There is one — and only one — thing that a student must include in his or her main college admissions essay. You MUST provide a sense of who you are, how you think, and what you value. Doing so sounds simple. But it is not easy.
A good starting point is to avoid some mistakes. Try not to dwell on figuring out what admissions officers “want to hear.” Understand that what they want is a way to go past your transcript and test scores. What they want to get to know you and create a vision of how you would contribute to their campus.
Also, do not simply repeat information. A lot of students (and parents) see the personal statement as the place to re-run a highlight film of achievements. These are already in the application. Do not waste space with a glorified resume. Can there be overlap between the essay and the rest of the application? Sure. By definition, something that defines you is highly likely to show up elsewhere. But write about one thing, in fine detail, not everything, with a broad brush.
One last suggestion, which may run against conventional wisdom. I say ignore anyone who says that there are essay topics that are off limits. This fall, I had a student whose boarding school college counselor said to never write about sports; that student was admitted early decision to Penn. Another student’s parents demanded that she scrap a “typical” essay about her Asian identity; that student was admitted early action to Harvard. My point it that no subject matter is “wrong” if it reveals your character.
Having sidestepped potholes you are still faced with the question of what to do.
I have a couple of steps to point students in the right direction. Rather than repeat myself, I can direct you to an article I wrote about how anyone can repeat the steps I used while coaching my best-known college essay students, the Wade quadruplets, who were all accepted to both Harvard and Yale. Here is the link to my blog post: Learn from the Yale Quadruplets' Essays. Anyone interested in reading the actual essays can find them on the New York Times website: The Essays That Did the Trick.