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University Application Essay Writing 101

23/04/2014 13:38 BST | Updated 23/06/2014 10:59 BST

For me at the moment, the IB exams are fast approaching. Meanwhile, I realise that the new application season has already started. I have recently been asked to write a recommendation letter, in addition to proofreading and editing personal statements. Having gone through the college / university application cycle and been admitted by my first choice school, I would like to sum up a few tips. They are relevant to different types of applications - for secondary schools and higher education institutions in the US, the UK, as well as other countries.

Brainstorm. We are still teenagers, but we have much experience to write about, both academic and non-academic. The brainstorming process can be very fun, since you get to picture different memories and dig them out from the past. Talk to your family and friends to get a more holistic view of your growth. Think about the moments that sparked your intellectual curiosity, reminisce about some off-campus activities that informed your leadership style or helped you become more of an open-minded risk-taker.

A good tool to use is the Johari Window. It allows your family and friends to anonymously pick a few adjectives to describe your personality. If you are applying to schools in the United States in particular, this is very useful for you to contemplate your individuality and personality.

Go to your school counselor for advice on your brainstorm. If you do not have a counselor, find someone who you trust or has gone through the application cycle himself / herself. An experienced person will tell you if something really does not work. You want to get the general directions 'right'. Sure, there is no right or wrong in terms of writing, but some of the things to avoid would be a) sounding pompous, b) being dishonest, c) the story / memory is from way back and is no longer relevant in defining your character as of today, and d) the personal statement is headed to a clichéd direction. There are ways that you could make a bad impression on the Admissions Officers, so beware of it from the moment you start drafting your personal statement.

Pay attention to the style of writing. We need to achieve a balance in terms of formality and creativity, in my opinion. In most of my creative writing pieces, as you could see from my previous articles, I tend to use 'flowery' language. While for schools in the United States, 'creative' articles are very appreciated, the UK seems to prefer a certain format. This has to do with the fundamentally distinct curriculum in the two countries. I chose to apply to the United States, since the curriculum is more flexible. Students declare majors in the third year of university, unlike those in the UK, who have to decide which academic, and potentially professional, path to take at the end of their high school senior year. In brief, the UK application essays would involve an introductory note on your academic interest, your background, the courses you have been taking in your secondary school, and your extra-curricular activities, often in relation to the academics.

Be succinct. Personally, I love writing long, long sentences! For my academic essays, I tend to opt for 'quantity' in addition to 'quality'. Teachers are tired of telling me 'less is more' and 'quality over quantity'. Although I am a firm believer in 'quantity can be quality' and 'more is more', I have to advise you that the essay readers are paid according to 'quantity' - the more personal statements they read, the more $ they make:) Imagine your readers sitting next to a table that has mountains of essays. Picture their eyes - so drowsy...half shut...during the long days and nights. Be merciful:)

Introduction and conclusions are very significant, or shall I say, vitally important?! Have you ever been assigned a tedious academic essay that you really do not want to read? Your strategy might have been focusing on the opening and closing paragraphs. Similarly, it might be a good idea to really demonstrate your style of writing and your ability to write concisely and coherently from the very beginning. Conclude with a flourish. For my personal statement, I chose to be poetic. One of the tricks that we can use is to relate the conclusion to the beginning to create an 'echoing' effect.

Do not be afraid to do many, many drafts. Although I admit that I do not like editing my essays most of the time, I completed at least 10 drafts for my personal statement. It is, after all, a precious document where the Admissions Officers can truly get to know you in addition to skimming through the long list of your grades, achievements, awards, and leadership roles.

Good luck!