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Approaching the Personal Statement & Supplemental Essays

Most college applicants will be required to write the Common App (or Coalition App) essay as their personal statement. Schools that don’t require these applications will most likely have their own essay prompt on a similar topic. In addition, most colleges ask for supplemental essays or short responses. The most common essay prompt for supplemental essays will ask "Why This School?" In this article, we will dive into tips for both these essays.

How to Begin the Personal Statement

1. Start early! In January of your junior year, the Common App announces if the prompts have been changed from the previous year. They are usually the same, but always check!

  • Over the summer (between junior and senior year), you'll want to start brainstorming and drafting your personal essay. This way, you'll have enough time to focus on supplemental essays during the fall. Trust us here–you'll be so relieved if you don't have to worry about your personal statement during the fall semester.

2. Brainstorm ideas: Try to brainstorm ideas for as many of the prompts as possible. You can always go back and pick your favorite.

  • First, consider important, formative stories about your growth as a person that you are willing to share.

  • These stories can be fitted to almost any prompt! Common App Essay prompts are usually very broad; they're meant for you to tell your story, not answer a narrow question.

  • With every story, you'll want to end with a "moral" of sorts. How did this experience shape you and your opinions, beliefs, or outlook? Why is this experience so important to your growth? Examples include but are not limited to: leadership, tenacity, responsibility, empathy, or passion.

  • When choosing a prompt, be sure that it doesn't conflict with one of your supplemental essays. You won't want to write about the story that you use in your personal statement in any of your other essays.

How to Write the Personal Statement

Once you've thought of an important, formative experience or story to tell, it's important that you convey it in a way that will get across to your readers. Here are some of our tips:

1. Tell a story.

  • The good news is that most of the prompts are designed in a way that it’s easy for you to tell a story. You'll want to format your essay like you're telling someone a story; captivate your readers with a compelling storyline!

  • For example, you can begin with descriptive vignette that captures the reader's attention, and then go into more of the explanation of why this story is so important in understanding you as a person.

  • Try to format you essay with a clear beginning, middle, and end. This will make it easier for the readers to follow your writing and understand the story clearly. Make sure that you explain the importance of this experience in the end of the story, similar to a moral in a fictional piece.

  • If this wasn't obvious already, don’t make up a story! It's not worth it, and the readers will definitely be able to notice. Even if you don't think you've had any crazy, exciting experiences, you can tell any story in a captivating way. If it's important to you, it'll come across to your readers, regardless of how objectively unimportant it may seem.

2. Show, don’t tell.

  • The goal with your story is to successfully convey to the admission officers how this experience shaped you as a person, or why this experience is so important in understanding your character. However, don’t be too obvious. You'll want to avoid phrases like: “I exhibited leadership because I did _____.” Instead, describe the actions themselves, and let the admission committee come to the conclusion that you are a leader on their own. No one wants to read an essay where the writer tries to insert as many positive adjectives about themselves as possible.

3. Write about a small moment.

  • In the timeline of your story, focus on a small moment, such as an hour, a day, or a week. This will allow you to show enough emotion and detail and still fit the word count (max 650 words).

4. Write about yourself.

  • As you’re writing, make sure that you are including enough information about yourself. Even if you are writing about a group effort, include your own personal experience. Don’t write an essay about your mom, grandparent, or sibling - it is okay to include them, but make sure the admissions officer is getting to know YOU!

  • Your personal statement basically acts as a way for the admissions officer to understand you better than they'd be able to do solely from your academic stats like test scores, grades, and extracurriculars. It provides a context for them when reading your application, so you'll want it to be about you.

5. Avoid Generalizations and Clichés

  • While you of course are striving to tell a story that ends with a compelling moral or important growth opportunity, remember that admissions officers will be able to call out a cliché from a mile away.

  • For example, if you are interested in studying biology, you don't want to say something like: "my love of biology began when I looked at the world around me and discovered that life was both inexplicably beautiful, yet so easily broken down into parts of a functioning whole." While this sentence may seem eloquent and heightened, it doesn't really say much about you or why you actually want to study biology–this sentence could have come from anybody interested in science. It's okay to use flowy language, but you always want to back it up with specific examples.

6. Answer the prompt.

  • This may seem obvious, but sometimes when writing you may realize that you haven’t answered all aspects of the prompt.

  • When you are towards the end of the essay, re-check the prompts to see if another prompt better fits your essay.

7. Proofread/Peer Review your Essay

  • While it's important to trust your instincts about your essay, it is always helpful to have someone else look over your work!

  • Ask your English teacher or high school counselor to take a look at your essay! If you have friends or relatives in college, they can also be a useful resource for you, as they have gone through the same process before.

  • Sometimes, it’s easy to not realize that you haven’t been super clear to a reader who doesn’t know you (an admissions officer). Because you know yourself and your story so well, especially after having written so many drafts, you don't know how someone else will interpret your writing. A second set of eyes will always be beneficial, so take any opportunity you can find!

  • Finally, you of course don’t want to have any spelling or grammar mistakes. These small errors are hard to catch when you're looking at the same paper for so long, but it's really important to make sure that you catch them! Admissions officers may interpret an essay with many minor errors as careless or uninterested, which you never want.

Tips on the “Why This School” Supplemental Essay

1. Be specific.

  • As tempting as it can be to reuse the same exact essays for different schools, making your essay specific to one school is a great way of showing your interest. However, you can repeat how you structure your essay with each school to still save a lot of time. Also, feel free to copy and paste generic parts, such as why you are interested in your major and then tweak them as needed.

  • If you copy and paste anything at all, it is absolutely crucial to make sure that you do not accidentally have the wrong college name in an essay. Having the wrong college name in a supplemental essay is a surefire way of letting your admissions officer know that you aren't interested enough to write an original essay.

  • Don’t reiterate their admissions website. If you want to mention a statistic, make sure you explain why it’s important to you specifically.

2. Research.

  • Before writing your essay, research specific classes, professors, clubs, research opportunities, and traditions that you are interested in being a part of. Structure your essay around a few of these specifics; explain how you can see yourself participating in these specific communities.

  • What will you bring to the college? (e.g. contribute to campus community, be on student government, start or join a club, volunteering, etc.). Consider what kind of student this college is looking for. Would they want a student who is full of school spirit? A student who is committed to diversity and inclusion? A student who wants to bring the community together? The list is endless. You don’t need to come out and answer this question directly, but reread your finished essay through an admissions officer's eyes and see if those subtle nuances are there.

  • If you know a current student, you may briefly mention a story that they shared about their experience, and how that played a role in your decision to apply.

3. Write about yourself.

  • See #4 under Personal Statement tips; the same advice will apply.

  • All the tips listed above will help you write an essay that is catered to you. Admissions officers don’t want to know why students in general choose their university. They want to know why you specifically are interested in their college. What are you specifically going to gain out of a college experience at their college that you won't get from others?

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