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Writing the Personal Statement

4 Qualities That Will Make Yours Stand Out

When it comes to personal statements, there is no silver bullet and no one-size-fits all. Different colleges are going to look for different things from their applicants, so the structure you chose for that Common Application, may not work as well for the school-specific portal. Writing about yourself can get pretty overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be.

Set the stakes aside for a minute. The trick to writing a standout personal statement, is to break the process down into chunks, so you can wrap your head around it. Before you even start to think about brainstorming and structure, let’s breakdown the four qualities that the best statements have, regardless of topic, length or approach.

1. Core Values Are Clearly Conveyed

The goal of a personal statement is to give the admissions board a sense of what fulfills and motivates you. We’re talking here about community, compassion, athleticism and creativity, just to name a few. There should be 4-5 clearly stated values throughout your essay.

Pro Tip: Don't write what you think they want to hear. Write about what actually excites you. The whole point is to show them who you are, not who you think they want you to be. Don't be afraid to surprise them (or yourself).

Think about variety when you’re considering your core values. Motivation and drive are essentially the same thing, while advocacy and compassion are two completely values. Choose the wording that most accurately describes you, and move on to the next one. Don’t restate the same value over and over again. Synonyms will bog your statement down.

2. It Acknowledges Challenges Honestly

As counterintuitive as it might seem, colleges don’t want “perfect” students, which is good because human beings aren’t perfect. People struggle and face challenges—that’s where growth happens. Don’t gloss over moments of vulnerability because you think you’ll seem flawed. In reality, exploring challenges honestly will make you stand out.

Does this mean that you should confess your deepest, darkest fears and secrets? No, your personal statement isn’t the place for that. It is, however, a great place to explore overcoming stage fright or having to work two jobs in addition to going to school. Your personal statement is the heart of your application. It’s the perfect place to give them an honest sense of who you are.

3. It Displays Insight and Personal Growth

This is where we address “what then” (or “so what”) moments. These are specific moments in your life from which you’ve gained insight. They’re those pin point experiences that you continue to reflect on and grow from. They speak to your values, your sense of purpose you’re your evolving identity.

“What then” moments are experiences that prompt some sort of change. Sometimes they’re quiet and very personal, like a slip in communication. Sometimes they’re obvious, like making varsity. Either way, aim to include 3-5 of these moments. They should illuminate you, how you think and your capacity for self-reflection.

4. It’s Articulate

Writing is a process. Done well, all the reader will see is your story, not the process of writing it. Which is to say that, while the narrative is always the point, the process makes it clear.

So, be prepared to take your time with each step of the process. Brainstorm thoughtfully. Write your rough draft with care. Then, revise while keeping these questions in mind:

Are my values identifiable?

Are my examples and “what then” moments specific?

Are my ideas fully supported and explored?

Am I boring myself?

Once you’ve satisfied yourself regarding these questions, ask a family member, teacher or trusted friend to read it over, keeping those same questions in mind.

Finally edit. Make it sing. Then set it aside for a day or two and re-read it. Are you still happy? Congratulations! Your personal statement is done! If not, that’s okay. Make the changes you need to make. Be patient with yourself and the process. You’ll get there in the end.

Remember, no one knows you better than you. You’re the expert here. If you keep these four qualities in mind as you work through the process, you’re guaranteed to show yourself in the best, most outstanding light.