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College Corner: Essay advice

In this column, Academic Adviser and AP English teacher Molly Sargent discusses the college application process and gives advice for prospective college students.

Completing college applications can be a fairly simple, straightforward process. Usually you need to fill in your name, address, test scores, high school classes taken with your grades and maybe a few short answer questions thrown in for good measure.

But if you apply to a University of California (UC) — not a California State University or community college — responses to two separate prompts are required as well. The UC admissions office uses these personal statements to help determine the applicant?s college readiness and maturity level, as well to reveal any special circumstances or gaps in the applicant?s history that may influence admissions decisions. So, obviously, how these responses are written matters.

The UC personal statement prompts have remained the same for several years. The first reads: “Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.” The second: “Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud, and how does it relate to the person you are?”

Like any personal statement required by any university, the UC personal statements should be structured, clear, concise and, in this case, should not exceed 1,000 words together. The shorter of the two should not be fewer than 250 words. And as with any essay, correct punctuation and grammar must be utilized. So all that remains is the content; after all, how hard can it be to write about yourself?

As it turns out, it can be very difficult to write about yourself. It can be awkward revealing personal stories and details, and being totally honest may fill the writer with trepidation about how he will be viewed after exposing himself to the world. The problem is you certainly want to respond as truthfully as you can, but not write anything that could put a doubt in the reader’s mind as to your stability or college readiness.

So my advice is to be succinct in your anecdotes and examples and discuss your hopes and dreams with candor and focus. But be guarded when revealing particularly negative aspects of your life, making sure to show how you have learned and grown as a result of enduring said negative experiences. And above all, do not merely list achievements or your personal qualities — the reader is interested in getting to know the real you, not the you “on paper.”

Once you have completed both essays, ask a friend, family member or even teacher who has good writing skills to proofread your work and offer corrections and suggestions, checking to make sure your essays flow smoothly and do not jump around from topic to topic. Then all that is left is to save your essays in plain text and paste them into the space provided on the application.

Now relax. You’ve done the best you can, and the rest is up to providence. Pray for peace, and trust in Isaiah 26:3: “The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, Because he trusts in You.”

For the previous installment, read the Nov. 9 column, College Corner: Tackling tests.

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