Admissions officers read hundreds of applications trying to discern which students will achieve the most during their college experience. The personal statement is a main factor in the admission decision, especially when so many students look exactly the same on paper. Grades, test scores, volunteer experience, internships, these variables don't provide a lot of variation. The personal essay is an opportunity for students to present who they are and impress upon the admissions committee why they should be accepted to a particular institution.
Trying to write about yourself can be difficult. Knowing what details and facts about your life to include and what to leave out, how much time to spend talking about one thing or several, there's a lot to consider when writing your personal statement.
In this post, I'll show you exactly how to approach your personal statement so that you paint a vivid and compelling portrait of your goals and accomplishments for the admissions readers.
My goal is to help you write your admission essay with confidence and style.
Use these tips to make your writing vivid, compelling, and personal. Show the admissions readers who you are, and what you've done. Don't just list your accomplishments or try and explain why they want you at their school.
Your Personal Essay is Your Story
So write it like one!
1. Start with an image
Great application essays tend to have one thing in common. They're cinematic. That means they have a heavy visual component.
Notice what's different between these two application openings:
"My parents always told me to do my best"
"The bicycle wheel was still turning, though half of the bike was under a bush. My dad pulled the bike from the bush, wiped dirt from my knee, and set me back on the seat. 'You've got to get back on the horse,' he said. Though I had no idea what he meant then, this has become my guiding phrase in life.
The first example is telling. It's uninspired, and it's not that interesting. And, most importantly, it doesn't really say anything about the student.
That second example, however, shows. It's personal -- a story that is unique to the student, and one that taught her an important lesson.
Brainstorm a few significant moments in your life. Write next to each vivid memory a few of the lessons you learned.
fishing with grandpa | to rise early, patience, the thrill of the catch, attention to detail
My brother's birth | fear, love, sharing, wonder, maturity, community
Moving to the U.S. | perseverance, family, finding new friends, fitting in
Brainstorm 5 memories and at least 3 values you learned from each.
Choose the moment in your life that seems the most compelling to you, the one that shows off the best values you learned.
Now, select one value to become the guiding beacon of your essay, your CORE value.
2. Include an epiphany
An epiphany is your "aha" moment. That moment when you realized something significant, something that changed the way you think or act.
Attaching an epiphany to your vivid memory will tell the admissions officers what they really need to know about you: that you learn from experience, and that you know how to skillfully articulate what you've learned.
Think about it. The personal essay is an opportunity for the college to see what kind of student you will be. They're hoping to rope in a freshman (or transfer) student that will thrive in their academic environment. Demonstrating how you learned an important quality is much more effective than simply stating your qualifications.
When you chose a vivid memory, you also wrote down 3 or more values associated with that memory.
Now, turn one of those values into your "aha" moment.
When I saw my baby brother in my mom's arms for the first time I realized I was no longer the most important person to my mom and dad. But when I looked at my brother's rumpled red face, I felt that realization wash out of me. It didn't matter that I wasn't the main focus of the family. We were all a family together, each piece as precious as the next.
The student here wrote a personal essay that focused on the value of community. She was able to connect the story of her brother's birth to a greater theme of community value and talked about her high school experience in terms of community. The vivid memory and the epiphany guided her essay - she returned to the lessons she learned by having a baby in the house and linked those to experiences at school and her volunteer work.
Your epiphany could sound like:
The body of your essay should include particular life and school experiences relevant to your epiphany value. If your epiphany stressed community, choose extracurriculars and volunteer work that relate to the value of community. You want to present a cohesive, clear picture of yourself, and you can get scattered if you talk about too many disparate achievements.
For a truly compelling essay?
End with an image & an epiphany
Bonus points if you can rope back into your original image. Many short story writers end with an image that shows the reader the conclusion rather than telling them, which can seem heavy-handed.
Images are powerful. They're open to interpretation. They can show more than you can tell.
If you can end with a strong image that again shows your value, you're ending strong. The last sentence is your last word on the matter; rarely will your application essay be read more than once. You want the reader to finish your application with the thought, "Yes! We have to have them!"
If you kept your essay hugging your core value, it will be easy to reuse your initial image.
For example, I was working with a student who was writing his application essay about his family's business success and his own drive to study business in college.
His opening image was his father's busy restaurant. This was the moment the student realized that his father built his restaurant from scratch -- all the more impressive because he was the first of his family to immigrate to the US from Thailand.
To close, my student went back to his original image of that busy restaurant, that moment when he realized his father built his own success from the ground up and related it to his own experience which he'd shared in the previous paragraphs.
His examples showed him to be an independent, entrepreneurial, enterprising person.
His final image was him cleaning up after all the customers had left the restaurant. He realized that with success comes the behind-the-scenes action of cleaning up, keeping the mechanics running smoothly.
It was another important lesson for him. Success isn't divorced from hard work. A perfect image and understanding to close the essay with.