How Do I Write Undergraduate Application Personal Statements?
By Diane Spivak
A variety of undergraduate program applications ask students to submit a short piece of written work and the topic most often requested is a “personal statement” — an essay that requires students to reflect on their life experience and intentions for the future.
What’s the Purpose of a Personal Statement?
The essay is your chance to show yourself as more than your marks. It should reveal something about your personality — your hopes, dreams, accomplishments and challenges. The goal is to prove to the admissions committee that you deserve to be accepted because of your good character and because you will be a vital and contributing member of the university community.
How Do I Begin?
It can be hard to write about yourself. In particular, high school students often think they’ve done nothing and therefore have nothing to say. But that’s simply not true. Everyone has a story to tell.
The best way to start is to make a few lists. Take some time to consider the following questions and add to these lists over the course of a few weeks. Then, pick and choose what you want to include in the essay. You won’t have room for everything, so really think about what’s most important to you.
What have you accomplished in the last few years of high school? This list will have all your big things on it: academic achievements, club and committee involvements, work, and volunteer and leadership experience. As well, any small things that you are proud of should also be placed here. If an experience allows you to show perseverance, persistence and effort, it should be considered as an accomplishment.
Things that are important to you: Let this list be long and varied. It could be soccer, or your grandma, or your dog; it might be debating or fashion or manga; it could include the extended family picnic on Canada Day, or Saturday nights watching hockey with your dad. It could be all of the above.
Things that are unique to you: This list can include small and whimsical things that are particular to you. Maybe you come from a big family, speak three languages, have a pet lizard, can wiggle your ears, or know all the songs on the latest Glee album by heart. The point is, these are the things that make you an individual.
Your most challenging moments: This can include special moments and also some of the tougher parts of your life. It may be the time you went on the thirty-day canoe trip; when you broke your leg in the middle of winter and had to subway to school every day; or when your dad moved out. Consider how you handled or are currently dealing with a challenging situation and whether it might be important to include in your personal statement.
How Do I Decide What To Include?
Once you’ve put your lists together, put them away for a couple of days. Then come back to them and cross out what you know to be trivial or unimportant. Show them to some adults you trust and talk through what might be good to include. Circle or highlight those points on the lists, and now you’re ready to begin.
DON’T FORGET TO…
- Answer the question that is asked. If the essay asks you to state your goals, make sure you put one down, even if you’re unsure. It’s okay if those goals eventually change. You’re not expected to have everything planned. Admission Officers just want evidence that you are motivated, and you have some direction.
- Make the essay more than just a catalogue of your accomplishments. Any essay has to tell a story while providing evidence to prove a particular thesis. So make your writing interesting. You don’t need flowery language. Simple and clear sentences will do. Just avoid the “I did this, then I did that, then I did another thing” type of essay.
- Be sincere and humble. Don’t try to prove that you are cool. Also, never brag, complain, be sarcastic or try to be overly funny. Just show them how eager you are.
- Show not Tell. Don’t write, “I am a good leader.” Instead show how your experience helped you develop leadership skills.
- Revise, Revise, Revise: Write a draft and then put it away for a day or two. Get some feedback. Write a second draft. Keep going until you’ve got what you wanted.
- Proofread, Proofread, Proofread. The last thing to do before you submit your essay is ask someone who has never seen any of your drafts to read and check for typos.
Diane Spivak, M.A., is a writer, consultant and founder of Application Essay Solutions (www.applicationessaysolutions.com), providing personalized development and editing of university and college application essays.
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