How to write a personal statement essay with impact.
College entrance essays are often in the form of a personal statement essay. The topic chosen for such an essay should reveal some intellectual and/or creative achievements of the applicant. The personal statement essay is an opportunity for admissions staff to get an idea of what you are like as a person. There is no single right way to write such an essay. In general though it should convey evidence of your achievements that aren't obvious in other parts of your application. The personal statement essay should also show how events have shaped your attitudes and your intellectual curiosity.
The focus of a personal statement essay is you: your ambitions, your principles, your achievements, and the obstacles that you have faced. You need to be honest. Don’t just tell the readers what you think they want to know, tell them what they should know about you! Don’t, however, gallop through an long list of your achievements (or ambitions) from the year dot. Provide in an depth picture of some aspect of your experiences. Give a lively and compelling picture of you. Demonstrate that you’ve thought about your experiences, and about what you want for the future. Show how your personality has grown as you persevered to overcome obstacles. Don’t complain, beg or brag.
As with any other essay you must consider the essay question or title and make sure you completely understand what is being asked of you. Be sure to explicitly address that question or stay “on topic”. Don’t be tempted to wander off into tales of marginal relevance, however interesting they seem! You also need to know if there is a particular essay format that you must follow. There may be a page or word limit, as well other presentational instructions. You must follow any instructions given. If you are supposed to present an essay of 1000 words then do so. If you present a longer essay you’ll not be given favour for putting in extra effort, rather you will be penalised for not following the instructions, especially if your language is rather verbose.
If your personal statement essay is to be word-processed then use a 10-12 point standard true-type font such as Times or Arial. Fancy fonts can be harder to read and may not look the same way when transferred between computers or printers.
You’ll have some degree of choice in what you write, even for an essay with a given title. Try “brainstorming”, to gather your ideas onto paper so you can choose the most interesting and relevant ones for your essay. Get all of your thoughts down so that you don't forget anything (don't censor them yet). Don’t worry that you’ve got a jumbled list of ideas, thoughts and even pieces of thoughts, just get everything out of your head and onto paper.
If your stuck then ask yourself some questions and write down your answers. What do you care about? What are your greatest strengths? What are you best achievements? What incidents demonstrate your responsibility, and how? What are your weaknesses? Have you struggled to overcome or change something about yourself or your life? What is it that makes you different from others? What makes you special? What unusual experiences have you had and how have they affected you? Has some activity or job had an impact on your academic or career goals? Has someone else affected you in some profound way?
When you’ve finished brainstorming you'll need to identify one theme you wish to pursue in more detail. Think about what might be interesting or unusual to the reader. One way to do this is to group similar events together to uncover any patterns that might make a theme for your essay.
Check your “brainstorm” notes and add details that will make the events you intend to describe vivid to the reader. What were the key moments of the events involved and what aspects have stayed with you most? What makes them special, unusual or significant? What have you learned, and what do they reveal about you? How have the events made you special or changed in some way? Start developing your plan for your personal statement essay, organizing your ideas into an overall structure. There are different ways to develop the structure of your personal statement essay. You might work from the least to the most significant components of your theme, or you could arrange things in chronological order. Try different methods and decide which one best suits your particular theme.
As with other essays the introduction of your personal statement essay captures the main idea of your essay. This is where you define the theme and establish the tone of your personal statement. You need to get straight to the point, avoiding flowery language and meaningless prose. Make the introduction to your essay captivating, make it memorable! The admissions staff assessing your essay may well have to read hundreds of other essays by hopeful applicants. You will stand out better if you grab their attention using vivid imagery and startling (but true) details. Avoid using clichés and proverbs, or other worn-out literary phrases in an attempt to grab the readers attention. Try to be original.
In the main part of your personal statement essay you’ll expand on your theme and provide the details that move that it forward. Think about the transitions between the paragraphs of your essay and look for interesting words and phrases to move your essay along. Make sure that you aren’t overusing words and phrases such as "also" and “in addition” to move your paragraphs forward. Avoid starting your paragraphs using numerical transitions, such as first, second, third and finally. The sentences that end the paragraphs should aid the transition into the next paragraph.
Your conclusion should re-affirm the validity of your personal statement essay's theme and show the significance of your experiences in a larger perspective. Don’t make your concluding paragraph too general or vague: it should be specific to your essay and your personal situation. Try to avoid using vague or predictable phrases such as "I learned a lot", "I learned that not everyone is the same" or "It was a challenging experience".
A typically poor concluding paragraph is given as an example. Uninspiring language describes ambitions and dreams in a vague, “arm-waving” sort of way, and does not seem to be directly connected to any theme. It is not specific to the essay to which it belongs:
"I hope that this essay has shown you what I’m like as an individual. I have my hopes and dreams and will give my best efforts to achieve them. When my ambitions are a bit out of my reach, I press on until I get what I want. I never think negatively."
Once you have a first draft of your personal statement essay be sure to revise and edit it – several times if necessary. Leave plenty of time to proofread. If you can, put your essay away for a few days, and come back to it after a break. You will be more likely to spot errors and to see where you can make improvements. Make sure your writing is clear and precise. It should be vivid without being too flowery: use simpler words in place of longer or obscure words, don’t use ten words when one will do! Make sure that each word means what you think it means. Whenever possible use active rather than passive verbs. Everything in your essay should be to the point: delete any parts that don't contribute to your theme. Check your grammar and spelling carefully and, even though this is a personal essay, you must avoid using slang or colloquial language.
When you’re happy with your personal statement essay try and get feedback from someone else, or even several people, if possible including a teacher. Listen carefully and think about their criticisms and suggestions. Can they identify your overall theme? Can they understand your essay without having to ask for further details or other clarification? Particularly ask your readers to pay special attention to any parts of your essay that you yourself are unsure about. Ask for written comments if possible, but otherwise write down the comments they make as soon as possible. Revise your essay in the light of your readers responses, and then ask someone to comment on the revised version.
Students often make mistakes in their personal statement essays. Here are some things to particularly think about, so that you avoid some of the more common mistakes.
1. Students sometimes do little more than repeat information given in the rest of the application. This is a mistake since the admissions staff don’t gain any additional insights into your personality. It’s fine to pick out something from your application if you are going to expand on it and discuss it’s significance, but don’t try to impress the reader with by listing everything you've ever done.
2. Complaining about your circumstances isn’t a good idea. You can tell the reader how you’ve overcome adversity, but don’t use your essay as a chance to have a good moan!
3. Don’t discuss a college's rank or prestige as a reason for applying. Even if money or rank is important to you, don’t say so in the essay. Better to show that you’re inspired by learning!
4. Don’t makes claims in your essay that contradicted by (or otherwise unsupported by) information in other parts of your application. If you claim, for example, that your lifelong ambition is to be a top musician your application should show examples of involvement in music related hobbies, clubs and classes.
5. Be careful if you are applying to more than one place. You might copy and share between applications, but make sure that one college doesn’t get an application addressed to another!
6. Make sure your essay is the right length. You may have to state the number of words at the end of your essay. Remember that the readers will be a reasonably good judges of word counts. They will know if you try to pass off 7000 words as 5000 words!
If your personal statement essay’s too short consider adding extra examples or exploring particular arguments or subjects in a more detail. Consider the balance of your essay to see where additions can most appropriately be made.
Students often think it’s okay to submit essays that are too long. Do not do this! Admissions staff are looking for students who can follow instructions and write concisely. They won’t favour you for putting in extra effort, especially if your essay is rather long-winded. They will have many other application essays to read and may be grumpy if they’re given too many over-long essays.
If your essay’s too long you’ll need to edit it. Try rewording sentences and paragraphs to make them shorter. With practice you should be able to cut out quite a lot of words without substantially altering the sense or information content of your essay. In fact it’s often the case that essays edited in this way are easier and more enjoyable to read. Only cut out information as a last resort, or if you’ve clearly wandered “off topic”. The first thing you might be able to cut is the amount of detail given in particular examples.