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How Much Risk Should You Take with Your College Essays? Here Are Some Tips

a cartoon girl writing in a notebook
a cartoon girl writing in a notebook

In an interview that I read the other day, a former Dartmouth College admissions officer lamented the fact that students don’t take enough risks with their college essays. Their Personal Statements, in particular.  When a college is receiving thousands and thousands of applications from qualified students, and an admissions reader has only 10-15 minutes to review each application in its entirety. A break-through Personal Statement can make a real difference.

But, how much risk should students take?  It’s hard to know.  What’s risky and positive to one admissions reader, might be in poor taste to another.  With essays ranked by college admissions officers as the most important non-academic feature on an application, taking a significant risk can be a very scary thing!

While I can’t account for every admissions reader’s personal preferences, here are some suggestions for things to keep in mind as you craft your “risky Personal Statement”:

 If you pick a controversial subject, be sure that you have a well-reasoned argument.  

Putting your opinions into your Personal Statement for something that you feel strongly about can say a lot about you as a person. And this is a good thing when it comes to college admissions.  But, be sure that you have good and personal reasons why you feel the way that you do. And that these are clearly reflected in the essay.  Arguing a point of view without having any kind of personal connection to the issue will not be perceived well by those who read it. Especially those admissions officers who may happen to disagree with your opinion!

Don’t use an inappropriate topic:

 You don’t want your admissions reader to come away from reading your Personal Statement with the thought, “TMI!”  So, stay away from highly personal and revelatory topics and explanations that would make the majority of people who read the essay uncomfortable.  While this might work for some readers, it certainly won’t work for all.

Don’t end negative: 

While writing about a heavy and serious topic is no problem and even a good thing, you still want to leave the reader with positive message in the end.  How did you evolve as a result of a a negative experience?  Why was this negative experience a positive force?  Put yourself in the reader’s shoes.  Who would you rather admit?  The depressing student or the uplifting student?

Never play the victim:  

Nobody likes a whiner, and admissions officers are no different.  As you craft your essay, be sure that you don’t blame others for bad things that may have happened to you.  For example, if your essay is on how you got cut from the varsity soccer team, and you perceive that this happened because of politics or the fact that coach didn’t like you for some reason, don’t throw the coach under the bus in your essay!  Life is full of unfair situations, and your ability to rise above it, move on and take personal responsibility will be what admissions officers want to read about.

Tell a story that is unique to you:  

Think how many times admissions readers have had to read an essay about “the big game and the power of the team”, or the church community service trip that a candidate took.  These types of topics are used and reused a lot.  Find something different.  Remember, the topic that you pick for your essay does not have to be about a major experience or hardship in your life.  In fact, the subject that you choose to write about can be something quite small.  What matters is that the story that you tell gets to the essence of who you are as a person.   Writing about something small and unexpected is a lot riskier than writing about the same tried and true topics that all those thousands of other applicants are writing about!

For more tips and information about writing your essays, check out some of our other recent blog posts on the topic:
Andrea Aronson
College Admissions Consultant
Westfield, NJ


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