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College Coach Training Module 2: The Personal Statement

This is College Coach training module 2 of 2.
We estimate this training should take 45-60 minutes (including mastery assignment).

One of the first milestones students begin working towards early in their senior year is the personal statement. We cannot overemphasize the significance of the personal statement in the college admissions process. Consider this your student’s most important opportunity to offer a compelling glimpse of character beyond what’s visible in the rest of the application.

Because the stakes are high when writing the personal statement, many students find the brainstorming and editing process to be the most daunting aspect of college applications, giving rise to feelings of stress, anxiety, and self-doubt. This is why your guidance and encouragement is invaluable. Remember that your role is not only to edit essays for flow and accuracy, but perhaps more importantly, to encourage your student to recognize and articulate their personal strengths with confidence.

First, learn about the nuances of the personal statement from admissions officers at some of the most selective colleges and universities by viewing the video below.

Guidelines for Editing

Here are our most important rules for editing a student’s work:

Coaches should:

  1. Help a student with brainstorming.
  2. Encourage a student to talk about what they want to say, what details to include, and what points to make.
  3. Read a rough draft and offer advice (e.g. “Let’s check your thesis and see if it addresses the essay topic question.”).
  4. Allow a student’s voice to come through—rather than changing the student’s voice, try to help them clarify their personal voice to make the essay more effective.
  5. Determine whether an essay is close to a final draft by answering:
    • Does the essay answer the personal statement prompt?
    • Does it flow?
    • If yes to both of the above, edit an essay for grammar/spelling.

Coaches should not:

  1. Provide a thesis statement.
  2. Provide specific details/rewriting the essay.
  3. Suggest specific wording.
  4. Edit specific grammar errors on a first read (save this for the final draft!).

Pitfalls to Avoid

Now that you know what kind of instruction you can and cannot offer, review some common college essay mistakes you will want to be sure your student avoids. 

Below is a list of ten essay topics to steer clear of. Some of these topics contain subject matter or ideas that are inappropriate for college applications. Others are extremely popular topics; if you choose one of these, you won’t stand out from the other applicants when the admission officer reads your essay:

  1. Your relationship with your girlfriend or your boyfriend (or how it ended)
  2. Your religious beliefs
  3. Your political views
  4. Sex
  5. How great you are
  6. The importance of a college education
  7. Your SAT scores
  8. Big ideas that you have not given much thought to before
  9. “The Best Game of my Life” or another athletic incident written in glib style
  10. Your trip abroad, unless truly noteworthy

*Note that there are always exceptions, and some students can create enough context and detail that the reader does finish the essay with a greater understanding of them.

Other Common Mistakes:

  • Using cliches in the college essay. (e.g. “My hard work really paid off”; “It made me who I am today.”)
  • Using words that sound like they were plucked out of the thesaurus. (Two example words that are overused in college essays are plethora and epiphany.)
  • Not answering the question. (VERY important!)
  • Writing about the death of a relative you didn’t know very well for the dramatic impact.
  • Writing about a dead relative you did know well without saying anything about yourself.
  • Writing at a superficial level without letting it come from the heart.  (Team sport essays are at high risk here.)
  • Choosing a topic you don’t feel passionate about.
  • Letting anyone else add his or her “voice” to your writing.
  • Choosing a deeply personal topic to write about (parents’ messy divorce, coming out in high school, sexual abuse) without getting feedback from a trusted adult. This is the hardest part of choosing a topic—knowing when a topic is just too personal and revealing, although it is of great importance to you.
  • Perhaps the biggest pitfall of all is blowing off the essay because you think “no one really reads them.”  Not true!  A good essay can boost an application that may not stand out in a field of highly qualified and competitive applicants. (Tips courtesy of our friends at 826 Valencia)

Essay Prompts & Themes

While most public universities tend to have their own application portals, nearly all private schools accept applications through the Common Application. The Common Application offers 7 essay prompts for students, of which they will choose one. The University of California offers 8 personal insight question prompts, of which they will choose four. Review the Common Application prompts for the 2017-2018 school year here and the UC prompts here.

Some colleges may require additional supplemental essays, most of which are short-answer format. Here are a few examples from past years:

  1. “You have just completed your 300-page autobiography. Please submit page 217.” (University of Pennsylvania)
  2. “What’s so odd about odd numbers?” (U of Chicago)
  3. “Creative people state that taking risks often promotes important discoveries in their lives or their work. Describe a risk that has led to a significant change (positive or negative) in your personal or intellectual life.” (Simmons College)
  4. “Describe the most challenging obstacle you have overcome; discuss its impact and tell what you have learned from the experience.” (Guilford College)
  5. “You are required to spend the next year of your life in either the past or the future. What year would you travel to and why?”  (Brandeis University)

Regardless of the differences in the prompts colleges offer, the themes these questions attempt to dig deep at remain the same. Listed below are the most popular essay topics students choose, along with tips for encouraging your student to exceed what can quickly become generic about each.

  • Relationships
    Great if you: Explain a path of discovery, make personalities come alive, create an essay about you (not someone else!).
    Go Beyond: I’m open-minded and compassionate, I know a lot about (insert feeling here), I am sensitive enough to really understand someone.
  • Travels
    Great if you: Take the reader on the trip with you; use imagery, are insightful and avoid clichés.
    Go Beyond: The world is so complex! People all have the same hopes and dreams. I’m thankful for what I have.
  • Obstacles
    Great if you: Avoid glorification; self-recognition, explain how you handle the problems that stand in your way, realize effort is often more impressive than victory.
    Go Beyond: I have a problem. Though it may seem to be common, my problem is BIG/different/unique. Even though I have a problem, I’m okay.
  • Activities
    Great if you: Do not simply list everything you do; don’t repeat your application; personalize and analyze; write about what you have really learned—not what you are supposed to learn.
    Go Beyond: I do a lot of things; I have learned responsibility and teamwork from those activities.
  • Self-Descriptions
    Great if you: Avoid over-describing; are realistic about the impact events have made on you; truly answer the question.
    Go Beyond: A single event changed my life and made me who I am; I am so many things, I can’t possibly describe them or their importance here in this essay.
  • Home Life
    Great if you: Are honest and thoughtful, not just descriptive; realize that what you may think is boring is exciting when described vividly.
    Go Beyond: My home is different because…
  • Realizations
    Great if you: Are thoughtful, sensitive, responsive, and indicate change and growth; realize that one incident rarely changes someone completely, but can be used to express change; are realistic, not contrived.
    Go Beyond: A very specific incident changed my life and I’ve never been the same; after I saw poverty/disease/pain up close, I became a better person.
  • The Thoughtful Essay
    Great if you: Can demonstrate intellectual curiosity; use tangible examples; leave your own perspective.
    Go Beyond: Your opinion about large issues such as politics, religion, or education; your abstract thoughts; confusing perspectives and digressions.
  • Offbeat
    Great if you: Are lively; are brave; use wit and let lots of people read it to confirm you are witty.
    Avoid Being: Inappropriate; obnoxious/not funny.

How to “Dig Deeper”

Here’s a list of questions you can ask the student based on certain topics/themes that the student is writing. The point is to encourage the student to “dig deeper” and get to the richness of their thoughts/ideas.

Coaching Tips

Finally, here are some tips you can offer your student as he or she begins writing: RELAX. Writing the college essay can be intimidating. It may be the first time you’ve ever written a personal essay, which is always a little bit scary. Try to remember that every high school senior who is applying to college is in the exact same boat—and remember: we’re here to help! Hopefully that will make the process a little less daunting.

  1. Be honest. Honest and personal writing draws the reader in. An admissions officer who reads hundreds of essays a day can almost always tell when an essay is dishonest or sounds like you’re trying to be something you are not.
  2. Be personal. When all is said and done, you want to be able to read your essay and say, “This sounds like ME.”
  3. Be consistent. Your application and essay shouldn’t be the same but they should reflect each other. This tip doesn’t always work out—you may want to write about something that isn’t even mentioned on your application—but don’t contradict yourself by writing an essay about how being captain of the football team changed your life if you don’t list football as one of your activities.
  4. Don’t try to guess what the admissions office is looking for and write to fit their format. Other than word count, limitations, and possible style rules (i.e. font, margins, etc.) there is no “format.” They are looking for YOU. Think of your essay as an opportunity—the chance to tell a college something very important about you that they won’t learn from the application.
  5. Keep an open mind when picking an essay topic. An activity that you hated and are sure you never want to be involved in again may make a good essay topic because you learned an important lesson from it.
  6. Focus on your strong points. Maybe writing isn’t one of your strengths. That’s okay. Not everyone who goes to college is destined to be an English major or a writer. The freshman class at every college is made up of all types of students. An admissions officer who reads essays has that in mind. Tell them, in your own voice, what you have to offer the freshman class.
  7. Write about WHY not WHAT. Instead of writing about WHAT you did (your application does that), write about WHY you did it. Don’t repeat your application. Expand on it. Tell the college something new.
  8. Wait until your final draft to proofread, then copy edit closely and polish. Use the dictionary, spell check, and read your essay aloud to yourself or someone you know. If you have time, put your essay away for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes and ideas.

Mastery Check for Understanding

Now that you know the do’s and don’ts of college entrance essays, please demonstrate your knowledge by editing this essay sample (provided by a former ScholarMatch student). Here’s the situation: this student has just shared a first draft of her personal statement. Please provide feedback for her, assuming that this is your first round of essay edits.

We’re looking for coaches to demonstrate the following:

  • Offer suggestions to help the student focus a narrative and define central themes
  • Determine if the personal statement directly addresses the essay prompt
  • Pose open-ended questions to help students identify specific points where they can provide more supportive evidence and detail
  • Provide validation and encouragement on the essay’s strengths

After adding your comments and suggestions, complete Mastery Assignment 2 here.

*Note that this training is not considered complete until you have submitted this assignment.





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