Most colleges require supplemental materials in addition to the general application, namely the personal statement. Typically, the topics for this are fairly broad in nature for a couple of reasons: first, it lends itself to a wide range of answers from a diverse applicant pool. Perhaps more importantly, it creates an opportunity to see how creative an applicant can be in 500 words or less. Easy enough, right? Not so much.
1. Play Therapist
If the application itself is like the resume, the personal statement is the cover letter. I advise students to refrain from writing about anything that may have been listed on the application, such as extracurricular or volunteer activities. Colleges want to know WHO you are, not WHAT you are. They already know you are a band member, Honor student, or active youth group member because it was listed on your application. This is a space to showcase those intangible qualities that define who you are and your character, – and in their minds, the qualities that will determine your success or lack thereof at their university. I suggest to play therapist with yourself and figure out what adjectives would best describe you and then think back to what experienced formed those qualities.
2. Less is more
While it may seem daunting, choose only one quality or experience on which to focus. You want to write a lot about a little, not a little about a lot. It doesn’t mean that the others don’t exist by highlighting one in particular. Eliminate redundancies by finding ways to creatively combine sentences and add complexity.
3. Remember your audience
This is not the place to preach or lecture, nor is it social media. Your language and tone should reflect the purpose – which is to show them that you can thrive at their college. Slang and using second person have no business here.
After your initial draft, set it aside for a day or so to marinate. Come back to it with a fresh set of eyes and then read it aloud to yourself. Your mouth will catch the errors that your eyes typically gloss over. Once you have the content set, proofread it again. And again. And again. Even the smallest error says that you are not conscientious. These 500 words are probably the most important words you will write up to this point in your life. Taking the time to make it perfect is well worth it.
5. Think outside the box
Your essay will be read among thousands of others, and it needs to stand out in content, language, and structure. Get creative with your topic by starting out with a vivid description of your experience then transition into explaining its significance to who you are today. Avoid cliches and overly-used words and phrases. In terms of content, think about the quirks you have and what they say about you. My sister began hers by describing in specific detail every inch of her immaculately organized closet. By getting their attention this way, she was able to them explain her uncanny attention to detail and how it spills over into every area of her life, both personally and academically. Focus on those experiences that have made you unique. Everyone has been on a sports team or gone on a mission trip. It’s the snapshots within those more generic experiences that should be teased out.
Like most things in life, the fear of this section is worse than the reality. Once you have solidified your first draft, your confidence will serve as the momentum to polish it to perfection!