Writing a Personal Statement
Last year I was responsible for approximately 1,000 applications. Numerically, far too many of my students look identical. It’s the intangible pieces: essay, letters of recommendation, and extracurriculars that set one student apart from another. The essay is my personal favorite. I love a good story. I know, though, that this can be a stressful part of the college application process. Below I provides some hints, suggestions, and notes.
When I was on the road recruiting this past week there seemed to be some confusion about the essay/personal statement requirement. Vanderbilt only requires one essay and it is the essay found on the Common Application. The CA provides six topics and number six is a “topic of your choice”. At Vanderbilt we refer to the essay as your personal statement. So, there are not two separate essays, but we’re hoping you’ll take the opportunity provided by the Common App to teach us more about you.
- Free writing is a great exercise. Just write words, phrases, or snippets in a notebook. Eventually something will spark your imagination.
- Make a list of items you talked about at lunch with your friends. Some items may be inappropriate (don’t write about those!), but some stories you tell your friends are uniquely YOU. Tell me those stories.
- There are 21 admission counselors in my office; you couldn’t possibly know what we “want to hear” on any given day, so just write what you want to say.
- Students are more interesting than parents. Your parents can be great proofreaders, but make sure the content is still you.
- Sarcasm, dry humor, and irony are wonderful story telling devices, but not great for the college application essay. They come across as bitter or mean.
- Grammar is important. However, I’m more interested in what you say than how you say it. Feel free to be creative.
- About a month ago I picked up a copy of the book, “50 Successful Harvard Application Essays”. I was not impressed. Some were good, some were okay, and some were terrible.
- We don’t expect you to cure cancer or travel the world by the time you’re 18. One of the best essays I read last year was about how a student’s car smelled like dirty shoes.
- I can tell when you reuse a paper from AP English.
As you’re completing your college application essay, think about the individuals on the reading end. Admissions counselors are frenzied in the winter as we read through lots of files. Students who make me laugh, cry, or just say “wow” move to the forefront of my mind at a time when my mind is quite muddled. Don’t stress out, though. We’re going to look at you holistically. If your essay flops, there’s many other factors we’re considering.