Writing the College Essay From University of California Berkeley Writing

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Writing the College Essay
From University of California Berkeley
Writing your personal statement can be one of the most satisfying--or frustrating--writing experiences you'll ever have.

The personal statement is an important part of your application package. Depending on the topic you choose, the essay you write provides additional evidence of your intellectual and creative achievement. The essay is also the only opportunity for the readers of your application to get a feel for you as a person as well as for you as a student. The essay is also the place where you can put your academic record into the context of your opportunities and obstacles.

There is no one correct way to write a personal statement, but in general those who will read your essay are looking for two important things:
HOW the essay provides evidence of your achievements that isn't reflected in other parts of your application

HOW and WHY the events that you describe have shaped your attitude, focus, and, most of all, your intellectual vitality.

This information will help you think about and craft a personal statement by taking you step by step through a process of brainstorming, drafting and revising. At the end, we hope that you will produce a personal statement that you are proud of and that will provide admissions officers with an accurate portrait of who you are and why a college education is important to you.
Structuring Your Personal Statement

A typical two-page personal statement will consist of the following:

An introductory paragraph that provides your essay's controlling theme

2-4 body paragraphs that develop your theme through examples and detailed experiences and build upon each other. The final body paragraph will contain your most poignant information

A conclusion that widens the lens and wraps up your essay without summarizing or repeating what has already been written
The Introductory Paragraph

Your introduction is where you establish the tone of your personal statement and set the scene, define its theme, and generally hook your reader by sparking interest with details and quotes. It's important that you avoid meaningless prose and get right to the point. Be sure, too, that your language is clear and specific--avoid filler words and clichés. Most importantly, be sure that the introductory paragraph captures the main idea of your essay.

Sometimes the introduction is the last portion of the essay to be completed, and that's okay. The introduction should provide a snapshot of what the rest of the essay will develop and expand upon, so if you don't know where the rest of the essay is headed, the introduction is impossible to write. Therefore, it is important to outline your essay so that you know how each of your examples will build upon one another and can better draft your introduction to reflect this.
Here are some sample introductory paragraphs. You're the judge--which one is strongest?
1. On September 16, 1990 I experienced the worst feeling of my life the feeling of incompetence. It was a feeling of indescribable disbelief. My mother, my only parent, fell down the stairs of our home. It was then that I knew that I had to become a doctor to help people who were suffering like my mother. By attending your college, I will be able to fulfill my dream and to give back to my community through medicine.
2. My father divorced us when I was in seventh grade. At that time, I was going through what my mother called my "difficult stage" because my world revolved around school, friends and boys, and "family" was often put on the back burner. I was unprepared for the resulting family crisis; my father, the man who nurtured my passion for art, literature and my love of languages, would no longer be a part of my life. At the time, I thought that I could not go on. Now I realize that my father's rejection, while extremely painful, gave me a resiliency and strength of character that I did not previously know I possessed.
3. It was once said that "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," and that is a motto that I have lived by for all of my seventeen years on this earth. It is a motto that I have based all of my academic endeavors on. It literally came into effect one Wednesday morning earlier this year. I got called into the House One Principal's office at our school. I walked towards the office a little pondered. I had never been called into that office before, because that principal only handled the math and science departments of the entire school. I doubted that the principal even knew me. When I entered the office I was greeted by a group of familiar faces that I knew from my physics class. Our principal told us to have a seat and relax. The reason that we were called in was that there was going to be a Science Competition happening that Saturday and the school really wanted us to enter into it. The principal said that she knew it was short notice, but based on our performances in all our science classes she knew that we could pull it off. She stated that we were some of the only high school juniors and seniors who had completed and gone beyond the required science courses. (I personally had already taken a semester of both Physics and Physiology that year, and two of the other girls that were in there with me had already completed AP Biology.)

Your conclusion is your chance to extend your essay's parameters and to demonstrate the significance of your experience in a larger context A conclusion is not a repeat or summary of ideas presented elsewhere in the essay or application. Instead, it should re-affirm the validity of your essay's theme. This means that your conclusion should widen the lens rather than narrow the focus.

Here's an example of a poor conclusion:

I hope that this has helped you see me more as an individual. Whatever challenge is handed to me I give it my best effort. If my goals are a little far from my reach, I push harder. I know that if I don't reach my destination, I will understand. I will never quite and never think negatively. My hopes and dreams may be similar to others, but how I go about reaching my goals are different. This difference between us all is what determines our individuality.

More Tips About the College Essay From College Board

Write an Effective Application Essay

A great application essay will present a vivid, personal, and compelling view of you to the admissions staff. It will round out the rest of your application and help you stand out from the other applicants. The essay is one of the only parts of your application over which you have complete control, so take the time to do a good job on it. Check out these tips before you begin.


Keep Your Focus Narrow and Personal

Your essay must prove a single point or thesis. The reader must be able to find your main idea and follow it from beginning to end. Try having someone read just your introduction to see what he thinks your essay is about.

Essays that try to be too comprehensive end up sounding watered-down. Remember, it's not about telling the committee what you've done—they can pick that up from your list of activities—instead, it's about showing them who you are.

Prove It

Develop your main idea with vivid and specific facts, events, quotations, examples, and reasons. There's a big difference between simply stating a point of view and letting an idea unfold in the details:

  • Okay: "I like to be surrounded by people with a variety of backgrounds and interests"

  • Better: "During that night, I sang the theme song from Casablanca with a baseball coach who thinks he's Bogie, discussed Marxism with a little old lady, and heard more than I ever wanted to know about some woman's gall bladder operation."

Be Specific

Avoid clichéd, generic, and predictable writing by using vivid and specific details.

  • Okay: "I want to help people. I have gotten so much out of life through the love and guidance of my family, I feel that many individuals have not been as fortunate; therefore, I would like to expand the lives of others."

  • Better: "My Mom and Dad stood on plenty of sidelines 'til their shoes filled with water or their fingers turned white, or somebody's golden retriever signed his name on their coats in mud. I think that kind of commitment is what I'd like to bring to working with fourth-graders."


Don't Tell Them What You Think They Want to Hear

Most admissions officers read plenty of essays about the charms of their university, the evils of terrorism, and the personal commitment involved in being a doctor. Bring something new to the table, not just what you think they want to hear.

Don't Write a Resume

Don't include information that is found elsewhere in the application. Your essay will end up sounding like an autobiography, travelogue, or laundry list. Yawn.

  • "During my junior year, I played first singles on the tennis team, served on the student council, maintained a B+ average, traveled to France, and worked at a cheese factory."

Don't Use 50 Words When Five Will Do

Eliminate unnecessary words.

  • Okay: "Over the years it has been pointed out to me by my parents, friends, and teachers—and I have even noticed this about myself, as well—that I am not the neatest person in the world."

  • Better: "I'm a slob."

Don't Forget to Proofread

Typos and spelling or grammatical errors can be interpreted as carelessness or just bad writing. Don't rely on your computer's spell check. It can miss spelling errors like the ones below.

  • "After I graduate form high school, I plan to work for a nonprofit organization during the summer."

  • "From that day on, Daniel was my best fried."

This article is based on information found in The College Application Essay, by Sarah Myers McGinty.
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Sample Essay

This type of conclusion relies on predictable language about goals and dreams and does not seem to be directly connected to any theme. In fact, this conclusion could be tacked on to the end of just about any college essay, which means it is not particularly significant to the essay to which it belongs.


Seventeen years ago, I came bounding into a world of love and laughter. I was the first child, the first grandchild, the first niece, and the primary focus of my entire extended family. Although they were not married, my parents were young and energetic and had every good intention for their new baby girl. I grew up with opportunities for intellectual and spiritual growth, secure in the knowledge that I was loved, free from fear, and confident that my world was close to perfect. And I was the center of a world that had meaning only in terms of its effect on me-- what I could see from a height of three feet and what I could comprehend with the intellect and emotions of a child. This state of innocence persisted through my early teens, but changed dramatically in the spring of my sophomore year of high school. My beloved father was dying of AIDS.

First Body Paragraph

Topic/Transition Sentence:

From the moment my parents told me, I confronted emotions and issues that many adults have never faced.

Development of ideas related to the topic sentence (Signpost question addressed: values and philosophies)

Death of a parent, and AIDS specifically, forced my view of the world and my sense of responsibility to take a dramatic turn. I had already accepted my father's homosexuality and had watched through the years as he experienced both prejudice and acceptance related to his sexual preference. However, in this case I did not have the benefit of time to understand my father's illness since he decided not to tell me until he had developed full-blown AIDS. My role in the relationship was suddenly reversed.

End Sentence

Where I had once been the only child of my single father, I was now the parent to the debilitated child.

Second Body Paragraph

Topic/Transition Sentence

By the summer of my junior year, I had rearranged the structure of my life; as my father's illness progressed and he became increasingly incapacitated, he depended on me a great deal.

Development of ideas related to the topic sentence (Signpost question addressed: evidence of responsibility)

Each morning before school I took him to the hospital where he received blood transfusions or chemotherapy to treat the lymphoma that was destroying his body. After school, I raced home to complete my homework so that I could later go to his apartment. There I cooked meals, cleaned up, and administered his oral and intravenous medications. Working with IVs became second nature to me. I found myself familiar with the names of drugs like Cytovene, used to treat CMV, Neupogen, to raise one's white blood cell count, and literally countless others. I came home each night after midnight, yet the fatigue I felt hardly touched me; I was no longer seeing through my own eyes, but through my dad's. I felt his pain when he was too sick to get out of bed. And I hurt for him when people stared at his bald head, a result of chemotherapy, or the pencil-thin legs that held up his 6'5" frame. I saw the end he was facing, the gradual debilitation the disease caused, the disappointment he endured when people were cruel and the joy he experienced when others were kind.

End sentence

I saw his fear, and it entered my life.

Third Body Paragraph

Topic/Transition sentence

My father died on July 28, 1995.

Development of ideas related to the topic sentence (Signpost question addressed: accomplishment)

In the last year of his life, I was given the greatest gift I will ever receive: the gift of deep experience. I am now able to recognize the adversity that accompanies any good in life. My father taught me about loyalty, love and strength. But most importantly, he gave me the opportunity to see through his eyes, triggering a compassion in me and a sense of responsibility to those I love and the world around me that I might not have otherwise discovered.

End sentence

Not a day will ever go by when I won't miss my father, but I am so grateful for the blessing of his life.


Widen the lens beyond the topic at hand and tie up the essay

With this compassion and experience comes an even greater responsibility. Luke 12:48 tell us "To whom much is given, of him will much be required." As I move forward in my life, it is my hope that I can begin to see other people from two vantage points: theirs and mine. By doing this, I will begin to understand that with my every position or emotion there may be someone else standing at an equally valid, yet possibly opposite point. And that life, for them, has a different hue.
Drafting and Revising

A draft is a work in progress. A good essay undergoes several revisions--don't assume that your first draft is your best draft! Composing often involves going back and forth among planning the essay, generating ideas, organizing the contents, and editing the results. Drafting allow you to get the most out of these composing stages.

Through the brainstorming and gathering information stages, you have generated the raw material to compose effectively. Now you will begin the process of creating your essay.

Your First Draft

In a first draft, you are attempting to capture your essay's meaning and get it down on paper. In this way, you are attempting to draw out the essay's concept.

Use your first draft to:

•formulate a working introduction

•organize your ideas

A first draft is often the skeleton of the paper; it contains the overall structure, but may lack a clear theme, vivid language, fully developed paragraphs, and strong transition words and phrases.

Revising Your Draft

The key to revising your essay is to determine how it seems not just to you, but to your reader. So--think like an admissions officer! Remember that readers need a sense of your essay's structure and a clear idea of why they should read your essay in the first place. To revise your essay:

Step One: Concentrate on the whole by examining your essay's frame: the introduction, the conclusion, and a sentence in each that states your main theme. Ask the following questions

Will my reader know where my introduction ends and where the body of my essay begins?

Will my reader know where the body of my essay ends and where my conclusion begins?

Will my reader know which sentence is the main sentence in my introduction, and which is the main sentence in my conclusion?

Step Two: Examine your essay for continuity

Make sure that your points work together conceptually--that is, that key points are unified by your essay's theme.

One strategy is to OUTLINE your draft. Create an outline of your draft after you've finished writing.

Examine the outline (which is actually an abbreviated version of your draft): does the organization make sense? Do the topic sentence indicate a conceptual progression of ideas? Does each paragraph's topic sentence FOCUS your theme, and does each example ILLUSTRATE your main idea?

Step Three: Revise for focus, clarity and depth. Make sure that the skeleton of your personal statement is fleshed out with sufficient examples, fully developed paragraphs, and meaningful prose.

Style Tips:

Examine the personal statement for word accuracy; whenever possible, use a simpler word in place of a longer or more obscure word.

Make sure that every word you use means what you think it means.

Be yourself!

Avoid empty words and phrases like "basically,: "really," "goals and dreams."

Use active verbs whenever possible. Go through your essay and circle every form of "to be" that you find ("is", "are", "were", etc). Substitute more active verbs. For example:

Instead of: My love of science was fostered by my second grade teacher

Write: My second grade teacher fostered my love of science

Avoid predictable (and stereotypical college essay phrases) such as "I learned a lot," "I learned to work with others," "It was a fun and challenging experience" "I learned that everyone is different," etc.

Avoid using clichés and proverbs, or other over-used phrases from literary sources. They detract from the freshness of your essay.

Use a normal, 10-12 point font to type your essay. Don't type in all italics, or in bold, or in an unusual font size. Standard fonts that look nice are Times, Palatino, New York, and Courier. Avoid fancy font types--they are difficult to read.


Leave plenty of time to proofread. If you can, put your essay aside for a few days, and then come back and look at it with fresh eyes.

Some proofreading tips:

•Try reading your essay backwards (last sentence first) to catch fragments or other glaring errors.

•Have another pair of eyes read it as well to catch errors in spelling and grammar--your eyes, because they are used to the words on the page, can easily miss errors that another reader will easily spot.
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