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It’s Time to Write: The Personal Statement

When I ask students about the college admissions process, they almost unanimously grumble about the personal statement.  This essay, required by nearly all schools, is the only section of the application where students can tell a college about themselves–what makes them unique and why they would be an asset to a campus.  In the changing landscape of college admissions under Covid-19, the essay has become even more important.  Schools can no longer rely on tangible factors for admission.  Junior year spring semester grades are unreliable due to online learning and different school districts’ approach to grading and the SAT and ACT test schedules have been ravaged.  So, an applicant’s personal statement will have a lot more impact on their admissions outcome.   

According to Ethan Sawyer, the College Essay Guy, “The reader should get a clear picture of what you value and how you’ll put that into action.” College admissions officers are looking for three things in your essay:

  1. Who is this person?
  2. Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?
  3. Can this person write?

But, how do you start?  Schedule some time to brainstorm!  Ask yourself a few questions: 

  • If you were writing your autobiography right now, what would be five things that you would have to include?  

  • List five accomplishments you have had over the last five years.  Do not limit yourself to accomplishments for which you were formally recognized.  The most interesting essays are often based on accomplishments that may have seemed insignificant at the time but became crucial when placed in the context of your life.

  • What are your most important extracurricular or community activities?

  • When have you failed?  When have you succeeded?

  • List your favorite things and your least favorite.  These can include activities, places, objects, virtues, etc.

  • Ask your family or your friends for an adjective or personality trait that best describes you.  Do the same words keep coming up?

From your brainstorming session, do certain themes recur?  Does your passion emerge? Look for links between the things you love, the important events in your life and how you choose to spend your time.  If you can find a connection there, you have found your topic!

Now, it’s time to write.  At College Ascent, I encourage students to start with a story.  This helps to make the essay personal.  Here’s a great example:

“On an adventure in Southern Africa this summer, I met a man named Ovens. Due to the 85% unemployment rate in Zimbabwe, Ovens supports his family by attempting to sell billion-dollar notes, of now useless Zimbabwean currency, to tourists. Ovens wasn’t the only person trying to make a living this way; selling the old money is the closest thing to a job many young men can get. As I sat with Ovens near the train station, he explained to me that he would rather try to sell something worthless than to beg. His pride superseded his basic needs. The next few days as I sat on a train headed for Pretoria, I thought a lot about Ovens and his friends. How could I begin to understand what cultural and political dynamics led to his plight?  And how, when news is now delivered in 140 characters, can I, as a current and future journalist, tell their story in a way that will get people to listen?”

Now, the essay can flow easily from her introduction–what she has done to feed her love of writing and why she wants to be a journalist.  It shows, instead of states, that she’s curious, she loves to travel, and she takes the time to understand other people’s stories.  And, she did all of that in seven sentences!  

Grown and Flown recently listed topics to avoid.  The list includes; deceased relatives, gimmicks, grudges, a sports injury, violence or anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read.   Other over-used topics include the “big” game or a community service project that may come off as patronizing. 

The personal essay can be daunting.  However, it can also be a real opportunity to highlight your language skills and to show the reader what makes you unique.  Start writing!

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