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You took hard classes and did pretty well in them. You are captain of the basketball team and an accomplished guitarist. You got your recommendations and took your SATs. You are ready to wow the admissions committee, except for one thing: your essay is going to put them to sleep. What can you do wake them up? At many schools, especially the smaller ones, admissions officers are concerned about the type of person they are admitting to their school. They want someone who will be a positive addition to the school, contributing to the school community and making the school look good. Solid recommendations (schools generally ask for two) can help convince colleges that you are that type of person.

Most colleges will ask you to include a personal statement in your application. They do this because they want to see if you can write, but they also want to meet the person behind the GPA and the SAT or ACT score. So make good use of the opportunity to show them who you really are and what makes you special. Follow these Top Ten Tips to help your essay stand out from the pack.

1. Start with yourself
Take a look at your credentials and your personal information. Write your resume and a list of your activities. List everything, and don’t be afraid to toot your own horn. Then look at what your strengths are and make sure these strengths are covered in your application. It is also OK to talk about your anxieties or a very difficult time in your life. If you do, speak of how you grew because of this experience. Be genuine.

2. Write in your own words
There should be no question in anyone’s mind as to who wrote your personal statement. Many colleges include a request for a “graded sample” of essay writing from their applicants. This policy began when it became apparent that some candidates were paying other people to write their essays. If you think you’re not a great writer, work on developing your own style. Writing is like any other skill: practice makes perfect.

3. Deal with how you look on paper
See how you look on paper. Look at your transcript. Was there a semester that your grades tanked because you were having some personal problems? Do your grades get better as you progress through high school because you got more and more serious about going to college? You don’t want to turn the personal essay into an apology for a bad grade, but if there is a story worth telling, consider using the personal essay to do it.

4. Make your reader see it through your eyes
This is another version of your English teacher’s mantra, “show, don’t tell.” When you are telling a story, try to make it come alive with lots of visual detail and specific example. Show the admissions committee what you mean. Create interesting characters and vivid scenes. Use an active voice and sensory words.

5. Cover new ground
The personal essay should not be a retelling of every little detail in your resume and transcript. It should introduce some new information about you or expand on something from your resume or transcript. Choose one significant event, or one aspect of your personality that you want to illuminate. The personal essay should reveal something that is not revealed anywhere else in your application.

6. Presentation counts
Lots of spelling and grammatical errors will ruin your chances of making a good impression, no matter what you have to say. Use a word processor to write your essay if at all possible and use the spelling and grammar checks. If you are entering your application online, be sure to write your essay beforehand, revise it, and proofread it. Get the opinions of your English teacher and guidance counselor before you start filling in the online template with the final copy. Don’t just click send.

7. Own the personal statement
So much of the college admissions process is impersonal; take advantage of this opportunity to reveal who you really are. Be yourself, and be creative. The essay is your place to shine. Colleges are asking to get to know you on a personal level, so you need to let them in. Remember, you own this section.

8. Write for your audience
Different college requires different essays. Always read the directions for each school’s essay carefully. If they say limit your statement to 500 words, they mean it. Also make sure to write different essays for different colleges. You can use the same general theme, but be sure to include how you and a particular school match up. You want each school to feel like it’s your top choice.

9. Write it now!
The personal essay is too important to leave it until the last minute. You’ll need to put your essay through several drafts and ask adults you trust to read it and give you feedback. For that process, you’ll need time. So, start today. If you think of what you write now as just a rough draft, that may take the pressure off.

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