The personal statement is a terrific opportunity to share with admissions committees an interesting and unique aspect of your life. 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.
What are the Adcoms Looking For?
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.
How Do You Choose a Personal, but Not Too Personal Essay Topic?
When facing the personal statement, start by 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? Do you 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, ambivalent, or insecure? If so, 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.
Tips for Sharing Personal Stories
A few tips:
1. Always be honest (admissions committees can smell exaggeration from a mile away!).
2. Don’t give details about your marriage and stay away from failed romantic relationships.
3. Don’t focus your anecdotes on resentment, anger, or other feelings of ill-will that you may have had in a close relationship; focus on strength, recovery, and growth – in short, resilience.
4. Emphasize what you learned and what you’d like to do with that knowledge, not just on what happened.
If so, I’d say go for it. Be yourself. Make it interesting. And tell the truth.