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EDUCATION / An exploration of ideas, issues and trends
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The Essay That Could Change Your Life

November 18, 1998|LYNN O'DELL

They've already taken the SAT, the ACT and at least three SAT II subject tests. Now thousands of high school seniors are filling out college applications and pondering the most perplexing question of all: Who am I?

All this introspection can be chalked up to the need to write a college essay or personal statement, part of the application process for the University of California system and most private colleges.

Facing a Nov. 30 deadline for the UC system, most students have written and rewritten several versions of the two-page essays, which "can make or break you," as one college counselor put it.

As students agonize over this critical task, counselors and college admissions officers offer some do's and don'ts on writing a personal statement.

*

Do:

* Write about something that excites you. What is the passion in your life?

* Use personal voice. Write an essay that only you could write.

* Answer the question. Describe an experience but remember to answer the question, "What did it mean to you?"

* Be specific. If a trip to Mexico to work with orphans changed your life, explain exactly how. Give examples.

* Discuss circumstances that have held you back or made your academic numbers look odd. Students who have had to juggle full-time jobs with school or care for a sick family member should say so.

*

Don't:

* Be cute. Humor is hard to pull off, and 17-year-old humor is not 45-year-old admissions officer humor.

* Put the wrong school's name in the essay. Students often use one essay for more than one application, and may send to Harvard the version that discusses what they can bring to Princeton.

* Go thesaurus-wild and sprinkle the essay with big words.

* Select a tiny type font.

* Manufacture hardship.

* List your accomplishments. That's another part of the application. Instead, focus on one accomplishment and what it means to you.

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