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Personal Statement Tips For College Applications

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Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate school or trying to get into graduate programs, many applications require a letter of intent or personal statement. Personal statements are one of the most important parts of the application and sometimes the deciding factor for admission.

Personal statements give a better understanding of who you are, beyond the rigid constraints of the “fill-in-the-blank” application.

Like many around this time of the year, I am finishing my graduate school applications. Looking for advice and guidance, I decided to compare different schools’ personal statement requirements and ask admissions offices for advice. Here’s what I found:

1. Be yourself

The Columbia Graduate School for Journalism encourages students to write about family, education, talents or passions. They want to hear about significant places or events in your life; about books you have read, people you have met or work you’ve done that has shaped the person you have become.

Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.

2. Show diversity

Rayna Reid, a personal statement guru, received her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Law degree at Columbia. Reid says a personal statement is really just a way to make the college fall in love with you.

“The essay is where you really get a chance to differentiate yourself from the other applicants,” she said. “Explain why they should accept you. What will you contribute?”

Sean Carpenter, University of Southern California Student Services Associate and undergraduate student, reiterates the importance of differentiating yourself from other applicants.

He works in the Annenberg School for Communication admissions office and deals with prospective students daily. Carpenter says USC or any major school want to see diversity.

“They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants?” Carpenter said, “Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”

3. Do research and tailor each essay accordingly

Every college is different, so each personal statement should be different. Many students try to get away with having a universal essay but admissions departments will notice.

“Do research to give concrete reasons why you’re interested in particular program,” Carpenter said. “Speak with a faculty member that you’re interested in working with or doing research for and mention that in your statement. It would also be beneficial to say what classes you’ve taken that were relevant to the field of study.”

4. Be concise and follow directions

Make sure you read the directions carefully. One of the biggest red flags for an admissions office are students who don’t adhere to word limitations. Don’t give them a reason to throw out your application.

Believe it or not, there is a way to say everything you want in a page or less. If you need some help, ask several faculty members to read over your essay and give you feedback.

5. Go beyond your resume, GPA and test scores

Many students worry about how their GPA and test scores will affect the admissions process. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain any strengths or weaknesses in your application — such as changes in major, low GPA or lack of experience.

For instance, Reid was worried about not having a 4.0 GPA. Since Reid didn’t have the perfect GPA, she explained what she did with her time to make up for that fact. Being on the Varsity rowing team and a Teach for America Corp member are great examples of how devoting her time to other things made an impact on her GPA.

6. Tell a story

“Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner,” Reid said. “For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”

One of the worst things you can do is bore the admission officer. Make yourself memorable by telling a story about something distinctive from a creative or different angle.

With this advice, your personal statement will be the highlight of your application. Good luck!

Alexis Morgan is currently a senior at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in public relations, broadcast journalism, print journalism and production. Alexis truly believes if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.

Alexis Morgan, Columbia University, Cornell University, grad school, Penn State University, the application, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 


For some reason, it’s difficult to write (or talk) about  yourself. Think about that for a minute. One of the most common interview questions is “what are your strengths”. As I was thinking about how I would answer that, at this exact moment, what popped into my head was, “ummmm well, when I was younger I used to pretend that swings were rocket ships that would take me to the moon if I swung high enough” — so I guess I’m imaginative? Probably not what I would actually say out loud in a real interview, but you get the point.

Fortunately, you have a bit more time to prepare a personal statement–you’re not on the spot. Having said that, the personal statement is one of the hardest parts of any kind of application. Sometimes just figuring out where to start can take forever. So here’s a list of things to make sure you consider before starting, and when writing your personal statement.

1. What are the requirements?

Most of the time a personal statement will come with a set of requirements. There’s a very good chance that the school, scholarship, or position you are applying for will request that you answer a question or discuss something specific in your personal statement or essay. Purdue Owl’s number one piece of advice for personal statement writing is to answer the question! It may seem like common sense, but if you’re given a topic, stick to it as best you can.

Another requirement might include a page or word cap (e.g., 1000 words max.). Depending on the limit, you might have to be quite concise when writing. Having said that, even if there is not a length requirement, be sure to keep your writing to the point.

2. Talk to others

Before you start writing, talk to your close friends and family. Find out what they see as unique about you. Sometimes it is really difficult to come up with a list of your own strengths, so have others do it for you! Ask them if they have any stories that would be helpful, or what they think sets you apart from other applicants. You might be surprised to hear what they have to say.

3. Organize your thoughts BEFORE you start writing

Sit down and create an outline of what you want to say before you start writing. Not only will this help keep your thoughts organized, but it will also ensure that your essay flows nicely. Make sure your first paragraph includes a good hook, you want to make sure they keep reading.

Using an outline will also help keep you on track if there’s a page or word limit–you’ll be able to gauge how much “space” you still have left to get out everything you want to say. Or, if you find yourself rambling about one topic for too long, you will know where to shave words/sentences to fit the rest of your points. Remember, be specific and tell a story–be memorable.

4. Why should they choose you?

Even if the topic you’re given, or question you’re asked to answer is a bit abstract, make sure you’re presenting yourself in a positive light and letting the reader(s) know why you should be chosen.

If you need to do a bit of research, by all means, go for it. You want to know your stuff if you’re going to be writing about it. Don’t make things up–the reader(s) will know. Stick to what you know and be yourself.

5. Address gaps/discrepancies that may appear

If you are writing a personal statement for a scholarship or college admissions, explain the things that may not match up or make sense when paired together. For example, if you really struggled freshman and sophomore year and failed a few classes, you probably don’t have a 4.0 GPA. But, you might have a high ACT/SAT score. So, when someone is looking through your materials (e.g., transcript, test scores, etc.) they might be confused by the discrepant data. Use your personal statement to explain what was going on in your life or how your attitude towards school has changed over the years.

While there are somethings that are good to explain in a personal statement, there are also topics you should avoid. Don’t include things that aren’t relevant to the question or prompt. If you aren’t sure whether or not something should be included, it never hurts to ask. Now, when I say ask, I don’t mean turn to your locker partner and say, “hey, should I write about that time that Susie dumped her strawberry milk on me in 10th grade and ruined my white jeans–that was embarrassing..”. Try talking to a teacher or your school counselor instead.

6. Have someone else proofread your writing

Poor grammar and spelling mistakes are a surefire way to have your application tossed away without a second glance. It doesn’t matter if you’re competing against 3 or 3,000 other students–incorrect English always looks bad.

If you don’t have anyone around to proofread for you, and the application is due in 15 minutes, try reading it out loud. Reading your writing aloud helps identify places where you might need commas or where you skipped or misused a word.

7. Seek feedback

Before submitting your final draft, ask your school counselor, teacher(s), or someone else you trust to not only read over your work, but also to provide feedback. This can be a good way to find those tidbits that you maybe shouldn’t have included, or where you need to further explain a few details. You know what you’re trying to say or explain, but it might not always come across the best in writing.

Receiving and working with feedback is something you’ll be doing the rest of your life, so this is good practice now. Constructive critiquing will always benefit you. It isn’t an attack against you, and it isn’t saying that your writing is terrible, it is helpful. Listen to what others have to say, but at the end of the day it’s still up to you whether or not to make the changes.

My last tidbit of advice for you, in regards to personal statements, is do NOT wait until the last minute to start writing. The more editing you have time to do the better.

If you need further assistance with your personal statement, Purdue OWL has great resources (including examples) available on their website!

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