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"How to Approach the College Essay" (Emma Hoffman, US College Placement Specialist)

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

In another installment of our "Porch Talk" series, in which we conduct socially distanced interviews with different Bennett specialists, we welcome US College placement counselor Emma Hoffman, who brings many years of teaching and consulting experience to the table and speaks with us about how to best approach the college essay.

Elizabeth Sawyer, CEO of Bennett begins with introductions! Watch the whole session below - it is also accompanied by a full transcription, edited slightly for clarity.

Elizabeth: Hello, and welcome back to the Bennett porch! Today, I am happy to introduce you to Emma Hoffman, who is a seasoned Bennett consultant. Emma is one of a kind - she is a Third Culture Kid, born in New Zealand, raised and educated in six different countries, including Samoa, Hong Kong, and Gibraltar. Emma has been in the US since 1996. At Bennett, she works with families moving all over the world, but she specializes now in placement into US Colleges.

And so, today she has joined us, and we're going to discuss, specifically, the role of the personal statement, or the essay, in US College applications - some Do's and Don'ts for students and those who might be supporting them. And really, how to approach the college essay. So welcome, Emma!

There are many parts to the application process for students applying to college or university in the US - grades, teacher references, etc. What is the role & function of the personal statement, or the essay, in that process?

Emma: Well, there's a reason it's called the personal statement - it's about the student. This is the spot where the student can really let Admissions know who they are, what motivates them, what's important to them, what drives them. It's a way to differentiate themselves from other students whose applications may look very similar to theirs.

What advice would you give students who are about to sit down and start working on that essay?

Emma: I would definitely say, first, make sure you give yourself enough time to brainstorm. You can't underestimate the importance of the brainstorming session. You may think you're going to write about something. You may think you're going to respond to a certain prompt. But in fact, more and better stuff will come out of another prompt - you know, having gone through that whole brainstorming process.

Say that I'm writing my college essay, and I have been through an endless brainstorming stage. I've changed my topic multiple times and I have finally decided that I'm going to write my essay about my passion for building model airplanes. So what's next? What would you tell me now?

Emma: Well, I think I would tell you to really think about why you like building model airplanes! What is it that you want to communicate in your personal statement about yourself, that will look good, that will reflect well on you? Are you, for example, detail-oriented, patient, old-fashioned? All these things, you can convey through your story about the modern era.

I have figured out what it is that I want to convey with my essay and I start writing. But I'm very self-conscious, always wondering if I'm sounding the right way for my Admissions audience. What kind of advice could you give me about how to put down that worry while I'm writing?

Emma: Admissions people want to see who the "real you" is. They want to see who they're getting on campus. They don't want somebody else's voice. They want to hear from you; they're interested in YOU. So I would say, be authentic. Be real. Be proud of who you are - and put it down on paper.

What are some of the common mistakes that you see students make as they approach the essay/personal statement, and how can they avoid them?

Emma: A lot of students don't necessarily give the personal statement the time and the respect that they should. It's a very important part of the application. They may sacrifice brainstorming, for example, if they start too late - and end up writing about the wrong topic, which makes it even more difficult in the long run.

That's interesting, what you said about how a student might end up writing about the wrong topic. How do you know if it's the wrong topic and you as somebody helping students with their personal statements? What do you see when A student is deciding on a topic and how do you know how to guide them towards the right one or the wrong one?

Emma: Well, it's quite simple really. The "right one" is the one where it's like a light bulb goes on, you sit there, and you just can't stop writing. I've seen students who think they've chosen the right subject, but after a paragraph, they're like, "well, that's all..." It doesn't flow off their pen or onto their keyboard.

So let's say that I have brainstorms appropriately. I've chosen my topic, it feels like the right topic for me, and I'm now writing. What final pieces of advice would you give me? Things to do or not do, as I continue with this?

Emma: I can't stress enough how important it is to be your authentic self. You want YOUR voice out there. You don't want to use language that's too wordy or doesn't sound like you, and you certainly don't want to have anybody else write your personal statement for you. This is your opportunity to put yourself out there.

I have seen you work over the years with kids of all different ages going into all different kinds of schooling systems around the world. And I know that you really love working with kids on their personal statements and that you're incredibly good at it. Why is that?

Emma: What I really love is, students will come in, and they tend to dread it. They tend to be really nervous about this thing... and I just love getting to know them, getting them to think and talk about themselves, understand what their strengths are, feel good about themselves, and get it all down on paper. We get a great personal statement at the end of that.

What I think I like even more is that they come away knowing about themselves a little better, and hopefully, being more confident about who they are, and what they can contribute to college. That's the bit I like best.

If you need assistance with your college essay writing process, don't hesitate to contact us. We are here to help you!

Emma Hoffman was born in New Zealand and has been living in the United States since 1996. A true ‘Third Culture Kid,” she grew up and was educated in six countries, including Hong Kong, Western Samoa, and Gibraltar. Emma, therefore, has first-hand experience of and is particularly sensitive to, the education and cultural challenges faced by children and families who are moving internationally. After graduating from King’s College, University of London, with a degree in law, Emma followed her true passion and earned a Postgraduate Certificate in Education from the University of London, specializing in elementary education. She has dedicated the past twenty years to educating children in a number of capacities and has taught in public and private schools in the U.K. and the U.S. She currently tutors children across grade levels and subjects, and also prepares students for U.S. standardized tests, including the S.S.A.T. and the S.A.T.

Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by guiding them towards making informed decisions and finding the best-fit schools for their children. Our consultants specialize in counseling families and helping them find and secure placement for their children in preschools, private day schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, or schools with particular program offerings, such as special needs support.


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