Are you a high school senior and applying to college this year? If you’ve not started on them, it’s definitely time to get working on your responses to the been given for writing your personal statements. If you wonder, “How can I write a statement that will get me admitted to the school of my dreams?” you’re not alone.
Your personal statement is exactly that: it says something of the person you are and what you value in yourself and others. The best personal statements are clear and concise. They include a powerful introduction, a memorable story showing “who you are” and “what you care about,” and a conclusion that will make you stand out from the thousands of other applicants this fall.
Colleges and universities are recruiting students from increasingly diverse places and backgrounds. At the same time, particularly for America’s best-known campuses, many applicants come from wealthy, well-educated families. They are well placed and often well prepared to apply to these colleges.
Test optional applications that proliferated in part due to Covid-19 are still very common. This and other factors are still driving growth in applicant pools at well-known campuses. Unfortunately for applicants this year, the growth in the size of the groups of students applying to well-known colleges is faster than the slight increase in the number of places available there.
So, how can you stand out?
Firstly, and most importantly, don’t write your personal statements at the last minute. Last minute essays usually feel rushed and poorly thought out to admissions committee members. They will understandably be more attracted to pieces that give the impression that the person writing them was careful, thoughtful, and concerned to write an essay that presented them and their interest in the college to which they are applying, in the best way possible. This impression makes an admissions officer feel that you really want to go to their school. Thoughtfully written essays also present you in the best possible light.
Build a schedule for writing your statements (both consortium and school specific) using what you know of your commitments and by googling the schools where you plan to apply to find out when your applications are to be submitted. Once you have it, keep to your writing schedule based on that information.
Do not start writing the night before. Start working weeks ahead of when you must get that first essay submitted. Keep to that schedule if at all possible. If you can’t, consider reducing the number of schools you’re submitting applications to so you can do your best job on a few schools rather than a poor job on a whole bunch of them — a poor job that many committees will notice, thereby leading to an increased risk of rejection at many or most of those campuses.
It is essentially important to open your statements with an eye-catching introduction that leads into a story about yourself and what you care about. Don’t just rattle off a list of facts and figures. Too many applicants do this — and hurt themselves badly in doing so by preventing admissions committee members from connecting with them on an emotional level.
An admissions officer who is emotionally invested in an applicant is far likelier to advocate for that person when it’s time for the committee to decide who will be admitted. Therefore, telling a captivating story about how the events you’ve included helped you become the interesting, intelligent, creative, capable, entrepreneurial, caring, contributor to society today and in the future that most schools want on campus is often your best chance to stand out.
Because most people aren’t Olympic athletes, teenage entrepreneurs who have earned millions, renowned artists, the children of wealthy potential (or actual) donors, or connected to those who can use influence to help them be admitted, they must talk about the events, challenges and opportunities in their lives in ways that capture someone’s attention. More importantly, they need to do it early.
So, opening your personal statement by saying: “I was born in July of 2004 to normal middle-class parents,” won’t help you much unless you can immediately follow that phrase up with something pretty darn interesting.
Instead, describing events in a way that will help you stand out: “I was born on January 4, 2004, the same day the Spirit rover landed on Mars. Learning of this coincidence from my mother who is a science teacher with a passion for astronomy, fired my interest in planetary exploration and the future of civilization on Earth and beyond.” will help you stand out.
Give committees something they can connect with right away. An image or passion that will draw them further into your essay rather than dismissing you as being “normal” or “average.” This is the very last thing you want to seem to be. Claiming to be “normal” in your first sentence will cause people at top colleges to lose interest.
They are looking for extraordinary students with unique experiences with connections to unusual events. So, showing your unusual and outstanding accomplishments or the difficult life circumstances you’ve overcome to achieve will show that you can add to the overall diversity, leadership, strength of purpose, and clarity of vision that colleges want among their students.
Your eye-catching first few sentences could also say something like: “I love dancing. Whether to music in my room or performing before hundreds in an auditorium, there is nothing better to me than letting my body flow with the music, always stretching my ability to tell stories of love, life and, at times, sadness through my movements and expressions.”
Whatever you say, be sure to tell a story in your personal statement. Talk about how you’ve already had the chance to work in a lab somewhere and how excited you were by the geological research they were doing there. Tell a story about how your dancing brought you to know people you wouldn’t have otherwise and what you have learned from them.
Admit that some of your efforts haven’t worked out and talk about what you learned because of these failures. Showing you have failed and learned from your mistakes in following lab procedures or in working with other people on the path to your goals — whatever they may be — will give you more depth in the eyes of many admissions officers.
This depth of character, and the fact that you’ve overcome challenges, will give the admissions committee confidence that you can handle the ups and downs of college.
In responding to your prompts, be sure you are answering the question the committee is asking, not writing something close. So, if they say “…college seeks students who have resilience, creativity, leadership, and empathy. Please show how one of these characteristics is part of your daily life,” be sure to focus on one or two of them by name while using examples to demonstrate how they are part of who you are and how you will bring them to campus if you’re admitted there.
As we learned in the Harvard admissions trial, giving examples of the strong interpersonal and leadership skills you have developed can help you on the “personality” ratings many schools use as tie-breakers when they can’t make decisions based on other, more objective, data.
Use examples of your work and studies to prove your interest in contributing to our scientific knowledge of planetary chemistry — and learning from scientists who lead laboratories on the campus to which you’re applying.
If your story is about dance, talk about your prospective university’s program in it — and the faculty you hope to study under if you’re admitted.
If you’re interested in making our cities more livable, connect your interest to the campus’ program in Urban Studies. If you’re interested in business, talk about what you’ve learned while employed in the businesses you’ve either started or worked for and how those experiences fire your interest in studying in the campus’ undergraduate Marketing, Economics or Finance majors, for example.
If you want to go into public service, talk about your work as a volunteer or the exciting internship you had at a non-profit or government agency and how that experience drives your interest in learning from specific professors on that campus.
Whatever you write about, colleges value positive social awareness and leadership on and off campus, so if you’ve led your school’s activism on gun violence or climate change, or been a captain on the dance team, talk about that in your essay. Leadership and passion are characteristics schools like to see — as well as the ability to overcome challenges when they arise.
Just as your statement needs a powerful opening sentence that leads to a story about you that touches on your interests, your passions and some of your successes and failures, it also needs a strong and emotionally evocative conclusion.
You might close your essay on your interest in going to college to take steps toward becoming a planet hunting scientist by saying: “There are so many fascinating things to learn about our world and other planets today. I can’t answer all the questions we have about the universe around us, but studying at … college and hopefully working with Professor … in the Planetary Studies Program, can help me contribute to what we know of the universe and our exciting search for life in it.”
Whatever story you tell must be about you and your life. Speak in “your” words not someone else’s. Show how your personality and interests have developed. Whether you take a theme from your life, or use a single incident to illustrate how your successes and failures and/or your unique circumstances have shaped “who you are,” be as expressive and authentic as you can in telling your story.
To help yourself do well on that mysterious “personality” score, use emotion words like “really” “excited,” “energized,” “passionate” to show you have passions and a personality. If you express no strong emotions in your essay, people will think you are just going through the motions.
Always take possession of your emotions and actions. “I am excited my project helped others…” etc.
If you seem like an authentic person with good and bad life experience who really wants to go to college, grow, and do great things, you will be far more interesting and therefore more likely to be admitted to campuses where you can do well — and help them be strong, too.
An important thing to remember: to avoid sounding like you don’t have a strong personality, avoid use of the passive voice. “I was able to help” is passive voice. “I helped” is active voice. You should generally use active voice in describing your actions, feelings and motivations. Be efficient in describing what you did, how you helped, or what you saw while being sure to use emotion and action words like those suggested in this essay. The active voice will help you in this.
While using that active voice, avoid acting like you are sure you’ll get into a school. “I hope to” or “I really want to” is the right tone to take when talking about being on campus whereas “I will” when discussing being at the school comes off as egotistical. In essay writing be confident but not toooo confident…
Colleges know the Coronavirus has affected many applicants. If you have been directly affected by the pandemic talk about what happened. If you’ve lost a relative, caught Covid-19 yourself, or if your family has been impacted economically, you should discuss this in the optional Covid essay on the Common Application or in one of your statements for the schools themselves.
If you have started an organization to help others manage its effects that is great material, too. Do not talk about the pandemic in general terms. This is one time where speaking in deeply personal terms about what has happened to and around you is the only way to go. If you can’t do this, don’t talk about it much since it hasn’t been a focus in your life.
In summary, writing understandable, powerful, and attractive personal statements which have strong introductions, emotionally impactful stories, and concise conclusions which speak to who you are, what you care about and the challenges you’ve overcome — while fitting the word limits you have been given, can help you stand out from an increasingly crowded field.
See the Educational Search Consulting page on my website to learn about my work in this area and schedule personalized attention if you are interested in that. I also have sets of hundreds of pointers to material by a wide variety of authors in my Resources for Students Applying to College and collection of links to information on Covid-19 And The College Scene which, for now, there is no cost to access.