When I first meet with families and students, they always ask about the college essay, aka “the personal statement.” Fears and questions run the gamut. Some students elude topic altogether and are in denial that they will need to write one. Others just have no idea how to start writing. Here are some examples of common questions I may receive and my usual responses. Perhaps these questions and fears may sound familiar to you?
“How important is the personal statement?”
Well, for some schools, it’s the most important part of the application. Particularly if the college(s) you like don’t offer interviews or a chance for teachers to write recommendation letters, then the personal statement becomes the school’s one way to get to know you apart from your grades and scores. The bottom line is that this is your best opportunity to show the admissions officers and readers a little something about yourself that they cannot find in the application. You decide what you will write about. Don’t take the personal statement lightly.
“Do the colleges really read the essay?”
Yes, I am inclined to say that all colleges and universities read the essays. Many spend a good amount of money hiring readers during the application “season.” They wouldn’t want to waste your time asking for an essay if they weren’t going to read it. You should not be spending time and energy trying to figure out how to circumvent the system, spend your time doing the best job you can on your application and essay.
“What if the choice to write the essay is “optional” for a college I like?”
Well, as I always tell people, your competition is writing the optional essays, sending the optional scores, and doing everything above and beyond what is asked. If this is your first choice, make them know it. Just like you’d do everything you could to get a good job, do the same for your college(s). Again, this is a great opportunity for you to stand out from the crowd. Use every one of these opportunities to your advantage as there are not many!
“I haven’t really done anything worth writing about.”
Some of the essays I’ve read and loved have not been about a particular activity. One student wrote about her red hair (& got into her funny Irish heritage and spunky demeanor). Another wrote a great essay about gardening with his dad. Others have written about a photograph or painting or advice they’d been given. This is not about finding the most admirable story or showing that you are better than everyone else.
“If I’m an athlete, I should write about sports right?”
Actually the answer is probably the opposite. Admissions offices know by your resume, your medals/ribbons, your awards, and your extracurricular activities that you’re an athlete. They actually may find it quite refreshing if you DON’T write about that sport. They know you spend most your life in the pool/on the field/in the gym. Show them who you are outside of the sport. This is your chance to show them that you are not “just a jock.” Show them that you are not one dimensional.
“If I’m really into drama, I should write about my favorite play, right?”
Same answer as the athlete. If you’re into drama/art/music, it will show from your resume. Most schools will ask you about your favorite extracurricular activity. Save your Fine Arts/Athletic response for that one if you must write about it. Use your personal statement to show what type of person you are.
“How do I write a personal statement without sounding like I’m bragging about myself?”
Your personal statement is not the place to list activities or list (TELL) personality traits or explain awards. Again, this is your one chance to SHOW your personality through an anecdote or two. Use this time to give the admissions officers a way to know you, a way for you to become 3-dimentional. This is the most important concept that I can teach my students, we are showing not telling…there is a huge difference. Think about this until you are sure you understand it and then work on your first draft. Read your draft and see if you were able to pull it off.