One of the first rules of academic writing is to never talk about yourself in an essay – because academic writing is supposed to be impersonal and fact-based.
One of the first rules of college application writing, on the other hand, is that you should always talk about yourself in your essays – because the focus is supposed to be on you as a candidate.
Application Writing vs. Academic Writing
For a lot of applicants, that can be a difficult transition to make. They’re not used to talking about themselves, and they’re often sidetracked into providing too much background, too many facts, and too little personality.
Example: Maybe you’re answering the Common App prompt that asks about a time you challenged an idea with the story of when you campaigned against using weed killer to knock out poison ivy in a local park. A story like that would tempt many students to launch into a dissertation on the negative effects of herbicides on the local raccoon population. And that makes sense – after all, you want to convince college admissions committees that this really was a bad idea that needed to be challenged, right?
Unfortunately, every word you spend on those poor raccoons is a word you’re not spending on your own actions, motivations, and attitudes – in other words, all the stuff that will make an admissions officer actually want to admit you.
The YOU Filter
So here’s a trick that will help you increase your personal focus without abandoning your facts: use yourself as a filter. Whether you’re describing your hometown, your cultural rites of passage, or the rare disease you had as a child, everything that goes into your essay… should pass through you first.
I realized – I was shocked to find – When I saw – etc.
Take us inside your head and attach every fact and detail you provide to your own personal experience. For the above example, rather than just telling us that weed killer is harmful… tell us that you found out weed killer is harmful when working with a local city clean-up group. Rather than telling us that there are three levels of government that control the park system… show us your frustrating bureaucratic dealings with all three levels as you tried to make your voice heard. Because ultimately, personal essays are about just that: making your voice heard – no matter what you choose to say with it.