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Writing a Personal Statement

Posted by on Monday, September 13, 2010 in The College Essay.

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.

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  • Justin

    September 14th, 2010

    Thank you for the practical advise!

  • Julie

    September 14th, 2010

    “However, I’m more interested in what you say then in how you say it. ”

    Um… that should be “than”, not “then”.

    Otherwise, a very helpful post!

  • Kylie

    September 14th, 2010

    Ironic! Thanks to all the grammar police out there ;-) I do appreciate the help! Keep the feedback/comments/thoughts coming!

  • Sara

    September 15th, 2010

    “Free writing is a great exercise.” Amen. After 14 drafts on 14 different subjects, I think I finally found one that I’m pleased with!

  • Lauren

    September 23rd, 2010

    Thanks for the advice!
    I was pleased to find out that our lives don’t have to be extraordinary in order for our essays to be good. I was worried I’d have to create world peace in order to get noticed! ;)

  • Kelsey

    December 16th, 2010

    Any tips for perspective grad students?

  • Kylie

    December 16th, 2010

    Kelsey: It really depends on the graduate program. My best advice is to talk to students already taking coursework in your field! Best wishes.

  • Tyler

    December 20th, 2010

    The common app doesn’t provide a word limit. How long should our essay be? 500 words? 1500? Does it even matter?

  • Kylie

    December 21st, 2010

    Tyler: No word limit.

  • Phil

    December 28th, 2010

    Would attaching an additional essay to my application strengthen it? Or do you prefer that students limit themselves to the 1 essay required by the common app?

  • Kylie

    December 28th, 2010

    Phil: It really depends on the student. Do what you think will best represent you and make your application strong.

  • Serm

    April 20th, 2011


  • Lacey Michelle Langford

    June 27th, 2011

    Vanderbilt is my absolute number one choice for college, I have always excelled in school, except mathematics, I have struggled alot with it, but it’s my only weak subject. I write essays very well. If my essay is outstanding as well as my ACT score will they deny me because of my math struggles?

  • Anonymous

    May 30th, 2012

    Students are more interesting than parents. Your parents can be great proofreaders, but make sure the content is still you.

  • 3 hours of pure frustration

    September 21st, 2012

    I just want to wrtite my essay at the current moment. How do I view the essay topics for this year without having to go through all the trouble of going through the Common Application process?

  • Carolyn Pippen

    September 24th, 2012

    You can find a PDF version of the application on the CommonApp website ( Simply download the Application (student form), and you will find the essay topics on the last page.

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  • eric brown

    April 7th, 2014

    A great and direct piece of information. Hats off to the author for gathering so specific and spot on information.
    the applause in the comments do the justice. Great piece of information.

  • bharat shekhawat

    September 14th, 2014

    can you please give me an example

  • Jay Watson

    September 17th, 2014

    Are you asking for an example of a personal statement, Bharat? Because the nature of personal statements are so individual (so personal), I don’t think sharing an example would be much help. I can point you to another great post with some good resources, though:

    Again, thanks for the question!

  • Jaden Morace

    September 9th, 2016

    Where can you find the essay topics?

  • Jay Watson

    September 20th, 2016

    Jaden, thanks for your question. You can find the essay prompts online at the web site for each application. For instance, here is a link to the essay prompts for the Common Application: