College Application Tips: Tackling the Personal Essay

Your essay should reveal the real you, not read like a resume, expert says.

ByABC News via logo
September 1, 2010, 4:45 PM

Sept. 2, 2010— -- When it comes to applying to college, many students fear the personal essay above all.

Bari Norman, a former admissions officer at Columbia University and president of Expert Admissions, a Manhattan, N.Y.-based firm which offers personalized counseling for the college admissions process, appeared on "Good Morning America" today, with tips on how to ace your college application.

To score an acceptance letter, experts say the essay must stand out from the crowd.

The main college essay should be personal and tell some story about the applicant, Norman says. It's the student's space to introduce themselves to the school, and tell the admissions officers what he or she wants them to know.

Too many kids think that if they have no special talents or tragedies to write about, their essay will be a bust. Every experience, if you add them together, makes a student unique. Norman says admissions officers are looking at how you interpret your experience and how you communicate it.

"I read too many generic essays when I was an admissions officer about how much someone's mom loved them and the sacrifices they made to raise them and it made me want to adopt the mom, not admit the kid!" Norman says, "No offense to all the wonderful moms out there!"

Instead, she suggests thinking about other things in your life that are more revealing.

Sample Personal Essay Draft 1

Below is the first draft and a final draft of a student's college essay, with Norman's comments below.

Change is a hard concept to grasp for a young child who does not have much experience with anything outside of his small world. I had to grasp this concept multiple times as I moved from country to country growing up. Before I was 10 years old I had already lived in 4 different countries, which is more than most people live in their entire lives. I wouldn't say that these changes in my life have been completely dreadful but they were certainly not easy either.

Born in Brasil, I was introduced to the United States at the age of 1. I was still too young to really notice and remember details until this day. My parents said I was happy in Miami. We had a small house by a lake where I used to go swimming with my grandfather while he was still healthy. After 2 years and 8 months of my life, my little sister was born, changing my life forever.

At the age of 4 I moved to Colombia. Colombia was definitely my least-enjoyed change. I did not like the weather and the dangers present in that area. Being there taught me that you are never too safe no matter where you are. Everything was dangerous in some way and it was impossible to just go out on the street with your friends and run around. Another horrible thing about Colombia was the amount of earthquakes. Although none of them endangered my life, many others were hurt during those hours I used to spend hidden under a table until it was safe to come out. Fortunately, at the age of 6, I moved to Spain.