The Personal Statement: Putting Your Best Foot Forward

What’s the point of the personal statement?

The personal statement is a chance for admissions officers to know who you are beyondgrades and test scores. What exactly does this mean? Admissions officers want to gain insight into your personality and how you would be a valuable addition to their school’s community. Are you ambitious? Creative? Analytical? Inquisitive? Such qualities are difficult to glean from the mere numbers they are provided with in other parts of the application.

We have all heard the phrase, “you are more than the sum of your parts.” This is true of everyone – college applicants included – although that’s easy to forget amidst test preparation, AP classes, and other statistics you are busy racking up. But the admissions officers have not forgotten your humanity and it is important that you don’t either. Humans make positive changes in the world, not robots, and colleges want to admit world changers, not machines. Your personal statement gives you the chance to show the extra bit that makes you you and not anybody else.

What should I write about?

The personal statement is something that helps admissions differentiate two students with the same stats. There are a number of ways to go about setting yourself apart from the crowd. Here are a few different subjects that are often present in successful personal statements:

–      Family

–      Passions

–      Books you’ve read

–      People you’ve met

–      Talents

The most important thing to remember when choosing a subject (or subjects) is to choose something that has genuinely played a role in shaping you into the unique individual that you are. Try to avoid things that come off as generic. For example, “My mother is an amazing woman who has always been there for me and is a great cook and washes my clothes.” Besides this being a bit of a run-on sentence, it does not describe anything substantive about you or your mother and sounds like it could apply to any number of people.

“I read The Great Gatsby in 10th grade and it changed my perspective on literature.” This statement at least feels like it could go somewhere, but its lack of specificity is a problem and it needs a great deal of unpacking to be a worthy topic for a personal statement.

Officers undoubtedly read countless boring personal statements, so don’t be afraid to take a creative angle! There are numerous ways to do this. For example:

–      Use a quote that you find meaningful

–      Recount a non-traditional experience

–      Draw connections between two unlike things

–      Explore forms outside the usual 5-paragraph format

This list is by no means exhaustive; that’s the thing about creativity – it is only bounded by your imagination! By expressing your creative side, you effectively demand that readers remember your application and there’s a better shot that they will want you to attend their institution.

Is spelling and grammar important?

Another purpose of the essay is to serve as a writing sample so that colleges can get a firsthand idea of how strong of a writer you are. As a result, is vital to free your essay of all typos and any other errors before submitting. It is also important to be concise and follow directions.

Should I talk about problems with my transcript / high school record?

If you have extenuating circumstances, this is one place you can bring them in and let admissions officers know, although many applications have a special section dedicated to such explanations. Contrary to popular belief, officers do care if a serious issue affected your high school record. If you have any weaknesses that need to be addressed, explain them in your personal statement and describe what you did in the meantime to make up for them. In explaining such issues, there are a few rules of thumb:

–      Be honest and objective, focusing on what you learned from the experience over associated negative consequences

–      Show contrast between who you are now and who you were at the time of the mistake, thereby showing growth

–      Take responsibility for your actions, a sign of maturity

By following these guidelines, you give yourself the best chance to be accepted to the college you’re applying for despite possible flaws on your high school record.

Can I submit the same personal statement for all of my applications?

Many colleges ask specifically why you’re applying to their school. This helps them determine if you are genuinely excited about the school and whether you are likely to attend if accepted. It is important to do research on the universities you are applying for and tailor each essay accordingly. Some ways to impress admissions officers in this section are:

–      Giving concrete reasons why you are interested in a particular program. Such reasons can be found by perusing college websites and taking tours of prospective colleges to gather more information and decide how that information pertains to you and your future studies.

–      Talking to a faculty member you’re interested in working with and mentioning it in the statement. The easiest way to go about this is through the website of the college you are applying for. First choose a department, then find the list of faculty members and browse through them, learning what they specialize in and conducting further research on professors whose subject matters pique your interest. Don’t be afraid to email professors and ask relevant questions. Their email addresses should be listed on the department website. 

–      Listing classes you’ve taken that are relevant to your prospective field. If you know what you want to study, then this should be relatively easy. If not, feel free to list classes that had a lasting impact on you or that you particularly enjoyed.

Back to the actual writing… Will there be any specific guidance on what to write about?

How can you find the topic, format, and phrasing that will land you at your dream school? The personal statement might seem overwhelming, but don’t worry – applications give you a prompt to respond to, so although it is open ended, there is at least some guidance provided. There are several possible prompts.

Example Prompt 1

One common prompt asks you to write about a formative experience, event, or relationship in your life. The goal in such an essay is to show how it shaped you as a person. The most common pitfall with such a prompt is to try to tell your entire life story in one page – an impossible feat that ends up in a jumbled rush that doesn’t quite communicate anything of any depth. Instead, it is better to focus on something very specific and spend time explaining why it was meaningful to you.

For example, let’s imagine that Morgan is very close with her sister Anna. Rather than listing a number of Anna’s good qualities or describing numerous events involving her sister, Morgan should focus on one event that highlights the relationship (i.e. when Morgan broke her arm and Anna had the doctor give her a matching cast), going into detail about what exactly gave that experience such lasting impact (i.e. the power of empathy).

Example Prompt 2

Another common prompt asks students to share a meaningful interest, talent, background or identity. If you have something in your life that falls under one of these categories and is deeply meaningful to you, then you should pick this prompt. Be sure to include specifics about your meaningful activity / quality to backup any generalizations you make. It is important for your essay to have a straightforward direction with overt details. If Morgan, from our last example, were to write about her talent for gymnastics, we wouldn’t want to hear merely about the rules of each apparatus and how many medals she’s won. Instead, we would want to know things like what her favorite event is and why, her trials and tribulations as an athlete, how gymnastics has impacted her life outside of the gym, and so on. These details give us information about who Morgan is and as a result, allow us to sympathize with her in a holistic way.

Example Prompt 3

A third possible prompt could look like the following:

“Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.” (University of California)

With this prompt, as with the others already discussed, it is essential to avoid being generic. Really dissect the ways in which you express your creativity and tie them into your life specifically. Do you like to write? How does this affect the way you process information? Do you color code your closet? How does this affect the way you organize things in your mind? Do you enjoy cooking? What about cooking do you find satisfying and why? You do not have to consider yourself an artist to write such an essay successfully! There are myriad ways to be creative, as expressed in the prompt, and showing this in a creative manner, as deliberated upon earlier in this article, will undoubtedly be appreciated by admissions officers.

Example Prompt 4

A fourth common prompt subject involves facing a problem. Admissions wants to know how you cope with failure and solve problems. College can be difficult and admissions committees want to be convinced that you are equipped to face these difficulties upon acceptance. Don’t just use a success in disguise, but a true failure. Here is a link to an example of a successful response to such a prompt:

Shmoop Prompt

This essay works because it effectively turns an apparent weakness into a strength using humor (an example of creativity), concrete examples, and honesty, all methods discussed throughout this article.

With all this information, I hope you feel more equipped to write a personal statement that will “wow” admissions officers. Good luck with your college applications!

Sources:

USA Today

Prep Scholar

College Vine

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