Writers Workshop: Writer Resources
Writing Tips: Personal Statements
Overview of the Personal Statement
Personal statements are sometimes also called "application essays" or "statements of purpose." Whatever they are called, they are essentially essays which are written in response to a question or questions on a graduate or professional school application form which asks for some sort of sustained response.
Some applications ask more specific questions than others. There is no set formula to follow in shaping your response, only choices for you to make, such as whether you should write an essay that is more autobiographically focused or one that is more professionally focused.
From application to application, requested personal statements also vary widely in length, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to a series of essays of a page or so each.
Personal statements are most important when you are applying to an extremely competitive program, where all the applicants have high test scores and GPA's, and when you are a marginal candidate and need the essay to compensate for low test scores or a low GPA.
How are personal statements read, and by whom? It's most likely that your personal statement will be read by professors who serve on an admissions committee in the department to which you are applying. It is important in developing your personal statement to carefully consider this audience. What are the areas of specialty of this department, and what might it be looking for in a graduate student?
Additionally, since personal statements will most often be read as part of your "package," they offer an opportunity to show aspects of yourself that will not be developed in other areas of your application. Obviously, it is important that personal statements are not simply prose formulations of material contained elsewhere in the application.
It may be helpful to think of the statement as the single opportunity in your package to allow the admissions committee to hear your voice. Often times, committees are sorting through large numbers of applications and essays, perhaps doing an initial quick sort to find the best applicants and then later reading some of the personal statements more thoroughly. Given that information, you will want your statement to readily engage the readers, and to clearly demonstrate what makes you a unique candidate--apart from the rest of the stack.
One Process for Writing the Personal Statement
- Analyze the question(s) asked on a specific application.
- Research the school and/or program to which you are applying.
- Take a personal inventory (see below). Write out a 2-3 sentence response to each question.
- Write your essay.
- Revise your essay for form and content.
- Ask someone else - preferably a faculty member in your area - to read your essay and make suggestions for further revision.
- Revise again.
- Proofread carefully.
Personal Inventory Questions
- What makes you unique, or at least different from, any other applicant?
- What attracts you to your chosen career? What do you expect to get out of it?
- When did you initially become interested in this career? How has this interest developed? When did you become certain that this is what you wanted to do? What solidified your decision?
- What are your intellectual influences? What writers, books, professors, concepts in college have shaped you?
- How has your undergraduate academic experience prepared you for graduate/professional school?
- What are two or three of the academic accomplishments which have most prepared you?
- What research have you conducted? What did you learn from it?
- What non-academic experiences contributed to your choice of school and/or career? (work, volunteer, family)
- Do you have specific career plans? How does graduate or professional school pertain to them?
- How much more education are you interested in?
- What's the most important thing the admissions committee should know about you?
- Think of a professor in your field that you've had already and that you like and respect. If this person were reading your application essay, what would most impress him or her?
- Answer all the questions asked.
- If you are applying to more than one program, you may find that each application asks a different question or set of questions, and that you don't really feel like writing a bunch of different responses. However, you should avoid the temptation to submit the same essay for different questions—it's far better to tailor your response to each question and each school.
- If you do find yourself short on time and must tailor one basic essay to fit a number of different questions from a number of different schools, target your essay to your first-choice school, and keep in mind that the less your essay is suited to an application's particular questions, the more you may be jeopardizing your chances of being admitted to that school.
Be honest and confident in your statements.
Use positive emphasis. Do not try to hide, make excuses for, or lie about your weaknesses. In some cases, a student needs to explain a weak component of his or her application, but in other cases it may be best not to mention those weaknesses at all. Rather, write an essay that focuses on your strengths.
Write a coherent and interesting essay.
Make your first paragraph the best paragraph in your essay.
Develop a thesis about yourself early in the essay and argue it throughout.
Each piece of information you give about yourself in the essay should somehow support your thesis.
Pick two to four main topics for a one-page essay.
Don't summarize your entire life. Don't include needless details that take space away from a discussion of your professionalism, maturity, and ability to do intellectual work in your chosen field.
Use the personal statement as a form of introduction.
Think of the essay as not only an answer to a specific question but as an opportunity to introduce yourself, especially if your program doesn't interview applicants.
- Ask yourself the following questions as you edit for content:
- Are my goals well articulated?
- Do I explain why I have selected this school and/or program in particular?
- Do I demonstrate knowledge of this school or program?
- Do I include interesting details that prove my claims about myself?
- Is my tone confident?
- Make sure your essay has absolutely perfect spelling and mechanics.
Use technical terminology and such techniques as passive voice where appropriate.
You should write clearly and interestingly, yet also speak in a voice appropriate to your field.
- Write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. You are probably wrong, and such a response is likely to make you blend into the crowd rather than stand out from it.
- Use empty, vague, over-used words like "meaningful," "beautiful," "challenging," "invaluable," or "rewarding."
- Overwrite or belabor a minor point about yourself.
- Repeat information directly from the application form itself unless you use it to illustrate a point or want to develop it further.
- Emphasize the negative. Again, the admissions committee already knows your GPA and test scores, and they probably are not interested in reading about how a list of events in your personal life caused you to perform poorly. Explain what you feel you need to, but emphasize the positive.
- Try to be funny. You don't want to take the risk they won't get the joke.
- Get too personal about religion, politics, or your lack of education (avoid emotional catharsis).
- Include footnotes, cliches, or long-winded and slow introductions.
- Use statements like "I've always wanted to be a…" or any other hackneyed phrases.
- Use gimmicks—too big of a risk on an application to a graduate or professional program.
- Allow any superficial errors in spelling, mechanics, grammar, punctuation, format, or printing to creep under your vigilant guard.
With the 2015-16 college admissions season officially underway, many rising high school seniors are beginning to tackle one of the most critical, confusing, and stressful parts of the college application: The personal statement.
The personal statement, traditionally the main Common Application essay, is the application component in which students have the most control and the best opportunity to let the university get to know a little more about them. While the main Common Application essay uses predetermined prompts, they’re broad enough that students can pretty much write about whatever they want, as long as it relates back to their chosen essay question.
Why the Personal Statement Is Important
When students think about what it takes to get into college, the first thing that usually comes to mind is good grades and test scores. While those “hard factors” are critical, holistic review also takes into account “soft factors,” or the application elements that aren’t so easily quantified, like essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and more. The essay is the most important soft factor that colleges consider, according to NACAC’s most recent State of College Admissions report.
The essay or personal statement, when used properly, can give admissions officers additional insight into who a student is as a person, what motivates him or her, and, more practically, how that student communicates and follows directions. An amazing personal statement isn’t going to guarantee a spot in the freshman class, but it can positively impact a student’s application, while a poor personal statement can, along with other elements, really hurt a student’s chances of gaining admission. This is why the personal statement shouldn’t be taken lightly. Students really need to put a lot of effort into writing a great essay in order to enhance their chances of admission.
Here are five tips to help college-bound high school seniors write a great personal statement essay.
1. Reveal something new about yourself.
We say this every year, because it’s one of the essay tips that students struggle with the most. In an attempt to show a specialty or passion, students can often be redundant and spend the length of the essay reiterating something else that’s already in the application. If marching band is on your activity list, the college already knows you enjoy music, so don’t spend your essay writing about what it means to play flute in the band. Take this opportunity to give the admissions office insight into something new about you. Whether it’s how your religion impacts your education, how a mentor helped you realize your potential, or an event that’s shaped who you are today, write about something with substance that adds another dimension to your application.
2. Spend time brainstorming topics.
In order to reveal something new about yourself, you need to choose a meaningful and original topic. While the Common Application essay questions are helpful, it’s up to you to choose a personal topic that ties in with the Common Application prompt you’ve selected. Take time to think about what’s important to you, what people or events have shaped you, and what you think is interesting about yourself. Don’t just choose the most obvious topic, like the soccer team captain writing about winning the championship game. Instead, think of events, themes, experiences, and more that are somewhat unique to you and how they’ve impacted you.
3. Be mindful of word choice, tone, and voice.
Your essay should sound like you wrote it, so don’t overload it with long vocabulary words, complex sentence structure, or a lofty tone if that’s not how you normally write or speak. That being said, don’t be afraid to stretch your writing skills. The personal statement should demonstrate your best writing, so take your time to carefully craft an essay that clearly conveys your story and your voice. Avoid redundant words or phrases, filler words that don’t add any value, or confusing language that muddles the message.
4. Practice, practice, practice!
It’s rare that anyone’s first draft is the perfect personal statement. Just like with anything else, you get better with practice. Write often, whether it’s in a journal, blog, or other outlet, as a way to improve and evolve your writing skills. When it comes time to pen your personal statement, practice that, too. Revise, revise, and then revise again. It often takes students many drafts before they have a personal statement that demonstrates their best writing and clearly conveys the essay’s message.
5. Don’t procrastinate.
A stellar essay isn’t usually written in a day. Get a head start on your personal statement by brainstorming topics and writing your first draft during the summer before the school year starts. That way, some of the most difficult work – choosing a topic and starting the writing process – is done before you head into a hectic senior year. This also allows students to get early feedback on their essays from college counselors, before the majority of the class begins seeking advice later in the semester.
These are just a few tips that can help you write a great personal statement this fall. Remember, be yourself and write about what’s important to you – not what you think the college wants to read. For more help with application essays, contact us today for information on our counseling services, and check out our blog for additional tips!
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