Former Admissions Officer on Writing a Great Personal Statement for Your College Application
March 3, 2020
Special guest LittleRedPen is a former admissions officer at a top private university who now works as a freelance editor. She help students optimize their essays, personal statements, and scholarship letters. Today we’re lucky to have her share her extensive expertise with us on how to avoid the most common mistakes and take our college applications to the next level so we can be accepted to our dream schools.
If you’d like her to take her red pen to your own writing, you can hire LittleRedPen here.
Can you introduce yourself and how you help college students with your work?
I’m known as LittleRedPen on Fiverr.com, an online platform for freelancers. My most popular gigs there are all about the college application process, especially editing and optimizing essays, personal statements, supplements, and scholarship letters. I want to be clear that I DO NOT write essays! My clients have already completed a draft and finalized their content, and that’s where I come in. I go over their work multiple times, checking for grammar issues, improving word choices, rearranging existing passages, strengthening style and active voice, etc., to polish up the essay before submitting. And I do it all from the point of view of an admissions committee, since that’s my background.
What’s your educational and professional background? How did you find yourself working as a proofreader/editor?
I worked as a university admissions officer for 12 years, at a large private university in a major American city. I was also working as a freelance writer and publicist, so I have always been a stickler for good writing. In my admissions position, I read application essays from undergrad and grad applicants every day, and often found myself cringing at some of the mistakes in them. While working there, I earned my MA in Communication – focusing on PR and marketing – and continued to build a modest roster of recurring freelance clients and one-off projects.
Having earned a reputation in the office as a writer and editor, I often helped my student employees and fellow staff members with proofing and editing their writing; people would come into my office, asking if my “red pen” was available to look over a document. I realized that I had a skill that was in demand, so in 2011 I created my first Fiverr gig. Five years later, in search of better work/life balance, I left my university position to live outside the US and freelance full-time. Now I spend most of my working hours helping prospective students apply to universities and win scholarships.
What makes a college application stand out from the crowd for an admissions officer?
An application that really gives the admissions team a full, clear picture of the prospective student is always going to stand out. When a student’s voice is so clear I can practically hear them as I read over their materials, that’s going to be a student I remember. I think a common trap for prospective students is to tailor or censor their applications to say what they think the admissions team wants to hear. For example, a hopeful computer science major might downplay their experiences in the Harry Potter Fan Club because it does not relate directly to their intended major. Don’t do that! Very few people are 100% focused on only one interest, and we want to know about all the different – even weird – interests you have. It will flesh out your application and make you more real.
When a student’s voice is so clear I can practically hear them as I read over their materials, that’s going to be a student I remember.
It’s also a bonus when we can picture the student as a positive, strong member of our university community – especially one who is unlikely to embarrass the school with an ill-conceived social media post or viral video of bad behavior.
But standing out can be tricky. I remember plenty of applicants over the years who had completely insane essays (one kid found a grasshopper in his garage and decided it was a demon? I still scratch my head about that one.) or statements that were so poorly written they didn’t make sense; those students were not admitted. The key, then, is to stand out in a good way.
Can you describe the role and importance a personal statement plays in one’s application?
We already have your transcripts and test scores. We probably have some form of resume. But we can only tell so much from those things. A well-written essay says so much more about the student than how many consecutive years she was on the honor roll. This is your chance to tell us what we don’t already know, and bring some life to your application. Think of it as a black and white movie suddenly turning to color when we read your original, polished essay.
What makes for a great personal statement? What other things are college admissions looking for in a statement?
The best statements are the ones that convey the applicant’s personality with an anecdote or story, and do so with authenticity and even a bit of good-natured humor. My favorite essays start out with a seemingly random topic, but then find a way to tie that in to the student’s academic interests or professional goals.
A great tip is to always read your writing out loud. When you hear what you’ve written being spoken, you will almost always find mistakes or awkward phrasings that you might miss with silent reading alone.
What are the biggest mistakes you see students make when you review their college applications?
All too often I see essays that are simply re-hashing what’s already on their transcript or resume. There is no need to discuss your GPA, what classes you took, or your class rank. You are wasting your word limit when you do this! This is your ONE personal message to the admissions team – use it wisely.
All too often I see essays that are simply re-hashing what’s already on their transcript or resume… This is your ONE personal message to the admissions team – use it wisely.
I also see a lot of essays that are clearly something already written for class (which is fine to do), but it doesn’t really answer the question being asked. The essay prompts on Common App haven’t changed in years, and most of them are pretty broad – especially #7, “An essay on a topic of your choice.” Make sure you are really answering the question of the prompt you choose.
Avoid cliches, unless you truly have a unique twist or tie-in. For example, your grandmother passing away is not unique; everyone experiences this at some point, so don’t write about it unless you also inherited her old haunted mansion and trained all the ghosts there to perform in your Halloween Circus, which led to your interest in an Entertainment Management degree.
Finally, NEVER PLAGIARISE. There are a lot of examples of successful essays online, but DO NOT use any part of them in your writing. This seems like a no-brainer, but I have had more than a few clients send me their essay, and I noticed a sentence or two that seemed out of place. A quick Google search later, I found the source material that they lifted that text from. If I can find it, your admissions team can find it, and they will automatically deny your application. Don’t risk it!
Do you have any other advice for students to get accepted onto the campus of their dreams?
Admissions officers love to see a genuine interest in their school, but one that stops short of obsession. It’s a great idea to mention a few school-specific features if they fit gracefully into your essay. Read the curriculum for your desired major, and pick one or two courses that you are especially looking forward to, and work them in. You can do the same with specific professors, school clubs, campus features, etc. It’s a great idea to visit the “Mission & Values” page of the school’s website, and see if there’s anything there that resonates with you that you can discuss in your essay or supplements.
All that said, you don’t want to go overboard with this. If what you’ve written sounds like something a stalker might say, you’ll want to tone it down a bit. I would avoid the term “dream school” in application materials, because that places a bit of pressure on the admissions staff, basically saying that if they don’t admit you they will be crushing your lifelong dreams. In your entire application, you want a balance of confidence in yourself and enthusiasm for the school as you are essentially making a case for why it is a good fit.
Admissions is a numbers game in many ways; with only so many spots in the incoming class, you have to not only qualify for admission, but you have to outshine the competition. Your admissions team is simultaneously seeing you as a prospective student, current student and community member, and an alum, so if you can represent yourself well in all three of those potential capacities, you’re going to greatly increase your chances of getting into your top choice school.