Five Common Misconceptions About Writing the Personal Statement (as believed through the eyes of rising seniors)

Of course it’s normal and natural to want to put your best foot forward when making a positive first impression—especially when it comes to crafting a personal statement that college admissions officers will read in order to learn something about your life.

When I coach students through the personal statement development process, I have come to realize that time and time again, their thoughts on how to present themselves don’t really match up with the reality of how they should tell a personal narrative that is thought provoking, memorable, reflective, and creative.

5 Misconceptions + Advice

1. The personal statement should be a resume or an activity sheet

Advice: The Common App gives students the opportunity to list their 10 most important/impressive activities for colleges to review. Furthermore, there are many schools that provide supplemental essay prompts regarding extracurricular achievement or may even request a formal resume. However, the personal statement is NOT a resume or an activity sheet – a specific event or an accomplishment can be recounted based upon a guiding prompt but the accomplishment itself is not the heart of the essay, rather the steps and process it took to arrive at the outcome which demonstrate reflection, problem solving, and facing challenges.

2. The personal statement should reveal EVERYTHING about “me”

Advice: A gut reaction held by many students is to try and fit 20+ personal attributes and characteristics into their personal statement so they can demonstrate all of their positive qualities to the admissions officers in order to “win them over”. Instead of listing them without context, students should try to focus on a couple of strong attributes that they possess and weave them through their story by “showing” how they are out-of-the-box thinkers or why they are sympathetic to the needs of others rather than overtly stating it.

3. The personal statement isn’t a place to reveal failure

Advice: Contrary to popular belief, many of the Common App prompts encourage students to reflect on a time of personal growth, challenges and failures that they have faced, and mistakes that they have made. Throughout the course of the narrative, admissions officers are looking for a student’s vulnerable side and how they navigated a difficult situation regardless of the outcome – what is important here is what the student has learned from the experience and how it has helped them grow as a person.

4. The personal statement must take on a serious tone

Advice: Although writing conventions should be respected to show a strong command of written expression and knowledge of English grammar and punctuation in a flawless manner, students are usually concerned about revealing their sense of humor or creativity in fear that may come off as being too casual or too “out there”. In essence, the personal statement can be beautifully translated into a piece of creative writing that shows wit and even one’s quirky side by taking the reader on twists and turns as the plot develops.

5. The personal statement should reveal study and career aspirations

Advice: If the student’s narrative is based around a research query, internship experience, or an academic event that marks an important learning experience or a pivotal moment in which they have found their “calling”, then discussing study and career aspirations is fine. Yet of course told in the context of a story that shows how they were inspired or “guided” in the direction that they desire and relate it back to life experiences that have shaped them to take this path. However, essays that are written as a statement of purpose (like those postgraduate degree candidates would write) would not be appropriate here.

By Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

Why You Need to Brainstorm at the Beach

Coauthored by Jason Vallozzi, Founder, Campus to Career Crossroads & Marisa De Marco-Costanzo, Executive Director and Co-Founder, Ivy & Quill. This blog has been re-posted from Jason Vallozzi’s blog: https://campustocareercrossroads.com/why-you-need-to-brainstorm-at-the-beach/ For further information regarding comprehensive college consulting services, please contact Jason Vallozzi directly at Campus to Career Crossroads.

As the summer beach season is in full swing, many rising seniors struggle with why they need to brainstorm at the beach about their personal statement for their college application.  Some rising seniors may even have supplemental essays to write for college admissions or honors colleges.  As the college admissions process is more competitive than ever for all students, a one draft script is not sufficient. 

The personal statement is the heart and soul of the college application.  One critical aspect of an effective personal statement is thoughtful and reflective brainstorming. It allows a student to bring forward his/her story in a unique and distinct manner.  It is so amazing to read a developed student personal statement that is not over-edited or parent influenced, allowing the student’s voice to resonate. 

Marisa De Marco-Costanzo, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Ivy & Quill Admission Essay Consulting and Editing Services, has assisted thousands of students domestically and internationally to have their best voice come forward in their personal statement and additional required essays.  I have asked her to share some helpful advice on how rising seniors can start the brainstorming process. These are her suggestions:

“When students are faced with the daunting yet exciting task of developing their personal statements, they honestly don’t know where to begin and tend to put it off since it may be intimidating to start an essay—especially one about their lives. Time and time again, students have expressed to me that they feel a great sense of pressure to tell a poignant and memorable story to college admissions officers yet they have no idea where to begin and they don’t really know what to say.

In order to put them at ease, I always start off our initial brainstorming and background information meeting by letting them know that the process of developing their personal statement can be broken down into steps, which leads to the final draft. Instead of thinking about the “big picture”, it’s better to approach it in smaller parts that organically come together. In this way, students can put their energies into becoming reflective, deep thinkers and storytellers rather than being too overwhelmed, which impedes their creative thinking processes and memory recall.

If a student doesn’t have the possibility to work with an independent consultant, they can go through the brainstorming process on their own and can partake in a “stream of thought” journaling activity that becomes enjoyable and most importantly, informative. One can either write their ideas down on a piece of paper or type them up on the computer so later on, they can refer back to their thoughts.

A student can start out by reflecting upon some guiding questions that they can respond to in order to start the brainstorming process. These questions include:

  1. What are my academic areas of interests and why am I drawn to these areas?
  2. What has been a major academic challenge for me and what steps have I taken to make improvements?
  3. What do I intend to study at college and why do I want to pursue this area? Why is this area important to me?
  4. What is my most enjoyable and/or important extracurricular activity and why have I committed to it? How has this activity positively impacted me and shaped my character?
  5. What is one of the most memorable experiences that I have ever experienced? Why is this experience important to me? How has it impacted me?
  6. What is something that I would never change about my life and why?
  7. How has my family upbringing impacted my life choices and who I am as a person as a result?
  8. What is the most meaningful and important thing about my life?
  9. What has been a major obstacle that I have had to face and how did I overcome it or what steps I am taking at present to overcome it?
  10. Was there ever I time where I felt excluded from a group? If so, how did it make me feel and what did I do to navigate the situation?

Once the student gets their ideas down, they will go back and read through them in order to “pull out” some possible topic ideas for their personal statement. Yet ultimately, they will settle on a topic that can best be adapted to match one of the Common App prompts and that can be translated into a personal narrative essay that shows creativity and dynamic storytelling.”

Writing is a classical communication skill that stands the test of time.  So instead of looking at your upcoming personal statement as another “college to-do item,” take the time to consider it as an opportunity to enhance your writing abilities.  Perhaps, sharpening your writing skills may even launch you back to the beach in a professional position that affords you a generous salary and paid vacation days.

About the guest coauthor, Jason Vallozzi, Founder, Campus to Career Crossroads:

The mission at Campus to Career Crossroads is to develop a supportive and individualized partnership with students and their families in order to help them successfully navigate the transitional and complex stages from high school to career.  Jason possesses over fourteen years of experience in post-secondary admissions and over four years of high-level talent acquisition in the retained executive search world which brings valuable insights to his clients.

Jason is an active member of numerous professional associations such as the Independent Educational Consultants Association, National Association for College Admission Counseling, and Pennsylvania Association for College Admissions Counseling. He is the Regional Leader for the Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan chapter in the Independent Educational Consultant Association.  Jason is also involved in continuing professional development courses through the UCLA Extension College Counseling program. He is a magnum cum laude graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications. 

For inquiries about one on one college to career planning services, please visit www.campustocareercrossroads.com

Where Thoughts Meet Words: Guiding Questions & Statements to Make the Brainstorming Part of the Personal Statement (Much) Easier

One of the most challenging things about writing is sitting down to a “new” word document or to a piece of lined paper. If the piece of paper or doc were to have eyes, chances are it would stare blankly at you, waiting for you to make the first move. It may even snicker at your inability to come up with an idea. Thankfully though, this horrifying scene is 0% true since a piece of paper or a word doc is simply a surface that allows us to transform our thoughts in a concrete matter when recording them into written words.

Although the process of starting something from scratch can be exciting, it could also be quite overwhelming. Luckily, writing is an expressive and creative medium that allows for one to engage in a process of stream of thought (the process of writing down the first thing or things that come to mind) or brainstorming (literally partaking in the process of thinking in order to come up with ideas and solutions) in a way that feels safe. This sense of safety is because you, the writer, have the freedom to think about and write down what you would like to without fear of being judged.

Insider tip: the first step in any good writing practice is to brainstorm—whether it be to address a research question, write a personal narrative, or to develop an expository essay…just to name a few.

When faced with the task of starting on the personal statement, one may be too caught up with self-doubt as to if their story is worth telling or not. For this reason, by jotting down, recalling, or reflecting upon various life events and experiences that are important and/or memorable to you is the perfect place to begin. By engaging in this type of activity, you give form to your thoughts that can lead way to a really great personal narrative in which can later be transformed into your final personal statement!

Here are some key questions/guiding statements that you can use to help you when faced with the initial step of getting some ideas down on paper – feel free to write short hand notes or an extensive paragraph; remember that this process is about you and you only. Therefore, enjoy it, you may really surprise yourself!

  1. What is my favorite academic subject and why? What was one of the key memories that sparked my interest in this subject area?
  2. What has been my greatest success to date? What were the steps I took to achieve success? How did I feel within the moment in which I accomplished what I set out to do?
  3. What has been my greatest challenge so far and how did I overcome it or what steps I am taking to overcome it?
  4. What is one of my most unique and special talents? How did I discover that I have this talent?
  5. The extracurricular activity that I pursue with passion is….I do this because….
  6. What are my best three character traits and why?
  7. How would I describe my family life? How has my family life shaped who I am as a person?
  8. How has my background/religion/culture/country of origin shaped who I am as a person?
  9. The three things (can be: people/places/things/animals) in my life that are most impacting to me are….because….
  10. One of the biggest life lessons that I have learned thus far has been…I learned this lesson by…it has made me more….

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

Call to All Juniors: Get a Jump Start on the Personal Statement

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “You may delay, but time will not, and lost time is never found again.”

School is almost out and the idea of taking in some sun, traveling, hanging out with friends, reading a great book, going to concerts, seeing an awesome summer flick at the movie theater, or even earning some money by doing a summer job or taking on an internship are all valid thoughts that should rightfully be on the forefront of your mind. Yet for better or for worse, there is something else to add to this list…and that is plan for the personal statement.

For those of you who don’t know what the personal statement is or you have kind of heard about it but don’t really fully grasp why it is important, this essay is considered to be your true moment to shine when applying to college. Of course schools will highly consider your grades, SAT/ACT scores, honors and achievements, and extracurricular participation. In theory, admissions officers will see you in terms of stats rather than as the individual that you truly are. Yet, once they read your personal statement, they start to get a sense of how you live your life, perceive the world, and how you have been shaped into the person you are. (Helpful reference: a personal statement is a personal narrative essay that is about 650 words which tells your unique story that nicely matches up with one of the given Common App or Coalition App prompts.)

The personal statement essay (along with the supplemental essays required by some schools) may seem challenging at first and quite frankly, it could come off as being intimidating. Yet once you digest the fact that this essay is about YOU, you should start to feel more confident since you actually know yourself/your story best. At this point, this is when you can start to do some “soul searching” and inner reflection through the form of brainstorming. Once you start to reflect on various life events and experiences that could be worth telling, you can then go into developing an outline that could help you organize your thoughts written down on paper (or of course typed out).

From there, you can flow into the drafting process once you have settled upon your idea. After you have roughly written down your story, you will go back to clarify the essay’s content. This self-revision process will take multiple rounds of review and making changes. Once you feel good about how your essay has developed, it is a wise idea to ask a trusted friend and/or family member to look over your personal statement so that they can give you feedback. Or even better, you can always reach out to a professional admission essay consultant, who is truly a valuable resource (we’re here to help you, just reach out and ask how to learn more).

Once the content and structure of the essay are set, you have arrived at the final step, which is the editing and proofreading process. This entails carefully evaluating language/word choices, the stylistic tone, ensuring that you have spelled all words correctly, and that you have used English grammar and punctuation correctly.

As expressed above, the process of developing an outstanding personal statement takes time. Therefore, give yourself the summer before senior year to go through these steps without feeling the immense pressure that the start of school brings.

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

The Key to Unlocking the Personal Statement: Understanding How to Write A Personal Narrative

When applicants learn that they must write a personal statement as part of their college application, one of the first (and natural) thoughts that comes to mind is, “Am I all that interesting to talk about in 650 words?” Although it may come as a surprise, the response to this inner reflection is “YES!” This is because in the course of one’s life, countless things and events happen from the mundane to the most grandiose experiences. Therefore, personal narrative essay writing lends itself beautifully to storytelling through written expression.

In the simplest of terms, a personal narrative essay is a story that has a beginning, middle, and end that flows both logically and chronologically so that the reader can follow it with ease. There is also a key statement (also known as a thesis statement) that demonstrates to the reader why the story is worth reading and why it is important to you (the writer). You, the writer, must convey how the story you are telling has impacted you in some way, which has led to a shift in perspective on how you now see the world through a new set of eyes. Think of it as a “cause and effect” relationship. What is so great about this type of essay is that it allows you to reveal something unique, personal, or special about yourself while at the same time, giving you the chance to form a connection with your reader.

Some writing constructs that help writers to develop successful personal narratives are to include an introduction with a strong “hook” and clear thesis statement, body paragraphs (three are perfect), and a conclusion that ends with a powerful “clincher”. Within the course of the essay, descriptions, setting, plot, climax, and key players (characters) should be addressed. This type of essay is truly one of the most creative and freeing for a writer to develop…therefore, have fun when telling your story!

By: Marisa De Marco-Costanzo

Tackling the Common App – Prompt #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?

This essay prompt seems to defy most applicants’ inclinations to brag. It is far easier to bask in success than to tell strangers about a failure. It takes confidence to acknowledge and examine your shortcomings. The description of the failure should be clear and concise. Spend the majority of the essay discussing how you responded to the failure and learned from that experience.

Be honest in describing your reaction to the failure. Were you angry at yourself? Surprised? Did the failure motivate you to act? The lessons learned from the failure is the most important part of this essay. Include a thorough self-analysis and introspection which shows that you are self-aware.

The point of this essay is to show that you can evaluate, learn from, and move on from your failures.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Tackling the Common App – Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

This prompt is very broad, as there are a plethora beliefs or ideas to be questioned. Was the idea you questioned your own, your family’s, or your school’s? Or was it even broader than that, such as a socially accepted or cultural norm? Whatever belief you choose to discuss, make sure it is central to your identity.

The first two parts of the prompt ask you to address why you challenged the belief in the first place. What motivated you to act? The last question basically implies, was your decision worth it? Was your action worth the consequences and efforts? If not, that is okay. College is all about questioning beliefs and testing out ideas.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Tackling the Common App – Prompt # 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

It is rare that one event will instantaneously transform you from adult to child, but if you have one in mind, by all means write about it. Be sure not to come off as a braggart—rather than boast about the accomplishment, mention it humbly while focusing more on an analysis of your personal growth.

There are so many types of accomplishments you can write about here. Did you reach a personal goal, whether academic, musical, or sports-related? Did you do something alone for the first time, such as travel to a new country or take care of your baby sister the whole day? Did you start your own organization or charity? Did you grow from a moment of failure (see Prompt 2)?

In 1-2 sentences of your conclusion, briefly mention why your accomplishment or event made those within your culture, community, or family start viewing you as an adult. What does it mean to be an adult in these contexts? For example, in the Jewish faith one is considered an adult after his Bat Mitzvah. In many Western families, a child is considered an adult the day he or she turns eighteen.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Supplemental Essay Example #3: Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

Don’t spend too much time describing. Rather, focus on analyzing a character, person, or work and its influence on you. When did you come across the essay’s subject? What attracted you to it? How and why has it influenced you? The explanation is the core of this type of essay, as it will reveal your personality and passions.

Remember that a “creative work” doesn’t necessarily have to apply to the studio arts or literature. Every field, from engineering and math to psychology and medicine, requires creative thinking for progress.Focus a bit more on the subject’s “influence on you.” After all, admissions officers are reading your essay to learn about you and no one else.

By: Andrea Schiralli

Supplemental Essay Example #2: Discuss an important local, national, or international issue and its importance to you.

Again, this is not the place to superficially summarize. To discuss means to think critically about a topic and to analyze it in depth. When faced with this question, most students write about major, complex, and global issues such as the detrimental effects of global warming on the environment. Such broad topics are unoriginal and impersonal. Choose a smaller issue or one that you can actually affect with your “one person” actions. The point of this, as with any essay, is to reveal something about yourself. Maybe there were too many homeless people in your local community so you started organizing students to volunteer at the soup kitchen after school. Maybe religious intolerance bothers you, so you started reading various religions’ core texts in order to have a more unbiased point of view on such an important aspect of people’s lives. Whatever you choose to write about, be sure to make it as much about you as possible.

By: Andrea Schiralli