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Week of 4.25.08

Writing a Winning Personal Essay
by Jim Bock, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Swarthmore College

Jim Bock Grade point average, class rank, and standardized tests are all important pieces of a college application, but they are only numbers and they have no capacity to "capture" the person behind the numbers. Conversely, the personal essay allows the admissions officer to look beyond the numbers and "see" you as a feeling and thinking person. A well-written essay should convey your thoughts, attitudes, personal qualities, imagination, sense of humor, and creativity.

To write a college essay, you should use the same three-step process that you would use to write an essay for class: first brainstorm and develop an outline, then draft, and finally, edit. Remember, this is a personal essay and not a term paper. Make every word count as most colleges set word limits. Seek feedback from someone you trust and like (someone likely to be honest about your writing), and proofread the essay at least three or four times before assuming the essay is done. Careless spelling or grammatical errors, awkward language, or fuzzy logic will make your essay memorable—for all the wrong reasons!

A few dos and don'ts:


  • Think "small" and write about something you know
  • Reveal yourself in your writing
  • Show rather than tell. By giving examples and illustrating your topic, you bring it to life.
  • Write in your own voice.
  • Tell the truth.


  • Write what you think the admissions officer wants to read.
  • Exaggerate or write to impress.
  • Use a flowery, inflated or pretentious style.
  • Neglect the technical part of your essay (grammar, spelling, and sentence structure).
  • Ramble—say what you have to say and conclude.

In the end, the essay is one of the only parts of an application over which you have complete control. It is important for you to take the time to do your best work. After writing a successful college essay, you should feel sure that "no one could have written this but me."

Adapted from "Writing the College Essay" by the Swarthmore College admissions office.

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