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College Search: Writing the Personal Statement

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Image courtesy of EducationUSA.

By Sameea Najam, EducationUSA Adviser

In some ways, the personal statement is the most important part of your entire college application. While your grades, extracurricular achievements, and letters of recommendation all give the admissions committee insight into who you are, the personal statement is the only space where you can speak for yourself. This is likely the only opportunity for you to make a strong case for your admission to their school, so it is very important that you utilize it well. These five basic steps will help you get a strong start to your essay.

Step 1: Research

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, the first step to writing a great personal statement doesn’t involve writing at all. Instead, you should spend this time figuring out your ideal college type, and learning all about the various schools that fit that type — in other words, the initial stages of your personal statement writing process should focus on searching for the colleges to which you would want to write a 650-word essay for admission. The questions you might consider are endless: Are you a humanities, business, or science student, or are you unsure? Are you interested in research? Do you study better in a highly competitive environment or would you fare better in a less intense setting? What kinds of activities do you envision yourself pursuing in your free time?

Use these questions and resources like the freshman profile (found on most colleges’ websites) to find and shortlist schools you want to apply to and where you think you have a strong chance of being accepted. A good way to approach this is to use your research to envision what the average student at each of these schools is like, and whether you see yourself there.

There are 4,500 universities and colleges to pick from in the U.S., and the perfect fit is waiting for you, but you must invest time searching for it. Like the students that eventually apply to them, each school has a distinct personality, and you want to make sure you find the right fit of school to write that admissions essay to.

Step 2: Brainstorm 

Once you have found schools that fit you well, your job is to use your essay to prove that you are the right fit for them. This might sound daunting but the soul-searching you’ve done in Step 1 will already have you on your way. Use the following writing exercises to help:

  1. School-related: Think about your academic, extracurricular and personal interests, accomplishments, failures, and growth. How did you spend your time in high school, and what are you most proud of? What are you least proud of? What is the most important lesson you’ve learned?
  2. Personal: Think of five defining moments of your life. Why were they important to you? How did they impact who you are now?
  3. Qualities: How would your parents, friends, teachers and siblings each describe you? Which is the quality that comes up the most? Do you agree? Think about the most compelling adjective that is used (or the one that interests you most). When did you become that way, and why?
  4. Use your notes from these exercises to find potential stories for your personal statement. Your story can be about anything — the time you stood up to a scary uncle, how you’ve spent your life struggling with an illness, overcoming your fear of speaking in class — so long as it honestly depicts a part of who you are, and proves that you are a compelling candidate for the schools you are applying to.

Step 3: Free-Write and Write a Draft

Now is the perfect time to engage in what Gabrielle Glancy, author of ‘The Art of the College Essay’, calls a free-write. There are two simple rules to a free-write. First, you must write everything that comes to your mind as it comes to your mind — no editing. And second, you must write in complete sentences. Don’t stop writing until you are completely sure that you have nothing else to say.

Once you have finished an allotted time of writing, you should have anywhere from one to several pages of freestyle writing. Sift through this to find a cohesive story, and rewrite to produce a draft close to your word limit.

Step 4: Review and Get Outside Opinions

Once you have completed a draft, be sure to have it reviewed by someone who both understands U.S. college admissions and knows you very well. Have them read your essay with a mind to answering the following questions (and once you have had enough space from it, you should ask yourself these questions, too): does this essay reflect your tone, opinions, and personality? Does the essay have a clear purpose, and do you fulfill it well? What characteristics does it project? Does it contain any grammar, punctuation or spelling errors? What kind of image does it portray to the reader, and is it one that you want to project to an admissions committee?

Step 5: Rewrite. And Rewrite Again.

The truth is, you will probably not capture the best of yourself in the first draft of your essay — and that’s okay. Personal statement writing takes time and reflection to complete, and you will likely need to write multiple drafts before the essay can reflect who you are in a way that demonstrates why you are a good fit for the colleges you apply to. Patience and persistence are key!

Some general pointers:

  1. Start early — As you can probably tell by now, you can’t possibly write a good personal statement overnight. You certainly cannot write multiple drafts without a significant amount of time between each to reflect and rewrite. Aim to start at least a few months before your application deadline.
  2. Read — Reading will help you stay in the right frame of mind for writing, so read newspapers, magazines and books as frequently as you can. Be sure to visit your nearest EducationUSA Advising Center for the latest books on college applications and college essay writing.
  3. Make an appointment with your nearest EducationUSA Adviser — as Pakistani students who have applied to the U.S. for college, we know how daunting the entire process can be. We can also help you every step of the way, from researching schools to reviewing drafts—and much more. Register with us for an advising appointment!

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