Winning personal essays in 500 words or less
Great personal statement advice from education professional Sharon Epstein. Here she gives us her top tips for acing the application essay despite the tight word limit.
Many college essays, including the essay for The Common Application, limit you to 500 or fewer words. It can be tough to write an interesting, creative essay and keep it short, but if you know a few simple tips you can stick to the word limit and deliver an essay that will impress.
1. Think smallDon’t try to tackle a big topic like world peace or what you did for your entire summer vacation. Choose a shorter span of time and a topic that’s not too broad.
2. Write about a momentA moment is a brief period of time when you learned something meaningful to you. Moments can make powerful essays. Here’s an example of a moment:
A student working in a store noticed that a customer had dropped some change. It wasn’t a lot and he almost didn’t stop to pick it up, but then he did. The customer was extremely grateful and told him she was counting on that money. The student wrote about how he’d never forget that something insignificant to him could make such a big difference to someone else.
3. Begin in the middle of your story, where the action or conflict startsThis technique will not only save you words but it’s also a great way to draw the reader into your story. Here are two examples of introductions that were changed to start with action:
Before: “I spent my summer vacation interning in the emergency room of a hospital.”
After: “The bloody gurney wheeled past me. I closed my eyes and prayed for the strength not to pass out.”
Before: “I always wanted to climb a mountain, so that’s what I decided to do my freshman year.”
After: “Hurry up!” my dad yelled, as I scrambled to collect myself for another day of mountain climbing.
4. Use adjectives and adverbs wiselyIf your essay is too long, try to edit out some of your adjectives and adverbs. Here are two examples of edits and the reasons behind them:
Before: As Andrew walked his large legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the dawning sunrise.
After: As Andrew walked his legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the sunrise.
Why the change? 1. Size adjectives, like “large,” are often too general. “Heavy” and “thumping” are specific and convey the idea of being large. 2. “Sunrise” is dawn. Look for these kinds of redundancies.
Before: “He walked convincingly.”
After: “He strode.”
Why the change? One word conveys the same idea.
5. Edit Your EssayEliminate any details or explanations that don’t move you toward your conclusion. Don’t repeat your ideas. Pare down adjectives and adverbs (see tip #4). Ask someone else to read you essay. Sometimes, as writers, we get attached to our material and it becomes difficult to know what to cut. Ask one or more people who know you to give you suggestions.
Sharon Epstein is a college consultant in Redding, Connecticut, specializing in college essay writing and interview skills. Her business is First Impressions College Consulting and she blogs about college admissions at ApplyingToCollege.org.
A guest post by Ed Weathers
Your 500 Word College Application Essay should be about the real YOU.
These days, most colleges require that your application essay be no more than 500 words. In that essay, colleges expect you to reveal your writing ability and, just as important, the real You, with a capital Y.
Who are You? What makes You tick? What are Your hopes, expectations, fears, joys, tastes, desires, foibles, sins, and virtues? That’s a lot to expect of a 500 word college application essay.
Of course, you can’t say everything about yourself in 500 words. Forget that list two sentences ago; you can’t fit all that in 500 words. You must narrow the focus of your essay. So what do you write?
Some experts suggest that you start your 500 word college application essay with a brief personal story and then draw a “moral” from it that expresses your values.
There’s nothing wrong with that advice, but if I were a college admissions officer, I’d be sick by now of essays that begin with a touching little tale about a wise grandfather, a handicapped sibling, or a South American orphan the applicant met on a summer good-works trip. I’d prefer hearing about why you still drink only chocolate milk at the age of 17, or how Bonnie Sue McKay broke your heart at the age of twelve (and how you got over it by learning to quilt), or why table tennis is your favorite sport, or how you, with your tin ear, wept the first time you heard Schumann’s Piano Concerto.
If I’m your college admissions officer, forget “touching.” Give me honest and accurate, instead. Give me “tough” before “touching.” Give me clear observations — in your own words, please, not stock phrases. Give me concrete images: a chocolate milk stain on a white hospital gown, a quilting needle stuck in your index finger, a cracked ping-pong ball behind the basement furnace, a scratchy old recording coming out of a friend’s iPod. Give me wit, if you’ve got it, but don’t strain for something that doesn’t come naturally.
Give me honest feeling, not prepackaged, Hallmark-card, tell-’em-what-they-want-to hear mush. If you now hate quilting and prefer rugby to table tennis, fine, write that.
If I’m your college admissions officer, think hard about chocolate milk or Bonnie Sue or table tennis or Schumann, and answer me this question, as accurately and honestly as you can: Why is this important to you?
If you think you know the answer to that question before you start writing, then you don’t know what writing is. Writing — through thinking and brainstorming and free-writing and revising and revising—is a way of searching for the answers to such a question and then writing down those answers as accurately as you can. A good essay would surprise the you you were before you began to write it.
I’m not a college admissions officer, but if I were, I’d say this: The subject of your essay doesn’t matter. It simply needs to be well written and about something you — you, not everybody else, and certainly not some imaginary admissions officer—honestly do care about. Think of this not as an exercise designed to impress colleges, but as a piece of writing as sincere as a love letter. Even if it’s about chocolate milk.
Hmmm. All this sounds very solemn. Your college application essay does not need to be solemn. It does not need to be profound. It does not need to be heart-warming or tragic or full of marvels. It can be funny or quirky. It can be plain and simple. (I often prefer plain and simple.) It can be about something or someone you like, not necessarily something or someone you love. In other words, it can be about lap blankets or Roger Federer, not necessarily about environmental awareness or your grandfather.
I once was paid good money for a little essay about the contents of my wallet. I believe that essay would have got me admitted to Harvard.
All this means your college application essay can be written only by you. Your mother can’t write it. Your guidance counselor can’t write it. That friend of the family who’s a writing teacher can’t write it. When my son applied to college, I refused to help him with his essay. I’m a professional writer and college writing teacher; I knew I could make his essay better. But I couldn’t make it his.
If colleges wanted to know what he had to say and how he said it, then the work had to be his. Otherwise, he was applying under false pretenses. (Who knows, you may want to write something you don’t want to show your mother or your guidance counselor. Do you really want them to know about your crush on Bonnie Sue or your fear of white milk?)
I know that many college applicants get help—some of them get lots of help—on their application essays. Maybe I shouldn’t judge them. But I do. I think they’re cheating just a bit. Your essay needs to be your essay.
And of course it needs to be no more than 500 words. Why? Because that’s the rule, and even if it’s a narrow and arbitrary rule, you need to prove you can color inside the lines. In my next post to this site, I’ll give you some advice about how to write concisely and make the most of those, or any other, 500 words.
Ed Weathers is a retired magazine writer, editor, and college writing instructor. His writing website is writeyourbest.blogspot.com.
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