‘Valedictorians at the Gate:’ How to Write a Winning Personal Essay

After the recommendations have been requested, after the testing has been completed, after one has purchased a blue and orange Go Hornets mug at the Kalamazoo bookstore, it’s time to sit down with one’s thoughts. It’s time to consider one’s biggest “challenge, setback, or failure.” (Alas, the ol’ personal failure question is usually one of the many Common Application prompts.) It’s time to remember the correct usage of “its” and “it’s.” And then it’s time to start writing the personal statement.

The number one secret to writing a great personal statement is, at the risk of being obvious, to keep it personal and make a statement. It’s not about shock. It’s not about a fancy vocabulary. It’s not about any magic formula. (Although I’ve heard the joke that if a student mentions beloved alumnus Arthur Ashe three times in a UCLA essay, he’s automatically admitted.) It’s a human narrative with a point.

I’ve read about twenty-six thousand essays in my career. When folks ask me about my favorite essays, I should have many from which to choose. The truth is that I only remember about a dozen.

I remember the essay from the young man who raised snakes. (I have a fear of serpents, and while his essay was incredibly well done, my skin crawled with his every word.) I remember the “Class Clown” who defended the relevance of his title in the classroom. (He convinced me that we need more humor in education.) And I remember “The Sweaty Zoo Greeter.” (More on this later.) But I don’t remember the majority of the others.

Most essays weren’t memorable because most essays were good. Really good. The personal statements served their purpose by saying something about the applicant and giving context to the application. They might not have stood out to an admissions director who read twenty essays daily. (Seriously, how many Jeopardy! questions can one recall after watching hundreds of episodes?) But they were exactly what they should have been.

I tell this to students not to depress them about their own chances of writing a memorable essay, but instead to give them relief against having to write The Great American College Essay. No one essay made me stand up and clap. No one essay was ever going to make me stand up and clap. Instead, the essays would make me smile, think, or understand a person’s point of view. The purpose of an essay was to share a story, a vision, a thought. The purpose of an essay was never to win an award.

Of course, finding the right 650 words* can be brutal. And students regularly admit they feel pressure to write on substantial topics. The pressures to write The Great American College Essay are plenty, and the prompts are vague enough to allow for topic paralysis. (Personally, I wished they eliminated the “Topic of Choice” because it is too open-ended. We didn’t need essays on burger preferences to qualify.)

I’m sympathetic to how hard it is to write a college essay. I’ve been asked many times for advice. There’s already a lot of decent advice out there. (“Write something you’d want to read.” “Spellcheck, edit, spellcheck again.” “Write an essay, not a research paper.”) But after reading thousands of personal statements, I have my own suggestions.

1. Be specific.

Admissions officers don’t need a summary of one’s entire summer. Instead, a simple moment can capture the energy and experience. For example:

OKAY TOPIC: I enjoyed practicing my Spanish language during a family trip to Barcelona.

* There is a limit of 650 words for the personal statement on the Common Application.

BETTER TOPIC: I learned the importance of mastering a foreign language when I ordered “orange milk” instead of “orange juice” at a Spanish restaurant.

2. Don’t write an essay about your grandmother, your soccer coach, or Hermione Granger.

The “My Grandmother Is My Hero” essay makes an admissions officer want to admit the applicant’s grandmother. Same goes for the essay about the soccer coach. And Hermione had her moment.

Better topics are:

“The Summer I Taught Grandma How to Use Chopsticks”

“The Art of Refereeing Toddler Soccer”

“My Summer as the Lowville Library Book Recommender”

Students need to remember that the essay needs to be about themselves. While Hermione might have inspired generations, she inspired generations. The essay isn’t going to be original if millions of young people could write the same essay. (Nobody wants to read about Taylor Swift, deceased pets, or the war against plastic straws, either.) Which brings me to . . .

3. Write an essay only you can write.

In essay-writing presentations (which were rare), I led students in the following exercise.

Imagine all the essays from your school have been taped to a wall. Names have been removed from the essays. Now imagine your best friend enters the room and reads every essay. Would she identify your essay? What if she had to find your essay in a room filled with all the essays from the county? From the state? From the country?

An essay about winning a school debate tournament isn’t specific enough. An essay about being nervous before a school debate tournament isn’t specific enough. But an essay about using one’s debate skills to single-handedly challenge the superintendent to allow a local Vietnamese food truck driver to park (and serve) on school grounds might just make the grade.

The topic doesn’t have to be lofty. In the case above, the debating student had quite a story to tell. But I’ve read essays about much simpler topics. “Realizations from Changing My Daily Morning Seat on the A-Train” works just as well.

4. Make sure your main point is an admissions officer’s main takeaway.

Behind the scenes, admissions officers summarize essays for committee members who don’t have time to read them. When I read essays, I’d summarize with a sentence, followed by an overall single-word judgment.

For example:

Juan spends free time at animal shelter and is passionate about local spaying/neuter programs. Good.

Maverick’s broken leg taught him patience during football season. Okay.

Abbie produces her own at-home cooking show (with one thousand web subscribers) specializing in soups. Well done.

An “okay” essay wouldn’t be the kiss of death. A “well done” essay wouldn’t be enough to solely move an application to admit. Instead, the personal statement would complement the rest of the application. (Her soup essay proves that Abbie is more versatile than just a computer science whiz.)

It’s good practice for students to summarize their essay in a single sentence. It’s useful to imagine what an admissions officer would take away from one’s words. If an essay seems to be missing the point, I’d encourage a rewrite.

Essays were expected to be written by high school students, not Pulitzer Prize winners. There was no need to use words we’d both need to look up in the dictionary. (Some students committed circumlocution just by using the word.) There was no need to insert adjectives just to creep up to the word-count limit. (I never counted words, but I would wager most students wrote 649 words for their essay.) There was no need to choose lofty topics and ambitious ideas. (“Before I begin, I’d like to discuss the security crisis in Burundi.” )

Still, some students can’t help but throw a little glitter on the glue of their personal statements. I know a lot about glitter-throwing firsthand. (I often believed we should have renamed the personal statement the “overstatement.”) After graduate school and before working full-time at Dartmouth, I took a position at a two-week camp for college-bound seniors to help them craft their essays. (The word “craft” being incredibly apropos considering many of them were desperate to create something out of very little.) I tried to help students make their essays more dramatic, more comedic, more thoughtful. I encouraged them to rethink “What I Learned About Poor People on My Expensive Family Vacation to Honduras” and instead write “How Honduran Cuisine Inspired My Home Cooking.” I helped them deliver a powerful opening sentence. I workshopped their essay with peers. And I hoped to send them home from camp with an admissions-ready, perfectly worded, 649-word personal statement.

I never wrote a word of their essays. I never put words in their mouth. But I sure encouraged some ideas over others. “Crafting” essays often felt like debate practice. Convincing youngsters to change their topics was difficult. And at the end of the day, it felt crummy assisting these students while I knew others (with fewer resources) struggled with the same assignment.

I know many students seek professional help. And from my experience meeting these professionals at conferences, I’ve learned that they run the gamut in terms of helpfulness, price, and ethics. The 2019 “Varsity Blues” scandal aside (which was a criminal admissions bribery investigation of college consultant Rick Singer and his many high-powered clients, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman), I met a few independent counselors whose “assistance” was difficult to gauge. At the same time, I met many other independent counselors who seemed ethical and well intentioned. (Like any career, there are the duds, the studs, and the regular ol’ Janes and Joes trying to make a living.) And even students without professional help can find free advice and guidance through nonprofit organizations and various websites. (Of course, the playing field is uneven for some students with little college admissions support. At Dartmouth, we tried to give essay workshops for students from under-resourced communities during our various “Fly-In”events.)

Both the most curated essay and the rawest personal statement (spell- checked, of course) likely still wouldn’t be memorable to a seasoned admissions officer. In the moment, I’d cry at a young man’s account of leaving his family in a war-torn country to pursue education. I’d connect with a student’s experience conquering the mile run in gym class. I’d admire a student’s work to diversify hotel hair care products for people of color. But then I’d move on to the next application. I’d read the next student’s words on a page. I’d forget about hair care products and be introduced to one’s love of Chinese checkers.

In high school, I made the mistake of thinking that I could write The Great American College Essay and earn admission through my words. After hemming and hawing on topics, I finally wrote about my experience with refugees from Cuba. (While offshore fishing, my family had assisted men in inner tubes who were fighting for their lives.) I wrote about the Cuban men’s sacrifice and courage as they sat days in the Atlantic Ocean, drifting and dehydrated. It was an incredible experience for me as a middle schooler. But the refugees were the heroes of this story. My essay said little about me.

I, like many other college applicants, felt the pressure to write something substantial. My experience with refugees from Cuba was substantial. My counselor told me to write the refugee story. My parents and English teacher agreed. And so, I did. I wrote with passion about the men who braved the Atlantic for freedom. Their story was important. My story was . . . fine. It likely didn’t get me admitted to colleges. It likely didn’t get me denied.

When I wrote my essay, I didn’t have the perspective of the thousands of other essays being written by college-bound young people. I didn’t know that it would have been more personal, and thus more memorable to an admissions officer, if I had written about how my loss in a local jingle competition inspired me to become a better writer. (I still mourn the loss of first prize, a backyard garden sculpture, which my ninth-grade self so desperately wanted.) I didn’t know that admissions officers weren’t looking for “substantial” topics but heartfelt ones. And I certainly didn’t know that essays mostly confirmed candidacies rather than catapulted them.

Of course, there was one essay I read in my career that hit all the right notes. It wasn’t written by a person who protested his government or won Nassau County Singing Idol or had a talent for speaking pig Latin. It was simpler. It was accessible. It was entertaining. (To protect confidentiality, I’m going to change some identifiable details of the essay, but believe me, it was just as good.)

Laurie was a young woman who had always been fascinated by animal biology. After applying to (and being accepted at) a competitive zoo internship, she showed up ready to learn about the behavior of lions, tigers, and bears. She shared her interest in zoology and her hope to someday work in wildlife preservation at the beginning of her statement. But with an overenrolled intern program and an understaffed zoo, the managers needed to fill a vacancy in the park “greeter” program. While the other interns were placed with zoologists, Laurie was chosen to stand at the entrance of the park (come rain, shine, or humidity) and offer exhibit directions to confused guests. In her essay, she explained that the most popular question was simply about how to locate the nearest restroom.

I loved this statement for many reasons. It proved Laurie’s interest in zoology and her initiative in applying to the zoo intern program. It showed her ability to take on a less-than-thrilling task. (I knew Laurie would be the type of kid who wouldn’t complain if given a dishwashing position as an on-campus job.) It showed a sense of humor and decency. (“Most people wanted to see the pandas first. But I found myself cheering for the sole person who asked to see the prairie dogs.”) And it highlighted her commitment to sticking with something less prestigious than she had hoped. (I knew she was the type of person who wouldn’t quit the soccer team if she only made JV.)

Of course, Laurie’s story was her own. Other applicants need to consider their stories, their quirks, their motivations, their habits. Then they need to give themselves a break. The admissions process isn’t meant to be an essay contest. Shakespeare himself might have bored an admissions committee with an essay on Macbeth. But personal statements can add a little spunk, a little spice, a little character to an otherwise straightforward admissions process.

Yes, some essays are coached, and some essays are highly edited. But the best essays are sometimes just the good essays. They don’t have to be works of art. They don’t have to be the most memorable writing sample. They just have to say something of personal interest.

And we all have something to say.

Excerpted from VALEDICTORIANS AT THE GATE: Standing Out, Getting In, and Staying Sane While Applying to College by Becky Munsterer Sabky. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2022 by Rebecca Sabky. All rights reserved. 

About Becky MunstererSabky

Becky Munsterer Sabky is a former director of international admissions at Dartmouth College. She’s a graduate of Colby College and received her master of arts in liberal studies degree from Dartmouth. Based in Vermont, she is also an award-winning monthly newspaper columnist, a blogger, and the author of a children’s books series entitled The Little Rippers.

Read more posts by Becky

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.