Tag Archives: personal statement
The admissions cycle is just about to begin and questions have already been rolling in. So, to help you navigate this often nerve-racking time, I’ve compiled a list of some of the most common do’s and don’ts for writing effective, successful admissions essays.
DON’T: Submit your statement without working on at least a couple drafts of it first. Edit your work. Even if you think your first (or even second) draft is a masterpiece — put it down and look at it again tomorrow. You are indeed your worst critic, but don’t put it off until the last minute. Submitting your first draft of anything will only amount to lots of regret, I promise. Even the most stellar students can get dinged over a poorly written statement. So, don’t be that guy.
DO: Show it to someone else. When writing, it’s very easy to miss even the biggest mistakes. Showing it to an editor, a professor, an advisor, or even a friend or colleague, can improve your essay enormously– they will often see errors that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. If you live on a deserted island or cave and really can’t find a single reliable person to read it for you, then read it out loud to yourself. Yes, you might feel weird doing it but, in actuality, reading aloud will often reveal mistakes in grammar and sentence structure are often not immediately obvious. While having someone else look over your work is the most advisable option, reading it out loud is still a much better option than not doing any of it at all.
DON’T: Be afraid to talk about yourself. As I’ve said in a previous post, your essay is the only chance an admissions counselor will have, outside of an interview, to see your true strengths and qualities as how you choose to showcase them. Given this, your job is to use your essay to present yourself and your qualities that would otherwise not be seen in your application. Don’t be afraid to allow the attractive aspects of your personality to show through; a compelling essay can mean all the difference between a ‘no’ and a ‘maybe’ or even a ‘yes’.
DO: Write about your traits and aspirations confidently. As I’ve discussed numerous times before, admissions counselors are searching for candidates who are not only studious but also mature and well-adjusted. They want to know that you’re ready for this next step and, to prove that you are, writing about yourself confidently is necessary. Never forget that your essay is, essentially, a logical argument (it is in fact a statement) so confidence in your own abilities and aptitude is key to making it effective.
DON’T: Write an overly general “Why X” essay just so you can reuse it. While it would certainly make your life easier, it would not make your application look any better. Admissions counselors go through thousands upon thousands of essays each year and many of them have been doing it for quite some time. So, their BS-detectors are pretty finely tuned, particularly to glossed-over generalizations that only vaguely suggest their schools. If there’s no way you have time to write an individually tailored “Why X” essay, then I would definitely suggest writing your essay on another topic. If a “Why X” essay is mandatory, then make the effort. You don’t want to risk being rejected for being lazy.
DO: Investigate what each school you’re applying to has to offer, and know why you want to go there, whether you’re writing a “Why X” essay or not. Regardless of why you’re applying to a particular school– because of its reputation, athletics, location, or programs offered– you need to have identifiable (and reasonable) grounds as to why you’d want to be there. Do your research. Even if you’re applying there as a “safety”, consider why are you choosing this school over any others. Of course, be sure to present your reasons with restraint– for instance, it’s one thing to be appreciative of a school’s Greek life but another to say you’re looking to get into a party school.
DON’T: Regurgitate your resume. Your statement can always include examples of work, school, and life experiences to illustrate just how serious, hardworking, and dedicated you are. However, this does not mean you can list experiences that are not relevant to your statement topic, just for the sake of including them. Your application already includes your resume, so there’s no need to list every position or internship held even if it doesn’t fit. If there’s a particular position or experience that you absolutely must talk about that you can’t seem to work into your statement, then consider reworking your topic so you can.
DO: Tell a story that illustrates your strengths, maturity, and talents. Following what I said above, it doesn’t have to include every position you’ve served or award you’ve received. Your statement can be an anecdote: a (small!) snippet of your life story, or a description of one particular experience you’ve had in school or work that is, yes, in your resume. Or, in the alternative, your statement can describe your work and school experiences if they are all part of a master plan to get you to this point. Regardless of how you choose to go about it, your statement should be one solid, cohesive argument that flows all the way through.
Recently, I’ve been interviewed by Steve Schwartz of the LSAT Blog.
The following is an excerpt from our interview:
3. How much time should one spend revising a personal statement, and how can one tell when it’s *finished*?
It’s impossible to set a firm amount of time and have that work for everyone. Everyone works at different speeds and everyone has different amounts of free time available to them. So, whether it’s one month or an entire application cycle (about four to five months), one has to allot enough time to write multiple drafts and to revise and review appropriately. It’s also important to be honest with yourself about how much time you actually have, and to be realistic with your goals. Rushing should NEVER be an option.
You can read the rest of our interview here.
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.
To say admissions essays are daunting is putting it rather mildly. The application process itself –getting transcripts and recommendation letters, prepping for required admissions tests, making Big Decisions about Huge Life Changes– is arduous, terrifying, and seemingly life-ending.
And yet, despite of all that, you’re also expected to write about yourself.
This pressure often leads to feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and a little afraid. Perhaps you may even feel like an impostor. Where do you even start?
Alas, one does not have to begin by breathing into a paper bag.
The first step to writing a personal essay is really no different from that of research papers or essays– it all starts with brainstorming. For the personal essay, however, brainstorming means making a list.
Make a list of all the accomplishments, awards, honorable mentions, accolades, and even old-fashioned, good deeds that you’ve done so far. Think of everything you’ve ever done in the last few years that you’re even the slightest bit proud of, and write them down– and I mean everything. If you’re a former student body president, state chess champion, and director of the school play, then write those amazing things down. But, even if you feel that you haven’t done anything that’s “good enough” to be considered, think harder. Your first step to a great personal essay is to sit down, get out a sheet of paper, and stay a while. Spend time thinking of how awesome you are, and all the equally awesome things you’ve done. Everyone’s done something worthwhile and noteworthy, whether it was volunteering to save orphans in a third-world country or being a good friend to someone in their time of need. Helping old ladies cross a street counts too. It can be anything– I mean it. Be shameless.
Keep this list handy as this will not only serve as a jump-off point for possible topic ideas but also be a helpful reminder during the application process that you CAN do this.
Once you’ve exhausted every possible feat, step away from it, take the rest of the day off, and work on other parts of your application (this is a prime example of why time management is extremely important). The next day, return to your list. What sticks out to you? What do you feel most proud of? If you’re still stuck, hand this list to someone else, anyone you’d trust to give an objective opinion. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a family member or friend–a coworker or neighbor will do. What do they think?
Circle a couple of options from your list, the ones that stand out to you (or your friend) the most. When you’ve narrowed it down to two or three, jot down a few notes on each, and go forward from there. If need be, consult your friend again or yet another person. Follow this same process of elimination until, boom, you’ve got yourself a topic and started the essay writing process. And, hopefully, you haven’t reached for that paper bag yet.
Easy? Of course not. But, at least this way, you can make a topic choice that is not rushed or haphazard and can hold the attention of your reader. Holding your reader’s attention is crucial as your reader, in this instance, is the person deciding your academic future. If you’re not content with what you’ve narrowed it down to, start the process again. There’s nothing to be afraid of starting over; however, you should certainly be afraid of writing about a topic you’re not entirely happy with which is A LOT harder to do, let alone to do successfully. Repeating the process a couple of times may be just what you need to get your gears rolling on a topic that is truly awesome.
Personal statements, or admissions essays, are definitely one of the hardest parts of the admissions process, a process that is already stressful to begin with. Now that the application cycle is just beginning (everybody say, “AHH!”), I’ve provided some tips that will help you write your personal statement, and make it better and more effective.
Your essay, first and foremost, should be about yourself and your experiences. It’s about you– that’s it. Through your essay, you are given an opportunity to showcase the part of you that is not captured by your application itself. So, to begin, start thinking: how would you portray yourself to admissions counselor? What would you want them to know about you, that they wouldn’t otherwise know from your application?
Keep it simple.
Even the greatest, most venerable topics– such as, volunteering medical services to war-torn areas or aiding in critically endangered species conservation— can lose their compelling and convincing nature when written about in a convoluted, unclear fashion.
Writing simply and clearly will allow your reader to fully grasp your topic and be drawn in by what you’re saying. Bogging them down with too many details will not only confuse your reader but also lose their interest, which is the last thing you want to do– especially if your reader happens to be an admissions officer. Admissions committees go through thousands upon thousands of essays each application cycle; flowery, over-the-top prose, run-on sentences and confusing structure, will NOT resonate with them, and you’ll risk being lost in the din.
By honesty, I am not referring to simply the truth or even truthiness. This particular brand of honesty I’m referring to is naturalness– without pretense, hang-ups, or ‘airs’.
Admissions counselors look for confident, mature, and well-adjusted applicants who show promise. They want applicants who not only are mature now, but who will continue to mature and evolve in the future, through their institution and afterwards. Writing pretentiously actually shows the opposite of what admissions officers are looking for– that you may be unrealistic with your goals or insecure about your actual ability, or, at the very worst, immature and therefore not ready for higher education.
“So, what now?”
Keeping things simple and being honest can exist concurrently, with each point actually lends to the other. By being honest with yourself, you can avoid hyperbolic, overly-dramatic prose and, in turn, keep your writing clear and simple. By writing clearly, it will help you keep yourself in check and maintain your honesty and authenticity. With this, you will show the admissions committee that you are genuine, confident, have well-rounded experience and maturity, and, equally as important, write well.
There is a lot involved when writing an essay. If there wasn’t, then writing would be easy; there wouldn’t be a need for writing classes, books, or tutors (yikes!). So, while I still have a job, writing is still hard. To make up for it, I’ve compiled a short list of basic rules to live by when writing an essay.
Avoid using contractions.
I know– I myself just used a contraction (if you forgot what a contraction is, here’s a refresher) in my header. However, when writing a paper, this is NOT the way to go. Why? Well, a paper is, basically, a serious presentation of an argument. Using contractions like “I’m” or “don’t” is too informal, which could make you sound less smart. Clearly, you can see why this would be a bad idea for a paper. This is, of course, not the case when using a direct quote, as you are using someone else’s words and phrasing and, if they themselves used contractions, that’s okay. But, for your own writing, it’s best not to use them so that you can sound as compelling, persuasive, and, yes, smart as possible.
Sentences shouldn’t be more than three lines long.
When writing a paper, you want to be as clear and clean as possible. Writing sentences that are too long can confuse your reader, and dilute what you’re trying to say. If you’re not sure whether a sentence is too long, try reading it out loud. If you find yourself losing your breath or your place, try shortening it. It’s better to have shorter sentences that are strong and to the point, than to have really long, confusing ones.
For the same reasons I’ve stated above, using slang in a paper is a terrible idea. The goal of your paper should be to address issues and arguments in the most intelligent way possible. Unfortunately, using slang like “gonna”, “ppl”, or “on the down low” isn’t going to do that. A good marker of whether a word or phrase is slang or not is to think, would this be printed in the New York Times? If yes, then you should be fine. If it’s on Urban Dictionary, then maybe not.