If you’re seeing your high schooler through the college application process for the first time, you’ll probably find that few aspects of the process fill them with as much dread as penning the personal statement.
It makes sense: The personal statement, required by most four-year colleges, asks a lot of teenagers, requiring them to demonstrate in 650 words or less what makes them unique, what factors have shaped them into the individuals they are today. They must reflect on their lives and write a clear, concise memoir, a task that would be challenging for most adults, let alone a 17 or 18-year-old.
But there’s an upside: The personal statement is the one place on a college application where students can be creative. It’s also something over which they have total control, unlike, say, their GPA or SAT score. And a memorable personal statement can give students with less-than-spectacular stats an edge over the competition.
Here’s how to craft one:
Having worked for several years as a college advisor, I’ve found that often, the most difficult part for students is generating ideas. “I don’t have anything to write about. Nothing interesting has ever happened to me,” is a common refrain.
This probably isn’t the case, but it can be difficult to see one’s own life with enough clarity to know what others might find compelling about it. (In talking to one student who claimed her life was boring, I found out she had grown up in a Tibetan refugee camp. I told her I thought that might interest college admissions officers.)
But while loss and upheaval make for obvious memoir fodder, some of the best personal statements center on smaller, quieter experiences; the trick is rendering them with style and suspense.
Brainstorming is a good place to start. When students feel stuck, I have them make lists: I tell them to write down five to ten events from their lives that would have to be included were someone to write their biography. Then I have them list people they admire, and times when they experienced failures and successes.
Also helpful is to ask teenagers to describe themselves and talk about their hobbies and interests. (One student was quick to identify herself as a feminist; she also mentioned she was a fencer who had, on more than one occasion, defeated her own dad in matches. By combining those two passions, we had an essay about learning to fence as a feminist act, how it endowed her with the strength and dexterity to fight the patriarchy.)
Often, in talking about the events, passions, and goals they’ve listed, students stumble upon the seed of an essay. It can help to look at the Common Application essay prompts as they do this, and consider which one their story might fit. Fortunately, the prompts are open-ended, and even if students are applying to schools that don’t take the Common App, the colleges they’re interested in will likely have very similar prompts of their own. (Tip: Steer clear of the last prompt, which gives applicants the option to submit an essay on “any topic;” I’ve heard that admissions officials see this as a cop-out.)
What Makes a Good Personal Statement Topic?
I try not to be prescriptive when it comes to topics, with two exceptions: If a student is uncomfortable talking about the subject, I’d encourage them to choose another; they’re under no obligation to spill their guts to a faceless administrator, especially about a difficult experience they haven’t processed yet.
The other topic to avoid is the charity trip or voluntourism experience through which the student discovered poverty and learned not to take what they have for granted. It’s the fastest way to let colleges know that they’re uninformed about their own economic privileges (and, frankly, about the world outside their bubbles).
Her Campus adds to the list of no-nos any politically controversial topics, lists of accomplishments, and sob stories. By “sob stories,” the author means essays that hinge on something tragic happening to the writer, rather than a hardship they actively overcame. It does make for a compelling essay when a writer depicts herself as a person with agency and resilience, though I think that any subject can become a personal statement, if it is focused and crafted into a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Transformative experiences make for compelling reads; one of my students wrote about taking on his mother’s responsibilities while she recovered from surgery, cooking (and burning) dinner for the family and running to the laundromat between homework assignments, and his deepened appreciation of the hard work of being a parent.
Discovery of a passion can also be captivating: another student recounted a visit to see family in India, where she learned that DDT was still in use; her concern for her relatives’ health galvanized her into pursuing environmental justice. Another wrote about being ostracized in middle school, not an uncommon experience, but she zoomed into moments of bullying with such specificity that I felt her anguish and her strength when she persevered.
It all comes down to the writing. Which brings us to:
Getting It on the Page
With any creative nonfiction project, a good place to start is with a “brain dump.” Having a strong idea doesn’t mean the writer knows how she’ll structure her essay yet; by getting her thoughts onto the page without the pressure of writing something organized and pristine, that structure may begin to emerge.
Another good guiding principle is to apply the techniques of fiction to the personal essay: Rather than tell their story in summary (“When my mother got sick, I learned important lessons about responsibility”), high schoolers should aim to write about their experiences in scene, showing by including detailed description, dialogue, their own thoughts and feelings at the time. (For an essay about a sick parent, for instance, a student might begin with the moment his parents told him about the illness, and describe his own thoughts and feelings about it.)
The personal statement should function as a narrative that places the reader in the writer’s shoes. I encourage writers to open with a hook, a specific moment that is emblematic of their story’s themes. The student who wrote about being bullied, for instance, led with dialogue, depicting a moment when she overheard classmates talking about her. Often, once writers have their beginning, the rest of the essay flows from there.
Because the personal statement is relatively short—usually only a couple pages—it’s key that writers are selective, including only the details and context that serve their story. The essay doesn’t necessarily have to be linear—many students open with a scene and then flash back to provide the background for how they got there—but it does have to all hold together.
The ending is as important as the beginning, and it’s also the place where students can be most tempted to use clichés about how they learned and grew. But the final sentences are what will linger with readers, so they need to be carefully chosen.
The best way to become adept at this form of writing is to read; luckily, personal essays abound these days, so encourage your kids to seek out some examples. Some schools also provide examples of personal statements they loved—check out these from Johns Hopkins as a jumping off point.
As with any other form of writing, editing is a critical part of the process. When I work with students on this, we look at their drafts on both macro and micro levels, considering organization, pacing, and clarity, as well as word choice and sentence structure.
Questions to consider during the revision phase are, does this tell a story? Does it grab me at the beginning and maintain my interest throughout? Does it conclude in a way that makes sense and is impactful? Does it answer one of the prompts? Does it show me something interesting about who this person is as an individual?
Keep an eye out for repetition and wordiness. It’s fine to aim for sophisticated language, but it’s also important to be concise, and it’s usually obvious when a high school student is using words that don’t come naturally to them. At the end of the day, the personal statement should be in the writer’s own voice, since that’s what colleges are interested in hearing.
This can all take a while—I’ve seen some students go through as many as 20 revisions—which is why it’s a good idea to get started on the personal statement during junior year, before high schoolers are overwhelmed with SAT prep and college applications in the fall.
This article originally appeared on the Lifehacker website