If you’ve finished a draft of your personal statement, don’t forget to evaluate your final product using the checklist below:
- If information in your personal statement appears elsewhere in your application— and is NOT part of the NARRATIVE of the story you’re telling here– it should not be in your essay. Your personal statement is NOT the place for your GPA, courses taken, SAT scores, entire activities resumé, etc.
- Make sure you have a focused topic. The more focused your topic, the more coherent and cohesive your essay will be. Take us into a few key memories or experiences that, in your mind, epitomize the story that you want to draw out. Pretend that you’ve rifled through a box of old photographs; which one to three photographs contain the snapshots that you want to convert into prose? Be concrete with your examples. You might not be able to chart your whole ballet career in 600 words, but you can definitely zoom into a few moments that illustrate why you love to dance, and what that says about you as a person (and future student at this school).
- Have you answered the “so what?” question? Why should your reader be motivated to read your essay? It is a cop-out to presume that your reader’s motivation is the fact that reading admissions essays is his/her job. If the uniqueness of a writer’s perspective doesn’t grab a reader’s attention, s/he has no reason NOT to skim it and get on to the next one. Make the payoff clear for your reader, so that we understand how and why this story changed your mind or your life for the better.
- Show, don’t tell. A personal statement is not a laundry list of didactic life lessons. Moreover, the more keenly we, your readers, feel like we are inside your experience, the more empathy we’ll have for you, and the higher our investment will be in seeing you succeed in this application process. So, try to put us in your shoes. Don’t say, “It was difficult to play the right notes on the piano.” Say instead, “My fingers constantly stumbled over the keys, trying to find the right notes on the piano.”
- Balance summary and scene. A “scene” is a moment where you zoom into a specific detail that encapsulates your experience. “Summary” happens when you don’t want to emphasize this content but need to include it for the cohesion and coherence of the essay at large. An essay that contains all summary is bad because summary keeps us at a distance from your experience; we never quite feel like we’re in it, and mostly, we’re swimming through abstractions. All “scenes” can be bad, too, because it might mean you’re proliferating a plethora of examples without giving us the connective tissue needed to step back and make sense of any of them. When you want to draw us into a moment, write a scene; when you want to pull back and transition into a new sub-topic, use summary before switching back to scene.
- Avoid generalizations, clichés, and unfounded assumptions. In the short span of this essay, can you prove that since the beginning of time, all men were not created equal? How many other people have written– and been scolded for writing– phrases like “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and “work hard, play hard?” If you heard a turn of phrase from somebody else rather than from inside your own head, it probably shouldn’t appear in your writing; we want your authentic voice, not a bunch of platitudes.
- Don’t forget to spellcheck your essay! You can do this in Google Docs if you don’t have Microsoft Word. Grammatical and spelling errors make even fairly polished writing look immature and underdeveloped. Make it easy for your readers to take you seriously. And follow the general rules of academic writing– like avoiding contractions (“can’t” => “cannot;” “couldn’t” => “could not”).
- Replace generic adjectives with more descriptive and evocative adjective choices. That play wasn’t “great.” It was a “phenomenal display of emotional force.” It wasn’t “cool” of your dad to let you extend your curfew. It was “generous” of him. These kinds of vocabulary changes to generic, flavorless adjectives diversify and strengthen your writing.
- Same goes for verbs: replace boring “to be” verbs (is/are/was/were) with more active and demonstrative verb choices. For verbs, passive constructions and/or “to be” verbs are often hiding more direct and more descriptive verb choices. For example, “It is boring” => “It bored me.” See how many “is/are/was/were” verbs you can replace by running separate ctrl+F (PC) or cmnd+F (Mac) searches for “is,” “are,” “was,” and “were.” Once you’ve isolated the verb in a particular sentence, see if you can substitute it for a more powerful word (a thesaurus might help).
- If you’re over word count, look for quick and dirty places to cut. Adverbs like “really,” “just,” and “very” can almost always be cut for space; they intend to imply emphasis, but really, the sentence reads about the same with or without them. If you tend to use “of” a lot, try running a ctrl+F/cmnd+F search for “of,” and simplify prepositional clauses, especially possessive ones, where you can (ex: “she was the mother of the bride” => “she was the bride’s mother”).
- Read through your draft and circle any nouns and/or verbs that you repeat often. Again, diversifying your writing is key to making it more interesting and more elegant. Of course, you don’t want to choose off-the-wall substitutes from a thesaurus that contort your meaning. Saying “I love my partner” is different than saying “I worship my partner.” But if you tend to use similar words– especially bland word choices– often, it makes your writing sound monotonous. Often, it’s easy to swap out these words for similar turns of phrase. Ex: “I like drinking coffee more than I like drinking tea. I like the fact that coffee has more caffeine. I especially like the fact that coffee can’t steep too much. But I do not like the fact that coffee stains my teeth.” => “I prefer drinking coffee to tea. I appreciate the fact that coffee has more caffeine and can’t steep too much. But I wish coffee did not stain my teeth.” Notice, in this example, swapping out verbs and nouns also allowed us to cut back on word count, thus making room for new (and hopefully more interesting) statements.
- Read your finished draft aloud to yourself before you submit it anywhere. Often, we become so accustomed to reading our own writing that our eyes fail to see small mishaps we’re not expecting, like a missing article or comma. Your ear will usually catch details your eyes miss, so read the piece aloud to yourself and pay attention to your sentence constructions. Did you naturally take a pause at a place where there is no punctuation mark? Maybe a comma or semicolon needs to be inserted there. Did your tongue stumble over a particularly long and unwieldy sentence? Maybe that means you have to splice it into two.
- Pay attention to the pacing of your personal statement. If all of your sentences are of the same length– no matter whether they’re generally short or long– the speed with which your reader gets through your essay won’t change, and so, she’ll get bored! Strive to intermingle long and short sentences without being choppy. In general, always cut down complex-compound sentences that are 3+ lines into two or even three separate statements. To maintain clarity, keep in mind a 1:1 rule: one idea, one sentence. Always write in complete sentences, not sentence fragments, even if you’re looking for effect– this is academic writing, after all.
- Swap essays with at least one person, or ask a parent, teacher, counselor, or mentor to take a look. Don’t hedge your bets by telling your reader what “the point” is up front; let him/her tell YOU what s/he got out of the read. Also, ask your reader what kind of YOU comes through in this essay. If your reader was an admissions counselor, what kind of conclusions might s/he draw or insights might s/he glean about the person who wrote this essay? Then make your final edits with the aim of driving home the points that really matter the most to you.
*Four bullet points in this list were partially inspired by and adapted from informational materials taught at the Girls Write Now 2016 “College Essay Writing: Refining Your Work” Summer Workshop. If you’re a young woman in New York City’s public schools who loves creative writing, apply to be a mentee at Girls Write Now in our next application cycle.