Writing a Personal Statement, Tips the College Board Won’t Tell You

Inspiration and real advice from the heart
BY John Wang TIMENovember 26, 2013 PRINT

Attention high school students. Undergraduate college applications are almost due, most by the end of this November. Are you still struggling on your personal statement? Have you been sifting through countless “Do’s and Don’ts” on the College Board, yet still feel uninspired?

If you’re stuck, read the tips below. It should give you clearer direction, more confidence in yourself, and more confidence in your writing.

There are various reasons people get stuck. Perhaps you are not as practical or result-oriented as some of your peers, or perhaps you just lack confidence in yourself and what you’ve written. Maybe you’ve procrastinated until now, or spent more time thinking about what to write than actually writing. Whatever the reason, it’s not a bad thing, just a trait of you manifesting into current circumstances. You’re here reading this now, and soon you’ll be writing, finishing up, and submitting your statement. The future will be good, let’s get started on those tips!

1. Be yourself – You hear this advice all the time, but what does it mean?

Have you been trying to mold your personal statement into what you think college admissions want to read? If you are it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but does what you’re writing make you feel uncomfortable? If so, don’t do it. If it’s not you and not what you’re keen on doing, then it’s not what you should be doing.
Be yourself, get comfortable. Highlight something real about yourself.

2. Know yourself – from a positive angle

If you are having trouble discovering a positive trait about yourself, the next set of questions to ask yourself may help.

– Are you duty-oriented? Are you highly responsible? Do you subject yourself to intense training to acquire skills that relate to your duties? Do you feel a strong sense of duty when joining clubs or groups?

– Are you purpose-oriented? Do you see purpose in your field of work? Do you find purpose in your work when joining clubs and activities? Do you have a purpose in your life?

– Do you have strong passions? Do you certain hobbies, activities, or issues empower you?

– Are you analytical and philosophical? Do you love investigating truth? Are you concept and knowledge oriented? Do you love learning? Do you love gathering and synthesizing information?

– Are you practical? Do you like taking action and working on projects? Do you like results? Do you have concrete attainable goals? Have you worked on any projects or jobs? Have you built or fixed anything?

– What about your interests: Do your interests tie strongly with the major you’ve selected? History, language, culture, robotics, how-things-work, technology, science, and so on?

– Do you feel strongly about social issues? Are you involved in community events that address social issues? Do you often critique ethical/moral/social structures of society?

Think over the questions which you feel apply to you and you’re sure to find something unique about yourself. Remember: You don’t necessarily have to fit some perfect mold of a model citizen. What you have to look for is your selling point—a positive feature that defines you. Even if you’re a bad salesperson, try to express yourself positively for what you are.

Don’t feel discouraged if your answer is “No” or “Not really” to many of them. I personally would answer “Not really” to the majority of these questions. You can’t be everything at once, everybody has weaknesses.

But be confident. If you answered “Yes, sort of” to any of them, then try treat that as a “Yes” and see how you feel about it.

If you still need more help in “understanding yourself,” then try taking a free MBTI test online (Google “MBIT test” and you’ll find some). These were psychometric tests originally designed during WWII to help people find occupations that suit them. While the occupational advice may not be so accurate, these tests do offer insight into the positive traits that you can leverage.

3. Be human, write to a human

Experts in your field will be reading your personal statement, not your English teacher. Your personal statement is a medium of communication, not a paper to be graded. Remember that the person reading your personal statement was once in your exact same shoes. If you’re stressing about seeming naive, seeming overly-emotional , or being “wrong” — stop worrying. Some of my research professors love naïve students who have the audacity to make the wrong choices.

4. Be relaxed or be intense — it depends on you

Some people advise you to relax, but some people can’t help but be intense when working on important matters like this. This is about knowing yourself and how you work best. If relaxation lets you be more creative and confident, then relax. If tension helps you focus, then don’t stress about relaxing.

5. Do research on your university to see if they have instructions for writing a personal statement

In Google, type: [“Your University”] [Your Major] “Personal Statement”

Make sure you are not overlooking specific instructions. Some departments don’t have any instructions. Some departments are lenient and say: “It’s okay to know or not know what you want.” Some departments however specifically want you to describe something like the source of your passion. Remember, it’s important to follow any instructions that exist.

My experience: A true story

I’ve been in your shoes and I rewrote my personal statements many times. It was the factor which dictated which college applications were sent in early, and which waited until the last minute. I tried taking advice from college counselors, English teachers, the internet, friends, but everybody seemed to have different perspectives about what a proper personal statement should be: “Practical goals,” “Tell a story,” “Show how you changed as a person,” “Show how you got involved in your community,” and so on.

I found myself struggling because I was not a practical person, I did not like telling stories, I felt particularly awkward talking about myself, and I did not feel especially strong about community.

What was I? A philosopher. A naïve conceptual thinker who wanted to get into engineering.

So in one version of my personal statement, I philosophically mused about life, reality, and my love for the truth. I was applying for engineering degrees – a very practical major. My English teacher and college guidance counselors advised against using this version of my personal statement, but I submitted it anyway and it turned out to be highly effective.

It caught the eye of my thermodynamics professor, the person responsible for approving my college application. It turns out he loved philosophy and minored in it. He had been just like me at a younger age—naïve, inquisitive, curious, impractical, but somebody with a passion for truth. He liked the way I organized complex thoughts, and thought I’d make a great researcher and student (which turned out to be true).

That’s when I discovered a personal statement should be a document that communicates something positive and real about yourself. It doesn’t need to be a document that fits a mold.

Will a philosophical paper work for you? Maybe yes, maybe no, it really depends on you as a person, your interests, and what matters to you. My biggest advice is: You’ll benefit most if you’re comfortable with what you write. You’ll end up in the right college with the right types of people and opportunities.

Final words

Some of us go through life conforming to expectations, and some of us have to find our own path. Whichever way is better depends on you. Even if you feel uncertain like you’re going the wrong way—be confident in yourself and keep going. Uncertainty is a part of life, and running in the wrong direction can often be the first step toward going in the right direction. If you have an idea now of what to write, commit it to paper and move on with confidence.

(*Frustrated student image via Shutterstock)

John Wang
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