Applying to College? Here’s How to Write a Great Personal Statement that Can Help You Get Admitted to the Right One for You

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It’s October and definitely time to start thinking about your responses to the essay prompts you’ve been given this year in 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 shows something of the person you are and what is important to you. The best personal statements are clearly and concisely written. They include a powerful introduction, a memorable story showing “who you are” and/or “what’s important to you,” 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.

Schools are looking for increasingly diverse recruits. Applicant pools for well-known campuses are growing faster than the number of places in their incoming classes.

So, how can you stand out?

Firstly, and most importantly, open your essay with an eye-catching introduction that leads into a story about yourself. Don’t just rattle off a list of facts and figures. Too many applicants do this — and hurt themselves badly in doing so. Lists of facts and figures don’t say very much about “you.” They repeat information contained in your resume. They don’t let admissions officers connect with you emotionally.

An admissions officer with an emotional investment 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’re describing helped you become the smart, capable, caring, socially aware kind of person most schools want in their student bodies is often your best chance to standout.

Because most people aren’t Olympic athletes, teenage entrepreneurs who have earned millions, renowned artists, or the children of wealthy potential (or actual) donors, 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 in the first sentence.

So, opening your personal statement by saying, “I was born in July of 2000 to normal middle-class parents,” won’t help you much.

Instead, describing events in a way that will help you standout: “My parents served as outside vote count verifiers in the 2000 Florida vote recounts when my mother became pregnant with me. Their belief in public service is something I have grown up wanting to emulate in my own unique way,” will help you stand out.

Give someone an image or emotion they can connect with right away. Something 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 who have been connected to unusual events. So, demonstrating 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 on campus.

After your eye-catching first sentence, tell a story in your personal statement. Talk about how your parents’ work has already inspired you to organize local movements to clean up your city or help people less fortunate than you are. 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 on the path to your goals will give you more depth in the eyes of many admissions officers. This kind of depth, and the fact that you’ve overcome challenges, will give the admissions committee confidence that you will be able to handle the ups and downs of college.

As we’ve recently learned in the Harvard admissions trial, showing that you have developed strong interpersonal and leadership skills 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 social service — and the school to which you’re applying. In your story on your work in service through environmental cleanup, talk about the study of wetland management happening at the university you want to join to show you know what they do there. Do similar things with Urban Studies in talking about your work with people different than you are. If you’re interested in business, talk about what you’ve learned while employed in the businesses you’ve either started or worked for. Writing on what you learned about working with people different than you are may be helpful, particularly in today’s diversity focused admissions process.

Along with a powerful opening sentence and a story about you that touches on your interests, your motivations and some of your successes and failures, your essay needs a strong conclusion.

You might close your essay on the importance of going to college to become a better public servant by saying: “There are so many challenges in the world today. I can’t solve all of them, but by taking in as much knowledge and experience — both applied and theoretical — as I can, I will be better prepared to help our increasingly diverse people mitigate the challenges so many face in our society today.”

These sentences wrap up your story and show your interest in social service is motivated by a desire to contribute to society — something American colleges value greatly right now.

Whatever story you tell must be about you and told using your words as much as possible. It must 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.

The value of expressiveness and authenticity cannot be overstated. If you write like a robot, people will think you are one. If you seem like someone with a lot of experiences — both good and bad — who is excited to go to college, grow, and become a full contributor to society, you will be infinitely more interesting and, therefore, far likelier to be admitted to campuses that will be great for you.

In summary, writing an understandable, powerful, and attractive personal statement with a strong introduction, an emotionally impactful story, and a concise conclusion — all of which fit into the word limit set either by groups like the Common Application or by your potential schools if they don’t accept consortium applications — can help you stand out from an increasingly crowded field.

Learn more about Dr. Matthew Weed at drmatthewweed.com or via @drmatthewweed on Instagram and Twitter.

Yale, Harvard, Princeton grad. Blind and diabetic kayaker, skier, and speaker. Advocating for everyone to care of themselves and others.