The personal statement is the main essay required by the common application as well as by most other application systems. The main questions you’ll be answering in the personal statement are “who are you?” and “what do you value?” Consider this your opportunity to demonstrate your qualities and values, show off your chops as a writer, and, above all, tell the admissions office how these traits are going to contribute to your success on their campus.
In this blog post, you’ll learn about a few tips and tricks that will make your essay stand out. We’ll talk about those first, and then we’ll analyze a sample essay that does those things well.
While a lot of your college application is going to be numbers, letters, and test scores on a transcript, the personal statement is just the opposite. This is your opportunity to show schools exactly who you are. That might seem like a pretty daunting task, considering you have a 500-650 word limit and you’re so much more than an essay.
Here are some tips to help your essay stand out:
Identify Core Values
The College Essay Guy has a super useful video (link here) that can help you identify which values are the most important to you. Values define who you are as a person, how you interact with the world around you, and what drives you to do what you do. Letting your values be seen in the essay is an incredible way to show colleges exactly who you are.
Strive for Insight
This is an immensely important aspect of your essay. Does each and every sentence show, or contribute, to a broader sense of who you are and how you see yourself? A good exercise for double checking this is to go through, sentence by sentence, and ask the question, “So what?” Push yourself to weave insight into every sentence.
Is the admissions counselor at your dream school going to feel closer to you after reading your essay? This doesn’t mean you need to confess your deepest secrets or treat your personal statement as if it’s a letter to your best friend. Simply put, on a 1-10 vulnerability scale, strive to fall somewhere between 5 and 8. Read your essay and give yourself a vulnerability grade. Ask a peer or teacher to do the same.
Consider all Five Senses
Chances are, your writing is probably skewed towards sight. Appealing to all five senses in your writing is not only a useful tool for your personal statement, but in nearly all of the writing you’ll do going forward. Does your essay appeal to multiple senses? Is one more dominant than the others? How can you tie in all five?
Lastly, your final essay needs to be a polished piece of work. Make revisions throughout the process. Grammar errors and typos are a strike against you and are completely avoidable. As always, let your peers and teachers read your essay and make sure that the final product is ready to go.
Here is a sample essay we can review considering the points above
As an 18-year-old male preparing for future choices and responsibilities, I find myself quite invested in understanding the anatomical features of my favorite body part: my corpus callosum. I have recently come to attribute this bundle of neural fibers connecting my brain’s two hemispheres to the especially “whole-brained” nature of my thinking. However, the frequent mingling of my two hemispheres resulted in some unusual and even arguably unfavorable outcomes. In fact, I originally resented my corpus callosum, as I held it responsible for my artistic identity crisis.
Ever since I picked up my first pencil, drawing has been central to my identity. I love the sensation of graphite scraping across a page, abandoning its dull grey excess to the blank canvas beneath. I delight in the pencil shavings and eraser scraps that collect around me in the oh so familiar fashion I have come to savor through the years. Generally, when people consider the stereotypical artist they think eccentric, unorganized, and abstract: someone who pushes the artistic boundaries with huge vivid paintings and abstract techniques. I, however, could never identify with this general perception.
For years, this aspect to my art – to this creative side of myself stemming from my right hemisphere – constantly nagged at me. Even as a child I never really understood the huge appeal of coloring outside of the lines. I never wanted to use vivid, neon colors that did not accurately represent the subject. Why would you color the ocean in as orange? That doesn’t make any sense. I always wanted to make my sketches as realistic as possible, copying every single detail from the scene. When my teachers encouraged me to venture into the abstract and expressionist domain, I always tried but I felt uncomfortable and the picture turned out, well, dreadful. Even when I painted, trying to follow my teacher’s suggestion to “just express myself,” the painting would turn out just like my drawings – detailed, black and white, realistic… boring.
As I struggled to connect with my artistic identity, I also found it difficult at times to identify wholly with my fellow artists, those so adept with their right hemispheres. I could never find any other peers in art class who were as interested in or excited about understanding stoichiometric conversions or solving parametric equations as I. Yet I also felt different from my fellow scientists when I was the only one who eagerly anticipated the upcoming biology assignment of drawing numerous tissue samples enhanced by a microscope. The issue, as I finally concluded with the help of the left side of my brain, was somehow my two hemispheres seemed to be communicating excessively. My art was infused with precision, affinity for realism, and logic, whereas my science and math eagerly embraced any opportunity for creativity and design. The most logical explanation was that my corpus callosum was to blame.
Recently, however, I have come to the realization that perhaps I am unique because of the heightened communication between my left and right hemispheres. Perhaps their confluence did not inhibit but rather cultivated, even enriched, my artistic identity all along. I appreciate my artwork and value the process of scanning a scene for every detail, embracing the challenge of capturing every texture and shadow in only black and white. I have come to appreciate my ability to tap into both of my hemispheres, and I look for situations in which I can contribute a whole-brained approach to critical thinking, problem solving, or communicating. Maybe, like my art, I like things to be deliberate, planned, and precise like the edge of my ruler, but I never miss the small details that are often overlooked by others. I take pride in what I do, whether I am holding a paintbrush or a pipette.
Does this essay identify core values, or what drives the student to be who he is?
Absolutely. Throughout the essay we see the writer juggling between two sides of himself that, at times, seem contradictory. A love for exactness. A need for organization. An aptitude for science. Contrasted with a lifelong love of drawing. A longing for artistic fulfillment. A tendency to want to fit neatly into a certain category. An ambition for learning in more facets than one.
Is the essay insightful?
Let’s ask the question, “so what?” The first paragraph grabs our attention and lays the groundwork for what we are about to read. The writer ties in humor, struggle, and his favorite hobby together beautifully, and each sentence contributes. He continues to weave in elements of his personality. He shows off his academic side and does so without bragging. He gives the reader an idea of the stress it caused him to grapple with two competing sides of himself. Ultimately, he hints that he has learned to embrace his whole-brained way of thinking, and has come to the realization that it is not a hindrance, but an advantage.
Is his writing vulnerable?
Throughout his writing, he alludes to his struggle to find his identity, to fit a particular mold. He describes the difficulty he experienced in his artistic pursuits, how his dislike for the abstract made him feel like less of an artist, and his interest in art separated him from his peers in his science classes. He shows vulnerability, and what is particularly awesome about it, is that it isn’t a ten on the vulnerability scale. He’s able to weave in those elements without oversharing or giving the impression of “woe is me”.
Does he incorporate multiple senses?
In the beautifully written second paragraph, there is a lot of sensory imagery used. You can picture sketches forming. You can hear pencils sharpening, feel the friction of the graphite pencil gliding on the paper. It’s a wonderful piece of writing and it engages the reader so well.
Does he demonstrate craft?
The essay, as a whole, is a wonderfully written, neatly packaged piece of work. There are no grammatical errors, erroneous sentences, or run-on sentences. It is clear that he has done his due diligence when it comes to revision and polishing up. While the essay doesn’t necessarily offer the conclusion that this struggle is completely resolved, it does flow logically and has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
The combination of all of these things makes for one amazing personal statement. Now, get writing and think of these tips along the way!
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