The personal statement is a terrific opportunity to share with admissions committees an interesting and unique aspect of your life. However, many applicants are understandably frightened of having to face the “camera” and speak personally about their lives while also trying to impress. So, how much should you tell, and how much is too much?
When I applied to college, I wrote a personal statement describing some challenging family circumstances I’d had while growing up. I can still remember my best friend warning me that it was too risky, too intense. So I went back to the essay and asked myself: what did I learn from this experience? Does it speak to my strengths and individual qualities, or is it something meant for a therapist’s office (or a private journal)? I studied the essay carefully and made sure it gave the reader a good sense of who I was, not just the people in my family. I was careful to focus on what I had learned from these challenges, and how the experience had made me a more independent, compassionate person. I decided to send it in, and I was lucky to get great responses. (In fact, one admissions counselor even wrote me a personal note!) So, in this case, taking the leap was well worth it. But, in some cases, it is not.
All admissions committees want to accept a wide range of interesting, talented applicants. They want – as you would, if you were picking a team of any sort – a diverse group of smart, motivated, innovative, and unique individuals who can add up to an interesting, richly layered community. They want people with integrity who will get along with others, and they want people who will add to their campus in an endless variety of ways. They also want applicants who are stable, confident, and have already achieved important things in their lives.
So, when facing the personal statement, try listing all of the meaningful events in your life. Which experiences really changed you, influenced you, and made you the person you are today?
For example, did you grow up overseas, having to speak several languages? Are you from a cultural background that might make you stand out, or may have enriched your life in a special way? Do you have a handicap that has in fact made you stronger? Do you love to cook Thai food, run marathons, play the piano? Do you have a passion or interest that might be unusual but gives meaning to your life? What have you had to work really hard at?
Then, mark the ones that, while they may be very personal, helped you to learn what you want to do with your life; the ones that led you to clarify your values. Ask yourself: do these experiences make me sound emotionally unstable, or ambivalent, or insecure? If so, I’d take them to a therapist, not the admissions committee! But, if your topic has helped you become stronger and wiser, then I’d consider it to be a viable option.
A few tips:
• Always be honest (admissions committees can smell exaggeration from a mile away!).
• Explain as much as you have to, but be careful not to give unnecessary and boring details.
• Humor can be great, but don’t force it.
• Focus on what you learned and what you’d like to do with that knowledge, not just on what happened.
• Have someone you trust read it over for you.
• Then, read it yourself. Does it sound like you? Is the topic something you can be proud of? Will it make you stand out not just in some way, but in a good way?
If so, I’d say go for it. Be yourself. Make it interesting. And tell the truth.
By Eliot Sloan a college writing professor specializing in the personal narrative; journalist, writing coach, and admissions consultant. She has helped applicants gain acceptance to Ivy League and other top programs.