Personal Statements Dos and Donts

When it comes to applications, whether it’s for colleges, internships, graduate schools, or jobs, there are some things that grades and extracurriculars can’t say about you. Everybody has their own unquantifiable circumstances and opinions, and the personal statement is the place where you can let these intangibles shine. A strong personal statement can make or break an application, and while they’re intended to give you a medium to express your individuality, there are a few things to keep in mind and a few things to consciously avoid. The idea is to present yourself as professional, ambitious, and competent as possible without sacrificing your unique sense of self. As a person who’s ghostwritten and revised personal statements for medical and graduate school applicants, I’ve found that there’s a distinct style in terms of format and content that’s most valued by admissions offices.

-Stick to the prompt

The time it would take to evaluate a personal statement would increase exponentially if students were able to write on whatever they chose. The prompt method is also a type of safeguard against pre-prepared statements. With this in mind, admissions offices evaluate your personal statement based on how well you can keep on topic – you could write a piece that’s worth a Pulitzer, but it’s completely unrelated to the question they asked you, chances are slim that it’ll count in your favor (at least for admissions).

It’s the various ways you incorporate your personal life, history, and opinions into the prompt that will distinguish you. It helps to prepare a few paragraphs ahead of time that outline your life perspective, and why you see things in a certain light – this will put your personal character on paper. After reading the prompt, which will give you a specific and tailored topic such as ‘Describe the world you’re from’, or ‘What personal characteristics do you feel will enable you to succeed’, or for graduate programs, ‘Why do you want to be a doctor/lawyer?’ From here, you can begin to outline your life experiences in relation to the prompt.

Some people feel self-conscious that they haven’t had an incredibly diverse life experience; while circumstances differing from the norm will certainly stand out, the emphasis here would be to tie in your life experiences into the person you are today (a good amount of prompts will relate to your personal history). It doesn’t matter if you think that the place you were raised in was mundane or generic; everybody has their own life experiences, so yours are as valid to write about as anyone else’s. Applicants who do that well will definitely stand out from the crowd. The expression ‘you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’re from’ applies here. Admissions offices are looking for a student with a sense of self, and where they stand in their life goals.

Keep in mind that the school is getting tons of these applications a year; avoid shaping your personal statement into something you think they’ll like, because you’ll only blend in with the crowd. Also, avoid excessively talking about your academic or extracurricular life. They already have the information on that, and if they invite you for an interview, they’ll ask you about it then. Preferably, you’ll want to talk about something that isn’t on your transcript.

-Use proper grammar and spelling

It doesn’t matter that your passion is creative writing; you’ll want to stick with traditional syntax and spelling. You’ll definitely want to use your own writing voice, meaning your word choice, sentence structure, the way the piece ‘flows’, but admissions offices are also evaluating how conscientious of a writer you are. In this case, you know what they want and you’d do best to stick to it. Going for the avant-garde approach won’t win you any points.

What I found works wonders if you want to write to your voice is to literally read your personal statement aloud. Admissions offices are impressed by pieces that convey a sense of individuality about the writer – so you don’t want it to sound scholarly or pedantic. If you write it the way you’d speak it, whomever reads it won’t find it onerous to read it start to finish. As always, remember that they’re reading dozens applications and personal statements a day. A piece that’s too complex to finish in one sitting, or (even worse) that’s just plain boring, will mean that the school will be evaluating you solely on your credentials – and don’t forget that there is likely a good amount of people with credentials that are similar to, or better than, your own.

Have a friend or relative read it and tell you what they think. Get them to be brutally honest about it, but if you feel that their recommendations would stifle your individual voice, then you should consider it carefully. This is a fine line to walk on; it’s a good idea to get a group of people to read it individually (perhaps a few creative writing majors like myself) to get as diverse an array of opinion as possible.

-Avoid pontificating

The personal statement is not your soapbox. You don’t want to decry global injustices (although you could mention in a line or two your passion for it), you don’t want to bring partisanship into it (whether it’s political, social or economic), and you generally don’t want to take a hard-line stance on things. It comes down to assuming things about the reader. Don’t assume that they want to read your personal statement based on its content. It’s their job to read it. Since you don’t know anything about who’s reading your statement, you want to make it as accessible as possible.

For instance, if they ask your opinion on a debatable subject (‘Do you feel the US should have universal health care?’ ‘Do you support the death penalty?’) they aren’t asking you to convince them to your perspective. They’re merely asking for your opinion; no more, no less. In these questions, only incorporate your life history if it’s directly pertinent (somebody you know was denied a transplant because they couldn’t afford it; you know somebody on death row or somebody affected by a person on death row). If it isn’t directly pertinent, leave it out. Otherwise it’ll seem contrived.

On the topic of assumptions, it’s generally considered poor writing to use acronyms with which the average readership is unfamiliar. If you aren’t sure, the best recourse is to define it first. Unless the acronym is so widespread that it’s entered the widespread lexicon (like NATO, or IBM), to use esoteric ones or to use them excessively will keep the reader at arm’s length, and they’ll have to constantly backtrack to confirm what you’re talking about. It’s too simple a way to devalue your personal statement. Don’t do it.

-Write a new personal statement for different schools

You should absolutely refrain from recycling personal statements (at least for the schools that you’re passionate about getting into). Admissions offices aren’t fools; they know what prompt they asked. And even though everybody’s answer will be technically different, there are only a few general ways to approach a prompt. If they detect a line or a phrase that seems out of context with what they asked you, it will set off alarms and it will be a major discredit on your application status.

If a school’s prompt is exactly the same as another’s, you’ll probably feel tempted to re-use phrases and ideas. This can save you time and effort, but I recommend at least going through it and expressing yourself in another way, especially if you aren’t sure how strong the quality was in the first one. Not only will it be good practice towards writing other personal statements and papers in general (being able to phrase similar information in different ways), but by re-applying a scrutinizing eye for tone, syntax and word choice, you may be able to come up with an even better personal statement than before.

It doesn’t necessarily hurt you to recycle good phrases, but you should definitely keep yourself from shipping out pieces that you intended for a different school, especially if they’re known for different programs. And that’s only for prompts that ask the exact same thing. For any other prompts, you should expect to write an original piece.

Personal statements are a great place to shine in ways that your paper credentials don’t. If you can strongly convey your sense of identity – your ambitions, ideas, preferences, and history – you could turn the tides on your acceptance status. While powerful credentials will speak great things about you, admissions offices see enough of those that they can afford a discretionary eye when it comes to accepting people. The personal statement is the place where you prove that you’re more than a statistic and a couple of titles, so make the most of it. If you pay attention to detail (the prompt, and the technical writing), stay open-minded, and strive for originality, you’re already ahead of the game.