't mean writing as if you were texting a friend. “When students are composing their essays on the computer, they start to confuse email lingo with essay language, as in writing 'btw' instead of 'by the way' – it happens more often than we would like!” Braat says.  Be at ease, but not too casual.
  • Co-opt a copy editor. “Always have someone else read your essay for you,” advises Braat. You want to be remembered for the ideas you had, not the typos you made. 
  • Be yourself! Admissions officers know when you're trying to be something you're not – so above all be yourself. Write confidently about yourself, and don't be afraid to get off the beaten track and tackle a seemingly silly topic. “We had a young man who was writing about his job at Quizno's” said Braat, when asked if she could conjure a favorite essay. “It tells the story of an order for forty chicken carbonaras, a job of mythical proportions, that must be filled in an impossible amount of time.” The essay impressed her because it was honest, confident, funny, and well-written – who could ask for more?

In the end, it's up to your teen to write the essay that will best represent her (without boring her reader to death). “You can't tell what makes a good essay until you read it,” says Braat. But the fact that every great college essay is different shouldn't scare her – it should give her confidence. Growing up is all about becoming an individual, and now is the time to shine in all your uniqueness, whether in the eyes of parents, peers, or prospective colleges. 

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