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

Writing Rules for the College Application Essay

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There’s a lot riding on your college application essays, so it’s important to put your best writing skills on display. Whether you’re in the planning phase, the writing phase, or the editing phase, keeping a few rules in mind will help guide you to produce a well-written and compelling essay. Below are some fundamental and nuanced rules that will put you on the right track.

Fundamental Writing Rules

You should be familiar with these basic ideas from your English writing classes. Take them at face value – they should be straightforward to follow.

  1. Your first paragraph/sentence must draw in (or “hook”) your audience.
    Good hooks don’t need to be overly dramatic. Oftentimes, placing your reader in the middle of action is sufficient to pull them into the story. Still, make sure you provide enough context, and experiment with a couple different approaches before you settle on your first paragraph.
  2. The paragraphs must flow in a logical manner.
    Plan out your essay by creating an outline before you start writing. Create a logical story with a beginning, middle, and end and then fill in the details. Once you identify the major plot points of your story, you can turn them into dedicated paragraphs.
  3. Grammar and spelling conventions should be followed without any mistakes.
    Avoid silly mistakes by taking advantage of resources like
    – built-in spell checks in your word processor,
    – external plug-ins like Grammarly,
    – asking your friends and family to proofread your writing, or
    – hiring professional editing services like Scribbr.
  4. Everything you write should be your truth.
    Do not fabricate major plot points of your story or plagiarize someone else’s experiences.

Nuanced Writing Rules

Following these rules requires a little more care and creativity.

  1. Write concisely.
    – Flowery prose that you find in English class is not useful in your college essay. – Be careful to not overdo the edits such that the meaning of the sentence disappears or changes.
  2. Choose your words carefully.
    – Avoid reusing words, especially adjectives.
    – Don’t use adjectives unnecessarily, especially “very”, “really”, and “literally”
    – If you use a thesaurus to find a fancier synonym, 95% the word is not going to sound right in context
  3. Be an active character in your life story.
    – Avoid phrases like “I had the opportunity to…” or “I got to…”
    – Experiences are actively pursued or achieved, not stumbled upon.
  4. Emphasize your individuality.
    – Showcase your unique perspective to problem-solving.
    – Avoid writing general or obvious statements.

For more college application essay writing tips, check out these other posts.

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

Avoiding Clichés and Taking Risks in Your College Application Essay

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The perfect topic for your college application essay should be creative, unique, and authentic. Easier said than done, right? With the thousands and thousands of essays published on the Internet, how do you sort through the wacky ideas that were good and the ones that were just really weird?

Perhaps you’ve already been through my 50 Words Activity and have identified some topics that would meet all three requirements for you. But if you’re looking for more reassurance or motivation to proceed with your topic, you’ve come to the right place. Here, I’ll be explaining how to avoid tropes that have long become cliché for college applications and how to take risks with your essay.

Clichéd Themes

There are four main themes that I encourage students to avoid for their essays. While I’m not telling you these themes are banned, don’t make your essay so basic that it falls into one of these traps.

  • The most important person in my life is…”
    This writer often goes on to advocate why their mom/teacher/dog should be admitted to college. While it’s fine to express admiration for important people in your life, remember that you need to be the hero of your own story.
  • Death of a loved one
    This is a tricky topic for many reasons. The death of a loved one can change us in profound ways, but context is key for this topic. The essay shouldn’t be a eulogy to your loved one (again, you are the hero of your story). Also, don’t write about death expecting that it will gain you sympathy points from the reader – it doesn’t work that way.
  • The quintessential “I kept trying and never quit” essay – often paired with a story about sports or speech and debate
    If your essay is as formulaic as “I am an athlete. I struggled with X. My coach made me work hard. I showed leadership and achieved a personal record”, you should try to come up with something more creative.
  • The Reverse Volunteering Story: “I gave my time and received so much more in return”
    Many applications do require a statement about volunteering experience, but it’s important to not be superficial in discussing your efforts. Especially if your volunteer experience is working with people from a lower socioeconomic status than you (e.g., working in a soup kitchen, tutoring disadvantaged kids, etc.), it’s important to remember that other people do not exist to make you feel more thankful about your life. Write from a place of empathy and about finding a common understanding through your volunteer work.

Taking Risks

Creativity often means taking a risk. In my college application essays, I compared myself to Hermione Granger, discussed my interest in the stigmatized art of fanfiction, and even used the words “air hump”. If there’s a unique and authentic side to you that you feel compelled to share, I encourage you to do so. But if you’re really on the fence, there are certain questions that you can ask yourself to decide whether the risk is worth it.

  1. Am I being authentic about my experience or perspective?
    You shouldn’t use a risky theme simply for the shock factor, especially if the topic really isn’t very important to you.
  2. Does the risk distract from telling my story?
    It’s not a good use of your time to spend more time trying to write creatively than explicitly crafting the story about yourself. Remember that your story arc must be the most important part of the essay.
  3. What does my application gain if I take the risk?
    Hopefully the answer to this question is “authenticity”. The topic should feel risky because you’re sharing something very personal with the reader in a creative format. If your answer is closer to “the risk makes my essay more interesting to read”, then reconsider the topic that you’ve chosen.
  4. Is there a trusted person who can give me feedback on this theme?
    Sometimes it’s just best to get an external perspective. Tell a few people you trust about the theme and gauge their reactions. Take both positive and negative feedback with a grain of salt – you should have the final say in what you feel comfortable writing.

Ultimately, the best essay topic is one that you feel comfortable writing about and one that adds depth to your college application packet.

For more college application essay writing tips, check out these other posts.

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

The College Application Essay Basics

This is my first post in a series about writing more effective college application essays. To learn more about me and my experiences in writing and editing personal statements (for college applications and beyond) check out my personal introduction post.

Let’s be real: Writing a college application essay can be TOUGH. High school English classes don’t necessarily prepare us to write about ourselves in persuasive, illustrative ways. And writing one essay is hard enough – what are you supposed to do when the college asks for multiple topics?

Despite these challenges, the college application essay – or “personal statement” – is a powerful component of your application. It allows you to advocate for yourself in a unique way to show the admissions committee that’s there more to you than your GPA, grades, SAT/ACT scores, AP scores, etc. There’s also far more to your identity than being a high school student! For these reasons, it’s important to invest the time and effort to write strong personal statements that communicate the unobvious parts of your experience.

Now that you’re motivated to do a good job with these essays, here are the basic things you should keep in mind moving forward.

One Piece of the Puzzle
Use your essay to add more depth and context to your college application packet. Hopefully you’re aware of what the full college application packet looks like, but if not, no worries! When you apply to a college or university, they ask for your high school transcript, college admissions test scores (SAT/ACT) if applicable, your AP/IB/SAT II test scores, letters of recommendation from your teachers and mentors, and application essays. Some institutions may ask you to interview with a representative as well. (BIG NOTE: Many colleges are making SAT/ACT scores optional for the 2021/2022 admissions cycle due to the pandemic). The weight of your application essays can vary from college to college. You might write an amazing essay, but if there are strict GPA cutoffs for admission at a university, they may never even read your essay. On the other hand, universities that do a more holistic read of your application packet will have a chance to understand poor grades or other comments on your academic record with the context provided by letters of recommendation and your personal statement.

Know Your Audience
So who exactly do you need to impress with your essay? Very generally, the admissions committee is made up of “adults” with college degrees – that is, they could be recent graduates or retired professors. These readers are likely alumni of the institution to which you’re applying, and they are genuinely invested in creating a student body that will both benefit from and contribute to the institution. They’ve read too many application essays to count, so they’re not easily swayed by melodramatic narratives, words (mis)used from thesaurus searches, and superficial accounts of how your volunteering experience changed your life.

It all boils down to delivering a well-written and compelling essay.

Well-written
The admissions committee is looking for a writing sample that shows you actually paid attention in English class. Your writing must use proper grammar and have a clear narrative structure with a beginning, middle, and end. Hopefully you have the skills to conquer the “well-written” factor on your own, but if you need support, there are a plethora of good resources to help you. You can ask teachers, family members, or friends for feedback on your writing. Professional editing services also exist to proofread and edit your college essay.

Compelling
Your personal statement needs to have a clear and compelling answer to the question, “What makes me excited about you as a candidate?” This is the real challenge – you must decide the answer to this question for yourself. First, do a little soul searching to figure out what qualities you bring to the table. Then, select personal experiences that really allow you to showcase those qualities. I like to use the 50 Words Activity to identify these key stories that you should tell about yourself.

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

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

Writing a Concise Personal Statement

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“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Mark Twain

Writing concisely is hard. It’s even harder to do when you’re writing a personal statement for a college application with word limits- every word can feel crucial in explaining to the reader who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their university. In this post, I will share the framework I use to edit down words in an essay. The guiding principle is this: Each word and sentence should have a purpose.

(Side note: As an example text, I am using the last paragraph of Kwasi Enin‘s application essay. You may remember how Mr. Enin was accepted to several Ivy League schools in 2018 for his academic and personal achievements, and the essay he wrote was distributed by news outlets. Here, I offer some stylistic critique to the fourth paragraph of his essay and suggest ways that I would improve the writing.)

Let’s get started! Here’s the fourth paragraph of Mr. Enin’s essay.

This paragraph has a clear topic sentence which helps us understand what the paragraph is about: how leadership, teamwork, and friendship have overlapped in his experience as a musician. Below, I explain how I would improve this piece of writing.

Transitioning Between Ideas

In this paragraph, the author has many good concepts (highlighted in red below) that he wants to mention that vaguely tie back to his theme of leadership. The challenge he faces is that there isn’t a clear storyline to link all of these ideas together. There are moments of clarity, but no strong flow between the ideas. Additionally, there is a missed opportunity to take advantage of words like “balance” and “harmony”, which have important meanings in both music and leadership.

Intentional Writing – Show, Don’t Tell

Leadership is the main theme of this paragraph. As I’ve highlighted in red, the author uses three sentences to explain his leadership philosophy. However, the author never identifies his leadership position nor explains how he tried to apply this philosophy in music. Simply put, what has the author accomplished in his leadership role?

Repetitive Language

Repetition can create a poetic feel to a piece of writing. When essays have word limits, I discourage students from using repetition as a literary tool because it’s rarely concise and rarely well-executed. In the text below, I’ve marked in red and blue the points of repetition that I believe inflate the word count unnecessarily.

Minimize Flowery Language (for the Word Count)

When writing my high school essays, I had the inclination to write with the creative metaphors and analogies that I had carefully analyzed in high school English classes. Ten years later, my advice is to avoid this flowery language if you’re struggling with the word count. In the paragraph below, the writer uses several phrases that give a “literary” vibe to his writing. While I always encourage students to write in an elevated form of their authentic voice, these would be the phrases that I cut down on first to write concisely.

Applying the Feedback: The Rewritten Paragraph

Working through the notes on linking ideas, showing experiences, and avoiding repetitive language and prose, I was able to rewrite the paragraph while retaining some of the original language and concepts in blue. Below are my comments on why I made certain writing choices.

In the first sentence, I wanted to put the three main theme of leadership, friendship, and team work in context of one another, rather than simply listing them. Then, I added a specific leadership story that would help show the leadership philosophy. Now, the author is directly addressing how he worked with his peers as a leader and as a friend to overcome adversity, “struggling” through difficult music together. The idea of social bonds is reworked as “section culture”, which is a better buzzword for the college reader. Finally, the concepts of harmony and balance are reintroduced figuratively with respect to team dynamics and leadership and literally as musical terms.

Using this framework and some creative rewriting, I was able to remove almost 30 words when rewriting this paragraph while still maintaining the intention and power behind the words. If I wanted to cut this paragraph even more, I would delete the sentence about section culture.

For more college application essay writing tips, check out these other posts.

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 Personal Statement

Authentic and Unique Storytelling with the 50 Words Activity

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It’s important to use a college application essay to stand out from the crowd, but finding the perfect topic can be daunting. Your perfect topic needs to be simultaneously

creative – a dynamic story that interests your reader
unique – a story that only you could tell from your experience
authentic – a story that accurately the represents the best parts of you

To help you identify this holy trifecta of a topic, I’ve developed something that I call the 50 Words Activity. I’ve used this approach to write my undergraduate application essays, Ph.D. application essays, and even fellowship/scholarship essays, and I’ve used this activity to help several high school seniors write their college application essays.

The 50 Words Activity helps you find many answers to the question “Who Am I?” You can then identify 2-3 key qualities that you want your essay reader to know about you. To illustrate these parts of your personality in an essay format, you can select activities and life experiences that relate to the qualities.

If you’re using this activity to write a college essay, make sure you’re following the Five-Step Guide and are aware of all the essay prompts you will need to answer. This will be important for Part 4 of the activity.

Let’s get started!

50 Words Activity

Part 1: The Word List

It’s pretty simple: In 10 minutes, write 50 (or more) words or short phrases that describe you.

  • Write each word on a separate line
  • These words can be adjectives or nouns (“smart” and “leader” both work)
  • Avoid synonyms (such as “hard-working” and “diligent”). These don’t add value to your list.
  • Feel free to keep adding words to the list in the days after you start the activity.

When you create this list, the first 15 words or so will the low-hanging fruit – that is, they will probably be pretty generic and obvious words. The words towards the bottom of the list will be the most unique and creative since you have to work harder to think of them. Don’t stress about the quality of the words when you make the list – it’s important to get the full spectrum!

To show you how this really works, here’s an example of the list I might have created when I was in high school (abbreviated to 13 words for simplicity).

The first few words are pretty simple – they’re the words that I’ve always identified with and that anyone would agree with. “Dancer” and “musician” describe activities that I was involved with during that time period. Deeper into the list are the words that are more nuanced parts of me – the things that wouldn’t be obvious to everyone.

Coming up with these deeper words is as simple as breaking down the things that make you tick, the ideas that you’re most curious about, the activities that you spend the most time doing. For example, “I had Thai food last night” might be linked to “I love Thai food a lot and I’ve tried several restaurants in my area and taught myself to make several dishes”. That concept could then be distilled into “Thai food enthusiast”.

Part 2: Focusing Your Word List

Now that you have your list of 50 (or more!) words, take a few seconds to do the following:

  • Circle the 5 words that you’re most proud of
  • Box the 5 words that make you a strong applicant
  • Star the 5 words that show a side of yourself that most people don’t see

The subset of words that you’ve marked will help you focus on the qualities that are both core to your authentic self but also important to gaining admission to the university.

Part 3: Adding Context to Your Word List

Next to each word, write an experience that you associate with that word. This will help inspire ideas for your essay. Choose experiences that are reflective of your emotional attachment to that word. For example, an experience for “bookworm” could easily be, “I have read over 50 books in the last year.” Instead, a more emotional attachment would be how I’ve prioritized my love of reading over other activities: “I used to skip recess to read Harry Potter books in the library.”

Also, think about the connections between words. Combining “dancer” and “storyteller” could lead to a story about how I prepared for my lead dance role by putting myself in the audience’s position and thinking about the emotions and expressions I needed to convey to make the character believable. This is a more complex and juicy story than simply talking about how much I practiced for the lead role.

Part 4: Choosing Essay Themes from Your Word List

Again, the goal of this activity is to identify key qualities and experiences that you can work into a creative, unique, and authentic essay. Cross-reference your word list with the list of essay prompts that you have.

Let’s do a practice round together. Let’s use this prompt from the 2021-2022 list of Common App Prompts to guide our efforts.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

The term “personal growth” makes me think about how I came out of my shell in high school after enrolling in the band program as a flautist. This isn’t directly reflected in the experiences I’ve listed above, but that’s fine. I’m going to use the word list to identify words that resonate with that experience. Picking “musician” is obvious, but not deep enough. “Leader” is a good word because the associated experience of being flute section leader speaks to a key moment in my evolution in band, and it’s also an important quality for universities to see in me. Surprisingly, the word “dancer” also fits to this experience – dancing with my band friends at football games and school dances helped me overcome my shyness. Putting it all together, I have a pretty good story about how I enrolled in band to find a friend group and found that shared experiences of dancing together at events helped me become a bolder person. I was then well-equipped to lead the flute section for two years and help other freshmen flautists become more confident in themselves.

This, in fact, was a story that I turned into an essay and submitted to multiple universities, including UC Berkeley, which became my alma mater.

In summary, the 50 Words Activity can be a really great powerful tool to help you see the full spectrum of your experience and choose the best words and moments to tell your story. I hope you have a better idea of how you can express yourself in a creative, unique, and authentic way!

To learn more about me and my experiences in writing and editing personal statements (for college applications and beyond) check out my personal introduction post. Check out the other posts in this series for more help:

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

The Five-Step Guide to the College Application Essay

This is part of a series about writing more effective college application essays.
Previous post: The College Application Essay Basics

Once you know the application essay basics, you’re ready to begin working towards writing your college application essay. If you’re writing your first personal statement, it is important to fully plan and prepare for your essay before you write it. Follow these five steps to set yourself up for a smooth writing process.

Step 1: Reading the Essay Prompts
Step 2: Who Are You? Completing the 50 Words Activity
Step 3: Planning Your Essay
Step 4: Word Vomit
Step 5: Edit, Polish, and Edit Some More

Step 1: Reading the Essay Prompts

Your first job is to find all the essay prompts for the applications that you’re interested in. Most students will apply through the Common App, which provides seven prompts to choose from. Within the Common App, individual colleges and universities will also provide supplemental essay questions. You may also be applying through independent application portals which have their own set of essay prompts. As you go collect these prompts, make a note of which prompts are choice-related (for example, you choose one of the seven Common App prompts), optional (you don’t have to submit an essay for this prompt), and mandatory.

After collecting all the potential prompts, sort them into thematic categories. For example, “overcoming adversity” is a common prompt theme, and you may be able to respond to submit one essay on this topic to multiple applications. “Why are you interested in this university/major/program?” is another common prompt, and you may be able to write a basic essay on this topic and swap out details to tailor it to a specific application.

At this step, you can choose a Common App prompt if you’d like, but keep an open mind as you go into Step 2.

Step 2: Who Are You? Completing the 50 Words Activity

Each essay you write must be structured around a set of takeaways that you want the reader to have. For the Common App essay as well as other more creative, open-ended prompts, these takeaways should be key qualities about yourself that you want the reader to remember. To choose activities and experiences that will help you illustrate these qualities, I recommend you complete the 50 Words Activity.

Step 3: Planning Your Essay

Now that you’ve used the 50 Words Activity to organize your experiences, allow this list to guide you in choosing a Common App prompt. Select the descriptor words and associated experiences that are related to the theme of the prompt and can be woven together in a story. For more support with this step, check out my Avoiding Cliches and Taking Risks for the Common App Essay article.

You should also plan the story that you want to tell by creating an outline. What is the beginning, middle, and end of your story? Where do you add the details that you identified in Step 2? If it’s a story about you personally, do you have a character arc? You can check out my Narrative Structure for the Common App Essay article for more help.

Step 4: Word Vomit

Just start writing! Get all of your thoughts down without worrying about the word limit.

If you’re constantly worrying about where you’re writing the correct thing, here’s my trick: Write with proper paragraph structure. That means the first sentence of the paragraph is your topic sentence. The middle sentences are supporting sentences that grow that idea and provide more details. The concluding sentence sums up the thought and carries it into the next paragraph. Even for more creative narrative writing, starting with proper paragraph structure makes you aware of whether your ideas are being expressed or hidden. You can always make the writing more conversational and creative in Step 5.

Step 5: Edit, Polish, and Edit Some More

Once you have words on the page, it’s time to edit and polish.

Editing means reading the essay with a critical eye to find writing errors and determine the value of each word and each sentence. Find concepts that seem repetitive and trim them down. Find the ideas that haven’t been fleshed out enough and write some more. Follow my Writing Rules to help guide you on what to keep and what to remove or rewrite.

Polishing means to elevate the quality of your writing. How do ideas flow from one sentence to the next? Are there spots that are confusing to the reader? Are there seamless transitions between paragraphs so there are no awkward time jumps or idea changes? Does the first paragraph convince your reader to keep reading?

Switch between editing and polishing until your essay has reached a level that you’re happy with. The final edit should take care to remove all spelling and grammar errors and make sure that the essay is within the word count limit.

Throughout Step 5, ask for help from your teachers, friends, and family members to provide constructive feedback. Ask them to tell you what their takeaways are, and compare it to the intentions you set in Step 3 – you may be surprised at how your writing is perceived by different people! Also keep in mind that you may receive contradictory opinions or feedback that you simply disagree with, and that’s ok! If you trust your writing, don’t feel compelled to include all feedback into your next round of edits.


And those are the 5 Steps! Once you’ve been through the process once, you can usually start from Step 3 to plan and write your next application essay. Hope this helps, and Happy Writing!

To learn more about me and my experiences in writing and editing personal statements (for college applications and beyond) check out my personal introduction post. Check out the other posts in this series for more help:

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

What are 2D Materials?

Understanding 2D materials with pencil and paper.

Two-dimensional (2D) materials are a subclass of nanomaterials that are becoming increasingly popular for their electronic, optical, and mechanical properties. These materials are considered two-dimensional because of their atomically thin, planar geometry.

To understand the origins of 2D materials, you might envision a ream of printer paper. The ream is made up of many pieces of planar paper stacked on top of one another. Each sheet of paper shares physical and chemical properties with the aggregate ream. Both are white and good writing surfaces. Both the single sheet of paper and the ream will burn when exposed to a flame in air. However, there are other properties that are unique to the sheet sheet of printer paper. The single sheet is flexible and can be torn easily. The thin sheet of paper is more transparent when held up to light. Furthermore, the ream of paper is relatively loosely bound. The addition of some energy – say, dropping the ream on the floor – will cause the stack to split up into individual pieces of paper. 

In this analogy, the individual sheets of paper represent 2D materials; the whole stack is what we call a layered crystal. While the layered crystal and 2D material share some properties, there are more interesting electronic, optical, and mechanical phenomena that emerge when we “exfoliate” a layered crystal down to the atomically thin, single-layer limit. This exfoliation is achieved because the bonds between in-plane atoms (that is, the connections within a single sheet of paper) are much stronger than the out-of-plane, van der Waals bonds (the pieces of paper are loosely stuck to one another).

The most well-known layered crystal is graphite – the material that is found in pencil lead. Graphite is made up of layers of carbon atoms. When you write with a pencil, portions of the graphite crystal slip past one another due to the weak van der Waals bonds. This is a very crude exfoliation process; the portions of graphite that are left behind on the paper are still thousands-to-millions of times thicker than a single layer of the carbon atoms. However, with a little bit of scotch tape, graphite can be thinned to graphene – a single layer of carbon atoms.