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Writing Your Way into College: A Comprehensive Guide to Writing a Personal Statement That Works by Joy Turner - HTML preview

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Step 1. Before you Start Writing


Purpose of the Personal Statement


A personal statement, also known as a statement of purpose is a priority tool for assessing applicants for college admissions that admissions teams use the tools is useful to colleges because it essentially serves as a self-manifested demonstration of one’s unique qualifications. The personal statement also provides a glimpse of your writing ability, creativity, and career goals. Admissions committees look to personal statements to gain insight about the applicant and understand their motivations as they relate to school and career choices.

A successful personal statement, or what is commonly known as a statement of purpose for graduate students, should highlight the writer’s achievements, goals, background, and special attributes. A good personal statement also addresses who you are, how you got to this point, and where you want to go.

The personal statement is designed to:

1. Tell the reader(s) something about you and why you should be accepted to the school that they cannot learn from reviewing your transcripts, test scores, CV, or other materials.

2. Demonstrate that you can write clearly, coherently and effectively.

A personal statement is required for most college applications including those for admission as an undergraduate, a transfer student, or a graduate student.

Personal statements can range in length from 350 words to several pages. Most are between 500 and 2000 words, which means you have limited space to describe your experiences, achievements, and goals.


Generally, personal statements fall into two categories:


1. The general, comprehensive personal statement, which allows you maximum flexibility in terms of what you choose to write about.


2. The response to very specific questions like, “Explain why you’re a good fit for X Program,” that are more frequently used for graduate school statements of purpose and short response essays.


Who reads your personal statement?


So, I’ve seen the question pop up over and over again from applicants wanting to know who is actually reading their personal statements.

For most undergraduate applications, personal statements and the applications overall, are read by admissions office staff members or admissions committee members who have specialized training and experience reading and reviewing college applications. Usually between one and three professional admissions staff or committee members will read your application.

I began my work reading and assessing college applications for the University of Washington as a graduate student, so it’s also not unheard of to have your personal statement read and evaluated by trained student employees or temporary admissions office staff members.

The admissions committees for graduate programs are usually composed of professors and staff members of the program or department you’re applying for. They will want to know why you’re choosing a major in their specific profession and why you think you will do well in it for the long term.

Still, it’s nearly impossible to know for sure who will read your application, especially at large universities, so consider that anyone could be looking at your personal statement. This includes people from a range of backgrounds, ages, and belief systems.

Nonetheless, each person who reads your application is working on behalf of the college or university and are eager to accept students who are a good fit. The personal statement is your opportunity to make your case for admission.




Understanding the Prompt


Before you start writing your personal statement or college admissions essay, you need to understand the essay prompt. As simple as it seems, this can be difficult if you can’t figure out exactly what the prompt is asking.

Remember, there are generally two types of personal statements: the general, comprehensive kind and the type that answer a specific question.

Regardless, of what type the college you’re applying to calls for, there are number of holistic questions you should consider when trying to understand your college essay prompts.


What does the prompt ask about me?


Academic and Personal Goals. A typical question might be “How will attending X College help you achieve your goals?”


Academic History. For example, is there anything in your academic history that warrants further explanation like a dip in grades junior year or a withdrawal from a core class.


Previous Learning Experiences. Consider listing applicable research, projects, and work experience.


Extracurricular Activities. Discuss your involvement with extracurricular activities, clubs, or community programs (don’t include anything from before high school).

Financial Situation. Questions about financial situation, ability to pay tuition, or fund your education in general, most commonly appear on scholarship essay prompts.




What does the prompt ask about the school I’m applying to?


Program Fit. Example - What makes you a good fit for the MA program at University X? Colleges want to know how your unique skills and experiences will align with their program focus and values.

College Fit. More generally, universities are also interested in WHY you want to attend their school and how that desire aligns with the culture and atmosphere of the college. A common question you might see is “why do you want to attend Y university?

What keywords does the prompt use?

For the most part, there’s little difference in the meaning of the words listed here as examples, but I still advise writers to carefully consider and do exactly what the prompt requires. This is especially important if you re-use essays or templates.


● Describe
● Share
● List
● Analyze
● Evaluate


What official requirements does the prompt include?


Word Count or Page Length. Don’t go over the limit and expect essay readers not to notice.


Online Form vs. Email Submission. Which does the application require - submission via an online application or website? Or a pdf or doc file sent to the admissions office contact email?


Formatting. Consider the requirements for font size, spacing, page margins, and headings. These requirements shouldn’t be considered just suggestions and I recommend sticking to any formatting rules the application lists. Don’t tick off the person reading your application by leaving off the title for your essay to save space when the instructions strictly call for one.


After carefully considering the prompt, it’s time to choose a topic.




Choosing a Topic


And so, here comes the difficult part about writing a personal statement.

You must choose a topic.

My number one recommendation - Write about something that reflects your life authentically and communicates what you’re passionate about. Admissions officers don’t want to read in personal statements what they can read on a resume or transcript. So, when choosing a topic for your personal statement, pick something to write about that motivates you, intrigues you, or exhibits a part of yourself that you would be incomplete without.

That being said, you also have to choose a topic that addresses the essay prompt. It’s not easy to do both, but it’s definitely possible after a bit of brainstorming and pre-writing.

The topic of your personal statement may span multiple years of your life or cover a single event, like your 1st place win at the State Robotics tournament. The personal statement is just that, personal. As we stated earlier, it’s your opportunity to show your writing ability, creativity, and goals.

For this reason, the topic you choose should allow you to communicate a personal story that clearly indicates your ability to write and be vulnerable about who you are and who you want to be.

Still, it’s important to be reflective in the telling of your story through the topic you choose as way to create distance between you and the experience and demonstrate both the maturity and insightfulness admissions officials expect from students who eventually enroll at the university.

So, choose wisely.

As a guide, here are some questions to consider when brainstorming a topic, story, or focus for your personal statements.


Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Start Writing


Questions about Your Academic Plans and Career Goals

Questions About Yourself and Background

● What are your short term and long-term career goals?
● What challenges in the workplace have you faced that have prompted you to return to school?
● How have you already learned about this field that prepares you for the next step?
● Have you been employed in any capacity or volunteered in your chosen field? If so, what have you learned from that experience?
● What is your undergraduate major? Who or what has inspired you to pursue this major?
● Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
● What are your major accomplishments, and why do you consider them accomplishments?
● How have you been challenging yourself in school to prepare for graduate school?
● Why are you interested in pursuing graduate study in this field? Are there any courses and/or extracurricular activities you have completed to get you started in this area?
● What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
● Why might you be a stronger candidate for admission—and more successful and effective than other applicants?
● What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?
● What makes you special?
● What is impressive about your experiences or life?
● What are your future goals?
● What skills/characteristics of yours will contribute to your success in the field?
● Where were you born? Your ethnicity?
● Are you the first in your family to attend college?
● Have you overcome any personal or economic struggles?
● Who or what was your motivation to continue your education?
● What are the opportunities and/or challenges you find in your community?






Personal Statement Considerations for Undergrads, Transfers, Veterans, Grad Students, and Job Seekers


As you apply for college programs at various points in your life, your personal statement should differ as a result. Admissions committees expect a personal statement for a transfer student to be much different from a college admissions essay for an incoming freshman student. With that in mind, here are some unique considerations to keep at the forefront of your thinking when writing personal statements as an undergrad, transfer, veteran, graduate school applicant, or job seeker.


Writing a personal statement for undergrad


When applying for undergraduate admission, you should primarily focus your essay on what has shaped your interests throughout your life, specifically over the last four years of high school. You should also focus on your academic studies and experiences in high school as well as how they’ve prepared you for a college-level curriculum. Another important topic you should write about for your essays is how you will fit into the culture of the college and what unique attributes you’ll bring to campus. For diversity and supplemental statements focus on your community, personal identity, and any adversity you’ve experienced in your life.


Writing a personal statement for veterans


As an active-duty veteran, I’ll be the first to say that in the military we get accustomed to writing in a very specific military-style, which is characterized by communication of the bottom line up front and a focus on informing the reader. This concise and straightforward style is essential for military communications but doesn’t work well for writing personal statements that are meant to be somewhat creative and introspective. So for veterans, remember to inject your personality into your writing and ditch the objectivity characteristic of the military writing style. Further, most college admissions committees are comprised of civilians with little experience working with military personnel or reading military correspondence. So, avoid using military jargon or translate military speak to the civilian equivalent.

Some schools might also expect you to discuss your military service and how those experiences have influenced your educational and career goals. I recommend including this type of information in your personal statements in so far as you would with any other job you’ve had in the past, especially if the experience has been a significant part of your life over the last few years.


Writing a personal statement for transfer students


As a transfer student, you should have a bit of a different focus for your personal statement than the average high school senior. For instance, you might want to discuss the specific reasons you wish to leave your current college/university or program of study. You might also devote space in your statement to explaining your current academic interests and what prerequisites you will complete before transferring.

Personal statements from transfer students should reflect the experience and maturity of someone who has already attended college. It should also demonstrate your understanding of the effort it takes to pursue a college education, and balance competing demands in a university setting.

For transfer students, the college application essay is also your opportunity to take responsibility for less-than-perfect grades, recognize academic challenges, and explain the steps they have taken to conquer them.

Writing a personal statement for graduate school


Often, the readers of your graduate school statement of purpose want to see you answer three general questions:

 Why us?
 Your graduate school admissions essay should hone in on the specifics of why you want to study in the program you’re applying to. Why are you applying to this school, department, internship, or program and not some other? What is special about them? Are there specific professors you’d like to work and conduct research with and why? What are your connections to the program’s location?
 Why you?
 What is special about you? What is in your background, interests, or achievements that shows you are an ideal candidate? Remember though that grad schools, more than undergrad program, also expect to benefit from having you as a student, so it’s important to also explain how you will contribute to the culture, reputation, and work of the program through your research and leadership activities.
 Why now?
 Grad school admissions committees and department heads are also hoping to understand why you’re applying at this point in your life, whether that is straight out of undergrad or after a 10-year career. More importantly, they want to know how the decision to pursue a graduate education right now fits in with your long-term goals?

Your answer to these questions should continuously circle back to how studying in the program will help you attain your academic and career goals.


Writing a personal statement for a job or internship


A personal statement for a summer job or internship will differ than a personal statement for college admissions in that it should stress the qualifications that will make you successful in the workplace or lab. Your focus for these essays should be on the skills, experiences, and education that makes you a good fit for the job. Include content that explains the personal strengths and traits that have prepared you to be successful in the position you’re applying for.

My recommendation is to take the job listing, write out the key attributes and skills the position calls for, and to focus your essay narrative on describing the particular experiences and learning that has prepared to fulfill those criteria.