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A Personal Statement with Legs to Kill Posted on:Wednesday, October 10th, 2012


College application season is officially upon us. As with many students, you are probably most anxious about the looming and unavoidable “Personal Statement.”  Cue Psycho music.

Perhaps the most intimidating aspect of writing the personal statement is that we rarely enjoy having the spotlight on us.  Most prompts ask you to write something along the lines of:  “describe the world from which you come” or “tell us about your greatest quality, etc.”

In my book I offer that the personal statement can be quite significant to your application, especially if other aspects of your application are spotty.  Your essay gives you a chance to explain away any chinks in your armor.  Was there a valid reason why you did poorly in a particular class one semester? If it was because you had to work to help contribute to your family, now is your time to discuss it.

What gives your essay the most teeth is writing from an authentic voice. Your personal statement should break the monotony of the 1,000’s of essays that have been thumbed through by the evaluators. Like surfing the television, you want evaluators to tune into your channel, and be totally entranced by the plot and characters that you present.

I came across a New York Times article, Crafting an Application Essay that Pops, that offered some great advice on writing a solid personal essay.  One suggestion was to chart, outline, and maybe even color code all of your prompts to give yourself a nice visual.  Other ideas from the article included:

  • Write a résumé. Before selecting an essay topic, reflect on what you’ve done in and out of school, and what it’s meant to you, Ms. Joseph said.
  • Make a list of personal traits. Write down the qualities you are proud of and want to convey in your essay, Ms. Joseph suggested. Then reflect on what experiences or activities best demonstrate those qualities, for example, optimism, empathy or innovative tendencies.
  • Start small. Ms. Joseph recommended that students completing the common application work on the short essay prompt before the longer personal statement, because “a paragraph is easier to toss out than a few pages,” and the early writing process may uncover a stronger topic for the longer essay.
  • Look for inspiration in the everyday. All panelists encouraged students to write about something meaningful, no matter how mundane.
  • Recycle essays. “If you’re not using your essay more than once, you’re missing a prime opportunity to focus on really good storytelling,” Ms. Joseph said.
  • Keep it short and specific.  “Colleges don’t want long opuses. They want short moments in time,” Ms. Joseph said. Ms. Stover agreed: “Students want to write about this whole room,” she said, gesturing broadly around the packed lecture hall. “But you need to be talking about the leg of that chair.”
  • Have an editor. All panelists advised having a close, trusted editor and an objective, outside reader.

Above all, while grammar and syntax are obviously important, what your essay really needs is dimension and personality.  If you haven’t already started to brainstorm ideas, it’s time to start. This is certainly not a situation which permits for cramming.  It takes time to tune in to your authentic voice.

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