by: Sarah Rafiqi
Last Minute Tips for Writing a Personal Statement
Application deadlines are rapidly approaching, but that doesn’t mean you should stress. With a few tips, you can elevate your personal statement to help you get into the schools of your dreams.
Choosing the Right Topic
If you’re not sure what to write about, ask yourself: “what does my application need?” Take stock of your entire application—including transcripts, extracurriculars, and recommendations. What is missing? What do you want admissions officers to know that they don’t already know about you?
If you have an important experience that has not been touched upon in the rest of your application, this is the perfect place to share it. Writing about your personal experiences can provide additional context to the person reading your application.
Personal statements are also a great opportunity to expand beyond the 150 character-limit in the activities section of your application. Pick a topic that is touched upon briefly in your application, but that you could still talk about for hours. This could be a class project, extracurricular activity, or personal experience.
Focus on the Why
It’s not enough to have a compelling topic, you also need to reflect on why you chose that topic. Self-reflection is key in essays because this is the one part of the application in which you can showcase your true personality beyond numbers and statistics alone.
Also, remember that uncommon reflections can elevate common topics. Your ability to reflect in a mature and self-aware fashion will set you apart from other applicants writing about similar topics. People can experience the same thing in different ways. What is your unique understanding of your life experiences? How did these experiences impact you and why did you respond to them in the way you did?
Provide Tangible and Measurable Examples
It’s easy to accidentally write an essay that has a whole lot of words but doesn’t say much of anything. To avoid this mistake, remember to always delve deeper into your topic and share examples that feel tangible and, if possible, measurable.
Your application already includes your transcript. So if you write about a class you took, go deeper and share what you learned that someone wouldn’t automatically know from reading the class title.
Similarly, your extracurriculars will already be shared with short descriptions. So, be sure to provide details about the personal journey you took in developing projects, how you arrived at your ultimate accomplishment, and the lessons you gained along the way. What were the emotional stakes that the reader wouldn’t have guessed just from seeing your resume?
Try to include numbers and outcomes as often as possible. How many hours did you spend working on a project? How much money did you raise? How many people did you help?
Demonstrate Hard and Soft Skills
When you write about a meaningful experience or activity, make sure to share what you learned from that activity. The obvious answer is the hard skills: an engineering workshop could teach you how to build a rocket, and a painting seminar could teach you how to perfect your brush strokes.
But what about the soft skills? These are just as, if not more, important to mention. Colleges are designed to teach, so they don’t expect applicants to come fully equipped with technical knowledge. Of course they want to know you’re competent enough to keep up with their rigorous course material, but they also want to know that you are capable of meeting new challenges head-on.
An after school job may not relate directly to your field of interest, but it could teach you how to develop time-management skills and a good work ethic—both essential to success in college and beyond. Similarly, an advanced math class will introduce you to formulas you will need for college-level math classes, but it will also teach you problem-solving skills that are relevant to any major.
Be Clear and Concise
The personal statement has a strict 650 word-limit. This might sound like a lot at first, but soon you’ll find that it is actually quite limiting. Within these constraints, each sentence in your essay is valuable. Eliminate any redundancies or ineffective details.
Additionally, avoid fluffy language and sweeping metaphors. While it is great to paint a picture to breathe life into your essay, this picture should be concise. Remember: you are writing an application essay, not a novella.
Here are three examples that tell the same story, but in strikingly different word counts.
Example 1: “Sweat beaded into my eyes as the sun glared down on me. I took in a shaky breath and ground the dirt beneath my feet. This was it. The moment that would determine if nine months of work had been for nothing. The pitcher cast the ball and I swung with precision. As the ball flew through the air, I held my breath for what felt like an eternity. Then a booming voice called out over the loudspeaker: ‘Home Run’! I had done it. I had made the game-winning play. The roaring of the crowd beat into my ears, deafening me as my teammates ran onto the field. We were officially state champions.”
Example 2: “Nine months of conditioning, training, and late night practices culminated into one moment, one swing on the field. When the announcer called out that I’d made a Home Run, I knew my team and I had done what no other Varsity Baseball team had done in the history of my school: achieve the title of state champions.”
Example 3: “Nine months of conditioning, training, and late night practices showed their worth when I made the game-winning swing. My team and I achieved the first-ever title of Varsity Baseball State Champions at our school.”
The first example, told with a whopping 113 words, overemphasizes tiny details that don’t add much to the essay. By contrast, the second example, told in half the words (57) shares specific examples of the work the protagonist put into this accomplishment, as well as relevant context about why this moment was so important to the student and their school. The third example is not as compelling, but it effectively relays the same information in only 34 words.
Write in Your Voice
Colleges want to get to know YOU, not the person you think they want.
A common misconception is that you need to sound very academic in an application essay. In fact, the opposite is true. I am here to tell you, do not consult a dictionary when writing your essay. Admissions Readers are well-seasoned to pick up on inauthenticity, and they will realize right away if you are trying too hard to sound smart.
It can be a delicate balancing act to avoid sounding either too formal or too informal. You don’t want to sound overly colloquial, but you also don’t want to come across stiff and academic. Colleges know you’re a teenager, and that is the voice they’re expecting to read.
So, write as yourself. A good rule of thumb is to pretend like you are giving an interview. How would you realistically speak? What words are naturally a part of your vocabulary? These are the words you should gravitate towards.
In conclusion, each part of your application, including the essays, is an opportunity to share important details about who you are. I hope these tips help you maximize each opportunity.