Hi Crimson, could you please provide some tips on what a personal statement should entail and how I can stand out from the crowd?

Should I focus on one topic such as a significant event in my life or discuss several aspects of my life such as culture, passions, influential literature, etc?

Hi Fifiyao,
Before I answer your question in depth, I want to clarify – since we’re talking about U.S. admissions, when you say the “personal statement,” do you mean the Common App essay?

Yes the Common App essay sorry

Yes the Common App essay sorry about that.

There are a number of different approaches to writing the main essay. It’s good to start by examining the question options provided by the Common App, although as you will see, these questions are so open-ended as to allow a student to write about almost anything.

2016 Question Options

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

It’s worth noting that during the 2015-2016 cycle, 47% of applicants chose to write about their background, identity, interest, or talent, making it the most frequently selected prompt, 22% chose to write about an accomplishment, 17% about a lesson or failure, 10% about a problem solved, and 4% about an idea challenged. Though I have no evidence to show that choosing a less common question puts a student at any particular advantage, remember that a large part of the goal with this essay is to make yourself stand out—if you can stand out by writing a great essay and stand out simply by the question you choose, that’s a bonus!

How does you stand out or be unique in a Common App essay? Usually, it comes down not to what you choose to write about, but how you write about it.

Here’s what Yale has to say on this subject (from their admissions site):
“We know that no one can fit an entire life story into two brief essays, and we don’t expect you to try. Pick a topic that will give us an idea of who you are. It doesn’t matter which topic you choose, as long as it is meaningful to you. We have read wonderful essays on common topics and weak essays on highly unusual ones. Your perspective – the lens through which you view your topic – is far more important than the specific topic itself. In the past, students have written about family situations, ethnicity or culture, school or community events to which they have had strong reactions, people who have influenced them, significant experiences, intellectual interests, personal aspirations, or – more generally – topics that spring from the life of the imagination.”

What they’re saying comes down to this: be yourself. Let your voice shine through.

One thing I tell all of my students: there is not a single talent or skill that you have that another applicant won’t be able to match or exceed. GPA, grades, scores, extracurriculars — other applicants can almost always match or exceed them. In fact, there’s only thing I can guarantee you that you have over every single other applicant, and that’s being yourself. Nobody else applying can ever be better at being you than you are.

That’s why an essay that reflects your personality is so important.

Some of the best college essays are written about incredibly mundane topics, but they are written in such a way as to point out something new and personal about the topic that illustrates a student’s individuality and personality. There was a great essay written by a student who got into all the Ivies a year or so ago. She wrote it about shopping at Costco, but of course, it told a reader much more than that. See here: http://www.businessinsider.com/high-school-senior-who-got-into-5-ivy-league-schools-shares-her-admissions-essay-2016-4

A couple more things addressing specific elements of your question: readers care more about the insights you have than they do about the event that you talk about. You can talk about a really significant event in your life, but if you haven’t learned that much about yourself or the world from it, the readers won’t care.

Essays about culture are really hard to make successful, because typically students focus way too much on the culture and not enough on themselves. Remember: this essay is about YOU.

Passions can definitely work as a starting point. Be careful to focus not on the passion itself so much as how the passion has impacted you and your life and your view of the world.

Unless you’re planning on studying English and have read a lot of great literature, I wouldn’t recommend that as a topic.

A big part of what Common App essay readers are looking for is personal growth in these essays. They want to see that you’ve developed in your thinking, as a person and a student. AND they want to see how you’ll be contributing to their campus. For this reason, topics that somehow involve community building can often be very effective in my view.

I hope that helps a bit!


One last thing. In terms of structuring your essay (and this advice exists out there on the interwebs as well), I find the most constructive method to be the following:

  1. Write about an experience from your life – can be exciting or not, just has to be important to you
  2. Write about what you learned from that experience
  3. Write about why what you learned matters (and try to connect it implicitly to what you might have to offer a college or your future college peers)