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Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate school or trying to get into graduate programs, many applications require a letter of intent or personal statement. Personal statements are one of the most important parts of the application and sometimes the deciding factor for admission.
Personal statements give a better understanding of who you are, beyond the rigid constraints of the “fill-in-the-blank” application.
Like many around this time of the year, I am finishing my graduate school applications. Looking for advice and guidance, I decided to compare different schools’ personal statement requirements and ask admissions offices for advice. Here’s what I found:
1. Be yourself
The Columbia Graduate School for Journalism encourages students to write about family, education, talents or passions. They want to hear about significant places or events in your life; about books you have read, people you have met or work you’ve done that has shaped the person you have become.
Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.
2. Show diversity
Rayna Reid, a personal statement guru, received her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Law degree at Columbia. Reid says a personal statement is really just a way to make the college fall in love with you.
“The essay is where you really get a chance to differentiate yourself from the other applicants,” she said. “Explain why they should accept you. What will you contribute?”
Sean Carpenter, University of Southern California Student Services Associate and undergraduate student, reiterates the importance of differentiating yourself from other applicants.
He works in the Annenberg School for Communication admissions office and deals with prospective students daily. Carpenter says USC or any major school want to see diversity.
“They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants?” Carpenter said, “Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”
3. Do research and tailor each essay accordingly
Every college is different, so each personal statement should be different. Many students try to get away with having a universal essay but admissions departments will notice.
“Do research to give concrete reasons why you’re interested in particular program,” Carpenter said. “Speak with a faculty member that you’re interested in working with or doing research for and mention that in your statement. It would also be beneficial to say what classes you’ve taken that were relevant to the field of study.”
4. Be concise and follow directions
Make sure you read the directions carefully. One of the biggest red flags for an admissions office are students who don’t adhere to word limitations. Don’t give them a reason to throw out your application.
Believe it or not, there is a way to say everything you want in a page or less. If you need some help, ask several faculty members to read over your essay and give you feedback.
5. Go beyond your resume, GPA and test scores
Many students worry about how their GPA and test scores will affect the admissions process. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain any strengths or weaknesses in your application — such as changes in major, low GPA or lack of experience.
For instance, Reid was worried about not having a 4.0 GPA. Since Reid didn’t have the perfect GPA, she explained what she did with her time to make up for that fact. Being on the Varsity rowing team and a Teach for America Corp member are great examples of how devoting her time to other things made an impact on her GPA.
6. Tell a story
“Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner,” Reid said. “For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”
One of the worst things you can do is bore the admission officer. Make yourself memorable by telling a story about something distinctive from a creative or different angle.
With this advice, your personal statement will be the highlight of your application. Good luck!
Alexis Morgan is currently a senior at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in public relations, broadcast journalism, print journalism and production. Alexis truly believes if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.
Alexis Morgan, Columbia University, Cornell University, grad school, Penn State University, the application, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS
Last year, a student who'd applied to Harvard on his own called me in a panic.
"I've been waitlisted!" he told me. "What should I do?"
I'd known this student for a few years, so I knew that his grades and SAT scores weren't the problem. It was his essay.
It turns out that he'd talked about his dual interest in business and science. But clearly his essay hadn't been personal enough to make him stand out among all of the other remarkable applicants.
Over the next week, I helped him write a much more personal essay that showcased his vibrant personality. Explaining that he hadn't fully expressed himself in his first essay, he sent it in to the admissions office in the form of a letter.
A couple of weeks later, I received an email from him titled "!" He'd been accepted off the waitlist!
This is the power of telling the right story.
If you're a senior and you haven't yet finalized your personal statement for the January 1 deadline, you're probably wondering what the "right story" is for you. I've put together a list of the Top Three Qualities of a Remarkable College Application Essay.
1. Tell a deeply personal story about profound change
Now before you get nervous about this word "profound," let me clarify. I don't mean that you have to talk about how you became an Olympic gold medalist or how you traveled to Tibet to live with the monks. I mean that you want to tell a story of change that is significant to you.
Start here: think about what you were like at the end of middle school.
Got that image in your head? (If you're like me, you're thinking, "Awkward, self-conscious, socially anxious." Yeah, middle school's tough.)
Now ask yourself, "Who am I now?" What experiences or people have been important in creating that shift? It doesn't have to be a big, dramatic event. It can even seem quite small on the surface.
For example, one of my students who was accepted to Tufts wrote a beautiful essay about how wearing her hair in a ponytail changed her life.
This student had grown up using her pixie haircut to hide her cheekbones, which she felt were too wide. Creating the appearance of a narrow face became so all-consuming that she never went anywhere without a comb or a mirror, never played sports or drove with the windows down or went outside on windy days. So, when she finally got the nerve to pull her hair back, she freed herself from the prison of other people's ideas about what is beautiful.
This kind of internal shift, regardless of what caused it on the outside, is the kind of story you're looking for, too.
2. Make it vivid
If you want your reader to connect with your essay, your opening needs to leap off the page. Try to get as many senses involved as you can: sight, sound, smell, taste, feel.
Here's an example of a magnetic opening that I helped one of my students write a couple of years ago. (She's now attending NYU, her top-choice school.)
"My cousin Jack and I leap across the cushions of my parents' couch while a Japanese girls' group blasts from the speakers. A pair of leggings is draped around my neck, and one of my mother's red heels hangs from my left foot while my right foot is stuffed into her striped sneaker. Jack runs in circles around the living room, tripping over the yellow silk blouse he's wrapped around his waist, and pumps his fist to the music as he yells to our invisible fans, "Sing with me!" I hold out my cucumber microphone to the audience and urge them to join the chorus. "I can't hear you!" I scream."
Can you feel the energy of this opening? You can see, feel and hear these kids' love for music and performance. You know from the opening that the student is going to go on to talk about how creativity and love for music was so important to her development. In other words, you set the stage for the heart of your essay with a vivid scene.
You won't have space to weave in this level of detail throughout the whole essay, but once you've set the stage like this, a few colorful details woven throughout your essay will keep your story full of spark.
3. Offer a bit of mystery at the end
One of the hardest things my students struggle with is the ending to their essays. Either they feel like they have to tie everything up in a neat bow or they end up with overly-generalized and clichéd language.
Remember that you don't need to have everything figured out. It's okay if you don't fully understand how to make sense of your experiences. What's important is to make it clear that you're willing to stay with this confusion until the answers become clear.
One student wrote an essay about an uncomfortable experience she encountered on a trip to Laos and was struggling with how to end it. I encouraged her to let the discomfort remain in the ending. Here's what she came up with:
"Now, a year later, memories of the girls with the owl continue to force me to challenge ideas that I had always assumed were non-negotiable. And the girl in the threshold? For a moment that day, her gaze became mine, allowing me to consider the world from a perspective previously unknown. Those moments have enabled me to gain a little bit of comfort in facing difficult questions where the answers remain just out of reach."
When you allow a bit of mystery into the end, you let the reader know that you're okay with not knowing everything. That shows maturity, and it lets the colleges know that you're in a perfect place to dive into the complicated issues you're going to face in your college classes.
Elizabeth Dankoski has been working with elite students as a private tutor and college consultant for 15 years. Her unconventional approach -- ditching perfection in favor of passion -- has helped her students gain acceptance to all of the nation's top schools: Harvard, Caltech, MIT, Columbia, and Yale, among many others. www.elizabethdankoski.com