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by Rob Porter | October 27, 2022


College applicants have a lot to worry about. From standardized test scores and transcripts, to endless FAFSA paperwork and asking for recommendation letters, the application process can be very stressful. For some, the most feared component of the college application process might be the dreaded personal statement because after all, who wants to write about themselves? It’s almost like listening to a recording of yourself or public speaking-it’s scary! With Halloween right around the corner, there’s no better time to face our fears and confront the beast that is the personal statement. So, let’s get our pitchforks and our torches, and let’s do this.

What is a Personal Statement?

The personal statement is also sometimes known as a college essay. Typically, you’ll be asked to write one personal statement; however, certain colleges might require you to follow a set of writing prompts, or provide a supplemental essay that describes your interest in a specific program. If you’re applying to a graduate program, you may also be asked to prepare a personal statement.

For applicants, a personal statement is a way to introduce themselves to a college and explain the reasons why they would be a great candidate for admission. On the other side of things, colleges use personal statements to gain insight into an applicant’s personality, academic history, communication skills, and the reasons why they are applying for admission. Truth be told, your personal statement has the potential to make or break your application, depending on how you approach it.

The Components of an Effective Personal Statement

Happily, it’s not too difficult to write a personal statement that is, at the very least, average. In other words, it’s actually more difficult to write one that is truly bad and that will get you forever banned from admission-but more on that later. What you really want to do is figure out how to make yourself stand out from a sea of applicants, and this can be achieved by highlighting your own unique traits, along with some slick writing.

First and foremost, honesty is key. What we’re looking for here is the right kind of honesty; the kind that is self-aware and that illustrates your unique personality while also demonstrating how you’ve learned from various experiences, and that you recognize your strengths and weaknesses. Try including a story in which you learned a lesson or grew as a person. It could be a story about school, a part-time job, or any other experience where you faced a challenge. It doesn’t matter if you conquered the challenge or not; what colleges are looking for is what you learned from the experience.

Let’s say you had a summer job as a camp counselor for young children. Sure, you could talk about the myriad challenges associated with dealing with a large group of wild and crazy kids running around and carrying on, and how you managed to summon the patience to claw your way to the end of the summer, but the result comes off as short-sighted and self-centered. The takeaway should be that despite the challenges and your many frustrations, you realized the importance of being a positive role model for young children, and the ways in which you helped them learn to exist harmoniously with one another throughout the summer. To the admissions office, this says “I have what it takes to be a leader and a positive force in society” in so many words. Once you can make this distinction with your own experiences, finding the right takeaway is quite simple.

When it comes to any type of personal essay, it’s very easy to tell when a writer is being disingenuous. When there is honesty, a certain air of truth will always be present, and it will resonate with the reader. This is what makes a story, or a personal essay, compelling. Next, make absolute certain that you’ve made not a single grammatical or spelling error. Make no mistake (see what I did there?), this will take many read-throughs as it can be more difficult than you think to edit your own work. It would be wise to enlist the help of a skilled friend or family member when combing your essay for errors.

What to Avoid

This section could also be called “how to tank your application with these easy steps,” but for the sake of completion, let’s get into it. First, I cannot stress the importance of having no grammar or spelling mistakes enough-even one silly mistake could send your application straight to the trash, digital or otherwise. Also, avoid engaging topics that you don’t find exciting, as it will be very apparent to the admissions office that you are disinterested. That’s not a good look. Lastly, don’t include any information that could paint you in a negative light, such as that cool story about when you and your buddies poured bubble bath mixture into the decorative town water fountain (do not attempt).

A quick note about writing prompts: I wouldn’t worry too much about these since you can redirect them with relative ease if necessary-all it takes is a little creativity. Be honest, engage topics that you’re passionate and excited about, take extra care with regards to your grammar and spelling, and most importantly, be yourself. The things that make you “you” are often the most exciting and engaging aspects of a personal statement. Don’t be afraid, and go for it-it’s time to show those colleges what a great candidate you are!