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

“Writing Successful College Application Essays”

Ebook written by Andrea Schiralli with contributions made by Marisa De Marco-Costanzo. They are the Executive Directors and Co-Founders of Ivy & Quill. Browse this excellent resource by downloading it for free that features sample admission essays along with quick analyses and tips. UC sample essays are also included. For any inquires please contact us.

Essay Topics to Avoid

Your heroism. If you saved someone in a swimming pool and that experience really changed you, okay, write about it. Just make sure the essay does not come off as arrogant. Be humble when describing your heroic (a word to avoid in the essay, by the way) efforts.

Pity me! Topics that call upon self-pity may even raise a red-flag as to how ready you are to handle college at this point. Save these topics for a psychology class or your diary.

Excuses. Related to “Pity me!” excuses (divorce or death in the family, moving to a new school, etc.) for bad grades should be explained in a supplemental attachment. Most applications provide an area where you can explain extenuating circumstances which may have affected your academic record. Keep these short and sweet, and most importantly, far away from your main essays.

The travel itinerary. So many students write about traveling that it is no longer a unique topic. If one excursion changed you for the better or opened your eyes in some way, focus on it. Just make sure to explore the important aspects of the journey in-depth and introspectively, rather than providing an itinerary of places you’ve been to.

Touchy religious or political issues. Major issues such as abortion, the legalization of marijuana, and overseas wars are extremely divisive. Though you may be convinced your arguments are solid and that your point of view is “right,” no one likes being lectured to. The risks of offending the admissions officers are too high, so save these types of essays for history, political science, or sociology courses once/if you’re accepted.

Dating/sex life. Writing about a steamy or controversial topic may be an easy way to grab attention, but it will likely just embarrass your reader. Avoid topics you would not feel comfortable speaking to a stranger with. Some aspects of life are best kept private.

Drug use. Every college has to deal with on-campus substance abuse. Even if you’ve overcome the hardest of addictions, your admissions essay is no place to mention it.

By: Andrea Schiralli

College Admission: Essays

Read through posts that provide great tips, strategies, and advice to calm “essay anxiety” when affronting the admission essay process! For any inquires, please contact us and feel free to comment!