If you stop to think for a moment about an application reader's job, much of it happens in blocks and stacks: blocks of a couple hours at a time (give or take), devoted to reading a stack of personal statements -- perhaps 40 or 50, one after the other.

From that perspective, your main college essay (aka personal statement) has a singular aim: to make a positive impression and stick in the mind of the reader long after the reading session has ended.

This application season, I've found myself asking the same question each time I read a first draft (and sometimes a second, a third...even a fourth): what is the ONE THING this piece demonstrates about you?

If you're working on your piece now, ask yourself that question. You should be able to answer it in a short phrase or sentence. Here's the key, though: the one thing should be go beyond just a topic. Instead, it should be more of a headline.

Here's the difference:

A topic is a noun. It's a simple object or idea. It's usually pretty easy to identify -- here are some examples:

  1. my love of reading
  2. writing plays
  3. secrets

Simple, right? When you're identifying your one thing, you want to take it one step further. This means turning your topic into a headline; you're adding an action to the noun, turning it into a how statement. Examples:

  1. how rejecting the concept of a "canon of literature" helped me rekindle my love of reading
  2. how writing plays enabled me to discover a deeper empathy for the people surrounding me
  3. how examining the secrets I'd protected unconsciously has made me more honest with myself and others

Give it a shot. What's your personal headline?

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