By Alyse Levine, Founder & CEO of Premium Prep College Counseling
When it comes to college applications, nothing looms larger than the personal statement. It has acquired an almost mythological quality in our culture. Ask around, and most adults can readily tell you what they wrote about. And the hype is not misplaced: the personal statement remains the cornerstone of the college application. It is the primary way for applicants to speak directly to admissions officers, showcase their distinctive qualities and experiences, and make a case for why they belong at a particular school. It is also the essential way for those officers to get to know you as a person, beyond transcripts and test scores. Due to its significance, the personal statement can be intimidating. Applicants feel pressure to write something unique, while being both confident and humble, mature and youthful, exceptional and relatable. Not to mention that most high school students have never written about themselves in such a direct way. But, there are ways to organize your approach and make your essay process as painless as possible. Here are my tips for a successful personal statement:
Start writing soon
Beginning the writing process early has many benefits. It enables you to calmly explore your options, allows for all-important breaks between drafts, and leaves room for the possibility that a great sounding topic might not wind up as good as you expected. How, you might ask, does one get started? At Premium Prep, our students use brainstorming exercises to generate potential themes and topics, followed by “freewrites,” in which they develop some of those topics to see what sticks. So, write some sentences on an inspiring experience you’ve had. Write some others on a struggle you’ve overcome. Cast a wide net. And don’t worry at first about the finished product. This technique often opens up creative or unexpected lines of thought, which can be very productive in the long run.
Write about what feels true to you
The most daunting part of the personal statement is often the selection of a topic. Most high school students have not written much about themselves and are inexperienced with short-form essays. Applicants feel the added pressure of needing to say something profound about themselves in so few words. (Most colleges limit the personal statement to 650 words.) At Premium Prep, we advise our students to at least initially ignore the list of topics that others will tell you are off limits—e.g., sports, family tragedies, pets, etc. We encourage students to think more about writing well and from their own perspective. Colleges aren’t looking for any particular set of topics; nor do they automatically reject those that have been done before. (News flash: it’s all been done before. Quality is often less a matter of finding a purely original topic than of putting an original and personal spin on something.) Moreover, the pressure to find the unique or profound can create so much unnecessary stress. Frankly, most teenagers haven’t discovered a cure or performed on Broadway. You’re in high school! Find a topic that captures something essential and true about yourself—that is the goal. I often advise students to think “small.” Sometimes the poignancy of a transient moment can most effectively convey a larger message—especially within the short format of the personal statement. Aim for authenticity and specificity.
Along with those topics that might seem off-limits, students are sometimes hesitant to write about experiences of vulnerability. And yet those moments can reveal worthy character qualities like compassion, sensitivity, and determination. Often the strongest essays chronicle growth through an episode in which a young person overcomes failure or stumbles and learns an important lesson about the world and themselves. Even if you’re writing about an impressive accomplishment, it’s a good idea to “humanize” your story by sharing an experience of difficulty or doubt along the way. It takes confidence to admit to moments of vulnerability and to do so gracefully (maybe even with some humor). As society increasingly recognizes the role of failure in growth and success, and as colleges continue to adapt to our current moment, topics involving personal struggles can and should be explored. There’s something fundamentally relatable about a personal statement that includes such things, and when an admissions officer is reviewing a pile of essays, that kind of connection can set you apart. My only caveat here is that your statement shouldn’t be all negative. Be honest, show self-awareness, but focus primarily on how you’ve grown from your experiences.
Get your reader’s attention fast
Once you’ve found your topic, you’ll want to create an opening that grabs the reader’s attention. Personal statements are short, and students should try to make an impression as quickly as possible. Remember that admissions officers read hundreds of essays in a season. However, this advice is not a license to be outrageous or overly dramatic. An over-the-top opening can make your readers roll their eyes (not good), or at least make the rest of the essay fall flat (not as bad, but still not good). Start with a compelling anecdote or scene that will grab your reader without melodramatics.
Keep them reading
A strong opening is key, but it’s also important not to overly front-load the message or “punchline.” Unlike a school essay, there’s no need to state your thesis upfront. The personal statement can take many different forms, from linear narrative to montage-like structure, but whatever style you choose, it should have a distinct arc—usually one of personal growth—and convey a bright future. It’s fine to suggest that you are a work in progress; indeed, that sort of self-awareness can be very appealing. Either way, you’ll want to find ways to keep your reader engaged throughout.
Use your own voice
All the basic rules of good writing apply here, especially in such a short essay: choose your words carefully; don’t repeat yourself; avoid clichés; limit adverbs in favor of stronger verbs; etc. In addition, along with the story you’re telling, the writing itself should reflect your personality. Colleges want to hear your voice in clear and compelling ways. Write well, but don’t feel pressure to sound more mature or more “intellectual” than you are. And whereas it’s a good idea to get feedback (see below), resist the urge to borrow the words of others. If your language seems inauthentic, you will come across that way.
Make sure you leave time before your application deadlines to let the essay “rest” a bit, read it over with fresh eyes, and make corrections. It is also extremely advisable to have someone you trust read your essay and provide honest feedback. Does everything make sense? Does the essay flow well? These are important things to find out. Also, make sure to double-check everything for grammatical or spelling mistakes. Basic writing errors make you seem careless.
A note to parents
Parents, I know it is awfully tempting to insert your opinions and edits throughout your child’s writing process. This is completely understandable. You’ve been helping and teaching them all their lives! However, you will need to find an appropriate balance—and this often means stepping back and allowing that process to unfold without too much input from you. Your child is the one going to college, and their personal statement needs to reflect who they are. It is vital that we—parents, teachers, and counselors—always uphold a strong ethic, ensuring that a student’s application is entirely their own. Colleges can tell when the writing is not the student’s, and that can sink an application. That said, you do have a significant role. Cheer them along, and offer to read drafts and provide feedback that involves constructive criticism but not rewriting. Give support without undermining their sense of writerly autonomy.
Again, the personal statement is the foundation of your college application and should be treated as such. I hope the above tips set you off on the right track. And don’t forget about your supplemental essays! Be sure to plan for those, since they are crucial too. Lastly, try to have fun with your writing. I know it’s stressful, but like so much of the college application process, the writing portion can be a time of creativity and growth. This is your chance to convey who you are, where you come from, and what’s important to you. Everyone has a story. Go ahead and tell yours.