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Writing Your College Essay

Writing a college essay (which some colleges refer to as a "personal statement") can be tricky, even for the most skilled writers.

That said, there are steps you can take to improve your chances of success. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Start early.
    Don't wait until the last minute to write your college essay. Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm ideas, draft the essay, and revise it.
  • Proofread carefully.
    Present your ideas (and yourself!) i
    n the best light possible by paying close attention to spelling, grammar, and organization. Having trouble finding errors in your own work? Read it out loud (you'll be amazed at the things you catch!) and share it with a friend/family member. 
  • Be creative.
    Lots of people may be responding to the same essay question as you, so think about how you can set yourself apart from the crowd. Explore a different voice or perspective. Provide an unexpected answer.
  • Be authentic.
    Your essay helps admissions officers to better understand who you are. Give them "the real you" in the words you choose and the stories you tell. Avoid the temptation to write according to what you think admissions officers want to hear.

Expert Opinions

Want to know what USM admissions officers are looking for in college essays? Read on!

Generally in my review of submissions, I  look for properly formatted, well informed and well written essays.  I am aware of oversharing and leery  when a candidate is making a presumptive, over-the-top appeal.  Experiences should be related in proper context and with discretion.
-Katrissa Warfield McCallum, Associate Director of Admissions, Coppin State University

Whether you are responding to a specific topic, or responding to an open prompt (in which you are asked to write about a topic of your choice), be sure that the content, about which you are writing, is of interest to you and intrigues you. It is apparent to an admissions counselor if you were bored with the content of your essay and did not enjoy the material you chose to include. If have the freedom to choose your topic, you should choose a topic about which you are capable of writing. If you are given a specific prompt, the material in your essay should cover the information that was asked for in the question. Remember that you are demonstrating your ability to think creatively and critically, no matter the topic of the essay.
-Laura Liptak and Brian Leak, Admissions Counselors, Towson University 

Get more essay writing tips from Towson.

•    "A good personal statement does not resurrect the dead, but can heal the sick."  This quote, from one of my admissions colleagues, nicely summarizes the role of the statement in the application review process.  In essence, an applicant's academic credentials (i.e. high school transcript and SAT scores) is the beginning of the holistic review and the personal statement can provide additional context. 
•    A well-written personal statement should answer the specific question being posed.  It should not be a repurposed class assignment, but rather should be thoughtful - and not written the night before the deadline.  Needless to say, spell and grammar checking are critical.
•    In writing the statement, do not try to please the admissions officer.  It does not hurt though to show one's interest and familiarity with the university to where they are applying and how well they may "fit."
•    This is an opportunity to tell a story.  An applicant should be able to give their statement to a close friend and they know immediately who is the writer.  
•    There is no such thing as a perfect statement.  The only "poor" essay is the one never submitted.  At some point in time, it is important to "let it go."
-Dale Bittinger, Assistant Vice Provost Undergraduate Admissions, Orientation, and School Partnerships,UMBC

Many students will choose essay topics from a list of prompts.  If this is your situation, think about how you will craft the question differently than other applicants. Everyone has a unique story, find yours.

A college essay should extend beyond the other material submitted in your application.  Avoid referencing your test score or GPA, this information is already known.  Focus on a subject that has not been addressed in your letters of recommendations or even extracurricular list.

An outstanding college essay is one that admissions staff will want to share with others.  A carefully crafted story can enhance the appeal for the reader, however, making sure the attention of the reader is maintained. 

A good rule of thumb, when constructing your essay, is to consider a topic no one else can reference.  For instance, if you’ve been involved with a club and so have 50 other students from your school, this may not be the best topic.  Focus on an area that sets you apart from your peers.

Thousands of students will apply to college each fall with excellent test scores, difficult high school coursework, and a near-perfect GPA. Supplementary materials, such as the college essay, may be the one factor that sets you apart.  Take your time developing your topic and be sure to share the final product with others before submitting the final product.
-Jennifer Ziegenfus, Admissions Counselor, Salisbury University

Check, re-check and then triple check spelling and grammar. Also please make sure that if you are referencing a specific college or university in your essay, you have the correct one in the correct essay! 

-Elizabeth Skoglund, Director of Admissions, Salisbury University

There are lots of great resources on and offline available to help you write your college essay. Here are just a few:

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