What I Wish I Knew: Personal Statement Tips


The personal statement. Seemingly easy, yet one of the hardest things to start on most college applications. If applying with the common application, a personal statement essay is required, and with a limit of 500 words, it can be hard to decide what to write. There are a few important ideas everyone should try to follow when writing a personal statement. 

First off, focusing on yourself is most important. The admissions staff aren’t interested in your friend or dog; they’re interested in you. And specifically for schools that are hard to get into, the personal statement is one of your only chances to tell them who you are on a deeper level. Don’t hold back in bragging about your past accomplishments and the good traits you have to offer. While it can be hard to tell someone the hardships you have gone through or accomplishments you have achieved, it can be crucial in revealing why someone is who they are and why they are choosing that specific school. 

“You want to find the big thing about yourself that’s not on your resume and not on your transcripts, but important to why you want to go to college,” said Nick Borchert, an English teacher. “Or an important piece of information you’ve overcome in your life or what you value the most. That becomes your big thing.”

Secondly, approach the essay with a creative style. Rather than following the classic five-paragraph essay format, try something new. Try telling a story from your past in vivid detail to capture the reader from the moment they start reading. For example, if you want to write about volunteer experiences and how that has changed who you are, start off by encompassing the reader into one of those experiences. Think of it like storytelling using your own experiences. By being creative and thinking of unique ways of engaging the reader in your story will help your essay be more memorable. 

“Then you need to find the small thing, the story, the episode, the little metaphor that you can tell to illustrate that big thing,” continued Borchert. “Illustrate that connection, and by the end, connect the big thing. You don’t want to just list your qualities.”

Nick Borchert ”

— You want to find the big thing about yourself that’s not on your resume and not on your transcripts, but important to why you want to go to college.

Although show not tell is practically echoed from every English teacher’s mouth, what does that really mean? Instead of saying that you are a hard worker and then going on to explain why to make the reader come to that conclusion, put them in your position or ‘shoes’. To do this, think about examples of when you have considered yourself displaying that certain trait, then tells the story. Experiences tend to leave lasting impressions on a person and also help engage the reader. 

Thirdly, write with purpose. In order to prepare for your personal statement, write down a list of characteristics, growth, or experiences you want the college to know about you. Then, brainstorm at least three different possible ways you could go about writing them. If involved in multiple activities, try just focusing on one and see where that leads for a few sentences, and then try picking another thing you’re involved in and write a few sentences about that. Next, pick the one you feel has had a greater impact and go for it. 

Because trying out multiple things takes time, giving yourself plenty of time to write a personal statement is important. Time allows you to not only manage stress but also to prevent grammatical mistakes that include spelling since these can be deal breakers for admissions.

Most of all, be yourself. Don’t try and write with a bunch of big words if that’s not you. While it may impress them a little, what will really shine through is a unique essay that dives into who you are. 

Having access to resources can help a lot. Reading previous essays that have been accepted for specific colleges can help you gain perspective on what admissions are looking for. Another great resource are these essays by John Hopkins, a private school in Maryland, applicants, which can help some students gain inspiration.  “Essays that Worked”.