Writing personal statements and essays

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Writing your story?
The personal essays are instrumental now more than ever. If all grades and scores are equal among the Selective Colleges' candidates, your essays need to lift your application to the top of a large stack. Most the students within the applicant pool could easily complete the curriculum at a Selective College. With so many qualified candidates, the admissions officers seek not only to select a well-qualified pool of students for entry but also a diverse, vibrant population. No college wants to have on its campus a community of clones. Selective Colleges seek students who possess a variety of opinions, hobbies, academic and personal interests, and ambitions. Therefore, the point of your essays is to provide the college with the information that describes your uniqueness and your interesting, vibrant, or exciting personality (if one exists).

There are many books available that discuss ways to organize and write college essays. Many college admissions officers suggest that students avoid these books because they see students trying too hard to imitate the authors' styles; the student's essays then sound "canned" or less unique. The suggestions I offer to you in this section will be useful to you and still allow for your uniqueness to shine through. What I wish to accomplish in this section is clarify how the college essays are important and then offer suggestions on key areas that should be addressed.

To begin:

  • Your most important intellectual and/or personal qualities.

  • Your strongest goals and motivations.

  • Your reasons why the college to which you are applying will help you achieve.

  • Your ability to reason and write clearly and effectively.

For your application, you may be asked to write a personal statement or respond to one or more essay questions. A personal statement, usually 400-600 words, describes your most important qualities, characteristics, or goals. Think of this as a PRESS RELEASE announcing your candidacy as an applicant for admissions. By comparison, personal essays, usually 500-700 words, are reflective in nature and require you to respond to one or more "open-ended" questions. The admissions committee cares less about the subject on which you write; more importantly, these essay topics intend to discover how you arrived at the place you are today.

Most students despise personal statements and essays. We live in a culture where bragging about one's personal successes is often frowned upon—even ridiculed. When you brag, people often consider you to be arrogant or conceited. Many students would have a difficult time walking into a crowded room filled with strangers and begin talking about their past accomplishments. Additionally, many students often feel that their personal perceptions are not accurate or thorough enough to elaborate upon in an essay. However, for your admissions to Selective Colleges to be effective, you must relinquish your apprehensions about promoting yourself. A successful admission depends on articulating your positive qualities, past successes, and future dreams. If you cannot do accomplish this goal well, ANOTHER CANDIDATE WILL. So resign yourself to the idea of speaking up and openly about yourself.

The personal essays will be a positive affirmation of your ideas, interests and talents. This discussion will not be a historical account of your life, but rather a discussion of how the past supports your future vision. You may be asked to divulge personal thoughts, ideas, and most importantly, the source of your passions. The essays offer students the opportunity to reveal their intelligence, humor, and personal strengths in each individual’s own unique style.

Although personal essays by design can be somewhat emotional, you don’t have to cry on your paper to gain the attention of the admissions representative. Many students often complain that they can't respond to many of the essay questions because the essays ask students to discuss new or unfamiliar experiences; most students actually believe their lives are too “boring” to write a unique or captivating essay. Abandon this perception. What you must understand is that the essay questions are intentionally ambiguous. The admissions committee wants to see how you may tackle tough, introspective questions. Part of the school's goal is to allow you the freedom to express your ideas and convictions. Any past situation or experience can be a source for continued inspiration. Even the simplest topics can be transformed into a wonderful essay. The student’s creativity is the driving force behind the success of a personal essay. When you consider that at least 10-30,000 other essays may be read after yours—all saying the same thing—you understand the paramount importance of your best qualities shining through on paper.

Any student can write an adequate essay, but a student's essays are useless for the admissions process if his or her perceptions/awareness or intellectual curiosity does not come across clearly to the admissions committee. Over the past ten years, I have read so many essays in which students write wonderfully elaborate stories that say absolutely nothing about who they are. No particular insight is given into what motivates or excites the student. When these students fail to make their point, the admissions committee is then left with the burden of trying to decipher the intentions of the essay—something they have absolutely no time to do. A better approach, if you wish to tell the committee your special qualities, would be to say boldly, "What makes me special are…." Follow this assertion with interesting, concrete examples that prove it. Since this essay is about YOU and you are the best expert on YOU, stick to this subject.

Most importantly, BE POSITIVE in your essay writing! You may have been conditioned to show humility to avoid being labeled as conceited, but now is not the time for such honorable intentions. Discuss only the relevant weaknesses that you want the school to which you are applying to help you overcome; spend most of your efforts on discussing the positive qualities and accomplishments in your history. Your intention is to leave a positive impression—not to give ammunition to have someone shoot you down in the admissions process. These points may seem obvious, yet every year I read essays in which the students dwell on what they "should have done" in high school or what they "didn't accomplish," instead of discussing all of the wonderful, positive qualities about themselves. Pretend you are giving a press conference about yourself and you are going to tell the world your best attributes and accomplishments. If you need help getting started, go with your parents to a social function and listen. Parents have absolutely no problems bragging about you to their friends. Just listen to what they are saying and use this information as a basis for your essay.

As an expert on your own goals and passions, your only burden now is to create the best medium to get your point across. After you identify the qualities and characteristics you will discuss in your essay, you must TELL A STORY that elaborates on your qualities. Everyone loves a good story. Give enough details to make the story fun, and then follow your discussion with an elaboration of the qualities you are trying to emphasize.

Before going further, let me caution you about the limitations of your essay. Your essay should avoid sensitive subjects. You do not want to make the admissions committee blush when reading your essay. I strongly suggest staying away from sex and boyfriend/girlfriend issues. Also, steer clear of Philosophy. Camus, Sartre, Nietzsche are wonderful topics for college bowling alleys, but you probably don’t have the ability to discuss these "great minds" with any real punch (although you may think otherwise). Your worst-case scenario is that you make a philosophical argument in your essay that is totally weak or uninformed, and the guy reading your essay is the one person on the admissions committee who knows you're either out of your league or just blowing smoke. "Next candidate," will be bellowed as your application goes into the garbage can with a resounding thud. Get my point? Although you should be an "expert" in an academic area, stick to subjects or topics in the sciences or history. Few high-school students do well with complex philosophical discussions.

This brings us to the final point: YOU ARE NOT WRITING A FIVE-PARAGRAPH ESSAY for English class. Students are so hung up on traditional rules learned in high school that they often write horrible essays. Instead of worrying if you have a succinct thesis statement, a body, and a conclusion, concentrate on the elements your COLLEGE essay: the qualities or issues you need to discuss, the examples you wish to use, and the message you wish to generate. A good essay will be focused and free of grammatical errors. (Your English teacher is a great person to discuss with you the grammatical errors in your essay.) Too many students write "A" papers that do not accomplish our goals listed previously. Make sure your essay is intended to be read as a statement describing who you are; feel free, therefore, to take liberties your teachers may find less appropriate for an academic paper. Your essay may be read aloud to an admissions committee, so choosing a casual, conversational approach to your essays may indeed be helpful.

  • With these points in mind, let's start writing!!! These preliminary exercises will help you develop the excellent personal statements and essays you will need later to complete your applications.

STEP I. List and describe (75-100 words minimum) your five most important personal qualities and/or accomplishments to date. You can, for example, list two or three qualities and then write two or three accomplishments. Describe what YOU feel are personal qualities or accomplishments. DO NOT SIMPLY RELY ON SOMEONE ELSE TO DETERMINE WHAT THESE QUALITIES SHOULD BE FOR YOU.

STEP II. Next, answer the following questions. (75+ words each). Please type your responses.
1. What do I seek for my college education, and how will I use this education in the future? [Discuss your academic interests and the subjects you most enjoy studying.]

2. What do I hope to accomplish while in college? What knowledge or skills do I wish to develop? [Discuss extracurricular activities of particular interest and/or skills you wish to develop for your possible future career.]

3. What do I intend to study, or what do I anticipate as a career occupation? [Your academic interests listed above may or may not be your intended academic major.]

4. What programs—academic and extracurricular—are available at [insert college's name] which will make my academic and personal experiences a positive one? What resources on campus do I expect to utilize most? What new activities or programs do I wish to try?

5. What qualities or skills would I contribute to my chosen college that will make the school a more positive community? How will my personal history or culture add to the diversity of my future college campus?
The purpose of the above writing exercises is to begin your inward focus and outward expression. Your personal statement will incorporate the answers to the above questions with your personal story in a manner that the admissions readers will find interesting and exciting.

STEP III. Now, we will write personal stories about your life. Everyone remembers stories. Can you think of a story that describes one of the qualities you discussed above? For example, if you say about yourself, "I am a caring person who tries to attend to the needs of others." This is a wonderful personal quality, but why should anyone believe this statement just because you list it? Instead, to strengthen this assertion, tell us a story describing an event when you were nice and cared for someone. Do you visit hospitals or the elderly on a regular basis? Can you describe a time when you had a moving conversation with one of the patients? Maybe you could tell us what it was like when you spent the afternoon with a 10-year old child with cancer. On a lighter note, tell us about the times you have traveled with family or friends. What interesting places or activities took place during your travels? All of these stories, amusing or serious, give the reader a much stronger picture of who you are than a simple list of your qualities. I know these stories are often difficult to write, but you must try. Go ahead—write three stories.

MY STORIES (outline):
A couple of possible ideas to help you get started. Please do not limit yourself to these.

  • What is an interesting way to describe myself to someone who knows little about me?

  • Was there an experience I’ve had that describes my motivations, goals, or personality?

  • Who are some of the important people in my life and how have they influenced me?

  • What do I do for fun? How have I spent my vacations? Any unusual hobbies/interests?

Step IV: The Personal Statement
Your next task is to develop a Personal Statement. The Personal Statement discusses your major accomplishments and your fitness and readiness for college. The Personal Statement is often shorter in length than a Personal Essay and should be kept under 600 words. Many colleges specifically demand that Statements be no longer than one, double-spaced, typed page, which is approximately 500-600 words (one typed page).

Your statement will include:

1. A significant accomplishment to date.

2. What you hope to accomplish during college.

3. Your academic interests and possible areas of study.

4. The positive contributions you wish to make to your chosen college.

5. Any unique information/experiences colleges should know.

  • Write a rough draft of a Personal Statement that includes the four areas listed above.

When you complete this task, you will ask yourself these questions:

  • Did the reader learn exactly what I wanted them to know about me?

  • Were the qualities I discussed clear to the reader?

  • Did I stay positive and express myself well?

  • Would the reader “like” the person they just read about?

  • Did I show enthusiasm and passion for my future college experience?

STEP V: The Personal Essay
Your next assignment will be to answer two or three of the following questions. These questions are commonly chosen as topics for the Personal Essays because they require students to integrate a variety of abstract ideas into a personal statement that describes who you are. To reiterate, Selective Colleges are looking to see how you answer the essay questions. There are no right or wrong answers. So, never attempt to predict what you think the admissions officer wants to read. Create the impression you want to make and nothing more.

These essay questions may seem difficult to answer at first, but do not avoid this exercise. Our intention here is to find the type of question that you find most comfortable answering. As you respond to more and more essay questions, you may find yourself repeating some ideas. Your task is to find the most creative ways to discuss the same ideas. Then when the time comes for you to actually complete your essays for the college application, you will already know the best topics to choose and how to present your ideas well.

Each of your essay responses should be no less than 500 words. I know this may seem like overkill, but the writing preparation is extremely necessary! This exercise should take you many hours/days, so relax and take your time. DON’T TRY TO WRITE EVERYTHING IN ONE DAY.
To review, the following steps are used to complete your personal essays.

  • Decide which of your academic or personal qualities you can communicate to the reader through the given essay question.

  • Tell a story or related anecdote to capture the reader’s interest.

  • Answer the stated question. This may seem obvious, but don’t forget that the essay topic needs to be addressed in your writing. Ensure that the stories used are indeed appropriate and complementary to the essay topic.


  • Who are the most influential people in my life?

  • What have been the most significant experiences in my life?

  • What do I read [not for school work] and why?

  • What virtues do I admire and respect?

  • Discuss a failure from which I've learned.

  • Discuss two quotes that have a special meaning to me.

  • What does a liberal arts education mean to me?

  • Discuss places where I would love to travel and why.

  • What is my favorite intellectual activity?

  • What is my favorite social activity?

  • Describe myself to a stranger.

  • What do my friends say they like about me most?

  • What questions have I always wanted answered and why?

Now that you have completed so much writing, you are much closer to answering most of the questions you will find on the actual college applications. When you receive your applications in the mail, select the essay topics that can be adapted from your responses above. Your basic story and topics will already be completed; all you will have to do now is fill the in the required space for the essay.

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