Tips for College Students: Writing Your Personal Statement
All tips for college students that circulate online can be divided into two groups: getting into college and staying in it. The latter includes getting good and high grades, learning techniques, writing papers, etc. The former, which is much narrower, focuses on writing your admission papers. That’s what I would like to focus on in this article. More specifically, I’d like to talk about describing experience and extra-curricular activities in a personal statement.
There is a common belief that in order to stand out, you have to be dramatic. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Admission officers are tired of all the low-ball techniques that students use to impress them. They want clarity and they want focus, which applies to your extra-curricular activities as much as to your academic achievements.
The general purpose of a personal statement is to provide information that will be relevant for the admission board and will help them understand if an applicant is a good fit for the chosen program. If the sole purpose of this paper were to tell about yourself, it would take hundreds of pages. And yet, you have a word limit, and you have to meet it come hell or high water.
That’s why you need to select carefully what experiences to describe – it will help you to not only meet the word limit, but also pick the most valuable and thus impressive options.
Should you describe every piece of work or volunteering experience that you’ve had in your life?
No. Don’t even think in that direction. You have to evaluate and prioritize before writing anything. Select the experiences that somehow explain or support your desire to apply for the program that you are applying for. How does it make you a better candidate? How does it help you stand out? In general, 80% of your statement should be devoted to topical achievements, hobbies and activities. The remaining 20% are designed to help you come off as a person with diverse interests.
Does it matter if you have “down to earth” work experience and not some fancy internship?
So you didn’t make it to the White House… So what? Do you really think that the level of the organization where you acquired your experience will matter more than the experience itself? If your answer is yes, you couldn’t be more wrong.
The how and what of your work experience matter much more than where. If you managed a reception desk in a local hotel, you must have a lot to tell about dealing with clients. And if you made coffee in the White House, well… you must have made a lot of coffee. The point is, what you’ve learned and how you evaluate such experience are two things that matter most.
Do you have to dazzle your judges with what you’ve seen and where you’ve been?
We don’t live in the nepotism-free world, so connections almost always matter. But if your personal statement is being read and evaluated, it means your connections haven’t gotten you into college outside competition. That’s why it won’t matter how much possibilities you’ve had. In fact, it might be even more impressive if you have developed an understanding of and a taste for art, while being deprived the luxury of seeing the paintings in the Louvre Museum. Again, it matters why your modest experiences are relevant, not how diverse or luxurious they are.
Go general or focus on a single experience?
If you ask me, I’ll choose a focused, detailed description of a single event or experience over a long list any time. Chances are, admission officers share my point of view. To keep a reader engaged, you need to be focused (I might be overusing this word a little – that’s how important it is) and eliminate distractions. Don’t give them any choice. If there are a few things that a person can focus on, they will most likely focus on nothing. Hence a few pages of writing in vain. Don’t let your desire of diversity and comprehensiveness play against you.
Pick, evaluate, and describe why relevant – this is the ideal formula of including your experiences in personal statement writing. You can outrace those who have the money or the connections – you just have to approach it right.