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Personal Statement Do’s and Don’ts

Jul 23, 2019

If you’re about to enter senior year, you’re probably looking for college advice around every corner. There can be a lot of conflicting and confusing advice out there, coming from your college advisor, various books, websites, as well as family and friends who have their own experiences with the college application process. One of the most stressful components of your college application can be the personal statement. The personal statement acts as a window into you as an individual to shed light on the person behind all the numbers and bullet points on paper. At the end of the day, you should trust yourself when writing your personal statement, but if you need a little push in the right direction, we have some for everything you should (and shouldn’t) do when writing your personal statement.

Do: Start Early

There’s no such thing as too early when it comes to writing your personal statement. Even if you’re a freshman or sophomore in high school, you can keep a journal as a record of important thoughts or experiences you have at the time. In the moment, you might think you’ll remember them, but the pressure to write a personal statement, plus the time that has passed might make it hard to remember the details of the experience or how it impacted you. You’ll have a much easier time recalling the remarkable thing that happened a few years ago if you have it written down somewhere. So regardless of your year, you can start preparing for your personal statement. For seniors specifically, you should officially begin the writing process over the summer when you have time to reflect, write drafts, and revise. Once the semester starts, you’ll be busy by school and extracurriculars and enjoying your last year of high school. To minimize stress during your senior year and maximize the quality of your essay, start the writing process as soon as possible! Your senior year self will thank you, we promise.

Don’t: Stick to a Template

There are countless books and forums out there with examples of Ivy League-admitted essays. But the issue with copying those essays is that the colleges you’re applying to already have a student like the one you’re emulating—they don’t need another one. The key to a personal statement is really staying true to yourself, not writing what you think admissions officers would want to see. Be as unique, original, and creative as feels authentic to you. Write an essay only you could write. It’s fine to look at a few examples to get you an idea of what others have written and how you could write, but don’t treat those essays as a template you have to follow paragraph by paragraph. You can be as unconventional as you want to in your personal statement, as long as it clearly communicates the aspects of your personality that you want to make evident in your essay. At the end of the essay, you want the reader to get a better sense of who YOU are, how you see the world, how you’ve grown, and how you might add to their community.

Do: Work with a few trusted editors

ust because this essay is a “personal” statement doesn’t mean you have to do it all on your own. When you read and reread your own writing too many times, it becomes harder to tell what sounds good and what doesn’t. A fresh pair of eyes will be able to see that which you can’t. We recommend having two or three people look at your essay, but no more than that. Different people will be able to see different ways in which you can improve, but as they say, too many cooks spoil the broth. You don’t want your voice to get lost in a sea of voices, so try to limit your editors to one family member or peer, a mentor, and a teacher. If you’re getting contradictory feedback, go with your gut. You know you and your story best.

Don’t: Limit Yourself

If you start the writing process early enough, you’ll have plenty of time to experiment with your essay. You don’t have to write a perfect first draft and edit it obsessively until it’s even more “perfect.” The fact of the matter is that “perfect” comes in many different ways. You can write a couple drafts or outlines responding to different prompts, then choose which topic will allow you to present the most accurate and captivating version of yourself. Or, you can respond to the same prompt in different ways, challenging yourself to discover your most authentic voice. Maybe respond to a prompt more directly in one and more abstract in another, or imagine you’re addressing a different audience in each one (the way you’d tell a story to your friend is very different than the way you’d tell it to your grandma, for instance). Once you have a few drafts to work with, read them all over before you decide which one has made it on to the editing round.

Do: Be confident

You don’t need to be an Olympic gold medalist or have worked in a research lab since you were 12 to apply to elite colleges. You are amazing enough as you are, you just need to find a way to make your college admissions officer aware of that. When you’re in the moment, it can be difficult to recall all of the large and small accomplishments you’ve made over the past few years of your life, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Maybe you helped your little sister practice for her karate test, or taught yourself an uncommon skill. Whatever makes you you is worth writing about. If you commit some time to reflecting on your life, we guarantee you’ll think of something! Once you do, confidence is the key to making that moment seem significant to your reader. If you write honestly and proudly, but not boastfully, about an important moment in your life, it will come across as important to your college admissions officer as well. Remember that you’re writing for yourself as much as you are for the universities to which you’re applying. Writing a personal statement can be a great exercise in building confidence as you recollect all of the things you’ve done so far or experiences you’ve had that have made you who you are.

Don’t: Use Awkward words or phrases

You can’t prepare for the personal statement the way you do for the SATs or an AP English exam. That is to say, building your vocabulary and incorporating fancy vocabulary won’t necessarily improve your essay the way you think it might. In fact, using words you don’t fully understand will probably hurt your essay by making it sound awkward and forced. On the opposite end of the spectrum, don’t fall into the trap of sounding too colloquial by relying on cliches to get your message across. When you get the urge to write idiomatically or use cliches, try to think of a more personal and nuanced way to convey your idea. Doing so will prevent your voice from getting lost in a sea of overused phrases. Finding an authentic, middle ground can be a real challenge, but it’s essential to ensuring that your paper is readable and that your personality shines through it.

Do: Know when it’s done

Nothing is ever perfect. Sometimes when you try too hard to make something perfect, it actually becomes worse than it was before. In fact, we’ve found that done is better than perfect. Once you essay is in a place you’re happy with, put it aside and see if you have any major breakthroughs. If you don’t let yourself relax and click submit. There’s no point stressing over your essay longer than you have to.

We know that every aspect of the college application process comes with it’s own struggles, and sometimes you can feel lost in the college advice that comes at you from every side. Hopefully this list of do’s and don’ts can help point you in the right direction.

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