College application personal statements and application writing supplements are entirely different, have entirely different purposes, and should be approached entirely differently.
Personal statements allow students to reveal important personal qualities, and because both the Common Application and Coalition Application have a “topic of your choice” prompt, it’s clear that students can accomplish that by writing in an engaged way about anything that they wish.
Conversely, writing supplements to college applications tend to be topic-specific, such as “Tell us why you want to attend our university” and “Tell us why you want to study your intended major.” And word limits for the writing supplements are virtually always far lower than word limits for the personal statement, which is understandable given their different purposes.
With that in mind, it should be obvious that one size can’t possibly fit all when we’re providing meaningful advice on how personal statements and writing supplements should be approached, so this blog will focus only on the former.
Let’s start here: What follows is from Seth Allen, dean of admission and financial aid at Grinnell College, while he was answering questions from a TODAY.com producer about what really goes on when admissions officers decide an applicant’s fate.
What are the things that win you over?
It might be in the essay itself… students who can, in their own words, paint an effective picture of themselves through demonstrating to us what matters to them, because of the topic they choose to write on and how they choose to write about it and the risks they take in setting up their subject. [emphasis added]
Reading (applications) takes place very early in the morning and well into late at night. So at some point there's a bit of weariness that sets in reading one good applicant after another. The student that's able to cut through that, an interesting essay, an unusual topic, someone who makes us laugh, that's someone that stands out for us.
So, here are twelve guiding principles:
- Dare to be different. Otherwise, you’ll risk getting lost in the crowd.
- Open with something that’s going to intrigue the readers and make them want to read the rest of the piece.
- Go from narrow to broad. Start with/focus on a specific experience and then generalize it to say something important about who you are as a person. Because colleges want students who show maturity, self-reflection, compassion, curiosity, and perseverance, if that “something important about who you are as a person” reflects one of more of those attributes, you’ll be telling a desired story to a receptive audience.
- Remember that you’re not writing a formal essay. You’re telling a story about yourself – as if you were telling it to an admissions officer who’s sitting across the desk from you – so don’t write in “robot-speak.” Unless you don’t use contractions in your speech, use them liberally in your writing.
- Don’t let your parents, high school counselor, or English teacher review your personal statement with a red pen, though the latter can be used to proof your work for punctuation and grammar. Turn, instead, to experienced professionals who have a proven history of successfully providing application essay advice for a living, who know what admission officers like, and who know what the voice of a 17-year-old sounds like.
- Beware of asking advice from so many others that your personal statement is no longer your personal statement but is, instead, your entourage’s statement.
- Write with your mouth. Read aloud to yourself what you’re written, and if it doesn’t sound right coming out of your mouth, it doesn’t belong in your personal statement.
- Don’t rely on spell-check. Have an accomplished editor carefully scrutinize everything.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. This is your unique story. It doesn’t matter what someone else does.
- Don’t brag. There are few things that are more likely to get admissions officers rooting against you than to show them that you require a triple-digit hat size. Colleges look far more favorably on applicants who are humble, modest, and even self-effacing. The places to do your bragging – and even then, keep it factual – are in the Activities section of your application and in your résumé, for colleges that allow you to upload one.
- Write, then edit, re-read, then edit again, and again. After that, put the piece away for a while, then re-read it, and edit it again multiple times, reading it all the way through each time.
- Start the process early, because writing a sparkling personal statement takes work and the time needed to do everything mentioned in the eleventh principle.
Are these twelve all you need to pull off a truly good personal statement? No, but it’s a really good start, and we’ve used exactly those principles in assisting thousands of students in writing personal statements that worked to help gain them admission to one or more of their top-choice colleges.
So, if you’re at any point in the process of writing your personal statement, we stand ready to help you from the brainstorming stage all the way through to “ready to submit.” Give us a call today if you need help. Already have an essay written? Looking for feedback? Try out our $99 essay review special, details via the link below.
And stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, which provide guiding principles for writing your supplemental essays.