Many students find personal statement writing to be an exercise in frustration. After all, we have very few opportunities in high school to practice the kind of writing expected from the personal statement. For the most part, schools focus on teaching analytical or argumentative writing (and sometimes creative writing), but almost never introspective or reflective writing. So when a student discovers that they need to write a 650-word essay on –what? something central to their identity? — their minds tend to go blank.
What Are We Even Doing Here?!
The first question students often ask me is: what should I write about? Almost without exception, a student’s first consideration is for the topic of their essay. They believe their topic should be the starting point of essay writing. This initial impulse often leads to a series of even more frustrating confrontations: How do I even choose a unique topic? Everything I think of seems basic or cliche! — followed by a period of despondency and doubt that they will ever write anything original or interesting.
I’d like to propose an alternative approach to writing, and to the personal statement more specifically, that can make the process a little bit easier, and a lot more meaningful.
Clear Your Mind
First, you have to switch your point of view. Most students believe that you write the personal statement for the benefit of the college or the college admissions officer; it is something required, something you have to accomplish for them.
Psychologically, requirements like this fit into a little box in our mind related to external demands. For most of us, we wouldn’t write a personal statement if we didn’t have to. So when we first think of the personal statement, we think of it as something someone else is forcing us to do, a barrier to entry if we want to get into college. Then we go about imagining ways we can meet those imagined expectations in order to gain that entry. It becomes a challenge to overcome, and we think the way to overcome it is to try and give the college what we think they want.
The only problem is you aren’t completely certain what the college actually wants. Morever, everyone and their mom seems to have an opinion — often conflicting — on the what it is, in fact, that colleges want. Which leaves most students feeling a bit uneasy.
I’m not going to tell you what they really want, because the truth is there is no one answer. Instead, I’m going to propose a better thought process all together, one that puts you at the center of the whole equation.
Let’s do a little exercise. Consider where admissions officers get information — and what type of information they get — from your application:
- Your transcript gives them a sense of your academic performance over time;
- Your SAT/SAT II/ACT scores offer them a baseline measurement against students globally;
- Your letters of recommendation showcase your character, intellect, and community contribution from an adult’s perspective;
- Your activities list gives them a sense of your commitments over time and the diversity of your interests.
You get the point. There are a number of other areas where admissions officers also get important information about you, but my goal here is to point out that there are roughly two types of information that an admissions officer can acquire: quantitative and qualitative information. To keep it simple, we’ll call it numbers-based information and personal character-based information. These two types of information work together to create a clear picture of who you are. One is not better or more important than the other necessarily; they work together, and the better you understand what information you’re providing them, the more intentional you can be in crafting an essay and an application that works for you.
Defining your Purpose
So what type of information does the personal statement provide?
To understand the utility of the personal statement, you have to be willing to shift your focus internally. By that, I mean you have to reflect on its value to you first. Since you’re going to write this thing — since you’re going to spend time and energy to write down a set of words and send them off to a stranger — you might as well do it in a way that’s meaningful to you. For many students, this is an easy proposition to consider, but a difficult one to accept because it isn’t fundamentally goal-oriented. The most important question is no longer “will this essay get me in?” but “what can I share that is truly meaningful and valuable to me?”
This is where the real work is: in figuring out what is truly meaningful to you. Hint: it isn’t a topic. It’s what the topic represents, or how the topic has impacted you and made you think differently. I repeat: the purpose of your personal statement is not about the topic. It’s about you in relation to the topic.
The good news is, when you write about something meaningful to you — and you write about it effectively — you have a higher likelihood of providing the admissions officer with useful qualitative information they wouldn’t otherwise have.
This helps develop a stronger and more holistic application. From this perspective, the goal isn’t to write about a unique topic; it’s to write something meaningful, valuable, and important to you, that you then get to share with someone else.
Combined with some of the writing techniques we discussed in our previous post, this approach will set you on the path towards writing an excellent essay, one that truly reflects your individuality and adds greater context to your application.
So, think backwards. What experience would you like the admissions officer to have when they read your words? What information do you believe is important for them to have as they review your scores and academic history? Once you define your purpose, work from there. The topic is simply a vehicle to convey your purpose; once the latter is clear, the former will present itself.
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