1. What admissions officers really want to know
At the heart of all personal statements is a desire to know “Who are you?” “How will you benefit by being admitted?” and “How will the university benefit by admitting you?” Many students forget to answer the last one. Think of your essay as your opportunity to show the university what you will bring to the relationship. What makes you more dateable than their thousands of other suitors.
2. The difference between an Average Personal Statement and a Standout Personal Statement
While your personal statement need not win a prestigious writing award you do want to stand-out from those telling similar stories. Personal statements consist of three main ingredients: The topic, connections, and writing style. Average personal statements consist of common topics, connections and writing style. Standout personal statements consist of uncommon topics, connections and writing style. Given the shared experiences of high school seniors, finding an uncommon topic or writing style is difficult. The good news. Even common topics have uncommon connections. These essays are often amazing.
For example, sports are a common topic among personal statements. Knowing this, put yourself in the essay reader’s seat. Would you rather read another essay about teamwork, perseverance, camaraderie, and discipline or an essay on how playing competitive sports took the applicant to different parts of town, exposing them to racial and class disparities many non-athletes do not experience, and how this exposure shaped and challenged the applicant, revealing who they are and who they want to be?
3. The importance of a well told story
This is not an analytical essay in which the writer dissects an issue, arguing or “telling” their point in a thesis statement. This is also not a resume. Rather, here in your personal statement, you are asked to tell a story. Think of yourself as both the storyteller and the main character. The person reading your essay knows little about you and nothing about anyone else in your essay until you tell them. Your reader is interested in your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. For this reason, standout personal statements share many elements with fiction: characters, plot, conflict, setting, action, humor, and descriptive language. These elements connect you and the reader, humanizing you and making your reader want to care about you and your story,
4. How and why your essay must show transformation
Impactful personal statements show transformation. They reveal to the reader who you used to be in relation to who you are now, providing a glimpse into who you might become. Start by identifying a Central Moment, something important, intense, powerful, and/or transformative that occurred in your life. It may even be connected to some issue out in the world that is equally important, intense, and powerful. Then identify the moments that led up to it. What was happening in and around your life? Who were you a year, month, week, day before that moment? What did you think/know to be true about yourself before the Central Moment?
When it comes to transformative storytelling, leading moments are as important as the Central Moment. Also important are Turning Points, what happened after the Central Moment and brought you to where you currently are. You don’t have to have walked on burning coals, for your story to be transformative. See Tools for more on Central/Leading/Turning Points.
5. The important role structure plays
A good personal statement requires more than an interesting story. It uses structure to tell the story in a way that engages the reader. Even highly compelling stories can present as scattered and long-winded. Admissions officers read hundreds of essays; they have neither the time nor inclination to try to figure out where you are going, or what you are trying to say. Think of your personal statement as a road trip. Structure is your personal statement’s GPS. Without it, admissions officers tend to get lost. Set your essay apart from others on similar themes by using techniques like psychological time, flashback, and flashforward. See Tools for more on Structure.