For high school students, it’s never too early to begin preparing for university, particularly if their dream is to make it to an Ivy League school. But with many components required in a complete US university application, students could become overwhelmed with where to begin.

Developing a timeline and action item plan is important to break things down into approachable tasks that can be developed over time, says David Shepley, educational consultant at Hale Education Group ( that mentors and prepares high school students for admission to US and Canadian universities through one-on-one college counselling and test preparation.

"Students need to conduct thoughtful college research across safety, target and reach categories to plan for building a balanced list," he says. It is in a student’s interest to commit to deep and targeted research for each school of interest.

With the essay being one of the important factors that could weigh in for a candidate seeking admission to a college, we asked David to offer tips on constructing a good personal essay.

A poorly constructed essay could result in academically bright students getting rejected from their dream universities, says the expert at Hale.

"The essay is where a student gets to differentiate themselves from the thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of other applicants. If they fail to do so, someone else will succeed instead. "An excellent supplemental or personal essay can make all the difference with an admissions officer, compensating for weaker elements of an application. In the same way, however, a poorly written essay can nullify an otherwise amazing application. This potential, good and bad, is what defines the holistic approach US universities take with admissions."

He suggests having an authentic and informed reason for applying to a school. This will make essay-writing easier and better. "This will also provide greater passion to alleviate the fatigue of application season, as a student will not just work towards ‘good’ schools, they will also work with the excitement of finding ‘home’ for the next four years," says the graduate from Columbia University.

Excerpts from an interview:

What five pieces of advice would you offer students about crafting a good personal statement?

The first step is to understand the purpose of this essay – the objective and expectation from you, the writer. This 650-word essay takes the form of a descriptive story and focuses on a student’s identity through an episode(s) of personal growth.

The second step is to gain access to successful, example essays, and immerse oneself in a wide range – read. Taking time to read 10+ examples will allow a student to realise the creative freedom and open-ended possibilities within this essay – to discover where personal growth can appear and all the different forms it can take.

Personal statement essays must include a captivating, thought-provoking “Hook” that launches the story and foreshadows the themes that will emerge, says David

Third, figure out which example(s) resonate with you; reflect and observe the style; what approach and attributes did the author include, and why do they connect with you? It is important to find the stylistic and structural approach that works for you and the topic(s) you are considering.

Fourth, on the topic of topics, it is important to allow yourself to consider multiple ideas during the brainstorming process. Even if one comes to mind fast, bookmark it, discuss it, but allow yourself the full brainstorming process, creating a shortlist of ideas you have explored.

Fifth, review the personal statement outline – the classic story structure – and run through each idea you have, talking out each step of the way; does it follow the story arc well, what is your angle, and what deeper lessons, meanings or perspectives can you identify from the experience? The power of the Personal Statement is not so much in the "exterior" of a topic but rather in the personal insights you can draw from your experience.

Bonus: On this note, don’t necessarily go for a topic that sounds dramatic or incredulous; go for that topic or experience that has touched your life regardless of whether it seems "Big" or "Small" to the outside observer.

What are some common mistakes students make when preparing their SOPs?

A common mistake is to confuse the goal of the US Personal Statement with that of the UK Statement of Purpose. In the case of the US Personal Statement, this is not an essay to brag about all your accomplishments or stiffly describe your academic interests, accomplishments, and goals.

Related to this mistake is the topic choice. The US Personal Statement is the opportunity to share details about yourself not reflected elsewhere in the application; to write on a topic that is already heavily covered in your application misses the chance to show a deeper, different side to who you are and what you can bring as a person.

Another aspect of topic selection that must be avoided is following cliches, tropes or content that is offensive, vulgar or can suggest you are physically, mentally or emotionally unprepared or unwell for university life. These issues can arise not just in the essay content but in the tone, vocabulary, lessons and perspectives of the essay. One must consider the impression they are making.

Finally, grammatical, spelling or punctuation errors will damage your credibility and academic reputation. Every aspect of this essay will reflect you. Proof-reading with multiple pairs of eyes is important; peer review is key - it is easy to develop tunnel vision.

Students are often inundated with schoolwork during application time. What advice do you have for them with respect to time management and the essay?

I encourage students to begin planning for the Fall, US university application season during the early spring of that year.

This is when students can begin their college research, compile their extra-curricular history, and commence Personal Statement work. By setting balls in motion early, students can work away at preparing the various requirements with balance. They will also have the time to focus on their final summer, extra-curricular endeavour.

Over the summer, students can build on these application requirements so that they can arrive in the Fall ready to go.

This means their college list is researched and balanced, Personal Statement is nearly done, Common App is ready to be filled, and supplemental essays are ready to start.

Mapping out school deadlines and building a strategy will allow students to stay on top of their school requirements as they head into the rush of Fall and Winter applications.

Then over the course of application season, students can focus on the sole task of writing their remaining essays and preparing for submission.

What skills do students need to incorporate into their personal statements to make them stand out?

The first key to making a personal statement come vividly alive is to add tiny, specific details to the story that only that student can tell. For example, instead of saying, "I am creative and able to improvise under pressure," say something like, "Pricks of electricity sent the hair on my neck to attention while I reached the end of the first movement of [insert piano concerto here] when I realized anxiety had wiped the second movement from my memory. I launched into the second movement of the 1820 Overture instead, and for the 3rd movement yet another piece, then chose another to end the solo performance, turning the recital into my hand-picked medley."

The second key is to remember the personal statement is about the student - self-reflection and self-analysis. A tip is to aim for a ratio of story details to that self-reflection and analysis of 40-50 per cent story details to 50-60 per cent reflection/analysis. Many students simply reserve self-reflection for simple "lessons learned" that are hastily stuffed into the fourth paragraph or conclusion, foregoing self-analysis altogether (the deeper why questions related to personal motivation and relevance).

Key elements of personal essays

Personal statement essays must include a captivating, thought-provoking "Hook" that launches the story and foreshadows the themes that will emerge. Personal essays must build in tension – negative or positive – to a point of discernible climax. This might appear in the form of a challenge, opportunity, or intellectual, emotional or physical breakthrough.

Following this, personal essays must show how this tension found resolution. Following the resolution, it is key to spend adequate time reflecting. Rushing the end of an essay can turn a complex story into an oversimplified "moral" or deliver a seemingly unrealistic outcome. Solid self-reflection must take place that considers the story as a whole in closing.

Details, details, details. Specific details and rich, creative writing elements allow a stranger to see your life and feel your story in mere minutes.

When all is said and done, the reader should be able to compare the "you" at the end with the "you" in the beginning and observe a concrete evolution of self.

Avoid these mistakes

In the case of supplemental essays, one fatal mistake is to simply copy and paste a generic "why" essay and forget to change the name of the university! Likewise, failing to connect the resources of a school with one’s experiences can leave a disconnect in logic; it is important to cohesively align your identity, experiences, and interests with the related resources at the university; this is key for making a successful "Why" argument. In a Personal Statement, students writing about what they think will be successful is a sure path to failure. While reading examples is an important part of the preparation process, trying to copy what once worked for someone at the expense of your own self is never worth it.

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