Writing a personal statement can be a difficult task for students. Used to writing analytical essays for their classes, students struggle with confronting a new genre, especially when the stakes are so high.
The personal statement—or Common App essay—is a distinctly different kind of writing from anything students have written before, so understanding what it is is critical to producing a compelling essay.
What is a personal statement?
The terms “personal statement” and “Common App essay” can be used interchangeably. It is a 650-word essay that is sent as part of the Common App—which means it will be read by nearly every college to which a student will apply.
Students respond to one of seven prompts (one of which is a topic of their choice). Even schools that do not use the Common Application (like Georgetown) often ask for a similar essay. If students choose to apply to colleges using the Coalition Application, they will also submit a similar essay.
What should a personal statement be?
A personal statement, first and foremost, should be personal. It shows what an admissions officer needs to know about a student as a person. Of the five factors under a student’s and family’s control in college admissions, it is the only one where a student can speak in their own voice directly to admissions officers.
Students should strive to write a personal and authentic essay, highlighting elements of their personality and “heart” that would not otherwise show up anywhere on their application. This might be a hobby outside school that they share with others, a meaningful family tradition, or a thoughtful way they connect with others. The personal statement offers a slice of their life that captures their essence and lets admissions officers connect with and root for them. It is the dimension beyond the resume and transcript.
As a narrative essay, the personal statement should contain specific details, stories, and insights from the student’s life. This is why brainstorming is our favorite part of the process! It allows us to get to know a student on a personal level and help them shape a story that truly shows who they are.
(Want to hear about what makes a personal statement really shine for us? We asked each of our essay coaches!)
What shouldn’t a personal statement be?
Since the personal statement is such a crucial part of the college application, there’s a lot of advice out there! Unfortunately, not all of it is helpful. Sometimes it can be just as useful to know what a personal statement is not:
- A personal statement is not a cover letter. Students do not need to highlight every activity they’ve done (or any!) or how wonderful a student they are. Information like this will be conveyed elsewhere in the application, through the student’s activity descriptions or letters of recommendation.
- A personal statement is not a statement of academic interest. While the personal statement may gesture to a student’s intellectual pursuits, many schools will have specific supplement essays that give students a chance to explain what they want to study and why. The goal is to avoid overlap between a student’s personal statement and Why College essays.
- A personal statement is not an analytical essay. Students should write from their heart and in their own voice, and use first-person narration (“I”). Admissions officers know that they are reading work written by high school students, and will be on alert for any suggestion that a parent has taken a heavy hand in editing. Admissions officers are savvy: they know what a teenager’s writing sounds like, compared to an adult’s.
- That being said, a personal statement is also not a creative writing sample or a personal memoir for English class. While imagery or metaphor can provide grace notes and flourishes, it will not make the essay what it needs to be—personal and personally insightful.
Why is the personal statement so important?
Your essays and applications are only one of the five factors under your control. Why do they matter so much?
We don’t mean to undermine the importance of other factors, especially grades and academic rigor—there is no substitute for good grades in challenging courses during the college admissions process. However, especially for students applying to the most selective colleges and universities, grades, rigor, and test scores are only the beginning. It will ultimately be the qualitative aspects of an application—the letters of recommendation, the activities, and the essays—that distinguish between the pool of applicants who are all equally quantitatively qualified for admission to a college or university.
Admissions officers are people, and they look for reasons to “root for” and accept students into their incoming class—reasons that often lie in their passions and personality. Admissions officers are looking not just to admit good students, but good lab partners, roommates, club members, and friends. These intangible qualities are best displayed in the personal statement itself—remember, it is the only place where a student can speak to the admissions officer in their own voice, making it critically important!
We love working with students on every part of the essay process—from brainstorming to drafting, revising, and putting the final touches on an essay showing their unique passions and personality. Reach out today!