Making a Statement with Your College Personal Statement: 3 Key Tips
January 28, 2014
Yes, the college personal statement is the most important part of your Common Application. No, you do not need to be so stressed about it. You dictate almost everything about the personal statement: the topic, the style, and most importantly, the way you want the admissions officers to react to your writing. Remember, you are in complete control here. You know your life and your experiences better than anyone, including the reader. Thus, whether you write a terrific college personal statement - or a just another forgettable personal statement - is up to you.
When writing a college personal statement, there are three guiding principles that you should observe:
1. Genuinely be yourself.
Don’t try to be someone else, or write about something you think you’re “supposed to” be writing about. At InGenius Prep, we have surveyed hundreds of current admissions officers - in addition to the dozens of former admissions officers on staff - and practically all of them have stated that they can easily distinguish between a college personal statement written in the student's voice, and one in which the student is mimicking someone else. If you don't appear authentic to an admissions officer, you won't be admitted. You might as well skip the personal statement entirely.
2. Spend more time brainstorming and outlining your essay than writing.
Even if you’ve already managed to win a Pulitzer Prize at the age of seventeen, you should still spend the vast majority of your time brainstorming and outlining your essay. Of course, you will still spend plenty of time writing, revising, re-writing, re-organizing, and so forth; but investing the time and thought upfront rather than just trying to get something onto paper will pay dividends in the end.
Moreover, don't just consider what you'll write about, think about how you'll write it - comically? sarcastically? emotionally? bluntly? intellectually? Think about how you want your essay to fit into the rest of your application as a whole, what feelings and opinions you want the admissions officers to come away with, and ultimately, what kind of applicant you are presenting yourself as.
3. Have an organizing theme that guides your writing (and your application)
By theme, I don’t mean gimmicky rhetorical devices (although there are instances in which this can be effective); instead, I mean that you should have a clear sense of what you are trying to say about yourself and not just a narrative list of your experiences or achievements - no matter how significant they may be. That's what the resumé is for. You want to be like a politician, but with more legitimate "spin," and with no overt lying. To that end, you should follow the Five C’s: Concise, Compelling, Credible, Catchy, and Creative. When an admissions officer is done reading your college personal statement – and your application more broadly – you want them to be able to summarize very quickly some defining feature of your “persona,” which also distinguishes you from the crowd. Perhaps you are the “fitness expert,” the “orthodox rabbi,” or the “professional musician.”
Your theme should make perfect sense in the context of your experiences and background. For instance, you wouldn't want to paint yourself as the "world-class philanthropist" if you've only done five hours of community service.
Finally, the theme of your college personal statement should function as a justification for accepting you. You can perfectly execute on your theme, but if your theme is "my life has been been so hard," an admissions officer will have a hard time figuring out why that entitles you to a spot at their college. On the other hand, the "professional musician" will not need to convince an admissions officer that they deserve to be admitted - being a professional musician is impressive and unique, something every admissions officers wants to see.