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I’m going to tell you how to write a successful college personal statement. Why? Because thirteen days ago I received a message from my friend’s mom:
“My daughter is starting working on her essay for College. I know you did an amazing essay yourself and I would like to know if you can share your essay with me? I was also told that you help students with essays and I would like to know if you would like to help her?”
While attending, and especially after graduating from UC Berkeley, I helped many students with their college personal statements.
I’ve helped students get into UCSD, Boston University, UCSB, a few state schools, and of course, UC Berkeley.
I would love to share my message to my friend’s mom with you. Hopefully it can help you with your own personal college essay or the stories you want share.
The best way to follow along with the advice is to have these two essays downloaded: my essay and Megan’s Essay — a recent graduate from UC Berkeley — essay.
Dear Mom’s Friend: How to Write a College Personal Essay
1. My essays? I wrote a few for UC Berkeley. Unfortunately, this was long ago that I can’t seem to find any of them, except a draft of one: click here
But, I do have an essay I can share from a student I helped — who recently graduated from UC Berkeley: click here
My favorite essay which starts like this…
“Everyday I have a deck of cards in my pocket. Am I a hustler? No, I’m a magician” is a document I’m unable to find. But, I mention it because I’ll use it as an example later.
2. The strategy I always advise my students is this:
i. all essays should be straightforward and conversational.
ii. have an essay that brings us on a journey of a passion you have.
iii. have a creative essay that shows your critical thinking skills.
iv. focus on one main topic per essay.
Point iv — is probably the hardest to implement, because qualified students usually have done a lot, and so they have an impulse to share everything they’ve done all in one go — all at once.
But, you’re not here to list facts, you’re here to share your story.
People don’t remember facts, they remember stories.
And believe it or not, it’s actually easier to tell all of who you are under the lens of one main subject, or one main moment, than it is if you’re spitting out every fact you’ve done at once: “your accomplishments” should be there to push the story forward.
v. they always tell you to have a “unique voice”. But, what’s a unique voice?
It’s a a voice that makes concrete stances on the beliefs you find to be true.
stakes + decisions + feelings + your objective truths / beliefs = Unique Voice.
The Unique Voice
When I say the word “objective”, I mean it in terms that the thing you’re writing, the stance you’re making SOUNDS like its “fact”.
It doesn’t have to be fact, but it’s fact to you.
Yes, I understand that opinions and taste are “subjective” but to have a voice that is distinct, a voice that is polarizing, you have to persuade the reader that what you’re writing, the personal story you’re telling, is indeed the truth.
Personal stories that sound true, are stories that can explain what happened with only a few words. In addition, stories also sound true when you’re able to allow the reader to feel your feelings in that present moment.
i. Over-explanation draws the reader out and also makes you less believable.
ii. Making the reader feel your feeling about such a thing, makes them care about your story.
For example, in Megan’s essay when she says “I felt tiny before robotics. I felt quiet and insecure, without a purpose.” You get it right away. You feel stuck in her world: this is her truth and we’re just living in it. The feelings she shares are polarizing.
The stakes => she has to find purpose.
The decision => robotics gives her this purpose, so what is the decision is she going to make with robotics?
The objective truth => she felt tiny before robotics.
In her earlier draft she said something along the lines of “…with my favorite teacher, we started our FIRST Robotics Team, The ******, because I believe I was always alone and didn’t know where I wanted to be in terms of academics.”
It’s actually a pretty good first draft. However, this over-explanation and structure can make the reader think, “I wonder if she tried something else would she have felt less alone?”
Even the words “I believe”, in this sentence, makes her sound “wishy washy” instead of confident with her feeling.
We don’t want readers to wander, be polarizing.
Another example is in my essay where I say…
I’ve never had a normal educational route. A normal route consists in my mind, a kid who goes to a public/private high school for four straight years, interacts with kids his age, participates in school events, and does the formidable AP classes that the school offers. Well in my case…
The stakes => I want a normal educational route.
The decision => what am I going to do or what have I done to get close to a normal educational route.
The objective truth => a normal route consists of…
The weight your personal stories carry, should elicit as if YOU have no other choice to feel that way, because of how YOU created the boundaries you’ve set for yourself within that story.
This is all to say that everything in your world is high stakes.
How to Write about Feelings
Rupi Kaur has a great method when she writes about feelings. I emulate her style all the time. She compares feelings with something tangible. For example, in her poem about grieving, she says:
when my heart is broken // I don’t grieve // I shatter
Grieving is a feeling and it can mean so many different things. However, its feeling is clearly defined by how Rupi Kaur knows it to be true when she uses the word “shatter”. People have seen and heard things shatter. It’s tangible.
How to Make Readers Care About Your World
i. Start your stories by defining your world right away. It doesn’t always need to be impactful in an existential “I’m going through hardship” type of way. It can be anything.
One of my favorite essays I’ve ever read from a student, started like this…
Thanksgiving dinner is family. Then he began to explain what family means in terms of the dishes set at the table.
Oftentimes I’d find students giving a long-overdrawn backstory before getting into the actual story. Plop readers in the action slash setting right away.
ii. Your stories should have questions that need to be answered. And, provide a sense of understanding to how these answers not only impact others around you, but also how it impacts yourself now and how it will impact your potential future.
For example, when writing that “I’m a magician”. I explained that magic makes me happy, it allows me to make others happy, and I see myself continuing to do it in hopes to surprise any stranger who is having a bad day (for free).
iii. Lastly, I think the biggest way to make others care about your world, especially in college personal essays, is to show them a transformation that was made because of the actions you took place in the story.
Transformation doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re overcoming an obstacle. This is cliche’ thinking. It’s just means you have a different perspective from what you were in the start of the story.
i. My horrible roommate and I get into trouble by breaking a mirror, but after illegally stealing a replacement mirror, we’re now best friends.
ii. My girlfriend and I are toxic to each other and tell each other we’re no longer in love with each other. But after packing things up and reminiscing, it becomes one of the most romantic breakups ever.
College Are Looking For Your Potential — The Cliffhanger
Like a partner who is thinking about dating you, or a company ready to hire you, colleges are weighing out your potential: with the resources they have, what are you going to do with it?
Colleges understand their prestige will help you open doors for your future (it did for me). Therefore, the goal I want to make clear is to make sure that “through everything I’ve done — I’m now ready and qualified to take on what your college offers”.
i. “… I’m not going to settle for anything less than what my dreams demand.”
ii. “I am no longer small, but a force to be reckoned with.”
iii. “… I will (now) be able to compete with other students at high caliber colleges and universities.”
Essentially, you’re leaving the reader with a cliffhanger: making the reader think, “I’m excited to know what might this student do next!”
How to Sprinkle in Your Accomplishments
I’m nearing the end of my character limit for this e-mail, so I might write a part II…
If you follow everything aforementioned above, it should put you in a spot where you’re taking the reader on your journey of transformation. This means you’re highlighting skills that take you to point A to point B.
It’s these skills that show your accomplishments. Think –
what are these skills? how did you learn these skills?
a basic (amateur) example would be:
i. “thanks to my time as an ASB vice president, I was lucky enough to know how to public speak with confidence…”
formula: because of “said accomplishment” you were able to do x.
i. Grammar doesn’t really matter unless it muddles the story.
ii. The only thing that can hurt a story is its structure, because everyone has a story to tell.
iii. We must learn to write because writing is how we express ourselves uniquely.
I Hope This Helps
I understand this was just scratching the surface when it comes to writing a personal college essay. However, I hope this information is enough to get you started.
Do I still help students with their personal statements?
You know what — if you ever need help. Please send me an email (email@example.com) with a google doc or pdf of your essay.
I’ll take the time to reply!
Why not? I love it.
Thanks for listening.
Feb 13th, 2023.
Location: Philz Coffee Shop — Culver City, CA.
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