While developing this column, I came across a request for advice on starting a college essay with a quote. The paper was to address the question, "Why should we choose you if there was one spot open?" The best answer featured a quote by Clint Eastwood's character in the 1971 film Dirty Harry: "Go ahead, make my day". It would have scored well for originality, an important quality which admission tutors look for.
That question probably came from one of the American universities, some of which ask for open-ended essays. Personal statements are also a very important component for applications to British universities. Students should convey clear reasons for choosing a particular course in their submissions to the Universities and College Application Service (UCAS), says Catherine Schofield, head of the careers team at West Island School.
Some reasons universities gave for rejecting applications in 2010 are revealing. According to the UCAS, several students failed to secure seats because their personal statements did not strongly support their stated desire to pursue a particular degree course, or failed to show sufficient understanding or knowledge about the course they had applied for.
In other cases, their personal statements and experience were not as strong as competing applicants in that year.
"The strongest applicants are those who can link their extracurricular activities to their proposed course of study," noted an official from the University of Warwick's undergraduate admissions office.
Students' essays should stem from personal experience, not least because they will be more genuine that way. Students who have engaged in several extracurricular activities have a distinct advantage, as they have a wealth of experience to share. Perhaps it's also because, by describing their experiences, students reveal a lot more about their characters than in any statements they might make about their personalities.
A college essay is not a résumé rewritten in paragraph format, but an opportunity to explain the student's goals, and to explain any of the shortcomings in his or her transcripts or grades.
So what would a good college essay include? It describes an experience that gives insight into one aspect of a student's personality. Grades and transcripts provide information about the applicant's ability. So, the essay is what will distinguish one student from another with similar grades.
To narrate a cohesive story, start with a gripping opening statement and lead into an experience from your past, weaving the theme throughout the essay. Link what was learned from the experience to a future goal. And end with why the college will help realise the goal, and is therefore an ideal place for you to study.
As an international student, it is helpful to highlight activities where you have used English outside of your studies. A past traumatic experience is worth sharing - but only if the focus is on the response to the experience and what was learned from it.
Parents should familiarise themselves with the support that schools provide and make the most of this. Reflective writing is integral to the curriculum at West Island School, Schofield says, and most international schools teach this from Year Seven onwards. Students get opportunities to develop the skill.
Training on how to write a personal statement begins during the final term of Year 12 with an initial lecture, supported by written guidance and examples.
Students then get the chance to follow up by working in a small group with a teacher on a subject related to the course for which they are applying. Form tutors, who are responsible for monitoring the students' academic progress and extracurricular commitment, also help them to develop the statement.
A few final tips. Avoid clichés, don't over quote, and don't go synonym crazy while varying sentence structure and word choice. Use your thesaurus judiciously.
Be mindful of crossing the fine line that separates creativity from crazy and, above all, don't forget to proofread carefully.
Anjali Hazari teaches IB and IGCSE biology at the French International School