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Tips & Info: Putting the Essay into Perspective

Applications for college admission and scholarships usually require one or more autobiographical essays. This type of essay is variously termed a personal statement, statement of purpose, statement of background and goals, personal essay, application essay, entrance essay, and so forth. Essay questions vary widely but all serve the same purpose of probing your fitness as a candidate. Common topics include: "Why do you want to attend X University?"; "Why do you deserve to win X Scholarship?"; "Why do you want to study law (medicine, business, etc.)?"; "What or who is your most important life influence?"; and "What are your academic and career goals?"

If you find the task of writing this essay daunting, you are not alone. Even the best writers find it difficult to write objectively about themselves. Understanding the larger purpose and audience toward which your writing efforts are directed will help you focus your thoughts. Below are some suggestions to help you put the essay into perspective before you start writing.

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE ESSAY? From your (the applicant's) perspective, the purpose of the essay is to tell the review committee who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their school or receive their scholarship. To achieve this objective, you will need to showcase your strengths in the context of the essay question and make a memorable, favorable impression.

From the perspective of the admissions or scholarship committee, the essay is an important tool for deciding your worthiness as a candidate. Committee members typically read dozens, perhaps hundreds--even thousands--of applications. Many applicants have the same or closely matched numbers (GPAs, board exam scores, TOEFL scores, etc.). More information is needed to separate winners from losers. Essays--along with recommendations and personal interviews--provide the main means for review committees to gauge candidacy apart from numerical scores.

WHO REVIEWS THE ESSAY? Typical admissions committees consist of admissions officers and counselors, and sometimes faculty and students. Scholarship committees usually are comprised of representatives of the granting organization.

WHAT WILL REVIEWERS LOOK FOR IN YOUR ESSAY? The people who review your application will look for convincing evidence that you should be admitted to their college or granted the scholarship they administer. What can you do to present yourself in the best possible light?

First, the essay should be flawless and adhere to all formatting requirements and standards. It should be typed, double-spaced, preferably using a twelve-point font and standard font type, such as Times New Roman. The margins should be standard size. The essay's length should meet specified word, page, or line limits. If the essay is longer than the limit prescribed, make sure it is concise, that all words are necessary, and that the size does not extend beyond ten percent over the limit. If there is no length limit specified, it is best to keep the essay as short and succinct as possible. Avoid sloppy mistakes and long-windedness; they can doom the best of efforts.

Second, the content of your essay should satisfy certain basic requirements. Most importantly, you must answer the essay question. Applicants too often fail to focus on the question asked. Make sure you answer the question directly and address all its parts. If you are applying to several schools or for multiple awards, and some of the essay questions are similar, do not make the mistake of writing a one-fits-all essay. Make sure each essay fits the particular questions asked. In addition, the essay should be well-organized, logical, easy to follow, and written in a flowing manner.

Within the context of each question, wherever possible, strive to show that you will succeed, even excel, in your chosen academic and/or career pursuits. Highlight your unique strengths and achievements. Supply details that demonstrate your motivation, drive, growth, capacity to succeed, ability to overcome adversity, etc. Furthermore, show that you have definite goals--both short-term and long-term. Demonstrate that you understand how attending University X or winning Scholarship X will help you achieve those goals. Also, if it is appropriate to the question, give details about your specific academic, research, or career interests. Show your passion to pursue further study of a particular subject or to engage in a particular career. If possible (and appropriate), mention specific academic departments, programs, or faculty members within the college whose research and scholarly interests dovetail with yours. At a minimum, indicate that you have a general academic or career orientation--for example, toward studying liberal arts, or toward a career in business management. Also, show how your experiences to date have led to your current academic and/or career interests.

Lastly, make sure the tone is appropriately serious, sincere, mature, and modestly confident. You want to grab and hold the readers' attention, but avoid gimmicks, cockiness, immature remarks, or a fawning tone. It is sometimes hard to strike the right balance, but usually it works best just to write from the heart. Tell your story in your own voice, making sure to answer the question and provide the information outlined above.

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