Pro Tips for Approaching the Personal Statement Given COVID-19
By Kevin Trudel of Moon Prep Academy
Your Personal Statement plays a vital role in the consideration of your college application. For the Common Application, the most widely used application system, it is a 650 word-essay that allows for a holistic review of your application. It is an opportunity for the Admissions Office at a university to get to know you personally, to understand what type of person you are beyond your transcript, scores, or activities.
For many universities, the importance of the Personal Statement and supplement essays has grown this year. This can be seen by how many schools have gone test-optional, due to the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, some universities, such as the entire University of California system are not considering standardized tests at all as part of the admissions process, even as an optional submission.
As rising Seniors begin the process of writing their Personal Statements for the Common Application, Coalition Application, or other application systems, a common question is: what do I write about? You may be particularly concerned about this question given that the pandemic limited summer activities, personal experiences, and extracurricular opportunities over the past year and a half.
Picking a Topic
While the constraints of COVID-19 may feel like a major problem, they also present an opportunity. Consider the following expert tips for writing an effective Personal Statement:
- Avoid repeating anything that the admissions officers can find on your application.
- Add something new. Try to showcase your personality, your interests, or your hobbies.
- The personal statement is not the time to repeat or summarize all your accomplishments or extracurricular activities. This information can be found in your application and doesn’t show us who you are.
- Don’t assume that the reader knows who you are. You might think you don’t need to explain little things, but the reader doesn’t know you at all. Make sure you are giving enough information so the reader can understand you.
As you may have guessed based on these tips: writing about a sports injury, how you finally got an “A” in a difficult high school class, a successful clarinet performance, or how you went on a mission trip to a foreign country for a week, is not the best approach to this essay.
These topics tend to be overdone, and admissions officers are likely bored with reading about them. However, remember no topic is going to be completely unique, and it is difficult to come up with a unique one when we’ve all been stuck inside due to quarantine. So, instead, you should focus on being very personal. Add a lot of detail to your essay so we, as readers, can get to know you better.
Some possible topics you could write about include:
- A unique activity your family does
- An activity where you display leadership skills
- A unique way you created an opportunity for yourself during quarantine
- A challenge you’ve overcome
- A time you were pushed out of your comfort zone
Something to consider while pondering potential topics is that Zoom or remote activities are just as valid in-person ones. We’re all finding new ways to interact with the world during this time, and maybe you did too. Writing for an online publication is just as valid as a school newspaper. Fundraising online, or making meals at home are valid volunteering opportunities. Overcoming a personal obstacle with friends remotely is a reality during this pandemic. Don’t be afraid of a topic just because it occurred remotely!
Drafting the Essay Itself
Once you have a general topic in mind, become familiar with the writing style you will use. While there is no one way to write a Personal Statement, given the purpose and personal nature of these essays, they often use a first-person perspective and narrative writing style. While this can be a challenge if you’re not used to writing this way, there are many online resources that can help you.
One such resource is feedback from Admissions Offices themselves. For example, Harvard University’s Admissions Office provides examples of successful application essays along with feedback from Admissions Officers. Reviewing these essays along with those provided by other universities will help you understand what an effective first-person narrative looks like.
With a clear understanding of the appropriate writing style and a topic in mind, you should start drafting your Personal Statement. With the central anecdote or story of your Personal Statement in mind, try to begin your essay with an engaging narrative ‘hook’. A ‘hook’ is an engaging introduction that immediately captures the reader’s attention and immerses them into the essay. Examples of effective hooks are an action verb or sequence from your story, a vivid description of your surroundings, an engaging idea, or personal revelation.
Following that hook, you should tell a story around a central anecdote. Pick out a small moment from your topic and bring us into the narrative. A great way to do this is to use the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell) to show us the story. For example, if you want to talk about your babysitting experience, don’t just tell us about the ages of the kids, and how much fun it is. Pick out an interesting moment from your time together. Maybe you can describe how you learned the planets by painting them, or the unique memory games you created. Walk us through the situation!
Your writing style and essay topic do not have to only encompass “big moments”, such as starting a non-profit, or a vivid conflict. As can be seen in the successful college essays published by Harvard’s Admissions Office, successful essays often cover smaller moments. What makes them effective is they show the writer’s unique voice and way of thinking. So it’s okay if your topic or anecdote is not earth-shattering. Find something small that can help show you are.
If you write using your unique voice and perspective, it will help the reader understand you by the end of the essay. Therefore, think of a few qualities or achievements that you want to showcase and stick with those. If you try to put too much information into your essay, we won’t be able to understand you fully by the end of the 650 words.
Final Notes on Writing the Personal Statement
Writing a Personal Statement can be one of the most challenging and time-consuming components of the College Application Process. Depending on how comfortable you are with creative writing, it may take time for you to become comfortable with the necessary writing style, or to come up with a good topic. Because of this, I encourage any rising senior to start the process as soon as possible.
As you engage with the writing process, always have someone proofread your essay! Early on, they may be able to help you understand whether your topic is sufficiently personal, or overly generic. As you draft your essay, they will catch small mistakes you make and can give you good advice on larger issues such as writing style, or content organization. I would suggest only asking one or two other people to help revise your statement because any more than that can create confusion and conflicting advice.
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