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What Every Successful College Essay Has in Common

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Since the onset of Covid-19, a growing number of colleges across the country have transitioned to "test-optional" admissions policies for the upcoming college application cycle. Students are now faced with the unenviable task of making their applications stand out in an educational climate devoid of in-person instruction and extracurricular activities. So how are college applicants expected to differentiate themselves from their peers under such unusual circumstances?

Whether we like it or not, the Personal Statement component of the Common Application has taken on greater import than ever before. A 650-word meditation on an important aspect of a young student's life, the Personal Statement has increasingly become one of the main criterion admissions officers use when selecting applicants. The singular importance of this essay would make its composition daunting for even the most seasoned of writers; yet, I am often disheartened to find that many high school students I work with initially struggle with this written statement because they are seldom asked to compose any such creative pieces in their various humanities classes.

The Common Application does its best to alleviate the stressors associated with the creative autonomy of this assignment by offering applicants an option of seven different topics to choose from. Even with such flexible guidelines in place, many applicants find it difficult to know what subject matter they should be tackling and stylistic choices they should be making in their respective essays because there are few (if any) clear indicators as to what Admissions Officers are looking for in any given year.

The truth of the matter is there are no right or wrong answers to any of these questions. The only universal truth I’ve learned throughout my experiences editing many different college essays is that every successful Personal Statement possesses one, inimitable trait: an authentic narrative voice. Therefore, I encourage those embarking on this difficult assignment to try writing about a topic of genuine interest to them (rather than a topic they believe would be of interest to colleges). Adopting this approach will help an applicant discover their all-important narrative voice and enable them to write with an infectious authenticity that is sure to stand out to admissions officers.


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