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5 Quick Tips for Last-Minute Essay Perfection

It’s mid October. And while for most people that means steady sightings of ghosts, ghouls, and goblins, for seniors everywhere mid October signals the height of an entirely different season: application season. Rather than creepy crawlers, the application season is defined by a steady practice of reworking, refining, and revising. Indeed, the next couple of weeks, ahead of early action and early decision deadlines, will see seniors everywhere in frantic essay editing mode. Shorten, strengthen, simplify. Tweaking for the best impact is the name of the game.

To help you through the ghoul-ing (see what I did there?) process, here are my 5 quick tips for last-minute personal statement perfection:

  1. Delete the first sentence or two: Hear me out on this one. It’s no secret that in the first paragraph of your personal statement your primary goal is to capture your reader’s attention; you want to entice them to keep reading. What I notice in reading oodles of these essays each and every year is that students, in an effort to engage the reader, tend to ramp up to the “action” in the first couple of sentences rather than diving right in—so the sentence that actually interests me as the reader doesn’t come until several sentences in. One of my very favorite hacks is this: Delete the first couple of sentences, and see what happens when sentence two, three, or four, becomes sentence one. (Or, rather than deleting, move the third or fourth sentence to the beginning and make a few changes to the existing sentences to make it all make sense.) My students do this all the time, and it is one of the most effective ways to take an intro from drab to fab.

  2. Use contractions: One of the most challenging aspects of perfecting the personal statement is shortening it to get to the word limit. Most students face this puzzle of a task. Beyond deleting superfluous words, many of them don’t consider that they can absolutely use contractions. Remember: This isn’t an essay written for your English class. It doesn’t need to be as formal, shouldn’t have a thesis statement, and it’s often written like you would speak. I am becomes I’m; did not becomes didn’t: If you are desperately trying to cut the last 10 to 15 words, using contractions, more often than not, can get you there.

  3. Focus on anecdotes: Simply put, the personal statement comes alive with solid details, examples, and anecdotes. Essays that tell the reader that you possess some quality but that don’t back it up with evidence inevitably will fall flat. I always tell my students to help me feel as though I am walking through their experience alongside them rather than watching it happen from afar. Vivid description and anecdotes help to make that happen.

  4. Read it aloud to yourself: You’ve been working on your essay for weeks, perhaps months, and while it all seems to be coming together, when you re-read it for the thousandth time, you sort of gloss over it to identify the obvious errors. Reading it aloud to yourself can help you to move past those more obvious mistakes to uncover awkward phrasing or incomplete sentences. It also helps you to get a handle on the overall flow of your writing, too.

  5. Seek a second opinion: It might feel awkward, but seeking a second opinion can be a fantastic way to see if your essay actually makes sense to someone else. You know your own story—but someone else might not understand it as intimately as you do. A second opinion can help you to see if you are skipping over some important details or if you need to fill in the gaps when conveying your story. Teachers, counselors, and mentors can make for valuable second opinions.

Another thing I tell all of my students? Once you’ve submitted your first couple of schools, it’s all downhill from there. What I mean is that the hardest work you’ll do is the work leading up to those first couple of submissions. The ones that follow are immeasurably easier. Once you’ve cleared the first hurdle, you’ll undoubtedly feel a tangible weight lifted off your shoulders. You’re almost there—you’ve got this!


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