The personal statement is an elusive animal; nearly every school in existence requires one and, yet, it is one of the most confusing, difficult parts of an application to get down. My previous posts cover tips on how to choose an admissions essay topic as well as some other tips on writing a successful application essay. Many of my admissions students come to me in the very beginning stages of their statements– the “I don’t even know where to begin” phase.
Much of this panic stems from approaching the personal statement off-kilter, where you are both overwhelmed by the task at hand and yet shortsighted to the exact scope of what the personal statement really is.
The one of the best way to consider your personal statement is to think of it in terms of marketing– specifically, branding. Whole programs are devoted to branding and brand management, so I won’t go into it too deeply here. For this purpose, however, here’s a teeny bit of Advertising 101:
There are thousands of products out there, many of which do the same things. For every item, device, or product, there are millions more like it, that do more or less the same thing, cost about the same, and are available at the same places. But why do people choose one product over another? Why iPhone over Android? Mercedes over BMW? Dasani water over Aquafina? Yes, there are subtle differences– functionality, appearance, and taste, to name some basic ones. But, these all do essentially the same things in terms of their abilities to communicate, transport, and quench thirst. As such, don’t have any true, fundamental differences. Yet, there are perceived differences, and those who are looking at their screens incredulously at what I just said (“Of course the iPhone/Android is better!”) are proving my point.
Effective branding has made these differences, as nuanced as they are, seem huge. One is simply cooler than the other. One is sleeker, faster, sexier. Another is purer, cleaner, more refreshing. Branding, done successfully, even allows for its products and their users to have their own “air” about them– for instance, Mac users are intrinsically different from PC users. Effective advertising campaigns allow you to acquire these ‘facts’ without having to second-guess them. And, all things (including price) being equal, when at Best Buy, the dealership, or the grocery store, you will inevitably base your decisions upon them.
So, how does this relate to you?
Every application cycle, admissions counselors search for students to fill a set amount of seats. For each applicant there are thousands more, all of whom would be doing the same thing upon admission– attending that particular school for a number of years and earning a degree. So, what differentiates you from other applicants?
Granted, hard factors like your GPA or test scores can automatically do this for you. Just as how cars are differentiated from each other in terms of class and price point, your GPA and/or test scores can differentiate you from other students, which is an unfortunate, harsh truth. However, regardless of whatever place or ranking you might have in terms of these factors, there will always be another student with very similar if not the same numbers. So, whether you have a 2.0 or a 4.0, or scored at the lowest or highest percentile, there will be another person with the same stats as you, standing in consideration for the same seat. Your test scores and GPA are hard data; like your name and date of birth, you can’t change or fudge those in your application (fudging is definitely not encouraged, by the way). However, should those things be equal (which will be, at some point), these differences will become more nuanced and depend almost solely on your personal statement. This is where the principles of branding come in.
Your personal statement should be used as your own personal advertisement, to develop and cultivate the persona you want admissions counselors to have of you. With the personal statement, you are asked to develop and market your brand, to push and sell your product– which is yourself. Standing out in a sea of similar applicants is possible with the right form of branding; yet, given the exploding rates of enrollment in education across the board, it is now more important than ever to do so.
Your personal statement is one of the only malleable, changeable parts of your application or your “package”*. While you can’t necessarily change what your GPA and test score is, you can change how you are perceived through your statement. You can single-handedly control how an admissions counselor perceives you, as an applicant and future student. Your essay is the only aspect of your application where an admissions counselor can fully grasp your personality, your aims, your maturity, and, most importantly, your voice.
To rethink your personal statement as a form of branding will help you discover ways to showcase your personality in ways that will hold the admissions counselor’s attention, your most important goal. So, use your 500 words wisely and, most importantly, compellingly. The whole application process is, after all, an exercise in persuasion so that they, the consumer, can choose you over the rest.
*Yes, I said “your package”. Go ahead, laugh.