Guide to College Applications, Part IV: How To Write Your Personal Essay

Without the proper guidance, college applications can be a crazy and confusing process. That’s why high school senior George Chen decided to share his dos and don’ts of applying to schools for APA students looking for a little help. Check back to see the later installments of this ongoing series, the 8Asians Guide to College Applications.

By George

Previously, I wrote about researching colleges and the different applications for UC schools and private schools. Now I would like to talk about what you can write in the essay for the common app, and it’s very simple: ANYTHING!

You have no character limit and you don’t have to follow a prompt. Try your best to explain who you are as a person. The Johns Hopkins site posts up some amazing essays if you’re looking for examples.

Most good essays tend to go up to 800 words, but don’t push yourself to write that many words. You only need to get your point across and it should come to you naturally. Emphasis on “naturally.” I know that the competition to get into good colleges is tough for us Asians, but you have to get that idea out of your head and reflect on who you are as an individual rather than think about if your essay is better than someone else’s. I personally started tearing up when I wrote my essay and reminisced about everything that I did in my high school career. YOU SHOULD TOO!

BE PROUD OF WHO YOU ARE! This is very important when writing your essay. For me, I couldn’t think of anything to write about. I did things here and there, but sometimes I felt like they weren’t enough to get into a top private school (at the time, getting into Johns Hopkins was something of a dream). But just thinking back at the great things that I did and feeling proud of myself helped push me out of my shell and let me express my thoughts with ease. And please, never ever go on It is just a giant trolling site that will make you feel bad as a person. It did for me.

For all essay prompts, try to sound you. It is okay to be informal but don’t type up the essay in texting lingo (SUP DAWG, LOL!!!). Make sure to type plenty of I’s and me’s, but not to a point that you sound cocky (the rule of thumb is to write in an active voice). Having a title for your personal statement also does not hurt at all; in fact, it may strengthen it. My title was “Playing in the Mud,” which sounds kind of weird, but it’s that weirdness that will get admission officers reading. Writing in journals really helps because not only do you have a record of important events in your life that you can write about, but it also helps you define your voice in your writing. So start writing!

Don’t follow the 5-paragraph formats and do not follow any sort of strict, boring writing structure that your English teachers tell you to write in. Again, write like it’s YOU. I’ve heard that some students for their UC App wrote a recipe that they made, because cooking was their passion. You can use bullet points–a student that got accepted into Johns Hopkins listed the reasons why he wanted to study his major–but make them fancy and reasonable. Creative writing is encouraged, but do not make it so creative that the essay loses the aspect of you. (With that, I am not responsible for any horrible essays that may arise from this tip).

Don’t write too much. I got mine up to around 1,200 words, and I kept it that way because it didn’t sway much from the point. The issues with writing too much are you may bore the admissions officers to tears (they are required to completely read every single personal statement), and writing about how you can catch flies with your chopsticks after you have written about other skills that you have can be a bit overboard, Daniel-san. Keeping the essay focused is crucial.

Of course, try to get people to read your essays. I would recommend handing it over to a close friend of yours who knows you as a person. If they say it doesn’t express who you are, then you’re going to have to make edits.

Be wary when giving it to teachers to look over it, especially English teachers. Some just correct grammar errors and don’t try to fix the overall meaning of the essay in a way that you want it to be. Try not to get it edited too much because too many edits may make the essay lose your voice, which you really, really, need.

And please, I swear to God (or Buddha), don’t limit yourself to writing about how you want to be a doctor (or engineer) and how you’ve done this, this, and this. I know some Asian Americans that have done this, and I can tell you, their essays are absolutely bland. For starters, the admissions officers know that you’ve done this, this, and this just from what you wrote about in the other sections of the application. The essay is really for you to write about something that you haven’t written already, like your personal feelings to the experiences that you’ve undergone. They want to hear how you feel about what you’ve done, did you like it, did you hate it, what?

Take plenty of time to write your personal statements. Brainstorm if you have to. I wrote short summaries of what I was going to write before I wrote my statements up. And finally, relax. The essay was meant for you to write about yourself, which no one can do better than you. Take a sip of coffee (or any beverage of your choice) and start writing your feelings away in the most “you” section of the college application process.

Next week, I’ll tackle application deadlines.

George Major Chen is a future Los Altos High School graduate who will be majoring in Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in the class of 2015.

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