Write a Compelling Essay

The personal essay is a chance to set yourself apart from other applicants with similar achievements. We have some tips that will help you write a strong essay, including what to write about and how to showcase yourself. 

The personal essay is arguably the most important aspect of your college application besides your grades and test scores. Engineers must be able to effectively express themselves in writing, whether they are applying for research grants or reporting exciting discoveries – so don’t ignore your English teachers!

College admissions officers read an extraordinary number of essays, and many fail to stand out. It is important to write about a subject you care about and not a subject that you think will impress others. The admissions officers want to get to know you — if you choose to talk about an influential person in your life or a book that significantly impacted you, make sure that the essay is still about YOU.

Only submit your own work. Admissions officers are expert at identifying plagiarism.

When it comes to choosing a topic, the sky’s the limit. You can write about whatever has importance to you as long as you describe who YOU are. Do not simply recount an event or experience, but illustrate how it affected you, what you learned, and how you have changed.

Start working on your personal essay early and write several drafts. Show it to a number of people and get their feedback. Also, have a teacher or college guidance counselor proofread and edit your essay and ask for their comments. Here are a few good tips as you begin to write:

1. Show, don't tell. This is probably the #1 piece of advice you will hear about personal essays. That means instead of making generic, overarching statements (e.g. "This trip ultimately taught me humility" or even "I was very nervous"), describe things. If you are creative with details and imagery, the story you tell will speak for itself. In your descriptions, try to engage all the senses and pay extra attention to detail - help the reader feel as if s/he is experiencing what you are writing about. Specify - "My face began to perspire, and I could feel my glasses sliding down my nose.”

2. Read your essay aloud. Not just to yourself but to friends and family, as well. This helps you to gauge both the flow of the essay and the sincerity of your authorial voice. How much does the essay actually sound like you? Are there any places that seem redundant or not specific enough?

3. Edit, edit, edit. Don't be afraid to rewrite things. Often it takes many tries before you can get an essay to sound exactly the way you want it. The whole point of a college essay is to show your individual personality, so, once again, be wary of general statements or clichés that sound as if they could describe anybody (e.g. "I am deeply passionate about _______", “I am very unique because ______”). One good way to avoid this is to think of your essay as a piece of fiction for which you are the central character.

4. Write a killer first sentence.The opening sentence should both catch the readers' attention and draw them in. Don't shy away from beginning with something that sounds strange or absurd, as long as the rest of the essay can back it up. Some examples: "When I first entered the stage, the audience booed loudly,” "A creek is no place for shoes,” "I sat patiently in the back of the police car.” These lines are effective not only in grabbing your readers, but also in making them want to know more (Just what had you done to wind up in a police car?).

Finally, do not be afraid to start over. If you think your current topic is not working, write a new draft talking about something else and see if you like it better. The personal essay is important, so take it seriously.

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