Crafting a Compelling Common App Personal Statement

Join our webinar, “Crafting a Compelling Common App Personal Statement,” designed for high school students navigating the college application process and their parents. Former admissions officer and college essay expert Aya Waller-Bey will guide you through the essential elements of creating an impactful personal statement that sets you apart. Gain insights, tips, and strategies to make your Common App essay shine.

Key Learnings:

  • Understanding the Purpose: Uncover the core objectives of the Common App personal statement and its role in the college admissions process.
  • Identifying Your Unique Story: Learn how to discover and articulate your individual experiences, values, and aspirations that will resonate with admissions officers.
  • Structuring Your Narrative: Explore effective techniques for structuring your essay, creating a compelling introduction, body, and conclusion.
  • Show, Don’t Tell: Master the art of vivid storytelling to engage readers and convey your personality authentically.
  • Common Pitfalls to Avoid: Get insights into common mistakes and pitfalls in personal statement writing, with tips on how to steer clear of them.

Don’t miss this opportunity to enhance your college application journey. Register now to gain valuable insights and tools to craft a standout Common App Personal Statement.

Date 03/20/2024
Duration 1:01:06

Webinar Transcription

2024-03-20 – Crafting a Compelling Common App Personal Statement

Hi everyone. Welcome to tonight’s webinar. My name is Anesha Grant. I am a senior advisor at CollegeAdvisor and I will be your moderator tonight. Tonight’s webinar is, uh, Crafting a Compelling Common App Personal Statement. Before we get started, just to orient everyone with the webinar timing, our presenter will share some tips, resources, and guidance, and then we will open up the floor to respond to your questions in a live Q&A.

On the sidebar, you can download our slides under the handouts section. And you can start submitting your questions whenever you get ready in the Q& A tab. Now let’s meet our presenter, Aya. Hey, Aya, how are you doing? Hey, thank you so much. Hi, everyone. I’m Aya. Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening, depending on where you are in the world.

I will be talking to you all tonight about crafting a compelling and that personal statement. So just a little bit about me just to orient yourself. Uh, I am a proud first generation college student. And just in case you don’t know what that means, I was the first person in my family to obtain a four year degree.

Born and raised in the lovely city of Detroit, Michigan. Um, I went to college at Georgetown university in Washington, DC, where I studied sociology. And shortly after, upon graduation, I became an admissions officer there and also the coordinator of multicultural recruitment. So in that role, I read for four states in the Midwest, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois.

And I also helped to facilitate some of our recruitment for our racially minoritized students, more specifically our African American and Black applicants. After leaving Georgetown, I went over across the pond to the University of Cambridge in England, where I got my master’s in philosophy of education, um, as a recipient of the prestigious Gates Cambridge Fellowship.

There again, I studied education and then became an alumni interviewer for Georgetown. So then I began to interview prospective applicants. interested in matriculating at the university. I am now finishing up my PhD in sociology at the University of Michigan where I actually study the college personal statement.

So I have a lot of experience thinking about, writing about, and helping students navigate the college admissions and particularly the college essay portion of the application process. I’ve been with CollegeAdvisor going on three years now, so I have a lot of experience in supporting our students, and I’m very excited to answer your questions about how to write a compelling personal statement tonight.

And I think that our attendees are in for a treat because I think you are an expert. But before we get started, we’re going to do a quick little poll. So just let us know what grade level you are in. If you are a parent or a teacher, we are happy to have you here. You can go ahead and select other. You don’t have to pretend to be in a grade level.

Um, and ask where it just started. I think one of the interesting things that will come out of today’s conversation is around topics. Um, so I have a question for you. I have just, how did you go about picking the topic that you chose to write about for your essay? That’s a great question. So I was a part of a college preparatory program where, uh, we practice a lot with vignettes.

So vignettes or writing vignettes are short narratives, right? So there’ll be a topic like describe your first three hours waking up every morning. So I would develop a narrative or a story about like what that looked like for me. So we did a lot of practice with that, which allowed me to become, um, Uh, skill that just writing about myself, which I feel like a lot of students struggle with, like just talking about their own personal story.

And then ultimately my first personal statement I developed was about something that I thought was transformational to my own lived experience. So it described a moment. Where I got acceptance into a program that actually changed my life. So I really focused on like me, like my own story. And then something that I thought was significant, focusing less about what I thought admissions officers wanted to hear and more about something that I felt like I can write about well and eloquently, but also something that really moved and really, again, in my opinion, changed my life.

So that’s, that’s how I kind of approached like choosing a topic. I really was like, how can I authentically write about? a story that was meaningful and it helped to change my life. I love that. I always see the college admissions process as a rite of passage. And it’s a time for exploration and to kind of come to that kind of reflection about your previous, you know, 17, 18 years.

And I feel like we don’t get a chance to do that as often because we’re a very What do people want to hear rather than kind of what is a story that I have to tell? So I appreciate you for sharing that. Um, all right, I’m gonna stop talking because the people want to hear from you, but I will let you know that, um, actually we have a lot of others.

So we may have a lot of teachers and parents with us. So about. 34%. And then a lot of the remainder is we have one ninth grader, welcome. Um, and then the remainder of folks are 11th graders who I think are probably in that writing phase right now or starting to think about, um, developing those essays. All right.

So I’ll hand it over to you and I’ll be back a little bit later. Got it. Well, welcome everyone. I’m so excited to have you. Our others in the space, but also our 11th graders who are thinking intimately about the personal statement Um, so to start just to again, make sure we’re all on the same page. What is a personal statement?

So we hear it a lot. It’s a part of our discourse and a personal statement It’s essentially just an essay you submit to the colleges and universities that really showcase your voice your writing skills Depth it adds context to your application. It is a qualitative Portion of the application and it really provides insight into your background your experiences And may also consider your goals and your reasons for applying to specific college or program Now something to think about the common app has seven essay questions, which we’ll talk about later Um that students can opt in to write about and you are writing one essay that will go to all of your schools Um that might require the college personal statement or the college essay.

Okay, so there’s one thing to think about this is The person statement is that one essay that you, you get to work on and, and iterate around and retool, and you’ll submit that to multiple schools on your college list. Again, I just referenced that the common app which is you know The largest kind of application submission portal that we have here in the united states And it allows you to submit one application to multiple schools now on the common app There are seven personal there’s personal essay topics or personal statement questions rather And the seventh question is also avenger.

It’s You can share it essay on any topic of your choice again. It could be one you’ve written and high school. I know we’ve we encounter students who in their 11th grade English English class, they might dedicate time to working on that college essay. So, um, it’s an opportunity for you to kind of share your own experience and you can write about your identity, your background, your obstacles, your interest, things that motivate you, things that spark excitement and enjoyment.

Things that, you know, captivate you. So again, there are one, um, there are seven questions that you can respond to. And it’s very important to point out that there’s no advantage from choosing question one, as opposed to question six or seven or vice versa. Okay. So these are the seven. Uh, application or topic choices rather.

And also I want to point out that the common app did release that these will be the questions for this upcoming, upcoming cycle. So these are the questions from last year and they’re remaining unchanged. Okay. They will also be the questions that students will be writing for for the next or the upcoming application cycle.

So you can Google common app personal statement topics for 2024 2025 and these will show up. Okay. So even if you can’t like write them down or screenshot them, they are currently available online. So this is a really great question. Again, you know, we often have students who say, should I just, should I do prompt number seven?

And actually, I actually think. The ultimate so my final essay was prop number seven. I chose the choose your own adventure, right? I had a story that I wanted to tell and I didn’t feel like it answered any of the one through six questions So I chose my own adventure So you could choose this prop absolutely, right?

And then again for many students like myself who find that the stories that they want to tell they don’t necessarily fit squarely within the six other essay prompts. So they might find that this question is more appropriate. And again, there’s no advantage or disadvantage to choosing this. There’s no data to support that one essay prompt, uh, will kind of have a higher return on investment, if you will, on another question.

Now, this is a very popular question that we receive about how are students making sense of the personal statement from the regular high school essay. I remember in high school long ago. time ago. We wrote a lot of essays and they were very distinct, right? I was, there was a prompt that I was responding to about a book or a text, uh, and it was a particular type of prose.

It was the five paragraph format that we’re so often used to intro, three body paragraphs, and then that conclusion paragraph. The personal statement is different. So the difference between, you know, the personal statement in that regular high school is first is focus, right? So in the college person statement, you’re talking about your personal experience, right?

You’re talking about me, I, you can use first person, um, you’re talking about aspirations, your character, it’s reflection on significant events and challenges or future goals, right? So it’s a, it’s a different direction. The focus on a high school essay is usually, again, an assigned topic or related coursework or a specific prompt.

Um, it can be, you know, it’s, you know, you’re evaluated on grammar sometimes, and analysis, and argumentation, and your thesis. So it’s a particular, uh, prescriptive type of writing that is not necessarily the first thing to state. Also, your audience is different, right? So you’re for your personal statement, there’s a targeted audience, which are college admissions offices, right?

You’re trying to showcase how you know you’re suitable for the institution, your contributions, again, your character, your personal insight, your personality. Now for your high school essays, you’re not necessarily focusing on personality, right? You’re primarily writing for your teachers or instructors, okay?

You’re aiming to understand critical information about courses and proficiency, and it’s just a different type of audience, you know? The admissions officer versus the teacher is quite different. Also, flexibility. So for the personal statement, you can You know, like, like choose different topics. You can show different types of styles the way you choose to write your narrative again.

You can use I statements. You can write in first person as opposed to oftentimes for socializing schools, right? A third person. So again, you can explore diverse themes, personal challenges. Again, you can write about yourself. You can center yourself. The personal statement is about you. However, in our school essays, it’s oftentimes structured with rubrics, uh, set by the teachers of the school district.

It limits the scope of creativity in a lot of ways, unless it’s a creative writing class, right? So there’s just more parameters that you have to choose. Um, I will say they’re both similar in a sense that there are word limits. For the college personal statement, it’s 650 for regular high school essays that might vary.

It could be a thousand 10 pages, et cetera. Um, as thinking about like, what do most personal statements look like? That’s a really interesting question because they look differently to a certain extent. So the college personal statement is, it’s again, it varies wildly in continent style, but it is reflecting our diverse backgrounds, our experiences and our aspirations.

Um, but they, there is a format. So there’s an introduction. And you do have to start, you know, my name is Aya, I am writing because I went to go to college. You don’t have to be, you know, as dogmatic, you don’t have to write in that way particularly. But, you know, you want to have a compelling, you often read hook or antidote, right?

So something to grab the reader’s attention, something that makes them want to read again. AOs and admissions officers are reading thousands of applications, right? So you want something that hooks them in. Um, the essay, it may provide insight into the applicant’s background or interest and really set the tone of the essay.

There’s also, you know, a personal narrative. So this is what is distinct about the personal statement. You know, you’re, the bulk of it is really thinking about your experiences. You’re telling a story. The story can be about whatever you choose, right? It could be the time where. You went camping and you got lost and you had to kind of navigate based on your training and the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts about how to find your way home, right?

It could be the time where you met a student when you were volunteering at your local, you know, homeless shelter. You all be, you know, created a friendship and you talked about what you learned from them, what you learned about yourself and how important it was to serve, right? So it’s a personal narrative.

Also, most personal statements look like, you know, they’re reflective and really insightful. So you really want to reflect on the impact of the experiences that you’ve had and what you learned from them. That’s critical. So you want to demonstrate self awareness, critical thinking, and your ability to grow.

Um, again, it’s not enough to just say, I did this thing this time, when, with these people, but what did you learn from it? What did you learn from the people you encounter? How are you changed by those experiences? How are you unchanged by those experiences? That’s what you want to talk about. So how do I start the writing process?

Again, very popular question. You know, first and foremost, it’s really great to just reflect, to be reflective and introspective. So just taking time to reflect on significant experiences, your achievements, your challenges, and really consider how those experiences have shaped your values, aspirations, and goals.

Again, I often, you know, talk about probably that I was a first generation college student. So, you know, I really had to navigate higher ed without a blueprint because I didn’t have parents and at the time older siblings to Tell me their experiences, right? I use mentors and I had teachers from of course high school who were college educated But I really had to reflect on like my own journey to higher ed uh, and then how that informed my desire to Support other first generation college students or support other students as they navigated the college admissions process Which is again part of my motivations of working here with CollegeAdvisor So just again telling that story or being reflective Also, to start the writing process, brainstorm, right?

So make a list of potential topics or themes you can explore in your statement. I always say there’s a great, you know, exercise of just looking at those six prompts that the college, uh, personals or common app has as college person statement topics. Which ones are resonating to you? What could you jot down?

Three bullet points. I’m like, okay, ask for about something that excites me or something that can lose time, lose time doing that could be video games that could be working out and that could be talking with friends and then elaborating on each of those things. What are significant to you? What have you learned from those experiences?

Okay. You also, again, want to consider the prompt, review the prompts provided by the colleges or programs, think about how your experiences and goals relate to the prompt, and which aspects of your identity you want to highlight in your essay.

So, and again, and thinking about just actually starting, you want to outline your essay, right? So, You want to create a rough outline or some type of structure so it doesn’t have to be Roman numeral one, bullet point, etc. So it doesn’t have to be a literal format for your, you know, your outline. But you want to just, again, as I said earlier, jot down, you know, include sections as, this will be an introduction, This is the story I want to tell about this experience.

This is my reflection about these experiences and this is how it connects to my future goals, right? So again, outline is just helping you create some type of structure and also helping you organize your thoughts, right, in a way that flows logically. Draft writing, right? So once you have this outline, start writing a draft.

I think that becomes the hardest part. We overthink it. It was like, oh my god, Columbia won’t like this story. Oh my god, University of Michigan won’t like this story. And you really need to get what’s in your head onto the page. Okay? So just get all those thoughts out. Don’t worry about formatting and indentation of paragraphs or double space.

Just get it out. Just write uninterrupted. Just give yourself like 20 minutes, right? Uninterrupted. Okay. And then you want to seek feedback. You know, once you have a drive, you know, you can ask me back from trusted friends, families. You know teachers and mentors, you know, they can provide valuable insight and suggestions for improving the essay So I recognize there’s a lot of text on this screen.

So bear with us, right? So like what is a good college personal statement topic? You know a topic is one that a good one really allows you to be authentic I know that sounds cliche and corny, but I cannot So often students are like, I want to write about this because I think they want to hear about this.

And do not prioritize the admissions officers who have different backgrounds, lived experiences, goals, identities. They, too, are, have their own, um, kind of, um, subjectivities that might inform how they read your essay, right? So just focus on telling the stories that you want to tell and make sure they’re centering you and that they’re authentic.

With that in mind, you know, good person statement topics can be significant life experiences, right? Pivotal moments. Those could be overcoming challenges, experiencing cultural exchange, discovering a passion or talent, right? Um, you know, topics can also be about your passions or interests, right? So hobbies that you might have, maybe you like to build bikes and take them apart and build them again, whatever it might be, right.

Something that’s deeply that, you know, deeply committed to that could, that could be a sport, it could be dance. It could be. Um, baking, it could be creating Tik TOK. It literally could be whatever is, you know, motivating you, whatever you wake up excited about doing. It could be your a good person statement topic could be about service, right?

Again, I went to a school that prioritize service and we were, you know, instilled with the value of being men and women for others, right? So, you know, it could highlight your involvement in community service, your volunteer work, or certain moments or experiences you have with the people you work with, and or we’re in community with right?

A good person statement could be about your cultural personal identity, right? So I can talk about your personal identity. Your cultural and ethnic backgrounds things that are important to you Um, it could talk about how this culture or identity has influenced your perspective your values your goals and and how you plan Or would contribute to a diverse community, right?

So you can lean into your personal identity. You can talk about your racial identity your ethnic identity Okay, and and also again a good statement or topic Could be future goals and aspirations, right? So you can talk about your career goals and aspirations and what led you to pursuing that particular interest.

Right? Discuss how your experience and skills align with those future aspirations. You know, maybe you love pets and animals and even volunteering at a animal shelter and you really desire to be a veterinarian, so you can write about that and make that connection.

So here, um, and thinking about like qualities that really make an essay stand out, you will hear repeatedly, if not from me, but in future conversations about the importance of showing and not telling, okay? So the idea of like to tell an essay means to simply state what, what you want to say. There’s no creativity.

There’s no vivid kind of details, no intentional effort to transport your reader everywhere. So thinking about how to really make an essay compelling and that’s excitable for the reader, right? You really want to think about, uh, instead of telling, you want to show them, uh, and you want to use descriptive language and you want to detail and show genuine emotional responses.

Evoking, you know, emotions for the reader really helps them connect on a deeper level. So for an example here, the first example, because we’ll have another one after this, you know, to tell is I am an expert at fixing bikes. I enjoy working with bikes after school. I started a cycling club at my school. So this is, you know, this is telling the reader that you’re an expert.

Uh, you’re telling them what you enjoy and tell them what you did, right? Now, example of showing is my hands develop calluses from the sandpaper I used to clean around the chains of hundreds of bikes. But there were 400 hours a week dedicated to repairing mountain bikes. The smell of oil no longer bothered me.

So you can see a clear difference. One is way more descriptive. One, you know, even the thought of reading about calluses, I looked at my hands like, wow, okay. The smell. So it’s like the smell of oil. If you’ve ever been to a car shop or auto shop or even work with bike, this is the oil, right? The chains. So you, it’s taking you, it’s helping you evoke the senses.

Okay. So that’s a good example. Secondly, here’s another example. Um, the tell example reads, I really felt scared the first time I appeared on stage for high school play. I was very nervous. I forget my lines. My mouth was really dry. My palms were super sweaty. The lights made the stage really hot and I couldn’t see the audience very well.

I tried my best on my performance. So, uh, that’s really, this is another example of just kind of kind of telling what was happening. Um, a show example is I was terrified about my acting premiere. Our brains scrambled for my lines. I was parched. My poems hammy. The lights boiled the stage and erased the audience.

My voice quivered, but the show must go on, I thought. So you might be looking at the first example and was like, wow, that person I felt like was really, uh, descriptive. Their mouth was really dry, their paws were super sweaty. But this, the show here goes a little deeper, right? So it wasn’t just sweaty, it was clamsy.

They weren’t just dry, they were parched, right? So they’re using different words that invoke a certain type of emotion. emotional response or even a physiological response. Okay. Um, so this is just another example.

Now we have a poll. Sorry. Yep. We’re going to come back into our phone real quick. Um, all right. So let us know where you are in the application process. If you started, you’re researching, working on your essays, which I assume many of you are, or if you’re nearly done. Um, all right. And then as a waiting, I think I was wondering, about show versus telling if you’ve seen particularly vivid examples of people showing perhaps too much can show and go can you show show and go bad i guess yeah i mean it’s hard to say just like broadly speaking but i think with anything there’s this like They’re just like overdoing it.

And I think just showing, uh, and I think that’s particularly, I’m trying to recall if I’ll address this, um, and the conversation about like students showing too much as relates to like traumatic experiences to the point that the reader has a visceral response that is not a positive one, but also I think sometimes students go so far in the weeds, they’re so descriptive where we actually lose the plot or we lose the so what.

Okay. You know, so there’s this, there’s, you can set the stage, right, and showing, you know, your sweaty palms, fuzzy memory, what you smell. It’s really like your senses. Who, what, when, like, what did you smell? What did you taste? What did you see? But if you spend the entire essay being so descriptive and you don’t get to the meat, the so what, the why we shouldn’t care, the narrative is lost, then there is a such thing as just being too to showing, right?

And tell us what’s happening. Like, why should we care that your palms were sweating, right? If you don’t ever get to the so what or why we should care, you can certainly lose the reader for sure. Yeah, I mean, I love what you said before about the vignettes. And I feel like I’ve tried to use that with students to get them experimenting with that sensory detail um, and, and doing it in like short form so that it can be done briefly and then you move on to to answering it.

And I have had students who I felt like showed so much that they did not ultimately answer the question. I was like, I got how you felt about this particular moment, but I could not, I do not know how you overcame it, how you addressed it, what you learned from yourself, um, because you were very, very detailed in explaining that moment.

But yeah. Okay, I’ll go ahead and close our poll. So 18 percent of folks are still haven’t started. That’s totally fine. Especially if you are in the 11th grade, it’s all right. 68 percent of folks are researching schools. Some are working on their essays and some are getting the application materials together.

So everyone’s in a variety of stages, but the majority of folks are still in the research phase. Research is good. Research is important. Um, so without further ado, we’re going to continue because we I want to make sure that we have time for your questions. And there’s a lot to get through. Um, so speaking of where we are, right?

Let’s talk about timeline. So, we often get the question, like, when should I start writing? What’s a good timeline for writing? So, again, with everything, which I know feels very unsatisfactory, it really depends. But generally, this is a general timeline, so sometimes, you know, students, again, as I mentioned earlier, in their high schools, in their junior year, usually spring, so like March, April, they may write, uh, as an assignment for class, a draft of their personal statement.

So some students go into their summer, Between their junior senior year with some type of idea of what they want to write about or some type of draft Okay, that’s not the case for all students But that that does happen but generally in may you want to review the common app essay prompts Which I shared earlier and again, they are all online You can google them and you can pick a few essay prompts that resonate with you and start to contemplate them Right.

So just start thinking about them And then, June, you really want to outline and write a kind of, and we talked about outlining and what that looks like earlier, outline and write a draft of that personal statement, right? Again, the hardest part of writing your essay is committing something to paper. So what we want you to do is, you’ve been contemplating, you read the prompts, now we want to get them out your head onto the paper.

And then you want to use July to, again, you want to write and edit that draft, okay? And thinking about August, you know, dive into the process of constructing that narrative. So you should aim to produce at least two or more additional drafts. So often students don’t write their first draft until October and they think, okay, they write in October and that’s it.

They’re one and done. No, your first draft should not be your last draft. So you really want to share your latest draft with just trusted advisors, And people that you know, people that you respect, in August. So in September, and this is when school is really starting for most places, you really want to use this month to just really devote it to incorporating that feedback that you receive from people who read your essay.

So, you really want to start finalizing that personal statement, because by the end of August you should have a final draft of that statement. You will, or by the end of September rather, you should feel, excuse me, one sec.

Okay, I’m back. Sorry about that. So by the end of September, you really want to make sure you have a draft that you feel confident in submitting. So thinking about common mistakes, this is a really important thing to talk about. So first you want to make sure when you’re writing essays that you’re writing essays that Don’t focus on other people.

Huge, huge mistake. So for an example, our essay, some students might talk about like their grandparents or how their grandparents inspired them to pursue dentistry. And the entire essay is dedicated to the grandparent. So I learned about your grandparent. where they were raised, you know, where they went to dent, you know, high school, college, school of dentistry, et cetera.

And you talk about how much you love them, admire them because of these qualities. And then I finished the essay wondering if I could admit the grandparent. And you really want to make sure your essays are focusing on you. You also should, a common, common mistake is assuming that the reader understands local and social media references.

You might be applying to a school that’s out of state, out of region, and, and also admissions officers can be 21, they could be 90, you know. So you also don’t want to assume that they understand local and social media references, okay? You also, you know, mistakes are writing essays that read like they were written by a college professor, and that’s because students basically have parents or teachers who are doing all the work for them.

You don’t want to do that. We want to talk about student voice, authenticity. We want to hear from you. Also mentioning experiences without describing them. That’s that show don’t tell that we just really talked about, right? Uh, we also see the overly use of thesauruses. So, I mean, there’s oftentimes, you know, students might replace certain words, the verbs, adjectives that they think might be sound more professional, sound smarter, and oftentimes it just obscures the writing.

So you don’t need to like look at a thesaurus to for every other word, okay? Also, we see a lot of. complex synthesis. I’m guilty of this as, again, someone who’s writing a dissertation. Where, you know, you don’t want to avoid, you know, writing complex sentences that are an entire paragraph length long. I mean, I’ve read essays where the intro is one sentence because it’s like complex sentences, commas and semicolons.

You want to break that up. It’s also just easier for the reader, right? And then, common mistakes or cliches, will someone see, read, write, life is a box of chocolates and like, throw it into the deny pile? It won’t. They won’t, right? However, just be mindful that we encounter so many, we being admissions officers or advisors, encounter so many cliches.

You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. You know, we just see and read a lot of that stuff, okay? So how to revise, you know, revise and refine your essays to avoid common mistakes. So first and foremost, you need to not procrastinate because you really want to be able to take a break. So you want to complete drafts and be able to take a break for a day or two to gain a fresh perspective before revising, right?

This will also help you approach your revisions with a clear mind. This means that you cannot wait if you’re applying early action or early decision with a November 1st deadline. It can’t be 11. 39 p. m. on Halloween and you’re writing your essays for the first time. Because you can’t walk away. You can’t take a break.

You can’t share with the parent. You can’t share with the teacher, because there’s just not enough time, okay? You also want to review the prompts again. So often students think about, I want to write about this, and then they just completely lose sight that they’re actually responding to a question, okay?

So you want to make sure you’re effectively answering and addressing prompts. You also want to check for clarity and coherence. So you want to read your essays out loud. You want to think about like central structures and disjointed paragraphs. You want to ensure that your ideas are flowing from one paragraph to the next with smooth transitions, right?

So also just reading out loud. I often talk about the read aloud feature on Microsoft Word. I think you can download a plugin for Google Docs where you get to just read or hear what you’re reading. Your essay is read to you, so you then get to, like, hear how it sounds. You also want to trim unnecessary stuff.

So often, there’s just so many random, unnecessary, strenuous information that’s repetitive because students are like, I need to write to, you know, 650 words. I need to make sure I’m at 650. No, you don’t. If you wrote between 550 to 650, you will be fine. You just want to make sure that you’re concise and that you’re conveying points succinctly.

To continue, you just, again, we talked about show, don’t tell, right? Instead of just simply stating facts or listing of your accomplishments, you really want to paint vivid pictures and descriptions with anecdotes, right? You also want to seek feedback and revision. You want to share your revised essay with your friends and family members or mentors.

There’s also a thing that’s too many cooks in the kitchen, so you don’t have to share your essay with everybody. You don’t have to share friends, family members, teachers, mentors. You don’t have to share with all of them. Think of it like two people, your teachers, right, and your parent, your teacher, and your mentor, okay?

You don’t want too much feedback to the point you lose the essence of your essay. You also want to proofread, you know, carefully, right? Essays, you want to read them multiple times, use that read aloud, use Grammarly plugins. I’ve seen students use that. I use Grammarly on the plugin. I pay for it. Um, just to catch, you know, mistakes, okay?

So those are ways you really want to kind of think about revising that essay. Um, because again, you don’t want to be one and done. You really want to make sure you are spending the time needed Okay So put your best foot forward.

Thank you so much, Aya. All right, we are going to transition into our Q& A segment. Um, just so everyone knows, just a reminder that the handouts are available under the Q& A tab. I think these sets of handouts are actually really, really useful. I know Aya updated them, um, so I would definitely encourage folks to download those and keep those as a resource.

Uh, we’re going to move into our live Q& A, so the way that it will work, um, I will read the questions that you all submit through the Q& A tab aloud, give Aya a chance to read them, and paste them into the Q paste them into the public chat so that other folks can see them as well. If you’re having any challenges with submitting questions, just know that you might have to log out, log back in, and make sure you’re logging in through the, through the link you received in your email and not through the webinar landing page.

Okay. All right. My first question for you, and I think you addressed this a little bit in defining what it is, but I think for greater clarity, um, one person asked how much of your personal statement can be reused across different schools. Great question. I mean, the personal statement is that essay that you developed that could be used for all of your schools.

So remember in your personal essay, you’re not name dropping the school. Um, you are just writing that one essay just tells your story that responds to one of the seven props and it’s that one essay you can upload so you can send it to all your schools. You can reuse it. Now that’s different from, say, a supplement essay, which we didn’t talk about because this particular conversation is about the personal statement, but for supplement essays, which are the school specific prompts, you’re, you can reuse elements of that as well where appropriate.

So we want students to think about, like, how they can write their best essay because There are going to be opportunities where that person’s statement can be used for a scholarship essay in some cases or element of it could be used for another type of essay. So it is reusable and you want to think about your essays like how can this serve other purposes down the line?

I think. Our answer to this would be some of the vignettes that you talked about before, but, um, or those types of activities. But, um, what are some ideas for how students can identify and choose an impactful experience to talk about in their essays? Yeah, we, we talked about this a little bit earlier in this conversation.

You know, there are a host of experiences. Um, you really want to Again, you want to respond to the prompt. So if you want to talk about, um, it’s like, what is impactful to you? So maybe there was a moment where you found some clarity. Maybe there was a moment you discovered that you actually don’t want to study biology and that you have a love for psychology.

Or maybe there was a moment while you were on a team that you felt like your back was against a wall and you have to pivot. You know, so the part the experiences that you choose or the top of you choose are really personal, right? It’s called a personal statement. So, um, I really encourage things to like, uh, look at vignettes, right?

And vignettes again are just that allow you to talk about small experiences. So again, describing your daily routine or describe a moment when you felt, you know, uh, offended or describe a moment where you felt like you affected change or describe a moment where you had to, uh, endure something to overcome and describe a moment when you had a conflict with people you love, you know, you really just want to think about those stories and narratives cause that would help to get the juices flowing.

So you can. Then respond to one again, one of the seven prompts that the common app invites you to respond to. Uh, this next question, I think it’s interesting. So is it more preferable to use experiences and events from high school more so than from earlier in your life? That’s a fantastic question. So I will say this and there may be a difference of opinions across, uh, you know, Anesha and I have a different experience.

I think that you should prioritize near present experiences. Now I’ve said that with the caveat that I’ve worked with students who talked about, you know, in middle school, they moved to a different country because of their parents work. And they talked about what they saw, what they learned and how that like motivated them to pursue like environmental justice or something like that.

I think that certainly could be used to kind of talk about yourself, but you don’t want to be a 11th grade or sorry, a 12th grader writing about something that happened in second grade. So you do want to prioritize near present experiences. Is that a hard and fast rule? But you know what you were and what you were doing then, it’s not who you are now.

So if you can make a strong argument about how that experience then impacted who you are now and what you’re doing now, I think you can make a compelling case. So it’s not a hard and fast rule, but I prefer when students prioritize near present experiences. So it’s not like if you’re a senior, it should have happened in high school, but you want to kind of be able to talk about something that happened relatively recently.

Um, just so the reader could Understand you as a person today as opposed to you as a person in third grade. Yeah. No, I don’t disagree with you I think I agree with using kind of more near present examples for sure Okay, this next question is can you please list some overused essay topics

Well, there’s a lot of them and at this point they’re pretty easily searchable. I think what Nia and colleagues will often talk about, we’ve heard a lot of iterations of the sports essay and the sports essay is like, I tore my ACL. I lost the game winning shot. I had a big game. Somebody didn’t show up to that game.

So, you know, those are for essays. Oh, I tried out for the swim team. I didn’t make it the swimming team. So I tried out, I worked hard and trained over the summer. So then I made the swim team. So. Sports essays are very popular. We also hear essays about Students who might have more means and resources who did service trips abroad usually to countries that are developing So or continents that are developing so, you know, you know building schoolhouses in Mali and how they taught the the poor kids there or, um, creating, um, donation, donating bracelets to, you know, underrepresented students in Ecuador.

So those types of like service type of orientations, missionary trips are quite popular. Um, divorce, parents divorcing, um, um, that’s popular students. Um, and this is an interesting one. Uh, so that the trauma narrative, so, and I studied trauma narratives for my research. So this is. very salient to me. Um, students just writing explicitly about like trauma, but without kind of talking about the arc and the growth.

Um, so talking about the most traumatic experiences. Overused is a, I think the question was asking, it was framed in a more pejorative negative sense, but we increasingly are hearing about students writing about mental health and anxiety. I don’t know if it’s overused per se, but it’s becoming increasingly common because it’s becoming less stigmatized.

So students are writing about mental health more in their essays, so that’s something that’s popular. Yeah, so I just gave you a list of, you know, topics and again, something being done a lot doesn’t necessarily prohibit you from writing about it. It’s just we want to make sure you have the appropriate orientation recognizing that you are right about something that hundreds and thousands of other students are writing about.

That does not mean you were won’t be admitted. It doesn’t mean that you’re bad. It doesn’t mean you’ll be in the reject pile. It’s just like wanting you to know. That you are not going to be the first person or the last person to write about, you know, winning or losing the championship game. Okay. Uh, my next question, I’m sorry if you answered this and I’m making you repeat yourself, but I’ll ask it anyway.

Who is reading the Common App? That’s actually a fantastic question. So thank you for asking that. Thanks for whoever posed that question. So it depends. Um, I know that’s a popular answer. It depends. It depends. Well, so different schools have different admissions kind of protocols and policies. Some universities have.

Um, so the common app is read by universities who are on the common app. So let me start there. So not all schools, not all universities are members of the common app, period. You also have universities, um, like particularly historically black colleges, universities who are on the, there’s another platform, the common black.

You know, college application where it’s only HBCU’s who are members of that particular platform. So only member organizations are. So it’s whoever member of the Common App. So you want to verify that the school you’re applying to is on the Common App. You would know that because you, if you choose to go to select Georgetown, it won’t pop up.

Georgetown is not on the Common App. So they’re not reading your Common App application. It relates to like, again, universities as far as who’s on the admission side, it varies. There are committees, there are regional officers, there are state officers, there are some external officers. Committees can be professors, it can be faculty members, it can be students, it can be admissions officers.

So it varies widely by the university, but to answer the who’s on the Common App, it’s really of who’s reading the application. It’s really the schools that are members of a common app, which is a lot, thousands of schools, but not all of them are, are used the common app. Thank you. Uh, I’m going to do a quick little PSA as we wait for our next question to come in.

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All right. Um, My next question for you, we’re going to leave that QR code up there and keep moving forward with the questions. Someone asked, can you give a list of memorable essays that you’ve read? What stuck out for you? I don’t know if I can give a list, but I’ll just answer like what things that stuck out to me.

So, Again, I talked a little bit about it in this conversation. Uh, and I want to, uh, preface this by saying what stuck out to me in that particular moment in my life when I was reading it might vary differently. And you also want to recognize things that might resonate with me, may not resonate with Anesha, may not resonate, uh, resonate with your admissions officers at Michigan State or whomever, right?

So just want to point that out that there are humans and people who are reading. Your applications and reading your essay. So things resonate and look differently to different people based on their own identities and background. So with that in mind, um, I often say like I really enjoy essays about Just like the human experience.

I’ve had students who held jobs, right? And these are not students who were like interning in high school with doctors or at Goldman Sachs or anything like that These are people who worked at Starbucks and Jimmy John’s Who write essays about working the drive through window and having to meet customers from diverse backgrounds, having to be an employee, having to be a teammate, what they learned about just be a day in the life of a job.

I really, those essays really resonate with me. Also, um, the essays that resonate with me also are students who’ve had to endure difficult odds, right? Who have detailed, you know, their experiences of having to navigate very difficult situations and how they’ve had the fortitude, um, and the resilience to kind of, you know, Successfully still apply to college and be successful in high school.

Um, and then also, I mean, we talked a little bit about focusing too much on like, like other people, but I do enjoy essays that talk about family cultures and traditions, right? So like students who say, you know, every Sunday, regardless of the season, the weather, whomever, you know, my family sits down and have a dinner.

at our dinner table. And we talk about what happened during that week. We talked about what we learned. We talked about work. We talked about life. And we share this common cult. Like, we love food. You know, we, we all love, you know, every night, you know, sometimes it’s a taco night. Sometimes it’s Italian.

Sometimes it’s all food. And they just talk about, you know, what they learned and why that’s important. So I love, again, these like, authentic stories about the human experience. I think so again, so often we overthink, we’re focusing on what do they want to read? What do they want to read? And just like, talk about what’s important to you.

Um, that’s, that’s, those are the types of stories that have stuck out to me.

Yeah. I, I would say, I think also, at least for me, no one asked, but I’ll just share that. Um, in my mind, the essays that have stuck out or that I’ve seen that have stuck out and I know have been successful, provide a lot of imagery. I had a student who in this kind of speaks to your story about talking about trauma, but he was from a low income background and he, his family couldn’t pay the electricity bill and his essay was all about candles.

And it was just very interesting how he didn’t focus on the, the sadness of the story, but more about how like the candles created this vibe in his household of warmth and of coming together. And it was just very fascinating for that reason of just kind of not kind of sitting in the sadness of the trauma, but talking about how this pivot allowed him to kind of find.

closeness with his family. So I’ll just say I think imagery and also then I think authenticity in that one. But, um, okay. My next question for you is, um, yeah, is how much emphasis should I place on discussing goal, my future goals and aspirations in my personal statement? That’s a great question. And it really depends on what question you’re responding to.

Like, that’s the priority. So If a question asks you to talk about your future goals and your motivations and aspirations, then you want to write an essay that talks about those things, and you want to disclose those things. Um, but you, in your personal statement, you do not have to talk about, you know, your desire to be a doctor or physician.

If it’s not a part of the narrative you want to tell, you can want to be a physician or a pediatrician or OBGYN, and you can talk about your love for dance and like, have you been a ballerina for the past, you know, And that could be solely the essay and talk about what you learned, what you learned, you know, the losses, the wins, etc.

You don’t have to talk about your desire to be a physician. Um, there might be a supplement that requires you to talk about it. Or when you check the box about what you’re interested in and what you want to major in, that’s where you will vote that. But you do not have to write a personal statement about your future goals and aspirations.

Unless that’s the topic. of your essay and that’s the prompt that you’re responding to. Someone asks, Do you have any tips for displaying your authentic self in a Common App essay?

Well, just write about yourself. Just don’t write about anyone else. You know, the, the authenticity just comes from you, right? You as an individual writing your own story and being the author of it and talking about your life and not prioritizing what you think other people want to read or comparing yourself to other people.

Which I think unfortunately happens so much increasingly because of the use of social media where people are looking at Reddit or Facebook groups or Tik Toks to determine. How they should show up, um, show up how you show up. Right. So, you know, prioritizing authenticity is you just telling your own story and your own words on your own terms and not thinking too much or overthinking about what you think people want to hear.

I don’t know if this was a tip I got from you or another admissions officer, but Um, at like the final or second to last draft of the essay, having students read it aloud actually is a really good authenticity check when it does not sound natural coming out of their mouths, or it doesn’t sound like the way that they would say something.

Um, and we ended up having to go back and make some edits to be like, that didn’t sound just like it, it is something you would say, or it was from your perspective. Um, so that’s just like one also tip of like, at some point down the line, read your essay aloud and actually see if it sounds right in your voice.

Um, um, I have a question from a parent perspective. So how much involvement should parents have in crafting their child’s personal statement for the common app? That’s a great question. The word crafting gives me a little bit of pause. Um, and I’ll admit my bias is a first generation college student who, my parents were not a part of my admissions or application process at all.

Um, they, I just used their data to submit my FAFSA, right? Or my CSS profile. Um, I think parents need to be a little bit more hands off than they probably would like to be. You, uh, you want to, if you want to have conversations about, with your students about like brainstorming or different topics, I think that’s beautiful, right?

Everyone could benefit from that support, as we’ve heard from the question students and other stakeholders will like more support on the brainstorming aspect. But you do not want to write your student’s essay, and you also don’t want them to think that they’re writing for you. What I’ve heard from the students that I’ve interviewed for my research and my dissertation, again, I study college admissions and college essays in particular, but there are students who felt afraid to even share their essays with their parents because they may have written something about their parents or they felt like their parents wouldn’t approve of it, even though the parents are actually not the audience, it’s the admissions officers, right?

Um, I do like the idea of, you know, having a look from, you know, a parent or a teacher or a mentor just for like both reading purposes. But you do not want to write the essay for them. This is not your application process. This is not your admissions process. This is not your, you know, this is not your journey.

This is your child’s journey. So you also want to make sure that they feel empowered. And when they go to college, you know, they should, you know, you’re, they’re starting their journey of independence, right? So you also don’t want to handhold them to the point where they, they use you as a crutch, even when they’re a junior in college, right?

You want them to be able to finally develop their own wings so they can fly without you to, you know, to ensure that they are, you know, happy, competent. Young people, right? Um, so again, I think you could help them brainstorm. You can help them edit and revise. Um, but you want to make sure that you are not overstepping in a process, that it becomes your essay and your or in or your child feels so concerned that you have such a strong or negative opinion that they don’t even feel comfortable sharing it with you, which unfortunately I’ve heard a great deal.

You anticipated the other questions, which was what to avoid when providing feedback and what should I do if I disagree with what they have in the essay? I don’t know if you have more on that topic. The first one was what should You answered it. It was like, what should I avoid when I give feedback? But, um, the other question is what should parents do if they disagree with the content or approach their child is taking in their personal statement?

Well, it depends on the content, right? So, I don’t think all disagreement is created equally. So, you could say like, I don’t like that you’re writing about your love for dance. You know, I think there are more compelling topics such as A, B, and C, right? So you’re giving the young person an alternative to think about other options, and I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong, right?

However, I think disagreeing with like, oh, I don’t like how you’re portraying our family You know, you talked about how your grandpa and therefore your dad were not around. And that makes that that makes our family look bad. I just agree with that because again, it’s not your not your story. Um, and I also feel like there, I appreciate educators and adults who are encouraging young people to think more seriously about the stories that they tell about their life and their background because As I mentioned earlier, we do not know who’s reading these essays on the other side exactly, right?

So a university might have external admissions readers, a university might have professors, a university might have undergraduate students on their admissions committee. And I think, especially when it comes to talking about our hardship, our trauma, our struggle, we don’t have sophisticated conversations about what does it mean to submit an essay about something very personal, deeply personal.

I have 20 other people look at it. Now that’s a large number. I’m partly kind of embellishing that, but you know, seven people read it, right? Um, we think the essays are like a black hole, but there are humans on the other side of most admissions processes. So if a parent wants to say, Hmm, let’s think twice about sharing this particular narrative or what the complications or implications are.

I think that’s okay. Um, but to kind of put your foot down and say, absolutely not, because that is, that’s bad or I don’t agree with it. I think you want to, again, take a step back and remember it’s not your admissions process, it’s the students. Uh, a less heavy question. Is it acceptable to use humor, or should I stick to a more serious tone?

You can use humor, but just know that not everybody may share your, like, same humor, so they might not think it’s funny. You might be a terrible comedian. You know, it may not translate well in writing. Um, it might just sound better on your TikTok, so, um, you can certainly use humor, um, but it may not translate well so that you’re taking a risk, right?

Mm-Hmm. . Um, again, jokes are just different when you don’t know the person, you don’t know the tone, you don’t know anything about them. So no one, again, I can’t say emphatically. Absolutely not. Don’t do that. I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t know. Maybe you are a successful standup comedian and you feel like your, your humor also translate in writing.

Um, I mean, I think there’s always, I don’t encourage students who have that very, like, sarcastic kind of tone. It often doesn’t translate well on paper to strangers. It’s just like, who is this person? Like, are they mean? Are they bad? Like, I don’t understand this. So, you know, just try it carefully. But again, I can’t say absolutely not.

I’ve read essays where students have tried to be funny. Sometimes I chuckle, sometimes I don’t. Sorry. I feel like the best that I have had is a chuckle as well. Um, I think yeah, humor is hard to translate. Um, the next question is, can I mention specific colleges or universities or should I keep it general?

You should not, on your personal statement, mention specific colleges and universities because this is one essay you’re going to send to multiple schools. So if you’re mentioning, this is why I want to go to University of Michigan, and then you’re applying to Eastern Michigan, Grand Valley State, which is in Michigan, and Michigan State, Michigan State.

That’s a no no. That’s a faux pas. Do not, um, specify universities in your personal statement. You don’t have to. Again, you’re going to, this is a generalist essay. It’s about a story. You’re going to send it to all your schools. So don’t do that. Now supplements, you could say, therefore, this is why I want to go to University of Wisconsin.

But that’s supplement. That’s a school specific essay. Only University of Wisconsin is going to read that essay.

Um, Oh, I’ll ask a grammar question. Do you need to be obsessed with grammar and use the words that make you sound like a genius? Um, no, I mean, you want to make sure it’s grammatically correct, but we are, you know, you’re not going to be denied because he used a carbon instead of a semi colon. Um, so obsessed.

No, but you like with anything that your name is associated with, you want to do a good job and you want to make sure it’s grammatically correct. That’s where proofreading comes in by a teacher, by a counselor, by a parent or trusted mentor or adult, or maybe you’re a student in a summer program. So you want to proofread and edit, but I obsessed with grammar.

No, but you want to do a good job, um, and make sure that we can understand it and digest it for sure. So this question is specifically how much should I focus on describing my family’s financial status if that was a burden to join extracurriculars? And I guess I’m just wondering, I want to rephrase it to you of like, Is the personal statement an opportunity to explain things or give context to things elsewhere on your application?

It could be. That’s a fantastic question. It actually could be. So, uh, it’s just again, it depends. I think I’ll say this from my research, um, and I’ve interviewed undergraduate students and I’ve read essays, thousands and thousands and thousands of them. You know, some students do use the essay as an explanatory document and it’s not like, It’s not like, good morning, colleges and universities.

My name is Aya and I’m writing this to tell you why I was disadvantaged. So instead of saying like, you know, I was disadvantaged, they may say, they, the essay might be about, you know, they had, they, about their, they had to work 20 hours a week at a job or they had to be caretakers for Elder grandparent, uh, elderly grandparents, they may have had to watch siblings after school.

Um, so there are for certain, um, ways that students go about to talk about. They don’t explicitly say because I had to work 20 hours and take care of my younger siblings, I cannot participate in a lot of club, but they’re signaling that by the stories that they tell. So I do think there’s a way absolutely for the essay can serve as an explanatory.

And I will also say that is something to tell, make sure your college counselor is privy of as well, because they can talk about it in their letter or recommendation or their letters to say like, You know, I was working 25 hours a week. So unlike some of our students who have the freedom to join 10 clubs, she needed to work to help support our family.

So I think there’s absolutely an opportunity for the essay to be used in that way, but not in the. I could, I was disadvantaged, therefore I couldn’t do these things. Just talk about the things you were doing instead of the extracurriculars. And I think that’s a great way to communicate. I think this will be our last question and it was, um, Is there a recommended breakdown to the structure of the 650 words?

Say that one more time. Is there a recommended breakdown to the structure of the 650 words? Sorry. Um, I’m just, breakdown, um, sure, I’m just, if you see the slides moving, that’s me, because I addressed, um, how, you know, there are different, like, structures of the various kind of, uh, essays. So here it is. I think it’s slide nine.

So slide nine here kind of talks about the ways that students break it down. So it’s usually that intro and then it’s the, you know, the personal narrative and then a reflection and insight. That’s the usual structure we see. It doesn’t have to be that traditional five paragraph college essay that we often see, uh, but this is the general kind of like structure, uh, of the personal statement.

But it looks differently depending on the types of stories you want to tell. Again, it’s usually that hook, the, then you want to tell the story in detail and then you want to explain what you learned. Got out, got out of it. How you’ve evolved as a person. so much for referencing back to that slide. Like I said, I felt like the slides are gonna be a very useful resource for folks.

Um, so please definitely take the last few seconds that we have together to go ahead and download those. But we’re gonna end our webinar there. And so thank you so much, Aya, for your thoughtfulness as always and your wisdom. Thanks to everyone else for joining us today. Um, also, we hope you join us for our future webinars this month.

We are going to finish up the month with a college panel featuring alums from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton on March 25th. And then on March 26th, we’ll have a session on building a strong extracurricular resume for college admissions. So we’ll help you with some essays tonight, and we’ll help you with some research.

Next week and drop in for the panel as I will be there talking about my experience at Harvard. Um, but everyone else take care and have a great evening and thanks again. Thank you. Bye everyone. Good luck.