How to Approach Your Personal Statement

October 01, 2015

Picking your personal statement topic can be challenging. With so many questions to answer and even more ideas to choose from, it’s easy to get lost in the frenzy of application season. Today’s post, written by one of our college admits, details more about her experience heading into the admissions process and how she approached the common problem of picking your essay topic.

From the time I first started school, English had always been my favorite class. I harbored a particular love of writing, so when college application season came along, I initially gave very little thought to the universally dreaded personal statement essay. I was far more concerned at the time about my rather mediocre standardized test scores.  But when I finally decided to take a look at the prompts, I found myself seized by fear and uncertainty. The personal statement topics had a way of making me question what I’d been doing with my life so far. Suddenly, all the extracurriculars, internships, and volunteer hours I’d accumulated seemed insignificant and painfully commonplace. How was I to write about my ordinary, inconsequential life in a way that made me stand out amidst a veritable sea of highly driven, academically brilliant applicants?

My immediate instinct was to recount my experience as an immigrant in the United States.  It would certainly fit the prompt: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. But at the same time, I wondered how many other students were also immigrants and shared the same story. I didn’t want my statement to be another typical essay amongst thousands of similar ones that admission counselors would have to exasperatedly slog through.

Rather than allow myself to be discouraged by what other people might be doing, I sought ways of making my idea work because I truly believed that being an immigrant is central to my identity. I decided to put a more unique twist on my essay by eschewing the somewhat predictable diversity approach and focusing instead on overcoming personal challenges that related to my background. My personal statement opened by narrating my childhood in Beijing, a time I spent without my parents, and developed into an exploration of how moving to the United States and reuniting with them helped shape my character. When I took a leap of faith and left behind everything I was accustomed to in Beijing, I instilled in myself an unshakable confidence. By recounting my personal growth, I revealed my adaptable and intrepid nature to every admissions committee that would read my story.

I’m sure at some point or another we’ve all been told to just be ourselves when writing application essays. However oversimplified this may seem, honesty really is the most important basis for applying to college. You don’t need to establish multiple nonprofits to alleviate global poverty or participate in every single club your school offers to prove that you’re capable and well rounded. Colleges see right through that pretense. So instead, focus on what you’re passionate about and communicate to colleges how that has shaped you. Or, if you’re writing about your background, why is your history critical to understanding who you are? Why is that story worth telling?

On virtually every admissions website is the phrase, “You are more than your test scores.”  Oftentimes, applicants overlook the truth in this statement.  Test scores and grade point averages are often nearly identical among applicants, so what ultimately determines who gets accepted? The personal statement is a great way to distinguish yourself from the automatons. Don’t be afraid to deviate from conventional topics. Start early. And most importantly, make your statement a clear reflection of your voice.

Have questions about your personal statement? Sign up for AdmitSee now to speak with hundreds of mentors from schools across the country. If you’re applying to college now, make sure to check out our database of admitted students - see essays, scores, grades, advice, and more from students at schools that you’re interested in.



Browse Successful Application Files

jackmac401
USC ‘19


Accepted to USC, UMich, Northwestern, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Swarthmore, CMU, NYU, Vassar, Reed, Kenyon, UC Davis, Syracuse, CU, Fordham, Santa Clara, CSU Chico, CSUF, UC Riverside , UCSB, UCSC, Bard

Theater/business double major from classic and online highschool background. Here to help navigate audition and business interview processes! On full tuition scholarship
bwill
Williams ‘19


Accepted to Williams, Claremont (CMC), Amherst, Swarthmore, Pitzer, Northwestern, Tufts, WashU, Grinnell, Rice, Emory, LMU

Hi! I'm a Williams '19 transfer who's passionate about social justice, tech, and STEM. I'd love to share what I learned from navigating this hectic process twice!
vicamit
Vanderbilt ‘20


Accepted to Florida, Vanderbilt, Duke, Emory, UPenn, Miami, Northeastern, UVA, UNC, Georgetown, Rice

Cornelius Vanderbilt Scholar at Vanderbilt and art enthusiast
elewal
Brown ‘20


Accepted to Brown, Cornell, CMU, Wesleyan, William & Mary, Case, Villanova, Binghamton, RPI, WPI

Hi! I'm a sophomore at Brown University studying Biochemistry and English. I love writing, baking, hiking, and music.

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