Scientist, Dancer, and… Essay Editor?

Hello there! My name is Sonal, and I’m currently at Ph.D. student in Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University. Though my day job is being a nanomaterials researcher and my weekends are spent dancing, I have a love for writing and storytelling that connects everything I do. After years of developing a framework for writing creative and authentic personal statements, particularly for college application essays, I have started to share this framework with the world through blog posts. Why should you trust my perspective? Here’s my story (in 500 words!)


As an avid reader since childhood, I always had a keen awareness of literary style and narrative structures. Though I performed well in English classes, even earning a perfect score of 800 in the SAT Critical Reading section, I was at a complete loss when it came to “bragging” about myself in a college application essay. My parents tried to hire a writing tutor to help me, but I would spend hours writing dynamic essays comparing the personalities of myself and our family dog only to realize I was 500 words over the limit with no compelling argument about why I should be admitted to any university. There was a disconnect in my brain between the classic essay topics that my mentors steered me towards and the more creative, authentic stories that I wanted to tell.

I finally connected the dots while working on a different section of the application questionnaire: “Describe yourself in three words.” To choose the most compelling descriptors, I began to aggregate a long list of words and phrases. This act of distilling myself into simple words on paper sparked new connections in my head between my experiences and my personality. This activity helped me gain confidence in my story and enabled me to choose a few vignettes from my life that I was proud to share in an essay. I realized that I could be creative and persuasive at the same time. Over the years, this list-making process has evolved into my 50 Words Activity, which I encourage seniors to do at the beginning of their college application journey. 

To be clear, it wasn’t enough to have a good story to tell; my writing skills were crucial to executing these essays at the level of formalism and maturity expected by university admissions staff. I am fortunate to have had a public education system that taught me about paragraph structure, persuasive essay writing, and advanced English grammar. I relied heavily on these fundamentals to independently write, proofread, and edit my own essays. Ultimately, my personal statements helped me be accepted to ten highly ranked US universities, including UC Berkeley, which became my alma mater. 

Though I am now in a science field, writing and editing have become an integral part of my life. I have helped friends and family edit application essays from the college through graduate school levels and for a variety of programs. During my Ph.D., I have taken classes in science writing and narrative structure from the esteemed Medill School of Journalism. In 2020, I became a freelance English editor for Scribbr, an online editing service. I have also taught a college application essay writing workshop to Chicagoland high school students through the Northwestern Splash! outreach program. I have turned portions of that 90-minute workshop into blog posts with the hope of making this content more accessible to other frustrated high school seniors. I invite you to go through some of these posts, and I hope you find it helpful in your application journey! (499/500)

If you’re ready to start writing, check out these other articles:

The College Application Essay Basics
The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay
Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity
Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for Your College Application Essay
Writing Rules for the College Application Essay
Writing a Concise, Intentional, and Powerful Personal Statement

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