How to Conquer the Personal Statement

Stressed out about writing your primary admissions essay? Don’t be! We’ve got tons of proven strategies and a foolproof method for telling an authentic, compelling story that will wow any admissions committee. 

• Start early — the summer before senior year. You want time to write without school distractions.

• Brainstorm a list of things that a committee won’t learn from the rest of your application. What do you love (or hate)? What do you do in your spare time?

• Read a few sample essays (Google it!) to see what you’re aiming for.


• The hardest part is starting to write. It’s easier if you can turn off the switch in your head that says, “That’s dumb.”

• The writer Jodi Picoult once wisely observed, “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

• Feel like you have nothing to write about? College essays do not have to be about some monumental challenge or life event. If the best part of your day is eating cereal, write about that. Seriously!


• Take a look at your draft (or drafts) and ask:

– Which tells a story about me that can’t be gleaned from my academic record, extracurriculars, or volunteerism?

– Which feels most true to who I am?

– Which best addresses the prompt? (Don’t forget this one!)

• Make sure you’ve told a specific story with relevant details. Avoid cliche language and generalities. Remember, this is a story only you can tell — so don’t say what you think they want to hear.

• Consider organization. With limited space, stick to the journalism credo “Good news up front.” Jump right in with an interesting hook or bit of dialogue.


• How can you best amplify your unique voice? Add dialogue, idioms, other languages, or unique family expressions. If your mom calls an umbrella a “bumbershoot,” use that word instead. If you call your brother “Bootsie,”
use it.

• Start a new paragraph each time you change time, location (even just inside to outside), speaker, or idea (i.e., cause to effect, first event to second event, etc.).

• Strengthen your verbs. Replace most uses of “is” or “was” with a stronger verb. When you have a word count, every word counts.

Proofread and “Publish”

• Get some outside eyes on your essay. Ask a friend, family member, or teacher to spot errors — and to tell you if it really “sounds” like you.

• Read your essay out loud, from the last sentence to the first one. Don’t read the sentences backward, just the essay. This thwarts your internal auto-correct.

• Copy the whole thing at once and paste into the submission box. Double check. Triple check. Make sure it’s all there.

• Formatting can change when you copy+paste. Be extra careful that your paragraphing transfers correctly.

• Smash that “submit” button and call it a day. Well done, you.

Note to Self: Be Specific

Supplementary Essays

Many colleges ask for shorter, targeted essays in addition to the personal statement. These often prompt you to explain why you’ve chosen a specific school or program of study. Be sure to be as specific as possible here.

Do your research! If you took a virtual or physical campus tour, mention the tour guide and any places you saw or people you met by name. Take the time to tailor your essay to the college and the question.

Go above and beyond the information you’d find in a quick Google search. Don’t just name-check a well-known professor; explain how your research interests dovetail with theirs. What they want to know is why you would be a good fit for their program, not just a good fit for college in general.

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