How To Write A Personal Statement
Writing a personal statement for your college application can be difficult if you’re not comfortable with essay writing, rules, and grammar. But you don’t have to be Mark Twain or Henry David Thoreau to knock it out of the park. You do, however, have to stick with the following guidelines that we’re about to set forth. Let’s roll!
1. Don’t be something you’re not.
As Penn State graduate Alexis Morgan notes in her piece on this very subject for USA Today, “Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.”
Being yourself just makes the entire personal statement writing process go much smoother. So the question you have to ask yourself is this: Who am I? What ideas, talents, passions, and people have shaped you and the way you think? Take a moment to brainstorm through each of those areas. What is your motto for life? Where did it come from? What do you hope to achieve, and who led you to that realization? Breaking out pen and paper and brainstorming some thoughts will set you on your way, and you’ll probably see the first sentences of your personal statement start to emerge.
2. Determine what it is that makes you different (in a good way).
Sean Carpenter, a University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg School for Communication admissions officer, shares this advice with prospective students. “They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants? Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”
Luckily, you have two great starting points for being able to do this: 1) You know who you are: what makes you tick, the things that inspire or trouble you; and 2) You have a good sense of how you’re different from the other people at your school. Again, I would suggest sitting down with pen and paper and writing down some information.
Focus on people in your class or school that you think are memorable in some way. What are their names? What are your impressions of how they act in public, what they find important, and what differences you’ve been able to perceive in your personal interactions with them? Do you have areas of agreement, areas of disagreement, or areas where you have an entirely unique perspective that fits somewhere between what they think and what someone disagreeing with them would think? If so, highlight those differences. You’ll start to see what it is about yourself that makes you stand out, and that’s a good thing. These are the qualities that you can build on and grow over time. These are the qualities that will help you make your impact on the world. Last but not least, these are the qualities that will make your personal statement stand out to an admissions officer.
3. Show that you know what their college or university is about.
It may be frustrating to put in all the legwork that it takes for personalizing each personal statement to the college or university you’re applying for, but believe me, it’s worth every bit of what you can put into it. As Stacey Kostell, director of admissions, University of Illinois — Urbana-Champaign, told U.S. News, you should treat every college like it’s the only one you are writing to.
“It’s important to remember that you are applying to individual universities,” Kostell adds. “Much of the information on every application will stay the same, like your personal information (address, grades, etc.). However, the essay questions will be starkly different. I strongly encourage you to direct your essays to the question. So many applicants miss this! Don’t submit the personal statement you wrote in English class. Don’t submit a Common App essay question for a specific application essay question. If you are too busy to write individual essays for each school, you are applying to too many universities. The worst thing you can do is submit an essay that states, ‘The University of Michigan is my dream school,’ when applying to University of Illinois, especially when Illinois is your first choice!”
4. Engage in storytelling.
Try to put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer. You sit down to read essay after essay among (potentially) thousands. You have a limited pool of acceptances to offer in this throng of sameness and mediocrity. You are going to be looking for reasons to throw an essay in the trash can. One way of preventing that from happening is to engage in storytelling. Everyone — even people who hate reading — love to read interesting writing. They want something that doesn’t feel like a chore to get through and a good story gets the job done.
As personal statement expert Rayna Reid notes, “Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner. For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”
The key is to line up the storytelling with what you’re trying to impress on the college or university. What story can interestingly convey the qualities and accomplishments that make you good Stanford/Yale/[college of your choice] material? Again, before starting your personal statement, take some time to review the previous three steps and then craft a story that fits in to each one.
5. Make your personal statement readable.
Our fifth and final tip for how to write an effective personal statement is to mind the mechanics. In other words, make sure that your writing isn’t so bad that it becomes a chore to get through. “But I never did well in English,” you might be thinking. That’s okay. There are options.
1) Give your personal statement to an English teacher that you respect. Ask them to proofread your statement for content and point out any spelling/grammar issues they spot along the way. (Hopefully you haven’t alienated all of your teachers at this point, and you can find one willing to take on the assignment.)
2) If they tell you to make certain changes, take that to heart. If you don’t agree with some of the changes, think about getting a second and third opinion from other English teachers at your school. Should the suggestions be recurring, then you should think about making them. If not, then you may want to keep the things you feel really strongly about.
3) Read your personal statement aloud, multiple times. This will force your mind to accept the words as they are written and not overlook errors because they are right in your head, but not on the page.
4) Consider using something like the HemingwayApp to gauge readability on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. (An eighth to tenth grade reading level is good to shoot for.)
5) Send your personal statement only when you’re sure the essay is error-free on spelling and grammar and flows well from one point to the next.
Writing a personal statement can be challenging, especially if you have five or more schools you are considering. But getting each one right by using the above suggestions, is totally worth it. While it won’t be what solely determines your admission, it is definitely a good chance to stand out in the eyes of admissions officers. Do you have any additional personal statement-related questions? If so, we’d love to hear them. If there is anything you’re struggling with specifically, let us know, and we can cover it in a future post!
[Image via ITM Medical Education]