Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tips for Personal Statement and Supplemental Essays

By Robert W. Andrews


Editor's Note 8/6/2013: With the release of CA4, or the new Common Application, the essay prompts mentioned in the original version of this article have been changed. The advice Rob gives on how to write the best possible college essays still holds true today. For updated Common Application personal statement prompts, scroll to the bottom of the article.


The personal statement is one of the most important aspects of the admissions process, particularly for highly selective institutions where it can be used as a distinguishing factor between many qualified candidates. It is the only aspect of the application that allows you to use your own voice. This is an excellent opportunity to expand on something already highlighted in your application or to share something that is not readily apparent in the application. Most importantly, show your skills as a writer.  This is not an academic paper, so no need to follow a particular style or formula.  Start the process early, allowing yourself the leisure to try different topics and find your own voice. The essay carries a lot of weight in the admissions process.

The admissions staff will use this piece of writing for a variety of reasons; they read the essay to assess basic writing skills, evaluate your ability to answer a question in a clear and cohesive manner, and to assess your creativity, depth and ability to convey personal thoughts and beliefs.  For this reason, it is extremely important that the essay represents your own work, not that of parents, teachers, counselors or professional writers.

I cannot stress strongly enough that students should not let adults “hijack” their essay.  It can be very noticeable when the student steps out of his/her own teenage voice, using a phrase or expressing a sentiment that seems out of place or forced.  Admissions officers read thousands of essays. You can be sure that they spot outside help, whether it is from a parent, coach or professional copy editor. In the end, it is important that the essay reflect the student’s voice.  A good indication that you are on the right track with your essay is if you give a copy to your college counselor without your name on it.  If he/she can figure out that it is your essay based on the content, you have the beginnings of a great piece of work.

Most students struggle with how to begin their essay. Take a moment to brainstorm what you want the admissions officer to know about you outside of the other application materials.  Once you come up with those qualities, ask yourself if you have had any life experiences that illustrate those qualities.  Some of the best essays are about quiet moments in life where a simple connection is made or a small idea “explodes” into something that gives insight into the author’s inner workings. You don’t have to “try” to be profound, but you do want to leave the reader with the feeling that they have learned something about you.

Here are a number of tips regarding the essay that we believe can help you craft a strong personal statement.

1)      Be your BEST self.

Put your best foot forward. Your personal statement should be truthful, but sometimes it is not what you say, but how you say it that makes an impact.

2)      Make connections.

Great personal statements show that you have intellectual interests that can move you (and the reader.)  Choose a topic that excites you because the energy surrounding your interest will likely excite and inspire others. Showcasing original ideas is recommended when writing your essay because the goal of a university is to create new knowledge through discourse and research. New and creative thought in your essay demonstrates you are capable of contributing to that type of community.

3)      Show what you can contribute.

Colleges read hundreds of essays about baseball games, finishing the yearbook on time and student council elections.  Most times the author saves the day or learns something valuable from failure.  Essays that focus on “leadership” can be tricky and may contain clich├ęs and “Hallmark Card” endings.  However, colleges want to know how you will contribute to campus.  Describing one moment and allowing the experience to showcase your leadership is far more effective than listing your achievements.

4)      Show empathy.

There is nothing worse than coming across as a threat in your personal statement.  A competitive nature is good, but certain ways of describing it in your essay can raise red flags for admissions officers.  If there is a remote chance that a student seems to be a person who will sabotage a lab project or be a nuisance in a residence hall, you can bet they will not be admitted.  Use your essay to show your maturity and ability to have empathy for others.  Be cautious about writing about social issues that may be controversial.  For example, writing about how homeless people should just get jobs will not win over the heart and mind of an admissions officer.  Again, it is not what you say, but how you say it that is most important.

5)      Show independence.

When you attend college your parents will not be joining you.  In your personal statement, you should come across as someone who is ready to be on your own. For example, writing an essay about how your parent is the most influential person in your life may seem like a way to honor your parent, but it could signal to an admissions officer that you are not ready to let go of home.

6)      Show resilience & have perspective.

Many people think that the only way to get into college is to write about overcoming a great obstacle.  If you have faced hardship, writing about it in a way that shows you have resilience and strong character can be a very successful approach.  However, taking a victim approach can be disastrous.  If your family background, personal history or health has greatly shaped who you are today, there is probably an essay in there. If you have led a good life, be happy about that and choose a topic that is about you. The worst essay I have ever read when I worked in admissions was about a young girl who said she wished her grandmother had died so she could have experienced something bad so she would have a topic to write her essay about. This was clearly a red flag and showed no amount of maturity or perspective on life. Creating drama out of nothing doesn’t make you interesting; rather, it makes you seem like someone who will not contribute to the community in a positive way.

7)      Answer the question being asked of you.

Don’t get so caught up in the details of your essay that you fail to answer the question being asked. Make sure you have answered the question throughout the woven prose of your text.

You obviously cannot do all of these things in one essay, but a good personal statement will hopefully achieve these goals.  Above all else, your writing style, grammar, spelling and sentence variety, and word choice is critical in writing a strong personal statement.  The best topic can be ruined if the essay is poorly written.

If you are having writers block, I encourage you to read professional essays.  Good places to look are: The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, “This I Believe” at www.npr.org, and Harper’s.

Common Application Personal Statement Prompts as of August 2013:
  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

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