The first question that has to be answered in any relationship is, Are we right for each other? You’ve done the work of investigating different colleges and universities to see which ones are right for you. Your personal statement essay gives admissions officers an opportunity to decide if you’re right for them. They’ve looked at your bright, shiny transcript, read the glowing letters of recommendation and noted the impressive test scores.* They see that you meet their baseline criteria for admission, maybe even exceed it. But what makes you stand out from all the other qualified applicants? What makes you special?
The personal statement essay is your opportunity to reveal your marvelous, idiosyncratic self. Now, the temptation is to write an essay which highlights all of your amazing accomplishments in a humble-brag sort of way. You’ve built wells! You’ve volunteered at the (insert local charity organization here)! Feel free to do this, as long as you realize that the admissions officer reading your essay will most likely roll her eyes, yawn, and move onto the next application.**
So—crazy thought—why not write an essay that reveals what you’re really all about? What have you always been interested in? What have you always loved to do? Have you followed the NFL draft so closely that you could give scouting tips to the pros? Do you knit socks for your friends, make zines, go flyfishing at every opportunity? Maybe you’ve always loved doing people’s hair and are considered the go-to stylist among your friends. Maybe you have mason jars filled with the ticket stubs from every movie you’ve ever been to. Maybe you’ve spent the last two years writing a novel, building a virtual world website, taking daily pictures of the oak tree in your front yard.
College admissions officers love students who are passionate about something. A passionate interest suggests you’re someone who’s curious and creative and engaged. Believe me when I say that an essay about how you styled seven of your best friends’ hair the afternoon before prom is going to get a lot more attention than one about how you spent last summer building wells. Same with an essay in which you discuss what makes a defensive end an outstanding defensive end.
A great personal statement might start what with you’re interested in and then go on to show how your interest has shaped you or saved you or given your life direction and meaning. A kid who follows the NFL draft understands how to build teams— and maybe he’s used that skill elsewhere in his life. The hair stylist? She knows a lot about listening, not to mention the power of transformation. You take daily photographs of a tree? You’ve learned how change can sometimes be incremental, and how sometimes things change in the blink of an eye—all it takes is one well-aimed lightning bolt.
What we love and what we love to do says a lot about who we are. That’s what college admissions officers want to know: Who are you? What will you bring to this relationship? Your personal statement can give them this information better than almost anything else in your application. Make the most of it!
* Maybe your grades and scores aren’t top tier, though you know from your research they’re good enough to give you a shot at the colleges you’re applying to. Your personal statement essay is especially important in this case! It’s an opportunity to give a portrait of the well-rounded, fascinating person that you are. You’re more than your grades—and now’s the chance to prove it.
**If you volunteer for a cause that’s genuinely near and dear to your heart, you can definitely write about it, but you have to communicate your passion in an authentic and original way. Admissions officers have read more than their fair share of essays about teenagers who saved the world through their volunteer activities. Just so you know.