Writing Personal Statements 101

Your college personal statement is not meant to be a summary of your whole life story. It also is not meant to be an incredibly innovative piece of creative writing– certainly probably not the absolute best piece of writing you’ll ever do.

Your college personal statement is meant to give colleges a snapshot of YOU. Who is this you? What is her personality and attitude like? What does this you value and aspire to? How does this you think, and what kinds of contributions might this you make to a college community?

As a snapshot, the most successful personal statements are ones that use a specific memory, event, or experience to jumpstart a much higher-stakes conversation about a person’s growth and potential.

There are always five essay prompts offered for the Common Application used by most, if not all, colleges. Here are the prompts for the upcoming 2016-17 application cycle:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Below, I’ve re-pasted the prompts, highlighting in bold the important keywords that you should be considering if you choose that option.

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

And now, below, I re-paste each of these reformatted prompts once more to deconstruct the tricks, opportunities, and pitfalls lurking behind each of them.

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Notice the strategic use of “or” in each of these prompts. “Or” does not indicate “and.” The question is asking you to focus on a background OR an identity OR an interest OR a talent, not all four, probably not even more than one. The second you focus on more than one of these very different asks, you risk diluting and generalizing the impact of your personal statement to your disadvantage.

So, depending on which route you take, here are some examples of good and bad essay topics. Remember, your essay topic should be truly unique to YOU. Strive for a story that showcases YOUR singularity but is NOT an experience that probably everyone of a particular background, identity, etc. has had.

(Please, note, many of these examples are fictional; they do not necessarily reflect my experience.)

Background: 

  • Good: I emigrated to the U.S. from Haiti because my father was persecuted by the Duvalier dictatorship. Once my family was well-respected, but now my father drives a cab, and my mom works at a laundromat.
  • Bad: I am gay, and coming out to my parents was difficult for me.

Identity

  • Good: As a Muslim woman, I resent the assumption that wearing hijab is oppressive.
  • Bad: I believe in equality for the sexes because, as a woman, I know what it’s like to be discriminated against.

Interest

  • Good: I fell in love with the Riot Grrl movement of the early 1990s, and now I’m a singer in my own punk rock band.
  • Bad: I love watching TV, especially comedy.

Talent

  • Good: I swear to you that I can make any baby stop crying.
  • Bad: Playing piano was difficult to learn, but in the end, I turned out to be pretty good at it.

Above, the bad topics are bad because you could easily swap out the nouns with anything else. “I love watching movies, especially drama.” “Playing flute was difficult to learn.” “I believe in affirmative action as a black man.”

In other cases, the bad topics could be made into viable topics with a little more detail, insight, and verve. “Because I grew up in a conservative evangelical family, coming out as gay was especially hard for me; I knew I would lose not only my family and my church, but also, supposedly, my access to God.”

The good topics are good because they reveal unique details about the individuals who are speaking. The person with the talent of stopping a baby’s tears is probably tremendously compassionate and intuitive– qualities a college would find desirable. The punk rock singer might make a great history major, given her fascination for political and musical movements of the past. The woman defending traditional dress is boldly speaking out against a politically superficial, liberal mainstream, which shows she believes in the power of her voice. The immigrant from Haiti is sharing a unique story of social immobility that demonstrates his capacity for reflection and resilience.

The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

This is possibly the trickiest trick question, because if you spend 600 words harping on how much you suck at everything, you’re only going to give an admissions committee a bad first impression. They’ll walk away thinking, “This kid sounds damaged, downtrodden, maybe even mean. I don’t see what he’d add to our community.”

If you take on this question, you can avoid major pitfalls by skewing your language towards the positive. Don’t say, “I was just awful at playing the bagpipes.” Say, “Even after a year of playing the bagpipes, I had so much more room to grow.”

Don’t fall into the trap of obviousness: if the only outcome of achieving success after having failed was the fact of achieving success– without any influential transformation in your character, outlook, or self-image having happened– then it’s not a good story to highlight here. What you really need is a story of failure with a transformative turning point.

In other words, no one wants to read the story with a plot like this: “I failed trigonometry all year, and then I studied harder, and my grades went up. I realized that hard work pays off.” Instead they want to read something like, “Failing trigonometry taught me the value of asking for help. The second I stopped being too proud to ask questions about concepts I didn’t understand, I saw my grades skyrocket.” The first example ends with cliche: hard work pays off. The second shows us how the student went from being an introverted and proud person to a humble and more collaborative learner.

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

For this question, it’s REALLY important to keep in mind that not all belief systems are created equal– in fact, some may be downright contentious, or oppositely, not worth defending at all.

For example, no one wants to hear your defense of why gluten-free living strikes you as a fad diet. Not only is it a stupid belief, but it is also offensive to people with celiac disease.

In the “downright contentious” category, your idea may be something you truly, ardently believe, but it could also be one that easily alienates your reader. For example, I really and truly believe that abortion should be free in all women’s healthcare plans. However, my passionate pro-choice values may turn off a reader who thinks abortion kills babies.

In short, if the belief you’re defending is too politically polarizing, you may want to avoid dedicating your essay to it, just in case a person who thinks the opposite of you evaluates your application.

That said, there are plenty of political causes out there that are open for debate without automatically causing people to bristle (ex: gun control, affirmative action, rape culture, mass incarceration, etc.).

You might also consider moments when your belief systems have intersected or clashed with each other. For example, maybe you want to write about the time you spoke up against homophobia that you overheard a parishioner espousing at church.

Or maybe the belief that matters to you has nothing at all to do with religion, philosophy, or politics in a traditional sense. Maybe you just have a very specific instance in which you did what you felt was right. Like, maybe your parents had a nasty habit of chastising your little sister for being overweight, and you told them to cut it out.

Just remember, if you go with this option, make sure to emphasize the positive attitude you walked away with in the end. They want to watch you learn from failure, not be overwhelmed or quashed by it.

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Hands down, this is the most academic prompt available for your personal statement. It’s a great choice for somebody who just isn’t all that comfortable with getting personal. If you feel at home in the life of your mind, this might be the prompt to you.

However, I will caution you, there are two major pitfalls that immediately come to my mind in tackling this prompt. The first is that this question puts a lot of pressure on you to think like a college student even though you are NOT yet a college student. What do I mean? I mean that when you get to college, you’ll learn much more sophisticated techniques for actually pursuing a research query in a particular disciplinary framework. Right now, you might not feel like you’re savvy enough with whatever field interests you yet, and you certainly should NOT “fake it ’til you make it” on the question about solving a real-life problem.

The trick, too, is that the committee doesn’t actually expect you to put forward a plan of attack that will actually “solve your problem.” They want to witness how you think, not whether you can pull together a quantum physics experiment without having had any training in quantum physics.

So, let’s say your problem is that you want to invent a pair of wings that enables pigs to fly. You’d have to know how light the pig would have to be in order for wings of a certain shape, weight, material, and electrical power to airlift the pig. If you write an essay in which you invent all these numbers– even if you do it accurately, through research into pig physics or whatever– all you’re going to prove to the committee is that you’re an introverted über-nerd with a weird porcine fascination. But if you wrote a humorous college personal statement that narrated various routes you could take to finding the answer to your ridiculous question, you might not only entertain your reader but also display what a quick and multifaceted brainstormer you are.

All that’s a long way of saying, tone is a really important aspect of this– frankly, of any– prompt. It’s not that it’s bad to sound serious, and indeed, complete sincerity might be absolutely necessary for some essay topics (if you took up option #5 below and wrote about transitioning into foster care, for example, too much hilarity would probably make you seem psychologically unstable). But if on a question like this, you write in a dry, academic voice, rife with jargon and equations but bereft of your personal voice, then you’re setting yourself up to be read as plain and boring.

Related to this point, the second potential pitfall is that the question could tempt you to evade any mention of your personal life entirely. You should NOT be asking your reader to make TOO MANY INFERENCES. If your reader needs to dig for hints of your personality, character, and identity in your personal statement, then you’re creating too much work for her to be satisfied with the job she’s doing.

So, the safest routes to take are ones that pertain to your personal experience on some level but don’t necessarily need to emphasize your own life the whole time. Here are some examples of good topics:

  • Intellectual challenge: The philosopher René Descartes once famously said, “I think, therefore I am;” but why is the formulation not “I feel, therefore I am?” I realized who I was in the context of feeling, not thinking. I realized I was gay when I fell in love with a nun named Joan.
  • Research query: My twin sister lost her arm in a car accident when we were twelve; before that, she was an all-star softball player. I want to major in robotics so that I can develop a more durable, responsive prosthetic that would allow kids like her to play ball again.
  • Ethical dilemma: When I was a kid, my family fell on hard times, and we had to decide whether to give up our beloved dog to a home that could better take care of him. Would Charlie be better off without our love in a place with toys and treats, or was it okay for him to live on kibble alone in our unheated house?

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Finally, the last prompt! And it’s deceptively similar to the first prompt. However, there are key differences. Whereas the first prompt asked you to judge the impact of a “background, identity, interest, or talent” on the “meaning” of your life, the most important element of this one is the bit about “your transition from childhood to adulthood”– your personal growth as the result of an “accomplishment or event” in “your culture, community, or family.”

In other words, the question is asking you to do two things: 1) assess not only who you are but also who you’ve become in the context of a group identity, and 2) emphasize your coming-of-age story, a.k.a. “the transition from childhood to adulthood” that signals a turning point in your life.

So, just as we did with the first prompt, here are some examples of good and bad topics, and common pitfalls to sidestep along the way:

Culture

  • Good: When I was fourteen, I informed my parents that I would never submit to an arranged marriage; from that point on, I knew I would lead a very different life than they had had growing up in India.
  • Bad: Unlike most of my girlfriends, I had the best bat mitzvah ever.

Community

  • Good: Because I felt I didn’t fit in at school, I joined a neighborhood writing club. In making friends, I realized that not everyone automatically belongs to a community; sometimes, you have to find your own.
  • Bad: Because most boys my age become altar servers at church, I went through the motions, too, since my church community is really important to my family.

Family

  • Good: I became an adult very suddenly on a Sunday morning, when my father’s sudden death made me the new caretaker of our family.
  • Bad: Christmas was always my favorite holiday, although I knew I must be an adult the year my parents stopped giving me gifts.

Unlike the first prompt, many of these categories of inquiry are not discrete: family overlaps with community, community overlaps with culture, etc. However, like the first prompt, the major danger is choosing a topic that is NOT actually entirely unique to your experience. No one cares that you had a great bat mitzvah or that adulthood just sort of happened to you when your stocking was empty on Christmas morning.

It’s not good to be uncritical of your own coming-of-age, either; a communal tradition like altar serving may seem like a shift towards adulthood and responsibility, but if the experience doesn’t transform you, then the effect is only nominal at best. Likewise, a bat mitzvah might be a traditional rite of passage, but if you’re going through the motions without experiencing the change they’re meant to signify, there isn’t really a compelling transformation going on. On the contrary, if you choose this prompt, you should be spotlighting your self-awareness and maturity, not portraying adulthood as something that happened to you when you weren’t paying attention.

I hope this guide is helpful, and good luck on your essay writing!

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