When your application is up for committee review, will it stand out from the rest of the pack? Not a chance if based only on transcripts and test scores. Every other high school student has, like you, been busy earning top grades, participating in extracurricular activities, and scoring high marks on the SAT and ACT. Your transcripts have been recorded, and unless you plan to retake your college entrance exams, there is no chance of improving your scores. Even letters of recommendation are up to the discretion of the teachers or employers writing them. At this point, the only part of the application process that you can control is the essay. Your essay is only as good as the effort you put forth.
The essay is the one part of your application (whether you are applying to college or a scholarship) that will give the judging committee a sense of who you are, as if they are meeting you, if only through your words. Here are some tips to make that first impression a winner.
KNOW THE RULES
Every application is different. Make sure you know the “rules” mandated by each governing body before you turn in your application. Things to keep in mind:
– Know the due date, and give yourself ample time to complete the application.
– Understand the nature of the essay question. If the prompt asks for your opinion on capital punishment, don’t rehash your state’s stand on it. Rather, do you agree or disagree with the issue? Can you elaborate on how you came to this decision?
– Does your essay need a title?
– Have you stayed within the allotted page or word count? Are you running 500 words over the specified word count? If so, then edit your essay to fit the requirements. Otherwise, committee judges may disqualify an overly wordy submission. The same holds true if your essay falls under the minimum word count.
– Double check for specified font size, line spacing, and margins.
– Think twice before turning in a handwritten essay. Not only will a printed essay look neater, it will also be easier to read. If you don’t have access to a computer and printer, ask a friend to type it for you, or use the computer at your school or local library.
– If you are applying for financial aid, make sure you fit the award. Every organization has special criteria students must meet in order to win a scholarship. If you find you need to reinvent your personality or values to fit the organization’s pre set idea of a scholar, then move on. Chances are you can find another scholarship better suited to you and your goals.
READ PAST ESSAYS
It’s a good idea to read past award winning essays for inspiration and to get a feel for what judges deem worthy. There are several great Web sites that post students college essays from all over the United States. Check out http://www.teenink.com/College/Essays.html, where you can read current essay topics ranging from high school popularity to knitting to an experience with a life-altering illness. Some corporate sponsors will post scholarship winners essays on their site or, at the very least, a personal profile of the winner. Check out http://target. com/target_group/community_giving/index.jhtml for a sample profile.
University Web sites can be another source of inspiration. Connecticut College, for example, posts essays that their admission and financial aid committees found to be especially creative and noteworthy. Visit http://www.conncoll.edu/admissions/essays for a list of students work that won them a coveted “fat letter” of acceptance.
KNOW THE ORGANIZATION AND ITS JUDGES
If you are applying for scholarships or other financial aid from a professional association or company, you need to learn about the organization’s values and work. Assigned essay topics are not random questions compiled by the funding organization. Rather, they specify some sort of connection between the student and the organization’s work or values. For example, the Target Corporation prides itself in forging close ties to the community and sponsoring many voluntary activities. It makes sense then that the recent essay topic posed to students vying for its $25,000 All-Around Scholarship focused on that topic their own personal record of volunteer service. The software giant Microsoft asks scholarship candidates to write about their technical passion outside of the classroom setting. You can do your research by visiting the Web site of each organization.
Some university Web sites may also provide a list of faculty members assigned to the financial aid or scholarship committee. A little investigative work may yield a special interest or position you can use to connect to the judging committee.
WRITING THE STATEMENT OF PURPOSE
Many college admissions essays take shape as a statement of purpose. This style does not rely on an answer to a standard question such as “who is your favorite poet,” or “if you had 1 million dollars . . .” Instead it tells of your life so far and your interests and achievements in high school. It provides you with an opportunity to boast of your successes!
Don’t just list your good qualities; incorporate them into a story. Tell the judges who or what inspired you along the way. Provide a particular instance to breathe life into your essay. For example, an illness in your family led you to volunteer at a local hospital, which in turn sparked an interest in a future career in medicine. Meeting a dedicated civic leader inspired you to pursue study in government or public policy. Covering a local election for your journalism class encouraged you to pursue a career as a newspaper reporter. Write your essay to portray your personal qualities and interests as unique. Details and purpose will not only engage a reader to want to finish the essay, they will serve to make you memorable. After all, when award time comes, you will want to be remembered. To read more about Statement of Purpose essays, visit http://statementofpurpose.com/whatis.html.
DOS AND DON’TS OF WRITING AN ESSAY
There are right and wrong ways to do everything, and essays are no exception. Keep the following points in mind as you write your essay.
– Use a great introduction. Grab the attention of your reader with your opening sentence. Pose a question, or start with a dramatic line or famous quote.
– Be yourself. As stated before, the point of an essay is to give the judges a better picture of you. In the case of a college application, are you someone who can make a contribution to the school’s student body? If you are applying for financial aid, are you worthy of this scholarship? Are you someone who echoes the values and goals of the corporate sponsor or association?
– Be original. Don’t borrow other peoples anecdotes and experiences. Be yourself. Come up with anecdotes or experiences that will personalize your essay, and set it apart from the rest of the applicants. It is a lot easier to write about something you know, and care about deeply, than other peoples experiences.
– Answer the question correctly. If the essay portion of the application asks you to identify the most inspirational person you’ve met, don’t write paragraphs on Abraham Lincoln. Unless you have a time machine in your garage, you’ve never personally met him.
– Don’t overuse the thesaurus. Your chances of being accepted to a college or winning a scholarship don’t increase with each $100 word used. Consider using more nouns and verbs instead of a slew of adjectives. They will make your writing more crisp, vivid, and interesting.
– Use imagery. Don’t just tell us you worked as a kids summer camp counselor. Paint a picture of what the campgrounds looked like, the activities you organized, and the personality of the kids assigned to your group.
– Wrap it up right. A good conclusion is as important as your introduction. Don’t settle for a mere summary of your essay. Closing words such as “in conclusion” and “therefore” have become cliche. Did you learn something profound from your experience as a summer counselor? Did this experience change your outlook or life goals? Your essay will appear more polished if your closing statement ties into your opening thoughts in a creative manner.
– Have others read your essay. Recruit as many people as possible to read and critique your essay. If possible, ask people to read your essay aloud. You will be surprised by how many mistakes you can catch when you actually hear a passage, instead of merely reading the words.
– Write. Rest. Revise. Allow yourself plenty of time so you can let your essay “rest” a day or so before attempting a revision. With a fresh approach, you may come up with another angle or different descriptive word. Also, you may catch mistakes missed during your first read.
STUCK? GET PAST WRITER’S BLOCK!
Even the best writers experience writer’s block! Here are some suggestions from http://www.statementofpurpose. com to help you get started on an award-winning essay.
– Find a topic that you are passionate about.
It could be something controversial such as abortion versus the right to life, or a less touchy subject such as your favorite sport. It could be something personal such as your volunteer work at a local shelter. Regardless of the topic, if you believe in it wholeheartedly, chances are your feelings will be reflected in your writing.
– Evaluate your role models. What traits do they possess that earn your respect and admiration? Sure, you can name prominent people in the news, but don’t forget to look closer to home your family and friends, teachers, and even employers. Did your grandparents immigrate to the United States in hopes of a better life? Tell their story and how their decision changed your destiny. By finding this connection, you are giving the judges a glimpse of your life and your own interesting story.
– Short on ideas? No ideas on what to write about yourself? Talk with family and friends, even your teachers. Sometimes it’s helpful to have an outsider describe how they perceive you and your goals.
– Evaluate your life experiences. Can you pinpoint the moment you decided you wanted to become a nurse? Or a chemist? Or an artist? Write about that moment!
– Write about your diversity. Have you struggled with your ethnicity, gender, a disability, or financial need? Tell your story and spotlight how you overcame your difference, or used your particular diversity to your advantage.
CONSIDER PROFESSIONAL HELP
You may want to invest in a professional editing service. One such service is EssayEdge.com (http://www essayedge.com), a fee-based, Internet editing resource. This organization only uses Harvard-educated editors from a variety of industry backgrounds to read and edit students admissions and scholarship essays. Though they make necessary corrections and suggest rewrites to improve content and grammar, editors are adamant about maintaining the original tone of students work. In addition to helping students with admissions and scholarship essays, EssayEdge.com’s services also include work with essays needed for law school, medical school, and graduate school applications. Their fee is determined by the word count of the original essay, with prices ranging from just under $50 to $300 on up; turnaround time is 24 to 48 hours from the time the unedited essay is electronically submitted. According to EssayEdge.com, 80 percent of its nearly 9,000 customers in 2004-05 were accepted into their top-choice college. There are numerous editing services located nationwide. Check your local phone book or the Internet to find one to match your needs.
Is it worth the cost to use a professional editing service? Perhaps especially if your writing style, or that of your parents and your friends, is not up to par. Remember, however, that you will be using your own funds to raise your chances of admission or winning or receiving access to college money.
WHAT ARE THE JUDGES LOOKING FOR?
Most organizations review applications in similar ways weeding out candidates until they get to the top tier of students. Here is an easier way to visualize their scrutiny, according to http://www.scholarshiphelp.org:
– Phase one: All applications are checked to see if properly completed and sent with required transcripts and letters of recommendation. Sloppy applications or those lacking important information may be sent back to the student or, at the discretion of the screener, eliminated. Conducted by administrative staff.
– Phase two: Academic achievement is measured and ranked. Applicants with high GPAs and test scores are kept as possible candidates. Conducted by administrative staff, and possibly some members of the judging committee.
– Phase three: At this point in the process, all candidates are now equal, regardless of their class ranking or SAT scores. The only variable is a well-written essay. Judges are not just looking for a tally sheet of activity memberships or achievements. They want to know what kind of person you are. What are your interests? Your goals for the future? How have your life experiences formed your personality and ideals so far? Of course interpretation of your essay is subjective to the individual judge, what he or she values as relevant, perhaps even his or her mood at the initial time of reading. If your essay touches a chord with one judge and not the others, your message may move that one judge to argue in your favor.
THE LATE APPLICATION
The deadline for your application is quickly approaching, and your essay is nowhere near completion. Should you give up on this opportunity for college admission or financial help? Of course not. While most institutions are very strict about their deadlines, exceptions are sometimes made. Perhaps you can send your application in two parts: personal data and letters of recommendation, followed by the essay a few days later. Notify the proper office to explain your situation, and give good reason for the anticipated delay. It’s certainly worth a shot.