Writing a personal statement can be daunting. There are only few hundred words standing between you and your biggest goal.
Once your grades are completed and your volunteer and extracurricular work is logged, your personal statement is your last opportunity to make a great impression on your school of choice.
As a college applicant, chances are your personal statement will be one of the most important writing exercises of your life to date.
To help you out, we contacted over sixty elite institutions, all from the Forbes list of top 100 colleges, to find out if we could get some personal statement advice from the admissions officers themselves. We asked them to respond to two questions:
- What is the biggest mistake a college candidate can make on a personal statement?
- What is the best way for a candidate to make a good impression with a personal statement?
Some amazing admissions heroes swooped in and gave us their helpful personal statement advice.
So what did they have to say? Read on.
Personal Statement Advice from Oberlin College, Ohio
Our first hero of the day comes from Oberlin College in Ohio, where an admissions counselor cautions against having your parents write your essay (sorry Mom and Dad!) and encourages you to really tell your story:
“Parents presumably know their children better than anyone else. However it is the student’s voice admissions officers are trying to hear when we read an essay. It is fine for guardians to offer suggestions and proofread. But, in the end, students need to be able to think (and write) for themselves. In addition, it is essential to have an essay read by multiple people, multiple times.
“It’s important to remember that admissions officers, even at the most selective institutions, aren’t looking for perfection in 17- and 18-year-olds.
“We are looking for the human being behind the roster of activities and grades. We are looking for students who love to learn, whose investment in ideas and words tell us that they are aware of the world beyond their own homes, schools, grades and scores.
“A well-conceived essay can help to make a student come to life and often becomes a key piece of understanding a student’s ‘story.’ We are building a community, and the essay provides insight as to how the student may fit into our community. We want to learn more about each applicant’s intellectual curiosity, character, level of maturity, attitudes, passions, creativity, and imagination.”
—Oberlin College Admissions, Oberlin, Ohio
- Admissions officers want to hear your voice
- Be human, not perfect
- Tell your story with confidence
Personal Statement Advice from Union College, NY
A little further east at Union College in Schenectady (how-do-you-pronounce-that?), New York, admissions officers agree that your parents need to stand back and let you fend for yourself, they also caution against being too personal in your personal statement:
“There is no one biggest mistake. Some mistakes that I have seen more than once include: saying you would like to attend college X and sending that essay to several other colleges; using curse words in an essay; and discussing matters too personal.
“For example, discussing 50 Shades of Grey would not be a good college essay. Writing about something that does not reflect favorably on the applicant like stealing, cheating, and bad behavior, even if you are sorry, cannot work in your favor.
“Parents are anxious about their children’s college essays, but should refrain from writing them. Support your child in the writing. Make space for them to think. Encourage your child that their best effort is a wonderful thing.
“To make a good impression on an essay, I would suggest that the student spend some time with a trusted counselor or teacher discussing ideas. A conversation can help the student to get to the heart of what he or she wants to say. That preparation can lead to the student sharing his or her own story in an authentic way.
“Three drafts are a practical way to approach this formal writing assignment. School friends are not always the best editors for a college essay. Because of friendship, they will shy from telling you the truth. Again, a teacher or a counselor are both good choices to review an essay.”
–Ann Fleming Brown, Director of Admissions, Union College, Schenectady, NY
- Keep it appropriate (both the content and the language)
- Draft, revise, and draft again
- Friends are great–but don’t ask them to edit your personal statement
Personal Statement Advice from University of Rochester, NY
A little ways down the highway at the University of Rochester, New York, they remind you to have fun writing your personal statement. After all, you don’t want to bore your admissions officer with a statement that doesn’t make a statement:
“The biggest mistake I see candidates make with personal statements is following a cookie-cutter template. I don’t need perfect intro-body-conclusion formatting. To be sure, proper spelling and grammar are important factors, but I don’t want another tedious ‘essay’ that blends in with all the rest.
“It’s a personal statement. Tell me something about you in a way that is unique to you. Make it a dialogue. Make it a short story. Don’t make it like everyone else’s essay.
“My best advice for a personal statement is to have fun writing it. If you don’t enjoy writing your statement then how am I going to have fun reading it?
“Know that I read almost 800 applications a year, so I want something that stands out. Take a chance. Tell me something nobody else knows about you, or tell me something in a way that is really going to paint a picture of who you are.
“Transcripts and recommendation letters are all out of your hands by now. Your essay is a chance to put a personal touch on your application.”
–An Admissions Counselor at the University of Rochester, Rochester, NY
(Note: this opinion does not reflect the opinion of the entire admissions staff at the University of Rochester.)
- Don’t feel trapped by a standard essay template–do something different
- Have fun while writing
- Paint a picture of yourself, and remember to show, not tell
Personal Statement Advice from Stanford University, CA
On the other side of the country at Stanford University, they remind you that they want to know who you really are and caution you to not wait until the last minute to start writing your personal statement:
“Ask if the essay’s tone sounds like your voice. If those closest to you do not believe your essay captures who you are, we will not be able to recognize what is distinctive about you…
“We want to hear your individual voice in your writing. Write essays that reflect who you are; use specific, concrete details and write in a natural style.
“Begin work on these essays early. Feel free to ask your parents, teachers and friends to provide constructive feedback.”
–Office of Undergraduate Admission, Stanford University, Stanford, California
- Sound like, well, you
- Manage your time; this is not the time to procrastinate
Personal Statement Advice from Northwestern and Harvard
Both Northwestern and Harvard agree that you should make sure to spend some time on your prospective school’s website before sitting down to write. And Emily Stevens, admissions counselor at Northwestern, reminds you that it’s not all about the essay:
“We review all of our application materials on a holistic basis, meaning that we look at every single part of a prospective student’s application, rather than placing the most weight on test scores, or the writing component, or grades, etc. Be sure to check our website for the components we consider.”
–Emily Stevens, Admission Counselor, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
“To be candid, the most helpful—and honest—advice is pretty straightforward. That’s why it’s critical for you to read our website carefully when preparing your application to Harvard.”
–Marlyn McGrath, Office of Admissions, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
- Check (and double-check) the requirements before you write
Personal Statement Advice from an Admissions Coach
And finally, we talked to Andrew Chen. Chen is a former admissions coach for applicants seeking admission to elite graduate and professional schools, and the author of the e-book How to get into Harvard Law School (whether you have the highest scores or not), which gives some stellar advice about best and worst practices.
Among other things, he reminds you to write with a sense of purpose and not try too hard to make a good impression (yes, you read that right!):
“The biggest mistake you can make on a personal statement is to write without a clear sense of purpose.
“Often I see applicants who write about high grades they achieved, activities they participated in, or career aspirations they have, but they don’t organize these points around a clear purpose. Colleges and universities want to see thoughtful candidates who carry a sense of purpose in what they are doing—in why they chose certain classes, why they volunteered for specific extracurriculars, why they even want to attend college.”
Chen goes on to explain that this sense of purpose makes all the difference because you’re ultimately trying to convince admissions officers to take a gamble on you:
“This is important because admissions officers reading your application, particularly at elite universities, are evaluating whether to bet on you by admitting you to their freshman class.
“The bet they are making is not only whether you can handle that college’s academic work and successfully graduate, but whether you are likely to excel there and, in turn, whether you have strong potential for becoming a leader in your future career field and an ambassador for the school.
“Students who carry a clear sense of purpose quite simply have a better chance of achieving those things compared to students who don’t.”
Well that all sounds great. How do you convince them that you’re worth it? Chen explains:
“How do you show a clear sense of purpose?
“Showing a clear sense of purpose in your essay involves at least two things. First, it involves showing that you have proactively taken advantage of the academic and extracurricular opportunities available to you.
“Rather than simply doing what was assigned to you or following a well-trodden path, you instead sought out new opportunities, proactively pursued and excelled in them, even created opportunities that didn’t previously exist.
“Second, it involves organizing your story around a theme—not simply bullet-point listing all the wonderful things you have done, but showing how one thing you did links thematically to another thing you did, which in turn links to other things. And, consequently, when you ‘zoom out’ and look at the broader arc of your academic and extracurricular choices, you can see a pattern around those choices that supports a theme about who you are, how you make decisions, and your sense of purpose in the world.
“Interpreting those thematic links requires meaningful self-reflection on the ‘why’ behind your choices.
- Why did you choose this extracurricular activity?
- Why did you enroll in this class rather than that one?
- Why did you decide to volunteer for this organization instead of that one?
- Why did you—or didn’t you—pursue a leadership role for a particular activity?
“What an admissions officer is trying to understand with these questions is how you make the decisions that are important to you, what you learned from your experiences, and how they changed you.
“Students who are in the habit of reflecting in this way are demonstrating an intrinsic self-motivation and ability to experience challenges and grow from them. They are showing that they know how to teach themselves how to learn and grow. They are able to show this because they have a clear sense of purpose.
“And that is exactly the kind of applicant the best colleges and universities want to attract.”
So how do you make a good first impression without trying too hard? Stop thinking about it so much, according to Chen, and focus on telling a good story:
“The best way to make a good impression in a personal statement is, ironically, not to think too much about making a good impression.”
“Instead, focus on telling a compelling story about who you are, what you value, and the things that are important to you.
“The key is to tell a story. People are naturally drawn to stories. Admissions officers are no different in this regard.
“An applicant who can tell a compelling narrative about her experiences, particularly when written with a clear sense of purpose, has a powerful advantage over other applicants because she is making herself memorable.
“Why is that important?
“When all the applications are read and the admissions officers are sitting around a table debating which applicants to offer admission to, how do you think they refer to specific applicants? They can’t possibly remember all their names. Instead, they refer to them in terms of what was memorable about them.
“That is why an applicant who is referred to as “the girl who took 9 AP classes, won the piano competition, and volunteered 15 hours a week at the hospital” is certainly a wonderful human being and a compelling student—but not necessarily the most memorable. Her profile isn’t rooted in a story, a journey, and doesn’t convey a clear sense of purpose.
“On the other hand, an applicant who is remembered as ‘the girl whose dad showed her how to broadcast a radio transmitter to connect with other radio enthusiasts across the country, which inspired a sense of wonder to learn engineering and excel in math, ultimately leading to building a robot prototype with a local research lab that won the state science fair, and how that experience taught her how to cut against gender stereotypes,’ is not only telling a story, but developing that story around a narrative theme—one that shows a clear purpose about who she is and what her goals are in the world.
“Use your essay to tell a personal story about what you have experienced and why it is important to you. That is how you show an admissions committee who you are. And that is the only thing they are trying to understand.
“So don’t focus on ‘making a good impression.’ Instead, show them who you are and what you care about, write about these things genuinely and sincerely, and you will make a good impression without even trying to.”
So what are you waiting for? Now that you are armed with this personal statement advice from the experts, you can get started on writing your personal statement today.
If you’re still having trouble telling your story, check out these other posts that can help you over the hump:
- 11 Secrets to Good College Essays
- How to Come Up With College Essay Ideas that Stand Out
- 4 Must-Answer Questions Before Brainstorming Personal Statement Topics
And of course, we’re always here as your trusted editors to review your admission essay and let you know whether your story is really coming through, or if it needs more work.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 7, 2013, but has been updated for clarity, formatting, and freshness.