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8 Steps to Writing Your Best Personal Statement

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With deadlines for college applications steadily approaching, you’re bound to see many PR seniors stressing out about the many components of their application, especially the writing portion. While this part isn’t as easy or straight-forward, your personal statement provides something more than numbers to a college’s admissions office, and it’s truly an opportunity to show them who you are. Although there are many different statement or essay prompts (broad questions, specific questions about the school, lists), here are some general guidelines to really getting the most out of your personal statement.

1. Make sure you’ve really read and understand the prompt and that your essay answers it.

For example, if the prompt is to tell about an event that changed you, you may find yourself several paragraphs deep and realize you’ve described the story but failed to show its outcome and how you grew from the event. Most of the Common App prompts have at least two or three components, so remember to properly respond to the entire prompt without going over the word count.

2. Stay away from cliché stories or overused phrases.

The admissions officers from every college have to read thousands of essays, and although your “failure to success” story might feel unique to you, they may not see it the same way. This doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t write about something common like the death of a grandparent or your sports accomplishment, but it means you should try to spin these typical stories in a different way that will make it stand out, maybe by focusing on a unique detail or showing an atypical reaction to these situations. As for other clichés, don’t rely on starting your essay with an inspirational quote and minimize your verbal cliches such as “sigh of relief” or “thinking outside the box.” Mrs. Hartnett, who teaches many senior English classes and has many years of revising college essays, says that a common phrase that she’s tired of is “taking a path/journey,” since it’s been used so often by so many students. Although it sounds nitpicky, avoiding these conventions will help your essay stand out.

3. Consider how you want the admissions to view you.

Maybe you think of yourself the creative type, or an independent person, or maybe someone who who’s straight-forward and methodical. Because your statement is an opportunity for the admissions officer to get to know you, it’s important you figure out exactly what you want them to know about you. If you want them to know you’re unconventional thinker, then tell a story about how you solved a problem in a unique way. If you’re trying to show that you’re a leader, then tell a story about how you led a group or even why your personality suits a position of leadership.

4. Avoid telling what the rest of your application already shows.

In the Common App, the admissions office can already see if you have good grades or how much time you dedicated to a club. Don’t waste your words on telling them these kinds of thing again, and instead show them some insight into other parts of your life or personality.

5. Find some examples online for inspiration, or even find great storytelling in books, speeches, or interviews.

One of the hardest parts of writing is starting, and even after starting, it’s difficult to figure out what structure you want your essay to have, or how you should end it with the most impact. Looking at other works as examples of good writing or storytelling will help in inspiring you — but never copy these stories! Many colleges or even students themselves post their successful personal statements for applicants to look at. For example, Stanford posted the first lines of some of the application essays of their accepted class, and Johns Hopkins University has shared a collection of essays from their newest undergraduate class. Even on YouTube, you can find TEDTalks, monologues, documentaries, or interviews that demonstrate unique voice, word choice, structure, and audience relatability.

6. Remember to keep it about yourself.

Especially if the prompt asks you to write about someone influential in your life, it’s easy to start focusing too much on this other person’s story or accomplishment that the essay is no longer about you or your growth. This essay is your personal statement, so make sure it’s still saying a lot about you.

7. Don’t waste your words.

Every essay prompt you’ll find will most likely have a word limit, and not a very large one either — the Common App limit is 650 words. With this in mind, make sure not to include unnecessary details or to repeat information, since you can use this space for more depth and insight into yourself and what you really want the admissions committees to know about you. As one English teacher notes, one of the biggest mistakes students make in their essays is they forget to keep it simple, which puts their statement in risk of being overly flowery and metaphorical, and ends up wasting words that could be used more directly and say more about the student.

8. Have a teacher, friend, or family member read it.

It’s easy for your eyes to skip over your own spelling errors or to totally ignore the awkward placement of your conclusion. Another pair of eyes can only bring more perspective into your statement and help you succeed in whatever you want your essay to accomplish. Our library’s Literacy Center has great English teachers who are willing to read your essay and help you throughout the writing process. One senior noted that the Lit Center “helped [her] write her essay and make it more personal,” and that it was overall a helpful experience, especially for students who are lost in the process.

Mrs. Steiner, PR’s College and Career Center supervisor, offers her final input for writing a personal statement: “write like it matters.” Although every school weighs the essay differently (larger state schools tend to put more emphasis on the other parts of your application), the personal essay could truly make a difference in your acceptance.

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