Crafting an Effective College Personal Statement

Padya Paramita

Crafting an Effective College Personal Statement

In the application process, the college personal statement is the biggest thing that students get anxious about. It’s basically one page—650 words—where you introduce yourself, you connect with an admissions officer, and you have to tie together your application all while demonstrating strong writing skills. It’s really the first time in an application you’re recognized as a human being. You’re not just your grades and your scores. You have the opportunity to make a compelling argument for why you deserve to be on that college campus. In this blog, we’ve outlined why the personal statement is so important, how to choose your topic, organization advice, editing techniques, and finally, common mistakes to avoid.

Why is the Personal Statement So Important?

When an admissions officer is reading your application file, they’ll start with your transcript, your grades, test scores, activities list, and your general personal background. So they’re starting to paint a picture of the context from which you came. The college personal statement is the first time where your actual voice is introduced into an application. It’s what makes you a human. Admissions officers evaluate not just all these resumé pieces but how you connect with people, what you value, what your perspective is on the world around you, how you’ve grown, what your relationships are, and how they are meaningful to you. All of these things indicate to an admissions reader how you’ll interact with other students and teachers and peers and classmates on their college campus. Even your personality has an opportunity to shine through with this piece of writing, so don’t underestimate it!

Starting the Brainstorming Process

This is one of the harder things to do in the application process. If you’ve ever kept a journal or calendar through high school—something everyone should do—go back and see how you’ve spent your time in the past couple of years. Talk with your parents and friends and ask them, “What would you say makes me different from other people? What would you say defines me as a person?” 

Getting that outside perspective is helpful because you’ll see your own experiences completely differently. Finally, think through your daily routine. How do you spend your day-to-day life? Take a look at the Common App personal statement prompts for inspiration, but at the end of the day, you can write about any topic that seems interesting to you and can help you make a unique case for yourself.

Here are some other questions to ask yourself as you get started:

  • What’s your main academic area of interest?
  • Why does it matter to you?
  • How do you spend your free time? 
  • What’s an extracurricular activity you do that’s incredibly rare?
  • What’s an extracurricular activity that has shaped your personality and character
  • Is there something you’ve done or experienced that changed you forever in a positive way?
  • Is there a day from your life that you reflect on often? Why is this day so memorable to you?
  • What makes you feel like your life is meaningful and important to you?
  • What is one thing that you would never change about yourself or your life experiences?

Once you’ve answered these questions, there might be a really obvious answer for a college personal statement topic that has been under your nose this whole time.

Organizing Your Essay

No matter what you’re writing about, your essay needs to be well organized and flow smoothly. Admissions officers will not appreciate a haphazard piece of writing that seemingly tells no story or where the narrative is all over the place. As you figure out your college personal statement, you need to keep 3 key aspects in mind: the introduction, the evidence, and the ending. Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements.

The Introduction

Obviously, your introduction is the first thing that admissions officers will read, so you have to make a memorable impression with your opening statement and paragraph. Remember that these officers read hundreds of applications—and essays—each day, so it’s crucial that you start your story off in a unique way so that you grab and keep their attention. 

  • Hook: The hook of your essay is a catchy phrase or sentence that should capture the reader’s attention immediately as they start your essay. Your hook can include a quote (for a personal statement, quotes are better suited if they’re a dialogue from real life rather than from a famous person), a fact that might startle your audience, or a vivid description of something unique and makes the admissions reader say, “That’s interesting!” and want to keep going.
  • Problems: Once you’ve got your hook, you can build on it by outlining the problem, or issue that you faced. Because many essays often tell stories of growth in an individual or how the writer worked on something they’re passionate about, there’s often a conflict that stands in the way. As you work on your college personal statement, consider whether you faced any obstacle that could go hand in hand with your hook.
  • Solution or Thesis: You’ve probably heard the word “thesis” when it comes to your English class essay. This is the main point, the purpose of your essay. What do you want to convey to the reader in the next few paragraphs? As you introduce your essay, you want the reader to know that this is a story of personal development or hard work and determination. So, take advantage of the introduction to provide a picture of exactly what you’ll be covering in your response—how did you get to the solution? This gives the admissions officer an idea of what to expect as they continue reading.

The Evidence

Once you’ve introduced the topic or theme of your essay, it’s time to get into the more nitty-gritty details. Next up in the structure: the evidence. If your story is about your amateur wrestling career or how you founded your own company, it’s time to let the admissions officer know about the specifics. Because this essay is one of the most effective ways to let the colleges of your choice get a picture of who you are, making careful choices here is very important. You want your personality to shine through by using captivating dialogue, vivid descriptions, and subtle tone techniques. The reader should come out of this experience knowing what makes you unique and different from other candidates. 

You don’t have to use overly flowery language. The point is clarity and vividness. The more concrete your depiction of events, the better the admissions officers can picture it, and understand why this topic is important to you. And of course, as cliche as it sounds— remember to show, not tell.

The Ending

Once you’ve fleshed out your plot and descriptions, you’ve arrived at the final part of understanding the personal statement structure. Just as it’s crucial to start your essay in a catchy manner, it’s essential that your ending is memorable as well. There are a few ways you can end your response. Your conclusion can refer back to your opening paragraph — especially if you’d started with an anecdote — and talk about it in light of the things you mention as part of the evidence. You could choose the expansion route and reflect on a personal or universal truth, and how you’ll focus on events or similar situations moving forward. You could also take it back to your thesis — talk about your growth, and how you’ve changed or how your life may have shifted. Or, you could be more creative and take less of a traditional path and end in a quote or ellipses. 

Editing Your College Personal Statement

Don’t worry about the first draft too much. The most important part of writing your essay is the rewriting and editing part of the process. A good exercise is to read your essay backwards and make sure there are no redundancies. Often, while working from the beginning to the end, you lose redundancies that do pop up. That’s another tendency that students have—repeating themselves in different ways. 

Focus on your transition between paragraphs to make sure they're clear and concise and direct. The flow can also impact how you edit it. Outlining your essay before you even start and sit down and write an entire draft is helpful in making sure you don’t blow past the word count. At the same time, don’t be too obsessed with the word count in the early versions of their drafts. If you’re writing 300–400 words over the word count, that’s fine—it’s easier to cut down than it is to add more content. 

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Finally, as you think through the various aspects of the college personal statement, take some time to consider the common mistakes that students make when writing their essay. The biggest advice is not making sure you’re overwriting. Plenty of high school students tend to want to use that flowery language, to use big words. However simple words can actually be far more impactful. You have a limited number of words that you can use anyway so being really thoughtful with which words you choose to include is important. 

Other mistakes include repeating your activities list so that you don’t include the same information twice. Admissions officers read a lot of applications and to give them details they’ve already read is a waste of both your time and theirs! It’s also important to consider perspectives when it comes to choosing topics. Overcoming adversity is only a viable topic in your personal statement for college if you’ve actually overcome adversity. A soccer injury or a B- in math class isn’t really adversity compared to tragedies that many of your peers may have faced.

You also shouldn’t write about middle school—focus on your high school career, and who you are today. Finally, if you don’t have a personally meaningful story, don’t write about COVID-19. All students had to switch to online classes and had their activities canceled. Think about what makes you unique.

Now that you have a clear understanding of why the college personal statement is so important, it’s time to start brainstorming. Once you have a topic, think carefully about the best ways to approach it through your essay. Write multiple drafts to figure out the best way to convey your story so that you can stand out among the competition. Good luck!

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