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Seventeen Favors I Beg of Transfer and Graduate School Applicants Writing Personal Essays


1. Please don't structure your personal essay like a research paper with a thesis statement and topic sentences. Rather, reflect on a significant personal experience using language that is sophisticated and conversational. Use contractions. Use “I.” Avoid “Firstly,” “Secondly,” and “Thus, we can conclude..."

Please demonstrate rather than explain. Explanation: I want to study law because I care about human rights. Demonstration: When I first joined the research team for a case against a rural school district, I had little hope for the plaintiffs, five teen students brutalized by campus officers. Explanation: Helping disadvantaged people is an important feature of my career choice. Demonstration: At the mobile dental clinic where I volunteered, most of the undocumented population was too fearful to benefit from the offer of free check-ups for children.

3. You may have interned with a respected medical journal, won recognition for a public-health campaign you created, and identified the cause behind a series of hospital errors. However, please do not mention them all in a single personal statement; better to write deeply about just one significant experience.

4. Please don't assume that fact equals truth. Suppose you have been prompted to address the way your family background might relate to your chosen path of study. The story is not only that your father was a political prisoner in his home country or that you are bi-lingual and grew up with a single mother, but also how your family experience influenced your actions and shaped your understanding of the population you have chosen to serve through your career.

5. Please ignore the standard advice to write only about yourself. Your vivid introduction of another person can strengthen your essay. For inspiration, turn to your favorite work of excellent prose—fiction or nonfiction—and study the sentences in which a character is introduced by the narrator or by another character. For examples, see my tip sheet on brief, powerful introductions.

6. Please feed your veins with essay-writing nutrients by reading masterful literature.

7. Please give yourself some ear training: Read aloud a short, powerful passage from said masterful literature and figure out how it works sonically. Alliteration? Parallel construction? Varied sentence length? Then read your own work aloud for same.

8. Please use your thesaurus for the best purpose—to find the word that most precisely conveys your meaning.

9. Please don't “aspire” in your application essays. George Orwell used the word with mockery ("…some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings."); Elie Wiesel, with heightened diction ("Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself."). Unless your personal statement gently mocks your own heightened diction, I suggest omitting.

10. Still looking for that bold, gorgeous opening line? Try exhuming it from the middle of your second paragraph. Stuck for an ending? Consider the final line of your current penultimate paragraph. Read your own writing aloud.

11. Please do not try to impress your reader with your achievements. Honor the reader instead with a personal story that exceeds casual chat and admits some vulnerability.

12. Please proofread your essay for mistakes, including needless needless repetition, words in the order wrong, and the omission of important.

13. “Passion” is a perfectly acceptable word, but please don’t use it in your personal statement. It probably appears in 16,948 other application essays and could, therefore, decrease your chances of admission by prompting your reader to hit the nearest daytime tavern in despair.

14. Did I mention reading your work aloud for voice, authenticity, rhythm, and error detection? Again, I beg.

15. Please accept at least one of these suggestions.

16. Please reject at least one of these suggestions.

17. Please have a sense of humor about yourself. And please, oh please, have one about me.

Adapted from a piece that first appeared on the Brevity blog.

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