With the 2015-16 college admissions season officially underway, many rising high school seniors are beginning to tackle one of the most critical, confusing, and stressful parts of the college application: The personal statement.
The personal statement, traditionally the main Common Application essay, is the application component in which students have the most control and the best opportunity to let the university get to know a little more about them. While the main Common Application essay uses predetermined prompts, they’re broad enough that students can pretty much write about whatever they want, as long as it relates back to their chosen essay question.
Why the Personal Statement Is Important
When students think about what it takes to get into college, the first thing that usually comes to mind is good grades and test scores. While those “hard factors” are critical, holistic review also takes into account “soft factors,” or the application elements that aren’t so easily quantified, like essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and more. The essay is the most important soft factor that colleges consider, according to NACAC’s most recent State of College Admissions report.
The essay or personal statement, when used properly, can give admissions officers additional insight into who a student is as a person, what motivates him or her, and, more practically, how that student communicates and follows directions. An amazing personal statement isn’t going to guarantee a spot in the freshman class, but it can positively impact a student’s application, while a poor personal statement can, along with other elements, really hurt a student’s chances of gaining admission. This is why the personal statement shouldn’t be taken lightly. Students really need to put a lot of effort into writing a great essay in order to enhance their chances of admission.
Here are five tips to help college-bound high school seniors write a great personal statement essay.
1. Reveal something new about yourself.
We say this every year, because it’s one of the essay tips that students struggle with the most. In an attempt to show a specialty or passion, students can often be redundant and spend the length of the essay reiterating something else that’s already in the application. If marching band is on your activity list, the college already knows you enjoy music, so don’t spend your essay writing about what it means to play flute in the band. Take this opportunity to give the admissions office insight into something new about you. Whether it’s how your religion impacts your education, how a mentor helped you realize your potential, or an event that’s shaped who you are today, write about something with substance that adds another dimension to your application.
2. Spend time brainstorming topics.
In order to reveal something new about yourself, you need to choose a meaningful and original topic. While the Common Application essay questions are helpful, it’s up to you to choose a personal topic that ties in with the Common Application prompt you’ve selected. Take time to think about what’s important to you, what people or events have shaped you, and what you think is interesting about yourself. Don’t just choose the most obvious topic, like the soccer team captain writing about winning the championship game. Instead, think of events, themes, experiences, and more that are somewhat unique to you and how they’ve impacted you.
3. Be mindful of word choice, tone, and voice.
Your essay should sound like you wrote it, so don’t overload it with long vocabulary words, complex sentence structure, or a lofty tone if that’s not how you normally write or speak. That being said, don’t be afraid to stretch your writing skills. The personal statement should demonstrate your best writing, so take your time to carefully craft an essay that clearly conveys your story and your voice. Avoid redundant words or phrases, filler words that don’t add any value, or confusing language that muddles the message.
4. Practice, practice, practice!
It’s rare that anyone’s first draft is the perfect personal statement. Just like with anything else, you get better with practice. Write often, whether it’s in a journal, blog, or other outlet, as a way to improve and evolve your writing skills. When it comes time to pen your personal statement, practice that, too. Revise, revise, and then revise again. It often takes students many drafts before they have a personal statement that demonstrates their best writing and clearly conveys the essay’s message.
5. Don’t procrastinate.
A stellar essay isn’t usually written in a day. Get a head start on your personal statement by brainstorming topics and writing your first draft during the summer before the school year starts. That way, some of the most difficult work – choosing a topic and starting the writing process – is done before you head into a hectic senior year. This also allows students to get early feedback on their essays from college counselors, before the majority of the class begins seeking advice later in the semester.
These are just a few tips that can help you write a great personal statement this fall. Remember, be yourself and write about what’s important to you – not what you think the college wants to read. For more help with application essays, contact us today for information on our counseling services, and check out our blog for additional tips!
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The Requirements: 11 essays and short answers of varying length.
Supplemental Essay Type(s): Why, Community, Oddball
Stanford University 2017-2018 Application Essay Question Explanations
Unshockingly, given that Stanford is the most difficult university to get into in the country, this supplement is a doozie. It puts both your writing and creativity to the test in a myriad ways. One of the most important things to remember about this supplement, as with all supplements that lob a host of essays and short answer questions at you, is that each response is an opportunity to reveal something new about yourself to admissions. Think about the tidbits you have to offer up as you pull together your package and make sure you distribute them across the supplement. Try as hard as you can not to be repetitive. And, as much as you can, have fun with these. If you embrace the challenge laid out in front of you, your answers will be instilled with that positive spirit as well. Trust us.
Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words)
Like so many other universities, Stanford wants to get a feel for your commitments outside the classroom as well as in. Think about your application as a whole, reading through all of the Stanford prompts before you dig in, and figure out what you can detail here that hasn’t or will not be addressed in other essays. Also make sure the activity or experience you highlight is something you are clearly invested in. Don’t choose to elaborate on a fundraiser to which you contribute five hours of your time, twice a year. This is a good place to feature a “work experience” if you have one, as that is something that often feels less standard than an internship or activity in which many other students participate. For example, tell admissions about the summer you spent working at a hot dog stand and how it taught you about responsibility, organization, and portable fans. That said, even if you write about a national club or organization that other students may feature, the trick to nailing this essay is personalization. Why is this the activity or experience you have chosen to highlight? How were you a contributor and how will it impact your ability to be a contributor on campus? How has participation made you a more interesting, empathetic, or responsible person overall? And how will this experience impact your future? You don’t have a lot of space here, so make sure you focus on personal and powerful details that other people could not replicate.
What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 word limit)
Fifty words is not a lot of words. This is going to be a recurring thought as you begin to tackle the Stanford app. How do you explain society’s most significant challenge in just fifty words? You boil it down to its essence and rely on the topic to speak volumes. Think about what nags at you on a daily basis. How would you like to improve the world? Where might we be going down the wrong path? What you choose to write about will give admissions an idea of what you truly care about and how you see the world. Are you concerned that as a species we will never achieve true gender equality? Does climate change keep you up at night? What activities have you participated in or books have you read to educate yourself about this issue? Maybe you even have a solution to offer up. Show admissions that you can turn passion into action.
How did you spend your last two summers? (50 word limit)
Fifty words is not a lot of words. For this response, that means you will likely have to add and prune, add again and prune again. Feel free to take a straightforward approach to this question. Stanford really wants to know what you did last summer (and the summer before)! Just make sure to include the unexpected commitments that will not appear anywhere else on the application, like your babysitting job, your road trip with your family, or your backyard photography habit. Anything you can do to add a layer of understanding to admissions picture of you will help.
What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 word limit)
Fifty words is not a lot of words. So this answer is really about creating an effective summary of the event in question, and concisely explaining the motivation behind your selection. This is another question in which your selection of topic tells a story. Maybe you want to witness the creation of Gutenberg’s printing press or the swearing in of the first African American president. Whatever you do, try to avoid subjects other students will likely flock to. MLK’s “I Had A Dream” speech is incredible, but it might not make for the best topic here — unless, of course, you have a highly personal story that connects to that moment that you can summarize in 50 words or less. (There are always exceptions to the rules!)
What five words best describe you? (10 word limit)
This is more of a puzzle than writing exercise. Think about five ways you define yourself. Ask friends and family what words they would use to describe you. You will likely hear things like “fun,” “caring” and hard-working.” Now try to find more interesting (and less common) ways of expressing these sentiments. (“Optimistic,” “empathetic” and “diligent”?) Make sure each word adds a new element to the mix. And don’t be afraid to come at this question from unexpected angles (Are you hungry, for example? We are.)
When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 word limit)
Luckily for you, this is another answer in which your topic selection drives the success of your response. You can approach this question in one of two ways, as a cross-section of the books/websites, music and television/film you consume, or as a chance to highlight some of the more important and enjoyable cultural offerings you have come across. Fifty words is not a lot of words, but if you choose the second approach and have a little space, can you give context to your answer? Did The Martian inspire you to pursue a career as an astronaut so you, too, can grow your own potatoes on Mars? Regardless of how you answer, your responses should say something about your thought processes, interests, and passions.
Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 word limit)
This is “Why Stanford” in its most distilled form. Your answer should be personal and, if possible, unexpected. This is not the place to detail your love of the campus or dining hall. Stanford already knows it has “world-class” professors. Are you looking forward to participating in a certain school tradition because it aligns with your interests? Maybe you can’t wait to start a chapter of a charity you created on campus. Or maybe there is a professor in your department who has done research you admire — are you dying to work alongside that person? Get specific. Let Stanford know what resources you will take advantage of that other might not think of.
Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 word limit).
Admissions knows that, as a particularly ambitious human, you likely don’t have a lot of free time. If you were gifted with that extra hour in the day that we all dream about, how would you spend it? Would you do something productive and thoughtful (help your dad rake the leaves in the front yard while you catch up), or something more recreational (like watching all of “The Wire” from beginning to end because you’re obsessed with the intersection of journalism, social issues and entertainment). What do you really dream about doing with your time in an ideal world? Although you might be tempted to talk about hanging out with your friends or catching up on sleep (Why does school start so early?), you will be better off writing about how you wish you had more time to practice piano, write short stories, perfect your spanish speaking abilities, or invent an app for avid bird watchers.
The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning. (100 to 250 words)
How hungry for knowledge are you? That’s what Stanford really wants to know. Focus on a subject that stokes your curiosity, a specific concept that has infiltrated your browser history, or an experience that has burned itself into your brain. What homework assignments are you clamoring to complete first? Which topics want to make you open up a new book, google the definition of word you’re not familiar with or hit play on a podcast? Who challenges you to think of issues in new ways? Now consider what about the subject, activity, or experience itself is inspiring your pursuit of knowledge. Are you driven by the pursuit of the truth and nothing but the truth? Maybe more abstract and creative arenas are more interesting to you. Regardless of what floats your boat, Stanford University is aiming to bring self-motivated, deep thinkers into their student body. Admissions officers want to know that you’ll be eager to contribute to lively class discussion and maybe conduct research in your latter years on campus. Show them that you’ll be a valuable addition to any classroom setting.
Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate — and us — know you better. (100 to 250 words)
This, at its essence, is a creative writing exercise. All this time colleges have been asking you to write in a casual but professional voice — until now. Pretend you’re writing an email to a friend. Open your browser window and actually draft in a new message box if it helps you adjust your voice. You are now writing to your peer, not admissions. What might someone you are about to live with want to know about you? And, more importantly, what quirky personal information do you want to convey to admissions that might not be appropriate to reveal in response to a stuffier prompt? Are you a closet botanist who will be bringing 30 plants to your dorm room? Have you been practicing how to make your grandma’s special rice in a dorm room hot pot? This is a great place to inject a little humor in your application — if that’s your style. It is also a great opportunity for you to showcase what it would be like to be friends with you (without the use of emojis and with the addition of perfect grammar).
Tell us about something that is meaningful to you and why. (100 to 250 words)
This is one of those open-ended questions that can be answered in so many ways, it’s almost maddening. It does come at the end of the application, however, which will help you narrow down the subjects that are not up for contention — namely, anything you have written about already. Dig through your brainstorms for any subjects about which you feel passionately that you’ve left untouched thus far. Consider options across a wide spectrum. Which people are important to you? Which memories? Which objects? Which experiences? What general concepts? Do your white river rapids excursions with your family fill your life with excitement and joy? Does volunteering at the local soup kitchen infuse your life with love and gratitude? Does your religion dictate the way you live your life and make decisions? Again, your job here is to tell Admissions something about yourself that they wouldn’t already know.