How To Make A Good Personal Statement For College

Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - 09:00

I manage the UChicago Admissions Tumblr (uchicagoadmissions.tumblr.com!) and recently came across a great question in our inbox from Amy W, a prospective student. Amy asks:

First off: Amy, you can defeat it! We assure you! Whether you’re writing a personal statement for the Common Application, Universal Application, or another catch-all application essay, don’t freak out. (And don't worry that we're not talking about our Uncommon Prompts here-- we've got another post coming up soon just on that topic!) We know this can be a bit of a daunting time, so we have some tips and tricks we think will help make the writing process a bit easier for Amy (and other Amy-like students lurking out there in the internetiverse!) 

The common things we always like to see in an essay are pretty basic, and pretty limited: we like to read things that are written coherently, have a good handle on the conventions of English spelling and grammar, fall within or near our suggested word count, don’t have the wrong school’s name included in the text, and don’t cross basic lines of social propriety. And that’s where the common stuff ends.  I think one of the things that makes a great personal statement is when students take their essay to a place that isn't terribly common. If there was one thing I wish I could call out from the rooftop of my office in Rosenwald Hall to the high school seniors of the world, it is that you don't need to write about the thing your friend is writing about, or write exactly like the example in the "100 Best Essays" book, or write the essay your mom is pushing for your essay to be good. In fact, doing those things will probably guarantee that your essay is not good, because the thing missing from the mix there is “you”—your voice as a student, a writer, and a potential contributor to our campus.

When you choose a topic for a personal statement, keep in mind that whatever you write about should cause you to say "yes" to the question "Is this something, and perhaps the only thing, I think a perfect stranger should know about me?" Your essay doesn't necessarily have to be about your most life-changing moment—it can be about something you like, an academic or social idea that’s important to you, an experience you’ve had, or something offbeat if you so choose—but just make sure that you feel comfortable expressing this idea, that it is truly important to you, and can apply a reasonable level of self-reflection and analysis to your writing. Self-reflection really means two things here: it’s both giving us a little analysis of your subject within your discussion of a topic AND thinking beforehand about whether your topic and tone are appropriate to share with an admissions officer. Telling a good story is interesting, but relaying facts about the story ad nauseum is not as important as giving your reader a good sense of why you feel compelled to write about it. And telling a story that in no way reflects who you are (example totally-made-up-but-very-plausible title: My Horse Is The Best Horse), paints an inflated or unrealistic picture of your accomplishments or goals (My Plan for World Economic Domination Before Graduation), only tenuously connects to or ascribes too much weight to an event's real significance in your life (I Stubbed My Toe: The Reason I Want Pre-Med), or leaves your reader feeling awkward or uncomfortable (Top 10 Things I Love About My Girlfriend) are not ways to help your reader feeling like they’ve had a genuine interaction with you, or give a sense of how you’d contribute positively to campus.

Of course, this is all one lady’s opinion—while I have several years’ experience reading application essays as an admissions officer at UChicago, know that opinions and ideas can come from many sources. Make sure to utilize the knowledge and expertise of your teachers, counselor, and, yes, your parents—but keep the idea of writing something that is authentically “you” at the front of your mind throughout this process. And please make sure someone besides you takes a look at your essay before you send it off-- they'll help you catch those unfortunate circumstances of accidentally leaving in [insert other school name here] before submitting your application. 

Happy writing!

Grace

(AKA: Grace Chapin, UChicago alumna, cat lover, humorist? and Senior Assistant Director of Admissions)

PS: That’s not all, folks! There are many other types of essays you’ll write as part of your application to UChicago, and to many other colleges. Stay tuned in to the blogosphere (blagoblog? Blogiverse? Wordplace? Internet. Watch the Internet.) for tips on college-specific essays, our Uncommon essays, and other portions of your application coming up soon.

PPS: Welcome to the revival of our Uncommon Blog! As you might (or might not), have noticed, this is our inaugural (in-blog-ural?) post in a slightly new style and space. We’ll have posts from admissions officers and current students here throughout the year, and we hope that it’s a source of valuable UChicagoey information for you. Have any questions, or a desire to see a post on a specific topic here? Feel free to connect with us via email at collegeadmissions@uchicago.edu or by phone at 773-702-8650.

(Image: Polka Dot/Thinkstock)

Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate school or trying to get into graduate programs, many applications require a letter of intent or personal statement. Personal statements are one of the most important parts of the application and sometimes the deciding factor for admission.

Personal statements give a better understanding of who you are, beyond the rigid constraints of the “fill-in-the-blank” application.

Like many around this time of the year, I am finishing my graduate school applications. Looking for advice and guidance, I decided to compare different schools’ personal statement requirements and ask admissions offices for advice. Here’s what I found:

1. Be yourself

The Columbia Graduate School for Journalism encourages students to write about family, education, talents or passions. They want to hear about significant places or events in your life; about books you have read, people you have met or work you’ve done that has shaped the person you have become.

Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.

2. Show diversity

Rayna Reid, a personal statement guru, received her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Law degree at Columbia. Reid says a personal statement is really just a way to make the college fall in love with you.

“The essay is where you really get a chance to differentiate yourself from the other applicants,” she said. “Explain why they should accept you. What will you contribute?”

Sean Carpenter, University of Southern California Student Services Associate and undergraduate student, reiterates the importance of differentiating yourself from other applicants.

He works in the Annenberg School for Communication admissions office and deals with prospective students daily. Carpenter says USC or any major school want to see diversity.

“They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants?” Carpenter said, “Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”

3. Do research and tailor each essay accordingly

Every college is different, so each personal statement should be different. Many students try to get away with having a universal essay but admissions departments will notice.

“Do research to give concrete reasons why you’re interested in particular program,” Carpenter said. “Speak with a faculty member that you’re interested in working with or doing research for and mention that in your statement. It would also be beneficial to say what classes you’ve taken that were relevant to the field of study.”

4. Be concise and follow directions

Make sure you read the directions carefully. One of the biggest red flags for an admissions office are students who don’t adhere to word limitations. Don’t give them a reason to throw out your application.

Believe it or not, there is a way to say everything you want in a page or less. If you need some help, ask several faculty members to read over your essay and give you feedback.

5. Go beyond your resume, GPA and test scores

Many students worry about how their GPA and test scores will affect the admissions process. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain any strengths or weaknesses in your application — such as changes in major, low GPA or lack of experience.

For instance, Reid was worried about not having a 4.0 GPA. Since Reid didn’t have the perfect GPA, she explained what she did with her time to make up for that fact. Being on the Varsity rowing team and a Teach for America Corp member are great examples of how devoting her time to other things made an impact on her GPA.

6. Tell a story

“Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner,” Reid said. “For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”

One of the worst things you can do is bore the admission officer. Make yourself memorable by telling a story about something distinctive from a creative or different angle.

With this advice, your personal statement will be the highlight of your application. Good luck!

Alexis Morgan is currently a senior at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in public relations, broadcast journalism, print journalism and production. Alexis truly believes if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.

Alexis Morgan, Columbia University, Cornell University, grad school, Penn State University, the application, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 

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