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How to Write a Personal Statement for College Applications

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Forget the prompt. There’s usually a list of six or seven prompts.  One might resonate.  But it’s not your job to answer it.  There’s no right or wrong answer to a personal statement. Nobody is judging you on how well you answer the prompt.  In fact, nobody is judging you, period.  

Just be you. Presenting yourself as who you are is your best bet in the college admissions process. The personal statement is nothing more than a conversation.  You get fifteen minutes (or 650 words) to show them who you are. Stay focused on you.

Write like you talk. In school, you’re probably avoiding contractions and evading jargon. When you hear “essay,” you probably think “introduction, body, conclusion.” You know the five-paragraph analytic essay structure by heart. Great news: forget all of it. The way we talk is incredibly indicative of who we are. How we communicate makes us who we are.  And remember, that’s your goal. Show them who you are– the words you use, the subjects you prioritize, the tone and attitude you take. It’s all about attitude.

It’s a process. 10% writing, 90% rewriting. When you reach that final draft, they’ll probably be only a few sentences you still recognize.  So how do you get there?  Expand! Expand! Expand! Forget about the word count. It takes a lot of words and a lot of steps to arrive at really great details. It takes many unnecessary sentences to find that one very useful sentence. A great essay feels polished at 1000 words. Then it’s cut down to 650.

Sure, there are brands. Feeling frazzled by this “just be you!” and “don’t worry too much,” mindset?  Well, good news: personal statements tend to emulate one of three archetypes.  Often, the prompts push you towards one or another. There’s the “Critical Reflection” type, where your statement is a discussion or argument. There’s the “narrative,” where your essay tells a story, shows a moment, or narrates a journey. There’s the “poetic” archetype, which reads like a philosophical discussion, a creative splatter of words and paragraphs. You’ll settle into one that fits the kind of thinker you are. This will happen organically. No archetype is better or worse for showing any.

Don’t worry about originality. There are great, interesting, compelling essays on hackneyed, ordinary subjects. And there are terrible essays on really original topics. It doesn’t matter how “different” your story is. It’s how you tell it that’s important.

Parents, stay off the page. You’ll want to help, of course. This is a critical time in your child’s life. But, do you want your kid attending a college that accepts them for who they are, or one that accepts them for who you are? Writing a great personal statement demands a lot of vulnerability. Colleges want your kids to show themselves raw and unfiltered on a page. For any parent, that’s terrifying. But the only way a kid will get there, is feeling they won’t be judged for what they put on the page. What can you do? Plant the seeds that get them thinking about who they are. Everyone has a story they tell about your kid. You’ve got many more than a dozen. Tell them those stories. Somewhere in there is the kernel of a really great essay. Let them find it.

For more reading:

Use These Two Words On Your College Essay To Get Into Harvard