RALEIGH, N.C. — If you're a student applying for college, writing a personal essay can seem daunting.
But it doesn't need to be.
The News & Observer talked to admissions offices at universities in North Carolina to find out what to do — and what to avoid — when writing those essays over the next few weeks.
Here's what we learned.
Remember: most application deadlines fall around the first or middle of January.
Here's what matters
Christoph Guttentag, Duke University's dean of undergraduate admissions, shared some insight:
The personal essay lets the college know you as an individual.
— If a college is asking for an essay (or more than one), it's because they are looking for the insight that an essay can provide, he said.
— A good, useful essay is one that helps the college understand what matters to you, what's important to you and why.
There aren't "good" topics to choose or "bad" topics to avoid.
— There's no topic that is particularly good or particularly problematic. Almost anything can be the subject of a good essay, Guttentag said.
— What matters is that you write about what matters to you and why. And this is the one part of the application where you get to express yourself in your own words.
Pay attention to style and tone.
— The tone does not have to be formal, and the language does not have to be particularly sophisticated. In fact, sometimes those can get in the way of the reader getting a sense of you, he said.
— You should approach it as if it were a conversation you were having with an adult who is particularly interested in what you have to say. Not as casual as if you were speaking with a friend or classmate, but not as formal as if it were a paper you were writing for an assignment.
— If you read your essay out loud, and it sounds like something you'd say to an adult sitting across from you listening to you with interest, you'll be on the right track.
"That's almost literally what's going to happen," Guttentag said. "An admissions officer will read that essay, trying to get a sense of you as a unique person, and reading it as if you were speaking it."
Essays almost never determine a decision.
— Essays become important when a college needs to distinguish between many applicants who are academically qualified for that school, he said.
— They're not more important than your academic record or your extracurricular activities and accomplishments, but among similarly qualified students, essays can sometimes help nudge a decision in one direction or another.
"While there is no weight to individual components of the application, the essay is a unique opportunity to share your story and what is meaningful or important to you," said Michael Davis, UNC-CH's associate director of admissions.
— Do: Write about a topic that helps the university understand you as a unique individual. Write about how you would contribute to the campus community.
— Don't: Write about topics you're not comfortable writing about. And don't write essays that would prompt a generic response, as opposed to one that showcases your unique voice and perspective.
De'Janel Henry, NC Central's interim associate director of graduate admissions, recommends avoiding essays that involve controversial topics, including political and/or spiritual issues.
How you should prepare to write your college essays
You should ask yourself a few questions before sitting down to write your personal essay, per Duke's recommendation:
1. What experiences have you had that make you unique? Can you describe characteristics that would make you a valuable member of the university community for the next four years?
2. Have you overcome any obstacles in your educational career? Or, have you hit any speedbumps that you need to explain?
3. What is "missing" from your application file? If they have a transcript, there is no reason to waste words telling them about your high grades. If they have a list of your awards and activities, there is no need to simply re-list them here. Is there something special about one of your activities that doesn't come through in a list alone?
And here are some additional tips from the College Foundation of North Carolina:
— Brainstorm and outline: Essay topics often fall into one of two categories: a personal statement or a structured question. If you can choose which to answer, you might want to brainstorm and outline a response for several questions to see which is best for you.
— Begin early: Start working on your essays early. Give yourself plenty of time for revisions.
— Get feedback: Seek feedback from a counselor, parent or trusted teacher to help you revise and edit your work.
— Be specific: Make sure you answer the specific essay prompt for each application. Don't just rehash facts about yourself or reuse an essay you wrote for another college.
— Edit carefully: Represent your ideas in the best light by checking your essay thoroughly for correct usage, spelling and punctuation.
— Don't overuse the thesaurus: Stick to vocabulary that is familiar to you. If you rely too heavily on a thesaurus in search of bigger and better-sounding words. You risk sounding pretentious, as well as unintentionally misusing words.
— Don't plagiarize: Remember that essay readers are trained to spot plagiarism. You can learn from other essays, but you don't want to copy them.
— Be truthful: It can be tempting to stretch the truth when you are trying to impress someone, but the purpose of the essay is to tell a reader what sort of person you really are.