The personal statement is the showpiece of the college application. Moreover, it is the last vital element over which the student has control. By October 31st of senior year, the transcript and the standardized test scores are what they are. But the personal statement can be tweaked to perfection right up until 11:59.59 on November 1st. Thus, I have worked with students who obsess over it. Rightfully so. What matters is not only what you write but how you write about it. In fact, the “how” can often be the tipping point; a memorable phrase, image, or stylistic flourish—in this intense process—can make your essay stand out. A well-crafted sentence or a well-chosen word can land your application on the “yes” pile.
That’s a lot of pressure.
First, though, let’s start with the “what.” It is imperative to remember that the personal statement is YOUR STORY. It is both “yours” and a “story.” Those are the parameters. The prompts—all seven of them—allow for almost unlimited flexibility, except that the essay be about you and tell a story. Other than that, you may write about success, failure, problems you faced, problems you solved, influences—both people and ideas—joys, sorrows, bacon . . . anything that makes you, you.
So, where to begin?
First, decide the what. Then determine the how. But don’t rush either.
To arrive at the what, I ask students to consider the most important things to them and then consider, within those parameters, the moment when that “thing” most clearly made itself known. Those “things” are the obvious: activities in which they spend the most time, academic subjects to which they are most committed, or passions that they cultivate or long to cultivate further. The moments are less obvious and take some digging to find. If there is no moment, then the topic is wrong. But when students recognize the moment, see the singularity in it, they know that they have landed on their story.
Students are often fearful that what they write will seem trite or clichéd if they write about sports or community service or family or (God forbid) faith. Some students have indeed done dramatic things—but that isn’t what colleges expect, and it is not necessarily what they want. Truly, what they seek is sincerity. Students also assume that these occasions need to be catastrophic to be meaningful. No. They need to be personal to be meaningful. It is as simple as that. So if your most beloved activity is football, or reading, or scrambling eggs, then write about it. Once you find the defining moment, you will see that it is not at all clichéd. It is as wholly original and meaningful as you are.
I like to refer to the defining moment as the “occasion” because it is the moment that you have chosen to celebrate with 650 bold, exceedingly well-chosen words. That which creates an arresting essay is a memorable occasion, a moment of revelation, change, inspiration, denouement, and, above all, self-awareness. The “occasion” is the moment you realize who you really are and what you really value. Then you go on to describe that occasion with intimacy and trust. You are opening yourself up to the reader. This is deeply personal; there is nothing general about it. It simply cannot be clichéd.
Let’s look at sample essays offered by three very different students. After some prodding, one wanted to write about his faith, Judaism, the other his relationship with his father, and the third his participation in Quiz Bowl. Not one of these is a unique experience, and yet they all found the “occasion” within them that made for revelatory and compelling essays.
The first personal statement example is instructive because the essay follows a process of discovery, a move from the general to the specific. The opening is an honest, though fairly general, proclamation:
I was raised in a Jewish household. While many of my friends grew up celebrating Christmas and eating ham, I spent long hours in the Synagogue during Sunday School, and noshed on gefilte fish. While my family was never super religious, we were raised following Jewish customs, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world. However, like many other people, I soon learned that my world was much bigger than I previously thought.
What makes this a compelling opener is that voice reigns over content. The writer establishes himself with both content and style: he successfully creates a light, humorous tone by employing some over-simplification: the reduction of faith to ham and gefilte fish. He is serious but easygoing and likable; he does not take himself too seriously. Thus, when he delivers his “however,” we know that the ensuing lesson is going to be sincere rather than contrived or overblown.
After a little background about the writer’s education on the state of Israel, he presents us with the true occasion of the essay:
When I made the transition to private school in seventh grade, I was introduced to an environment that was far more diverse than my Sunday School. People of so many different races and cultures, some of which I’ve never seen in person, all got along. I felt like I belonged in this place. Or at least until social studies class, when we got to present a slideshow on a human rights crisis of our choice. The very first presentation came from a student who came from Palestine. When he got up to the board to present on the topic of Israel, I expected to hear nothing that I hadn’t already heard. To my surprise, he discussed the plight of the Palestinians, United Nations statistics of Israel’s standard of living versus Palestine’s, how Israel’s control of the region hurt many innocent people, and many true atrocities committed and covered up by the Israeli government. Although he said nothing anti-Semitic nor anything directed at me, I felt attacked. But, more than anything else, I was asking questions that I’d never asked before. What if everything I’d learned about Israel was wrong?
In this long, exploratory paragraph, the writer honestly articulates a thought process that on one level describes a classroom experience, yet on another level it does a deep dive into the most divisive topic in the world. Neither Jews nor Palestinians are supposed to think this way—and they certainly do not articulate it–but this writer does. The occasion reveals the writer’s capacity for openness and inclusion. The description of the occasion is not forced for the sake of the essay; it is quite real.
Here is the most compelling part: the writer, rather than dismiss or stifle these questions, goes on to do the following:
I decided to talk to this person after class. To my surprise, he held no ill-will towards the fact that I was Jewish. All he wanted was a solution where everybody could have an equal say in the Holy Land.
This—truly–is an occasion. The writer, a white, middle-class male from Ohio, has personalized one of the world’s seemingly unsolvable conflicts and solved it, at least for himself. Moreover, he does so in a spontaneous and understated way. He demonstrates an ability to learn about self and the world.
Who wouldn’t accept him?
The second essay opens with the occasion: the confrontation of the writer with his father. The writer is one of those students who is so gifted and so self-motivated that he makes excellence seem easy. However, for his personal statement, he found the exact occasion when it was not at all easy: when his father forced him to look at himself.
It was a rather mundane night when my father asked to talk to me. I hadn’t broken any rules, so naturally, my sixth-grade self sensed something rather odd. He was in his home office; the room was dark besides his laptop and a desk lamp that he never turned off. My gut wrenched in suspense as I braced for the terrible news.As a child, I often conflicted with my father. There were always arguments between us, and, as I grew older, our war of words grew in complexity. To my father, I was not living up to the potential of his son. To me, he was ruling my life with an iron fist. I dreamed of success – my ambition was to become a billionaire – but only success that I could attain myself. I resented the way my father inserted himself into my life. He was unafraid to call out my flaws, and I was frustrated with his stern resolve.
Again, the honesty here is palpable. Moreover, the scene is familiar, though excruciating rather than reassuring. As a result, we marvel at the honesty, rather than take comfort in it. This is not a pleasant scene, but, because of the candor, we are eager for what comes next. We know the writer will be humbled, but how?
The manner of that humbling is surprising:
I quickly prepared for a lecture. One of those I had heard so many times that I could finish listening before he was finished speaking. “Hard work, stop wasting time, you need to invest in your future.” It took me a minute to realize he wasn’t lecturing: he was telling stories. He began speaking with such eloquence that they might as well have been taken as legends that I’d never heard: tales about his childhood during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the struggles of my grandfather, a Nationalist, during the Chinese Civil War. With the help of my grandfather, my father took responsibility for his own future. He could be passive and stay in China, or he could exert his blood, sweat, and tears until the sound of his own pencil lulled him to sleep to dream for a brighter future.
We are moved, as the writer was, by the father’s rhetorical turn. It is subtle, poignant, even beautiful. The writer is not punished; rather, he is offered true inspiration. But he is also young, willful. Though he grasps the meaning of his father’s story, he cannot swallow it whole; he finds it hard to exorcise his self-serving ambition completely. He admits:
. . . my dedication constantly wavered. It was a cycle of igniting and extinguishing the flames of motivation.
Nevertheless, his father does not give up on him, and that persistence is rewarded.
After seeing my father labor day after day, I slowly began to appreciate the dedication that he showed toward furthering my education. I became more and more determined to find my true spark.
Over the years, my father continued to aid me in achieving my goals and ambitions. Without realizing it, our roles had reversed. Unexpectedly, I found myself debugging his ancient Fortran code, much like meticulously deciphering hieroglyphics.
The writer finds that “furthering [his] education” does not mean setting him on the path toward affluence but rather knowledge, purely. He concludes:
With the help of my father, I have become rich in my own way.
The understatement is arresting: the last five words of the essay are monosyllabic. This young man ends his personal statement with arresting simplicity. The humbling is complete.
Who wouldn’t accept him?
In the third personal statement, the writer describes his participation on his Quiz Bowl team and his coach’s battle with cancer. Thus, the essay is about a great many things at once, both overt and covert.
He begins his essay with a brief depiction of himself as a “pleaser” before moving on to his specific involvement with Quiz Bowl and his relationship with his coach, Ms. Buccilli, whom he and others affectionately called “Booch.” Here is the occasion:
In the middle of the year, Booch was diagnosed with cancer and had to leave school to undergo chemotherapy. For a few months, Booch dropped out of our lives and Quiz Bowl matches were put on hold. The days without her were less lively and practices didn’t have the same energy. We all slipped up and eventually practices ceased.
To our great delight, she came back. Though she wore a cap on her head to cover her shorter hair, she was the same Booch with the same ferocity. Quiz Bowl was back in action. In March, the Toledo Area Academic Championship (TAAC) arrived where we would be defending our title once more. However, one of the seniors on the varsity team had to drop out at the last second and Booch had me fill in. I could barely focus because I didn’t want to disappoint her.
One might expect the writer, the consummate “pleaser,” to rise to the occasion, to deliver, to make Booch proud. Instead, here is what transpired:
I sat in awe of Audrey and John as they dominated, with me barely able to grab a question. After the tournament, I stared into the distance, feeling useless.
Despite—or really because of—the writer’s failure, it is Booch herself who delivers:
All of a sudden, Booch came up from behind me and said, “You know, Shreyas, you’re going to be a superstar one day. I just know it.”
How humbling that the teacher with cancer continues to be a teacher! Thus, it is quite the sucker punch when the writer provides the next brief paragraph:
Booch died later that month. With all the seniors graduating, I was left as the captain of the Quiz Bowl team, without a team or a coach.
And there that paragraph ends, wisely, without emotion. But the story continues, with fervent, though tautly-restrained emotion. He rises to the occasion; in part, he has no choice. But, in larger part, he seems genuinely inspired by his coach, who mentored so brilliantly right up until the end.
But that does not diminish his sense of loss, as his final musings display:
The question of what she meant by me being a “superstar” and the path to it is unclear. I’ve always worked to please people, but how do I please someone who is no longer with me?
I suppose I’ll never know.
And the writer has to live without knowing the singular thing he longs to know. What a brave thing to accept and also to articulate!
Who wouldn’t accept him?
What drives all three personal statements is their fearless candor. These were tough lessons to learn, more bitter than sweet. In fact, the lessons were the antithesis of that which they wished to learn. And here is what they demonstrate about the writer:
1) The willingness to learn them.
2) The courage to own the lesson and move forward, no matter the price.
3) The ability to articulate all the difficult stages of the process.
There was nothing stylistically aggressive about these three essays; they simply developed to a crescendo and then a denouement: tried and true in the literary world. They are satisfying to read and memorable on every level. In my next post, I will talk you through an essay that takes more stylistic risks.
A bit of advice: Be careful about writing your personal statement too early—like during your junior year. Believe it or not, you will be a much better writer in the fall of your senior year. In fact, overall, your writing will dramatically improve as a result of this process.