Winning personal essays in 500 words or less
Great personal statement advice from education professional Sharon Epstein. Here she gives us her top tips for acing the application essay despite the tight word limit.
Many college essays, including the essay for The Common Application, limit you to 500 or fewer words. It can be tough to write an interesting, creative essay and keep it short, but if you know a few simple tips you can stick to the word limit and deliver an essay that will impress.
1. Think smallDon’t try to tackle a big topic like world peace or what you did for your entire summer vacation. Choose a shorter span of time and a topic that’s not too broad.
2. Write about a momentA moment is a brief period of time when you learned something meaningful to you. Moments can make powerful essays. Here’s an example of a moment:
A student working in a store noticed that a customer had dropped some change. It wasn’t a lot and he almost didn’t stop to pick it up, but then he did. The customer was extremely grateful and told him she was counting on that money. The student wrote about how he’d never forget that something insignificant to him could make such a big difference to someone else.
3. Begin in the middle of your story, where the action or conflict startsThis technique will not only save you words but it’s also a great way to draw the reader into your story. Here are two examples of introductions that were changed to start with action:
Before: “I spent my summer vacation interning in the emergency room of a hospital.”
After: “The bloody gurney wheeled past me. I closed my eyes and prayed for the strength not to pass out.”
Before: “I always wanted to climb a mountain, so that’s what I decided to do my freshman year.”
After: “Hurry up!” my dad yelled, as I scrambled to collect myself for another day of mountain climbing.
4. Use adjectives and adverbs wiselyIf your essay is too long, try to edit out some of your adjectives and adverbs. Here are two examples of edits and the reasons behind them:
Before: As Andrew walked his large legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the dawning sunrise.
After: As Andrew walked his legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the sunrise.
Why the change? 1. Size adjectives, like “large,” are often too general. “Heavy” and “thumping” are specific and convey the idea of being large. 2. “Sunrise” is dawn. Look for these kinds of redundancies.
Before: “He walked convincingly.”
After: “He strode.”
Why the change? One word conveys the same idea.
5. Edit Your EssayEliminate any details or explanations that don’t move you toward your conclusion. Don’t repeat your ideas. Pare down adjectives and adverbs (see tip #4). Ask someone else to read you essay. Sometimes, as writers, we get attached to our material and it becomes difficult to know what to cut. Ask one or more people who know you to give you suggestions.
Sharon Epstein is a college consultant in Redding, Connecticut, specializing in college essay writing and interview skills. Her business is First Impressions College Consulting and she blogs about college admissions at ApplyingToCollege.org.
Write Winning Scholarship Essays: The Simple, Quirky, Underdog Tale
Editor's Note: If you have this hunch that just one, amazing, polished essay can make-or-break your chances for college admission or needed scholarships, you're right. Essays are a big deal, not to be rushed or scuttled in your haste to send an application in. This series provides a college essay sample and tips on writing a strong piece. This is the first of three posts about writing great college essays.Want to know what winning scholarship essays look like? Take a look at this college essay sample from Paul Hastings, who won $1,000 through Get Educated's scholarships for nontraditional students.
Paul is 22 years old. That's a normal age for college, but he's a nontraditional student. For one, the Texas native will be attending school at Thomas Edison State College, a New Jersey school, fully online this fall. He also works full-time, has traveled the world, is an active blogger, and was home-schooled his whole life. He is keenly aware that his peer group is fully comprised of traditional brick-and-mortar college-enrolled students, and he honed in on that in his essay to illustrate just why he's so different.
Topic: What an Online College Degree Means To Me
Twice a year Get Educated provides several free grants for tuition grants, and like so many others, we have a “500 words or less” essay component to our application. This is our standard topic for everyone, every year, and Paul's application stood out in a major way.
Traits of Winning Scholarship Essays
I pulled out excerpts to illustrate the the top 3 terrific things about his essay. To see the full college essay sample, check out the PDF at the bottom.
College Essay Tip #1: Fly Your Freak Flag High
Paul's essay showed both humility and pride. It's a tough pairing, but he delved into the uncomfortable process of witnessing himself from other peoples' eyes in his essay. He opens with his family's educational history: Both his dad and brother attended prestigious programs at traditional colleges.
"They never had to deal with probing questions from relatives not satisfied with their educational choices. They never had to listen to the skeptical sighs of neighbors unconvinced that they were more than anything than a bum living in their parent’s house.
They never had to face the scrutiny of disappointed mentors who simply couldn’t understand that the rules of higher education were being rewritten. No, my friends never had to face that...
...but I did."
By pointing out the stigma of his path as perceived among his community and peer group, he's taking a risk, and revealing that it bothers him. That's admirable. Dare to expose yourself.
College Essay Tip #2: Let Loose With Levity
Experts across the spectrum agree that humor is a key to many winning scholarship essays. That simplistic tip cruelly overlooks how hard it is, as evidenced by the giant teams who write comedy TV shows, to make someone laugh. Humor might not come naturally to you. That's OK. There's a way to make your writing fun to read, without struggling to pry some joke out of a story that doesn't feel remotely funny to you. Paul's levity in his essay is evident in his word choice and phrasing.
"Hanging a graduation certificate on my wall next year has never been my driving goal. After all, it’s only a piece of cloth."
"Instead of being a slave to a professor’s schedule and syllabus, I can volunteer with non-profit organizations, spend time with dying relatives, and travel the world."
"Staying out of debt has been important for me from day one so studying online has been a no-brainer."
Other Ways to Show Levity in Winning Scholarship Essays:
- Vivid descriptions of yourself or the people or situations you write about.
- Playfulness of sentence length, or very short or comment-like sentences.
- Self-awareness, which gives a nod to the reader, that says 'Yes, I know that you're reading this. Hi.' This college essay sample imagines the readers' eyes rolling as they consider her application.
College Essay Tip #3: Simplicity Rules. If You Over-Explain, Edit!
Part of the charm of Paul's essay is, he tells us just what we need to know, and nothing we don't. There are lots of really interesting things about this guy. For instance, after talking with him, I know he helped his family send his older brother to a brick-and-mortar college by cleaning houses. And that he gained many credits towards his bachelors degree online from a community college while he was still in high school. He left that stuff out, though and stuck to the basics. He even used numerals in his essay, which made it easier to read!
"1. Flexibility: No other form of college education would have ever granted me the liberty that I’ve enjoyed."
Without being too brief, he stripped down the content of the essay to just what was needed, organized it well, and tied it up artfully. Check out the ending:
"Hanging a graduation certificate on my wall next year has never been my driving goal. After all, it’s only a piece of cloth. The road always been just as important, if not more, than the final destination. I could have played it safe and taken the normal route like everyone else. But no, no. Normalcy wasn’t for me. Excellence was."
Learn more about the Get Educated online scholarship program.
About the Author:Jess Wisloski is an established freelancer and has worked as a staff reporter at some of New York City's leading fast-turnaround publications including the New York Times, the Brooklyn Papers, and the New York Daily News.