10 Steps to Writing a Winning Personal Statement

I have yet to meet the student who finds writing their Personal Statement for the Common Application to be the most exciting part of their college process. They whine, they procrastinate, they beg me to write it for them – and I am sympathetic. It’s hard to capture the “essence of who you are” in 500 words. But just as each essay should be as unique as the person writing it, there are some qualities that successful personal statements share: 1. They give a unique insight into the applicant. Begin by writing one sentence about what you want to convey about yourself to the reader. After the first draft, ask yourself if your essay conveys what you wanted it to. If it doesn’t, refocus.

2. They are well edited. Don’t let your mom or dad be your only editor. Chances are they love you too much to bring any kind of objectivity to their assignment. Beyond identifying grammatical errors, ask your editor what impressions of you your essay sent. Does that message match the one you intended to send?

3. The personal statement doesn’t rehash information that can be gleaned from other pieces of the application. If you’re a B+ student taking Honors classes at a competitive high school, there’s no need to tell the admissions office about how challenging your classes are - they already know. DO talk about an assignment or a moment in class when you felt particularly challenged or successful.

4. 3,000 words were written to get to the final 500. One page doesn’t leave any room for digressions or unimportant details. Make every word count, because it does.

5. They focus on describing moments, feeling and insights, not scenery. If your essay tells little more than what the reader could see on the front of a postcard, send the postcard instead.

6. They view the moment through a microscope, not a telescope. You can’t tell the reader everything you want to, so focus in tightly on the most significant details.

7. They are not cliché. Did you score the winning goal for an important game? Did you travel to far-off lands to do community service? Do you have an uncle who has overcome a serious physical handicap to accomplish incredible things? That’s wonderful. But, unfortunately, not original. If you are going to write on a theme that has been worn to death, there is a special onus on you to show how these moments have specifically shaped YOU.

8. Great personal statements are not about anyone else but the writer. If you are telling the story about a person who had an influence on you, be sure to keep the spotlight on you.

9. It’s not just about the story you tell, it’s also about how you tell that story. The deft use of alliteration, allusion, metaphor and other literary devises separates the good essays from the great.

10. They are more personal then they are statements. Great essays give the admissions officer information about what make you uniquely you.