With the application season in full swing, our students at Quantum Prep are well on their way towards finishing their applications for US universities. As US college admissions consultants, we get the most questions by far on one topic – the Personal Statement. There are good reasons why people are so concerned about this too: this one short essay of only 650 words needs to represent you to the admissions officer. It’s your best opportunity to show your voice and make your application stand out among all the dry numbers and lists. It’s also, by far, the part of your application that you have the most control over. For these reasons, it’s critical to make sure your Personal Statement gets the attention it deserves. At Quantum Prep, our consultants help students develop their ideas into essays that stand out, and here are some of our best tips for getting started.
Brainstorming: Finding the right topic
The key to getting an essay that you can be proud to present to a college is finding the right topic – something that’s easier said than done. With only 650 words to work with, it’s impossible to present everything in just one essay, so picking a topic that you feel can confident about representing you is absolutely critical. As a registered teacher in Hong Kong, I’ve seen students in all grade levels ignore brainstorming or think of it as busywork to appease their teachers. But when brainstorming for your Personal Statement, here are some tips to make sure you get useful starting points out of your brainstorming efforts:
1. Memories you can describe well
Details are what breathes life into an essay, bridging the gap between the printed page and your reader’s imagination. At Quantum Prep, many of our students’ most successful essays engage the reader’s attention, letting the admissions officers walk a mile in the student’s shoes, as the saying goes. Think about moments in your life where the details are still crystal clear and write out as many details as you can off the top of your head. Then, take an objective look at what you’ve written down (or find a friend or your consultant!), and see if there are any common themes that your mind naturally pays attention to. As a teacher and consultant, when I see students who say that they “don’t know” why they do or enjoy certain things, it’s often because they’ve never taken the time to explore how their own mind works. Everybody cares about different things, and this exercise helps you identify what your mind has a natural inclination towards.
Conversely, overly exaggerated stories (or ones that aren’t even true to begin with) often lack the details that make an essay feel real, resulting in poor personal statements. Not everyone can be a fiction writer after all!
2. Be genuine about yourself at your most normal, not only at your greatest
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? How do you act when you’re at home with nothing to do? Remember that the personal statement is an opportunity for your admissions officer to see if you would fit into their campus culture, and one way they want to identify that is to see how you are in your daily life. Remember that your application forms will already have all the details about your achievements and awards; the personal statement is not the place to rehash those same things! In fact, many admissions officers at the top universities we’ve spoken to over the years have mentioned how personal statements that just show daily life can be very effective – it’s a breath of fresh air to see “real people” and not just caricatures of “student leadership”! The admissions officers are looking for a balanced student body. With that said, though, if you ARE an elite power athlete who is at 110% every day of your life, or a prolific volunteer that just can’t ever say “no”, don’t be afraid to present that too – just remember to be genuine.
3. Things about yourself you’ve always wanted to tell people close to you
Everyone acts different in front of different people – that’s a fact of life. But is there anything you think your group of friends doesn’t know about you? Or that your parents don’t realize you’ve changed about? Or that your teachers have misunderstood about you? That’s great, because this is exactly what admissions officers want to see too. This forces you to think about yourself from your own perspective, without the influence of those around you, something that has gotten harder and harder to do in the age of social media. But for an admissions officer, they want to see what you have to say about yourself. It can be difficult for them to pick that out of an entire application profile which will always be influenced by your surroundings – your school may impose restrictions on pursuing your genuine interests, your activities may be limited by what’s available – but your own voice can still be free to say what you want.
4. Conflicts and turning points
Conflicts exist at the heart of every good story. This is also true for college application statements. Conflicts also don’t need to only be about winners or losers of an argument – we would always be interested in seeing anything that you as an applicant are willing to take a stand on, as these tell us about your personal values. Think about issues that you care strongly about – including things that are lighthearted. Conflicts don’t always need to be serious! Your pet peeve being small talk or insistence on never double-dipping fries can be just as telling about your character as someone’s staunch support for specific social issues.
Turning points in your life in which you took an active role can also be a great vehicle for showing personal growth. However, be careful to think carefully about why you took the actions you took – one of the biggest pet peeves of admissions officers are students who say that they’ve *always* liked something (really? Even when you were a baby?) or moments when students had a sudden and magical realization – these are often the opposite of growth, when it’s something that happens to you rather than something you take an active role in.
There are no set answers on writing the US personal statements – for every rule you may see, there will always be a dozen exceptions. But finding the right topic to represent you is the first and most important step towards writing an essay that can stand out among your fellow applicants, so spend the time to think things through before you begin!
Quantum Prep is an education consultancy that focuses on placing their students at the best colleges or universities. We boast of diverse results. In addition to the traditional rap sheet of prestigious university acceptances, our consultants like to highlight the different paths they have sent students on. All of our students are different; we are proud of our one-on-one tailored approach towards university counselling. Submit your information for a complimentary 30-minute initial meeting, where you can get tailored individualized advice on how to put your best foot forward.
By Conrad Yu, Director of Development