The personal statement is one of the most important factors in your application. But in the end, it’s your story. Here’s the secret: it doesn’t matter what you write about; what matters is how you write it. If you write astutely and creatively, and if the story is yours, your essay will be unique and unforgettable.
When I was a senior in high school, I wrote my personal statement about a project I started where I gave presentations to low-income students about scholarships for top colleges in the U.S. I’m fairly sure that my personal statement, coupled with my interview, is what got me into Yale: it made me stand out as someone who was already giving back to my own community at a young age.
But you don’t have to write about starting a non-profit or discovering a new scientific law. Actually, the best personal statements are stories that are honest and vulnerable. As a college counselor, I’ve read many personal statements and have helped craft several. Here are some of the ones that have stood out to me the most: a student who was kicked out of her school and had to homeschool herself and work to help her family; a student who joined a basketball team which led him to question the status and privilege of his white skin color and the classism in Mexico; a student who came out as gay in a very conservative community; a student who knew that there was an infinite amount of knowledge and used his essay to list all of his questions and their interconnection.
Some of the top personal statements are also quirky and creative. For instance, I read a personal statement that was in the format of a game show.
There are a myriad of topics; you can really write about anything you want. Don’t fall into the trap of choosing a topic that will make you sound smart, or something that you think the admissions officers want to hear.
So where do you start?
There’s not a clear-cut path to writing this essay. You might start with one idea and decide to change it. The most important point is to start with plenty of time ahead: at least three to six months before the deadline. There are many ways to start writing. First, ask yourself these questions, and ruminate over them for some time:
- What matters to me?
- What have been the most important moments in my life?
- When have I changed the most as a person?
- What have been the moments that made me believe the things I believe in?
These questions should lead to specific moments, which will allow you to focus your essay on one moment, one story. At first, just write. Write the story and why it matters. You can become as creative as you want with the structure and chronology, for example, by using flashbacks or dialogue. As you write, make sure to show and not tell, using descriptive language and imagery.
Once you’ve written your story, the second crucial step is to spend a significant amount of time reflecting on your story. Why does it matter to you? What did you learn and how did you change?
Great writing requires constant editing. After you have your basic story and analysis written, you have to go back and edit it continuously, thinking about the tone, style, structure, voice, and verb tense and their effect on the reader. Make sure to make a catchy first sentence and a memorable last sentence. It’s crucial that you give it to other people to edit as well.
In the end, have fun with it and know that it can be a wonderful opportunity for a deep and significant personal reflection.