by Nathan Vanelli and David Shepley (Educational Consultants) at Hale Education Group
Among similarly qualified candidates, the personal statement can make the difference between admission and rejection.
Admissions officers review dozens of applications daily from applicants with similar grades, test scores, and even extra-curricular activities. The personal statement alone gives a human face to the candidate, allowing him to discuss what he has learnt, what motivates him, and why he is unique.
Students should welcome rather than fear the personal statement, as it allows them to portray who they are as individuals.
What is the personal statement?
The personal statement is required by the ‘Common Application’, which is accepted by over 400 colleges and universities in the US. It is limited to 650 words, and students can choose from six prompts, all of which essentially ask the same question: who are you as a person?
The most important advice in writing your personal statement is to simply be yourself. What experiences have shaped your perspective? What challenges have made you stronger? What makes you, essentially, you? The personal statement should be highly individualised — both in terms of content, as you know yourself best, but also in terms of approach, as your writing style should be unique.
Do not feel pressured to be someone else, as this disingenuousness will be apparent to the admissions officer. If you scored 500 on the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the SAT, for example, and use words like ‘gravitas’ and ‘schadenfreude’, your personal statement will raise red flags. If you are humorous, write humorously. If you are introspective, write introspectively. Be yourself.
The worst thing a student can do in the personal statement is to talk about anything but themselves. Essays should be written in the first-person and should have a very narrow focus.
If your father is your role model, for example, it is very hard to summarise your entire relationship with him in 650 words. Instead, focus on a particular incident between you and your father and contextualise it within your broader relationship.
When you write, transport your readers to the actual scene. Write descriptively, allowing the reader to feel, touch, and experience the story you are narrating. Admissions officers want to be surprised and engaged. If you cannot capture their attention in the first few sentences, they will likely skim the rest of your essay – as they do with the vast majority of unremarkable ones.
Why the personal statement matters
Besides the personal statement, your application is broken down into objective components. Standardised test scores reflect your competency in a particular subject, and grade point averages quantitatively measure your academic record. These components demonstrate that the applicant could intellectually handle university-level work.
Yet Harvard rejects four out of every five valedictorians that apply. At more selective universities, admissions officers are spoiled for choice when it comes to academically qualified candidates, so they must rely on subjective criteria.
What distinguishes those accepted versus those rejected?
It is the qualitative components of your application, none of which matters more than the personal statement. The admissions officers want to understand you as a person before they get to know you as a scholar.
While a 4.0 GPA is impressive, it does not reveal intellectual curiosity. Nor does it reveal emotional intelligence, maturity, or how you interact with others, all of which are extremely important.
Admissions officers want a window into your soul, and the personal statement is that window. What it reveals is incredibly important to the process. What others have to say about you, through recommendations and interviews, is also important, but how you express yourself is paramount.