Well, it’s application season again (it kind of always is), so we at Spark Prep thought we’d do a series of posts on how to write a stellar personal statement. In this first installment we’ll talk about the context of the personal statement in your application, as well as one of the most important tools you will use in writing it: support. Let’s be clear about one thing from the getgo: writing a stand-out personal statement takes time. Know your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and take steps to ensure the actual writing itself – the mechanics, structure, grammar, spelling and so on – is pristine. Give yourself more than enough time to find a topic, draft some material, and play around with some ideas before you settle on a final direction. We’ll talk more about the specifics of what good writing looks like in a later post, but we wanted to mention its importance before we get into things.
Before you can write a truly wonderful personal statement, you have to be clear about the purpose it serves in your application. Depending on what kind of program you’re applying to – undergraduate, business, law, medical, or other grad school – the answer to this question changes slightly. Business school applicants have to make a case that their work and leadership experience will make them a valuable asset to the program and that the program will serve their professional ambitions post-graduation. Medical school applicants have to demonstrate that their academic, research and clinical experiences have prepared them well for the rigor of a medical school curriculum, and so on. However, no matter what program you apply to, the basic point of the Personal Statement remains the same. The function of a personal statement is to make an unmistakably compelling case for your candidacy. By the time the admissions committee completes the review of your application, your personal statement should stand out in their mind as the crux of the argument for your admission. Seems obvious, right? Yet, you would be astonished by how many essays we see where the applicant has gotten lost on a tangent about their first little league homerun, because they think it’s vitally important to mention every detail of their academic and extracurricular lives. It’s not. If there is one thing we repeat to our students over and over again, it’s: don’t try to say everything there is to say about your life in the essay. Lay out your content strategically, say it well, and stay focused on your purpose. Of course, you should not literally argue for your admission in the content of your essay. That’s not a real topic. You create a compelling argument through the elegance of your writing, the strength of your content, the depth of your thinking, and the insight that your topic provides into who you are. The final impression should be undeniable: this school was made for you and the world would be a better place if you went there. There is no magic formula to writing a successful personal statement. If there were, the entire purpose would be defeated and school admissions would be based solely on tests — everyone would be super depressed. In subsequent posts, we’ll talk about a few strategies that will help you write clearly and authentically, but we wanted to really hammer home this primary point, since it will underpin how you approach the essay-writing process: The purpose of the essay is to provide such striking insight into (a part of) your character that it is absolutely clear to the committee that you belong at their school. Keep this in mind and you’re already well on your way.
Part of writing a successful essay means having support. Some people feel that there is a stigma against receiving any kind of feedback on your essay, but that’s ridiculous. To assume that you should write your essay in utter isolation is like saying that having a study buddy when you prepare for tests is cheating, or that calling your mom for that missing ingredient in her pot roast recipe is unoriginal. Having support while you write your essay is crucial, but it is vitally important that you are strategic in choosing whom you ask for advice. Everyone will have an opinion. That doesn’t mean they’re right. Finding someone you trust to give you candid and constructive feedback will help you see the holes in your writing, both in the content and in the style. You will have spent so many hours working on your essay that after a while it may seem like it couldn’t possibly change. This is when you need fresh eyes and fresh perspective. Life will be easier if you get support. Of course, there is a clear line between getting support and having someone write your essay for you. Admissions committees can tell when you haven’t written your essay yourself — they’ve been in the game for a while. Know the boundaries of what’s ethical and stay well within them, but don’t be afraid to ask for editorial feedback and suggestions. Also, have someone proofread your essay for you. Preferably twice or thrice. No joke. Not me, though. I’m terrible at proofreading.
Next week we’ll be talking about tools of the trade. What are the ingredients of a strong essay and how do you mix them together to make something delightful? We’ll also have a few mini-posts addressing the nuances of applications for MBA, Law School, and Med School. Stay tuned!