How to Put Your Best Foot Forward in a Personal Statement
In my years of teaching and tutoring, I’ve had the joy of helping many students with their personal statements and application essays. While the essay is often only one part of the admissions process, many colleges will say that a strong statement can save an otherwise lackluster application, while a terrible one can sink a student’s hopes no matter how high his GPA. So what does it take to win over the admissions committee? I’ve tried to keep it concise and include examples—that’s a hint for you, too.
- Answer the question.
Some of those Common Application prompts sound awfully similar, and some are extremely open-ended. Be careful, though. “Recount a time when you faced a failure” is NOT the same as “describe a problem you’ve solved,” and “share a story about your meaningful background or identity” is NOT license to give an unabridged autobiography. Good essays are focused, clear, and organized. Don’t waste your precious word count restating the prompt; instead, make it obvious from your content.
- Be honest, humble, and positive.
Even if you’re a national champion gymnast or a published research scientist at seventeen, a little self-effacement goes a long way. Avoid certainty or finality (“For the rest of my life, I will protect our planet at all costs”) by instead exhibiting a healthy degree of doubt (“I realized that I can’t win every battle”). Most importantly, end on a positive note. A wise person knows she’s not perfect, she can’t fix everything, and that the world won’t always give her what she wants. Finding hope, purpose, and determination in the midst of struggles is a high mark of maturity.
- Say something about college.
Once you’ve figured out how to organize the essay and respond positively to the prompt, don’t forget the whole reason you’re doing this. An essay about your passion for building custom PCs should somehow connect to your future plans. It’s decent to describe college in general (“This experience inspired me to pursue an engineering degree”), but much better to name the school where you’re applying (“My love of research draws me to Princeton, where I can…”).
- Show personal growth.
A GPA proves you can learn facts, but what about life lessons? No matter what prompt you’re given, incorporate a clear before and after. Err on the side of too corny (“I learned that teamwork means sharing in defeats as much as sharing in victories”) rather than too subtle (“Teams go up and down together”).
- Ask other people to read it.
Spellcheck won’t catch every error, so make sure someone proofreads who can differentiate ‘affect’ and ‘effect.’ More importantly, however, give your essay to friends, family members, or a guidance counselor and simply ask, “Does this sound like me?” Grammatical correctness won’t save a bland, cookie-cutter essay.
- Say what no one else can.
You’ve probably heard advice to “just be yourself.” The way that happens is through using specific details that no one else in the world can claim. An essay about sports? The world has millions. About winning the state championship in soccer? Still not unique. About a girl who broke her foot in the district final and had to redefine her self-worth and role as team captain while watching her friends chase the first state title in school history without her? Getting closer.
- Try to impress the admissions committee.
Don’t suck up by telling a school where it ranks in the U.S. News & World Report (if that’s your main reason for applying, I have bigger concerns). Show why the school’s a good fit for you, not why it’s a good school. Don’t spout GRE-level vocabulary or mention your perfect score on the SAT—they’ll see this on your application anyway. The essay is your chance to be a person, not a robot.
- Be clichéd, arrogant, or negative.
While sharing your narrative of personal growth and accomplishment, avoid the rags-to-riches story. Essay readers see far too many “life-changing moments” and “total 180s.” Describing your overnight transformation from self-absorbed jerk to community hero might have the opposite effect. Instead, be authentic and still young on life’s journey. As a corollary to my advice above about staying positive, don’t end the essay without any sense of hope for the world or drive for your future.
- Write your resume in paragraph form.
The offending sentence looks like this: “Becoming an Eagle Scout, which is the highest rank a person can achieve in the Boy Scouts of America program based on merit badges, leadership, and a final service project to help members of the community, changed my life.” A personal narrative about how you earned one of those merit badges will be far more successful. In general, don’t repeat information listed elsewhere on the application unless it’s absolutely essential to the story you’re telling.
- Quote famous people.
Forget that advice from 9th grade English class about opening with a quote. The truth is that you have a limited word count to display what makes you tick. Don’t fill up that space with lines from Thomas Jefferson or Martin Luther King, Jr.—they already went to college. If you absolutely must, quote your mom or grandma to at least make it personal. Always, always avoid “Webster’s dictionary defines ‘obstacle’ as…” Colleges already have dictionaries; they’re deciding if they should admit you.
- Sound unnatural.
It should go without saying to proofread for errors, but some essays manage to tip the scale too far the other way. Using six-syllable synonyms from the thesaurus or allowing your Ph. D. parents to suggest a more complicated syntax could end up working against you. Remember, it’s about relating through your humanity, not showcasing your book knowledge. Don’t bring your fine caviar to the backyard barbecue. It’s a personal essay, not the national spelling bee.
- Ignore the directions.
This is “just be yourself” in a bad way. If the instructions ask for a 600-word essay, don’t think you’ll win fans by writing 1,000. Opening lines like “instead of a traditional essay, I decided to write a series of limericks” or “I’ve attached an abstract painting to supplement this writing” should be immediate red flags. Be creative within the constraints, and those constraints are the prompt.