For many adults considering a return to college, the most intimidating part of the application process is writing the personal essay. Many have not written an essay since they left school, and they find it unnerving to attempt this kind of writing. But remember, between email, Facebook and other forms of new communication, you could be writing more often – albeit in shorter form – than you did in high school.
Your essay is the best way to let a school know who you are. For traditional high school students applying to college, the essay is a chance to set themselves apart from the thousands of other teenagers seeking a spot in a freshmen class. This usually means writing about their volunteer work, internships, sports teams, community service projects, or other hobbies or interests. Adult learners, however, are at an advantage in writing their personal statements, because they have many more experiences and ideas to draw upon.When crafting your personal statement, keep these tips in mind:
1. Read the essay question carefully to be sure you understand the topic you are supposed to tackle. Some adult undergraduate programs or graduate schools have opened-ended questions, such as tell us why you want to return to school or why are you interested in pursuing this degree. Others, however, are more specific, such as write about a time you failed at something and what you learned from that experience.
2. Develop an organizing theme or idea to draw upon, whether answering a specific question or writing a general essay about your background. Sometimes this central idea comes in a flash of inspiration, but more often it comes after mulling the topic over. Then boil this idea down to one sentence – your thesis statement. You'll want to choose a theme that truly reflects who are, but also offers enough material to build an essay upon. Some themes, for example, that might be good for an adult student essay could be: why being a parent will make me a better student; how my current job has prepared me to return to school; or how earning this degree will help me fulfill my dream.
3. Unless you are applying to particular program that involves a specialized kind of writing, such as an M.F.A. in poetry or a screenwriting program, stick to the traditional essay format. This means you will write an opening paragraph that builds up to your thesis statement, followed by several supporting paragraphs, which elaborate on your overall theme. The concluding paragraph should restate and summarize the content in the previous paragraphs.
4. Remember that the personal statement is a chance to show off both your writing skills and your motivation to become a student. Don't undermine your effort with careless mistakes. After writing the essay, set it aside for a few days, and then take a look at it with fresh eyes, aiming to improve it through revising and editing.
5. Once you are finished, be sure to have someone proofread your work. This could be a friend or family member. Be sure to choose someone who is supportive of your decision to return to school, as well a person who has good writing skills. When making any final revisions, spell check and reread the essay a final time before submitting. You do not want to accidentally insert an error into your work during the last round of changes.
Remember, the essay is just one part of the overall process of researching and applying to schools. It is central to any effort to go back to college, but make sure you also complete the other application materials with care and in a timely manner.
Daniel Gerger is the President of Adult Education Advocates, an organization that helps adults make the transition back to college.