Maybe you’ve already gotten some advice on how to write your personal statement: be yourself, stay positive and try to tell an interesting story about what makes you who you are. If you’re lucky, you even have a pretty clear picture of what you want to write about – you’re all fired up and ready to come up with a personal statement that will make you stand out from all the other hopeful applicants.
But if you aren’t careful, you could end up standing out in all the wrong ways!
Your personal statement is your chance to give your application that unique personal touch, and if you write it with care, it’ll only help your application. Every year, though, there are thousands of students who either have lapses of judgment when writing their personal statements or sometimes just haven’t gotten good advice on what admissions officers are looking for, and their personal statements become the kiss of death for their college aspirations.
So to help you avoid becoming one of these unlucky souls, here are 8 tips on how to write a personal statement that will get your application tossed straight from the admissions desk to the recycling bin.
1. Try to Impress the Admissions Committee by Using Unnecessarily Fancy Language
You want the admissions officers reading your essay to think you’re smart, but trying to reinvent yourself as a budding Shakespeare isn’t the way to do that. If you want to tell your essay readers that you tutor middle-school kids after school every Thursday, don’t write “I bequeath the wondrous power of knowledge to pupils less aged than myself upon the penultimate business day of each week.”
Just put yourself in the admissions officers’ shoes: having to read a wordy, over-the-top and exaggeratedly formal essay is probably going to have you counting the minutes until admissions season is over and you can take your vacation to the Bahamas. An easy-to-read, concise essay that tells you who an applicant is in straightforward language, though? Sure to grab your attention for all the right reasons!
It can be hard to judge the tone of what you’re writing and walk the line between too casual and too formal in a personal statement, so if you aren’t sure, just ask a second pair of eyes to give it a look over!
2. Pretend to Be Someone You’re Not
When you’re applying to colleges, the competition can seem daunting. You’re up against students who were building nuclear reactors while you were shooting hoops with your friends.
Sometimes, it can seem like the best way to handle this situation is to pretend to be someone you’re not. But replacing the old advice to “be yourself” with “be whoever you think the people reading your essay want you to be” is an easy way to get a one-way ticket to rejection town.
Admissions officers are professional BS detectors. So if your favorite way to spend Saturday afternoons isn’t doing volunteer work to make the world a better place, don’t say your favorite way to spend Saturday afternoons is doing volunteer work to make the world a better place.
You may think that the person you really are would never get accepted to the school you want to go to. Or you may just think that your life is just too boring to be good personal statement material.
But I guarantee you that there are people with lives more boring than yours who got into whatever school you want to go to by being genuine and thoughtful and working with what they had.
The only thing worse than pretending to be someone you’re not in your personal statement is out-and-out lying. For crying out loud, just don’t do it! If you aren’t that guy who built a nuclear reactor when you were 13, don’t say you’re that guy who built a nuclear reactor when you were 13. You aren’t going to fool anyone!
3. Brag About How You Did Well in High School Without Even Trying
If you want to show the schools you’re applying to how clever you are, you might feel the urge to make it known that you got your 4.0 GPA without even studying. And to prove your point, you could throw in an anecdote about that one time when you aced your test on Hamlet without ever opening the book.
Resist this urge. Your buddies might be impressed by how you can clean up academically without lifting a finger, but you’ll find that college admissions officers are a tougher crowd. They’re not just interested in how clever you are, but also in whether you have the grit, determination and work ethic to succeed under the more intense challenges that will get thrown your way in college and beyond.
Better to spice up your personal statement with an anecdote about overcoming adversity than a paragraph about how you can take a calculus test blindfolded and still be the first one to finish.
4. Ignore the Instructions
Admissions officers have to deliberate between hundreds of applications. Every year they turn down qualified applicants, some of whom go on to accomplish great things. So if you write your personal statement without reading the directions and making sure you follow them, you’re really just giving the folks on the admissions committee an excuse to make their lives easier by taking your application out of consideration.
If might not seem fair that you can get rejected for writing a 700 word essay instead of a 500 word essay, but when they’re reading through hundreds of essays, college admissions officers don’t always have time to contemplate such lofty philosophical ideals as fairness.
Incidentally, ignoring the word limit and making your personal statement twice as long as it’s supposed to be won’t make admissions officers think about how much extra effort you’re putting into writing the essay. It’ll just make them unhappy about how much extra effort they’re having to put in to read it.
5. Be Negative
Here’s an example of something that would make a terrible personal statement: this article. Too negative!
If you want to actually get into the school you’re applying to, don’t be a Negative Nancy! Your personal statement is the place to highlight your positive characteristics and constructive attitude, not wax poetic about how much your school sucks and about how the guys in 3rd period Honors Chemistry are total tools.
This might seem obvious, but it can be a little tricky because talking about hardships you’ve had in your life and adversity you’ve overcome actually can help your application. The key is to emphasize the overcoming and showcase your resilience rather than just trying to make the admissions committee feel sorry for you.
6. Include Spelling and Grammar Mistakes
Let’s take a minute to appreciate what a tough job college admissions officers have. What they have to do is as much an art as a science. Given two promising, bright-eyed high-school students, there’s really no way to say for sure which one is more likely to go on to great things.
But here’s one thing admissions officers can say for sure: if you write that you’re “excited to attend collage,” you’re application is going in the “thanks but no thanks” pile (unless you’re applying to an art school and really do look forward to enrolling in Collage 101, of course). In a process full of subjective decisions, admissions officers will use whatever objective data they can get, and there’s nothing more objective than a spelling or grammar mistake.
As with so many other personal statement pitfalls, the easy solution is just to get another set of eyes on what you’ve written. Don’t just trust spellcheck – it couldn’t tell you the difference between writing an essay and righting an essay!
7. Send the Same Personal Statement to All Your Schools
Colleges routinely send the same form letters to hundreds of applicants, but woe be to any applicant who tries to send the some essays to all the colleges s/he is applying to!
The common app essays, of course, are a welcome exception to this rule, but any time you have to write something for a specific school, you want to make that school feel special! Sending the same essays to all your schools is like giving all your friends and family members the same birthday present – it seems efficient in the short-term, but it will bring you a world of hurt in the long run.
You don’t have to rewrite your personal statement from scratch for every school you’re courting, but you do want to tailor it to each institution’s unique values, thinking about why you’re applying to that school in particular and what they’re looking for in students.
8. Just Restate Your Resume
Coming up with a catchy idea for a personal statement is hard work. Sometimes when you’re sitting there in a room with just the blank page in front of you, it can seem downright impossible.
So you might be tempted to take the easy way out by basically reiterating the accomplishments listed on your resume: “I worked hard and got a 4.0. I’m so good at basketball they made me captain of the team when I was a sophomore. I’m also a National Merit Scholar.”
This approach is literally equivalent to turning in a blank personal statement. You’ve added nothing to your application, and by missing a chance to tell admissions officers about that unique spark that makes you you, you’ve actually subtracted something from your application in a big way.
If you find yourself feeling uninspired when you sit down to craft your personal statement, there are a lot of things you can do to get the ideas flowing: think about what you love. Think about what you’re most proud of. Think about the biggest challenges you’ve had in your life. Ask your friends and family members how they’d describe you. Force yourself to brainstorm a list of 100 personal statement ideas, no matter how bad they are.
But don’t go for the easy option by just rehashing your resume. Because if you do, there’s another option that’s even easier and will get you the same result in the end: ripping your application into tiny pieces and throwing it in the trash.
All these examples of how not to write a personal statement might give the impression that there are a lot of rules you have to follow when you sit down to tell colleges about who you are, but your personal statement is in fact the most open-ended part of the college application process. Ultimately, all you really have to do is be yourself, be your best self and try to have a little fun along the way – after all, you don’t want to churn out an essay so dull that you inspire your admissions officer to take their afternoon nap ahead of schedule.
So just relax, write what comes to mind, watch out for these common pitfalls, have someone read over your essay – and you’ll be sure to get into your dream school. Well, actually, statistically, you’ll probably still get rejected. But at least you’ll have a fighting chance!
By Niels V.