What Makes an Effective Personal Statement or Common App Essay

What Makes an Effective Personal Statement or Common App Essay

Your personal statement should uniquely reflect who you are, what you value, and how you think—while also engaging and even surprising the reader.

You may be thinking, “Nothing much has happened to me! How can I surprise the reader?” Well, one of the biggest myths about the personal statement is that you can’t write a good one unless you have a “big” or tragic story to tell: “I was on my way to becoming a professional skater before I shattered my ankle,” or “I overcame a life-threatening disease then founded my own nonprofit to fund research on that disease.” While an experience like this could make for an excellent (though painful) personal statement, it could also make for…a really boring essay. Though it’s sad to say it, admissions officers have read many of these stories and so aren’t surprised or even moved by them.

Just think about it: admissions officers read thousands of essays every year, year after year. To get through them all, they have to read quickly, stopping once they figure out which “pile” you belong in (yes, no, or maybe). Your goal is to force that reader to slow down, even stop—to make them want to read your essay, to make them think, “I’ve never seen this before!” Admissions officers are more likely to have seen the “big” stories before—every year, they read thousands of essays about sports injuries and divorces, about Eagle Scout projects and difficult classes. Often, the best way to surprise the reader is to think small—to write about an unusual hobby (Sample Essay 6 in The Complete College Essay Handbook) or passion (Sample Essay 5 in The Complete College Essay Handbook)—or to write about a more common experience in an unexpected way, like discussing your parent’s divorce in the context of a violent protest (Sample Essay 4 in The Complete College Essay Handbook). Surprise can also be contextual. A varsity soccer player writing about varsity soccer? Not surprising. A varsity soccer player writing about his passion for cooking? That’s surprising!

A note: not all surprises are not created equal. There is the pleasant, gentle “surprise party” kind of surprise, and then there is shock, which can be invoked through violent images or vulgar confessions, and which produces negative emotions—fear, disgust, anger, and more.

Finally, a word on style and structure. The personal statement has two central elements: scene and reflection. Scene shows the reader what happened in an exciting way, and reflection explains its relevance. At the same time, your personal statement shouldn’t be all scene, but a balanced mix of scene and reflection. Reflection enables you to place the scene into its larger context and to show you thinking through the story.

Grad a copy of The Complete College Essay Handbook to keep learning more!

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What is a Personal Statement (Example: The Common App Essay)

What is a Personal Statement (Example: The Common App Essay)

It’s June, which means it’s time to start working on college admissions essays. This month, we’ll share some excerpts from our book, The Complete College Essay Handbook, starting with some personal statement tips!

First, what exactly is a personal statement like the Common Application essay?

A personal statement is a creative essay of 650 words or less that reads like a short story, memoir, or novel—not like an academic essay, textbook, or newspaper article. The best personal statements tell a story that culminates in a meaningful realization and offers the reader a glimpse of a mind in the process of thinking.

The personal statement is not the place to brag about accomplishments (student body president, team captain, founder of a schoolwide service project), or about how amazing you are (“I’m a world-changing revolutionary!”).

Although people you don’t know are going to read it, the personal statement is not a public form, like a school-wide speech. The personal statement is an intimate form, like a secret. It is the place to be honest, vulnerable, and raw, to reveal mistakes and weaknesses, to open up about an experience you’d only tell someone you were really close with, to explore what you struggle with and what scares you.

The personal statement is not “about” an event or achievement. It is about the psychological and emotional processes that occurred “behind the scenes.”

The same story, told from one angle, can be impersonal whereas, from another—told with a focus on the process rather than the outcome—can become deeply personal. Here are a few examples to help explain what I mean.

  • NO (Impersonal): The story about how you got elected student body president and a detailed account of everything you plan work on once in office
  • YES (Personal): The story about your internal struggle to overcome a crippling fear of public      speaking in order to run for student body president
  • NO (Impersonal): The story about how you changed lives by raising money for an orphanage in Africa
  • YES (Personal): The story about how you decided to start raising money for an orphanage because you yourself had been adopted and always struggled with the fact that your birth parents had abandoned you
  • NO (Impersonal): The story about how tearing your ACL was hard because you couldn’t play football or see your friends for a few months
  • YES (Personal): The story about how tearing your ACL gave you the time to reflect on who you are and you realized you didn’t want to just be an athlete so you started writing poetry and made new friends at school

Notice how all of these negative examples focus on the superficial event: I was elected; I raised money; I tore my ACL. By contrast, the positive examples explore the story behind the event—what was going inside of the writer that either led to this event (the student body president and orphanage examples) or the internal change that resulted from it (the ACL example). They also explore intimate, potentially difficult topics.

Since the personal statement is a creative essay at its heart, there is no set formula for success—however, our process and essay samples will give you the tools and examples you need to write your own singular personal statement.

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