What are admission committee looking for in a personal statement?
Content-wise, admission officers look for insights into what you would contribute to the college.
Many colleges give points to certain things which may not be obvious. Continuity of activity, showing consistency over years is valued at most colleges. Another factor which is valued is Intellectual Curiosity (IC), showing that you have broad interests and actively pursue them. Outside of that, well known factors like leadership, cooperation, and collaboration are valued. In the last few decades, demonstrations of cultural diversity and awareness have also been gaining prominence in admissions. Resilience, the ability to not only cope but to overcome adversity may not be specific rating but has been associated with higher rated essays. Lastly, self-reflection, metacognition, and the ability to process experiences have also shown relatively high performances on essays.
Very few essays will effectively show all of these things. What a student like yourself should do though, is try and incorporate as much as is possible without sacrificing narrative consistency.
What are the prompts?
There are two main college application platforms: Common Application and Coalition Application. Every year, these two platforms each publish a list of prompts for the personal statement. While the two lists are not entirely identical and vary slightly year to year, the most common prompts include:
1. Central aspect of your identity (background, activity, interest, talent, pursuit, etc.)
2. Overcoming a failure
3. Demonstration of leadership
4. Experience that challenged or changed your belief or perspective
5. Problem you would like to solve
6. Subject or idea that captivates you
The best way to approach these prompts is to sit down in a quiet space and brainstorm personal qualities and important events in your life.
Begin by writing out 30 to 40 statements like:
I am a _________ person.
We will call these statements “quality statements.”
From here, it is a good idea to write 5-10 statements like:
I impressed myself when ___________.
Then, see if you can write 5-10 statements like:
My life would have been completely different, if __________ had not happened.
We will call these two types of statements “experience statements.”
Whether you write it down or use post-it notes, or a brainstorming site on the web, use what works. Listen to music if you need to. Speak into a recording device while going for a walk if that is who you are. Whatever method you are using, make sure to carefully document all of your ideas so you can revisit them later. Having an organized process like this will provide you with the important material you need for the next steps.
Tips for choosing the right topic
Tip 1: Pick something that shows your best qualities
The personal statement is designed for you to show college admissions who you are, in your own word. You should take this unique opportunity to show off some of your best qualities.
“How do I do that?” You may ask. We recommend a process of quality mapping, where you connect specific experiences and stories with personal qualities that those experiences and stories demonstrate.
Take a look at the experience statements you have written. Now, match each of these experience statements with 1-2 quality statements. Many quality statements might correspond with more than one experience statement. That is okay. You can put them all in one cluster.
Once you are done with the quality mapping, you can start ranking your combinations. On a scale of 1 to 10, assign a score for each of the following criteria for each of your combinations (a maximum of 40 points possible for each combination):
1. These are qualities I am proud of and want to show to admission counselors.
2. This experience has made me a better person.
3. I have enough material to write about from this experience.
4. Writing about this experience/ these values adds something new to my application.
You can now use the total score to help you rank your story/qualities combinations, from which you can then connect to other experiences and expand to a broader topic.
Tip 2: Pick something that demonstrates personal growth
Whatever event or experience you choose to write about, it is critical to highlight how you have changed after the fact. For instance, in a successful essay to Northeastern University, a student reflects on losing her grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s and how that loss motivated her to become bolder, more resilient, and committed to bringing more goods to the world. The essay made evident how this mournful experience led to substantial growth in character and enabled the writer to undertake greater challenges.
Perhaps failing to get “first place” in an important competition forced you to re-evaluate your definition of failure and the metrics you use to measure self-worth. Perhaps an uncomfortable conversation with your best friend inspired you to confront your privileges and explore intercultural communication. Perhaps a brief encounter with a staff member at your local bakery completely shifted your understanding of and increased your appreciation for food science.
Your essay does not necessarily have to be about personal growth, but it does need a critical moment of change. Whatever it is you choose to write about, admission officers want to see how you have grown or how you have overcome a challenge. In demonstrating personal growth, you are showing college admissions your potential to further develop with the help of their resources.
To get started, review at the statements you have written above: My life would have been completely different, if __________ had not happened. These experience statements offer great starting points because they carry moments of change. Go through each statement and ask yourself: What was I like before this event happened? What three words would I use to describe my personalities then? How did I use to handle difficult situations?
Then, what was I like after? What three words would I use to describe my personalities now? Does this change highlight the qualities in my quality mapping?
Tip 3: Tell a specific story
It is good to remember that when writing your personal statement, you are first and foremost a storyteller, sharing a personal narrative. You will want to provide enough details for your audience to be engaged in the story.
Example 1: Something must have been so funny about me because people were looking at me and laughing all around. I was disoriented by my public humiliation.
Example 2: Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the laughter of the crowd. I wanted to understand what was so funny. Yet, wherever I looked, all the faces and fingers were directed at me, as if to accuse me of something. Yet, all the faces were in thralls of laughter, distended into some kind of riotous and terrifying mass.
These two examples discuss the same event: the writer feels overwhelmed while being scrutinized by a laughing crowd. However, the level of specificity differs dramatically. Example 1 is more generic with few descriptions. Example 2, on the other hand, provides evocative sensory inputs (fingers pointing, riotous thralls of laughter) to transport the audience to the scene and experience the event alongside the writer.
Though the essay prompts are intentionally broad to give you maximum flexibility, don’t be tempted to tell your whole life story and run the risk of being disingenuous or shallow. You only have 650 words.
Instead, choose a single theme, or even a single moment, to concentrate on. You can even choose to break things down scene-by-scene like one of our students who got into Northwestern University. What happened? Who was involved? Where and when did the relevant events occur? What was the space like? Were there any sounds? Colors? Scents?
Remember that it is the depth, level of details, and thoughtfulness that make a memorable essay!