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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

BY GERALD M. BRADSHAW


gerald_bradshaw@post.harvard.edu


Bradshaw College Consulting


(219) 663-3041

Dear Mr. Bradshaw: I am a senior in high school and I'm starting to write my personal essay for the common application.

Before I start, I would like to know how important the personal statement is to the admissions process. I have top grades and test scores, so do I really need to worry about it? I've gotten mixed reactions from my advisers. -- Perplexed student

Essays critical to admission



Dear Perplexed -- Almost every college applicant must write an essay about himself or herself.

If a student isn't used to talking about himself or herself, it can be a little daunting. Your question is common among students. Does someone in the admissions office read the essay or does it just get wadded up and tossed in the circular file?

Rest assured members of the admissions committee read the personal essay and all the other essays you write. They can make all the difference in the world regarding your admission.

Picture yourself sitting in the admissions office with thousands of applications stacked around you -- on the conference table, on the floor, on the chairs behind you. Empty soda cans and coffee cups pile up as testament to the hours put in reading them. Committee members grow glassy-eyed from looking at literally hundreds of applications each week. After a while, they all start to look the same -- same grades, test scores, awards and extracurricular activities.

Yet, each applicant must somehow separate himself or herself from the pack. There are only so many openings (Harvard accepts about 2,000 students from 30,000 applicants) so when it comes time to vote, how will they decide?

After years as an alumni interviewer, I have no doubt that a well-written, interesting personal essay gets the most attention, and that applicant is the one who is admitted.

Even the short essays are important. And it is a dangerous tactic not to take them seriously.

The short essays are a chance to show a part of you that isn't reflected in the formal rankings. It is a chance to talk about you -- your personal traits, values, the experiences that helped shape your life, and the experiences that give you inspiration for the future.

The personal essay and short essays can tell admissions officials about the person behind the grades and test scores.

I knew the competition would be tough when I applied to college, and I had to stand out. I wanted my personal essay to be the focal point of my application. I spent several hours thinking about it before I started writing.

I let my friends review the first draft. To a person, they said great things about it: that it was well-written, intelligent to read, that it was the real me, etc.

But my best friend thought differently. After reading it, he wadded it up and threw it back at me.

"I don't like it," he said. "This isn't you."

He said I looked like everybody else applying to college -- full of hot air and third-person intellectual baloney. As evidence, he quoted several embarrassing lines, one of which I remember today: "I have always been interested in the philosophical implications of Nietzsche as applied to ancient Greece, etc."

It scared me that he was the only one willing to point this out. He risked our friendship, but firmly disagreed with the others. I respected his opinion and reluctantly agreed to change my approach and write an autobiographical essay.

It was the smartest decision I ever made. I got into all the colleges to which I applied. My friend and I remain good friends today.

He saved me from making a serious blunder when writing an essay. In essence, he had the guts to tell me my initial essay was boring.

And he was right. My first draft made me look plain vanilla. In no way did it represent me as a person nor did it bring out the personal accomplishments in my life that I valued most -- my military service with the 101st Airborne Division or the time I spent at the United States Military Academy as part of the training cadre. I was there for Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famous valedictory address, "Duty, Honor, Country."

Those were the things that made me who I am today, not brain power or intellectual aspirations.

I wrote and rewrote the essay at least a dozen times. It took me three weeks and a lot of pizza-party bull sessions before I got it right. But I knew when I finished the last draft that it was the one; I didn't need anyone else to read it. For the first time in my life, I recognized the sound of my own voice.

So don't look at the college essay as a waste of time. It is your opportunity to blow the competition out of the water.



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