Writing your college admissions essays can definitely be stressful. With so many other qualified candidates applying, this one little essay can often mean the difference between being accepted to the school of your dreams and never moving out of your parents' basement.
Need help writing a personal statement? You came to the right place!
We've seen everything here at Scribendi, which means we know what makes a good personal statement and what makes a bad one. The bad news is that there's a very fine line. The good news is that we've compiled a list of common mistakes that students make when writing a personal statement. Now, you can learn from the mistakes of others so you don't have to learn them the hard way.
1. Ignoring the rules
If there's one time to think inside the box when writing a personal statement, it's with the technical rules. If there's a required word count, stay inside of it, whatever you do. If they want a specific font type or size, don't try to wow them with your downloaded font pack. If they need a specific file type, make sure your document is in it.
It sounds obvious, but little details like these can be easily overlooked. They're also the first step to getting your foot in the door and onto the desks of the application committee, so color inside of the lines. Doing so will prove that you know how to follow guidelines. Not doing so will get your personal statement a reserved spot in the trash.
2. Failing to answer the question
It's easy to derail from the topic at hand or to answer a question with which you feel more comfortable than the original question posed. However, it's so important to stay on track and show that you are more than equipped to deal with whatever is thrown at you. First, provide an interesting hook—a succinct and engaging sentence to draw readers in and make them want to read more. Then, ensure you follow a clear structure and present a logical flow of thoughts. When answering the question, get to the point as quickly as you can, and stay relevant. If you're not sure whether to include something, keep rereading the question or topic to make sure you're not off track.
3. Making it "one size fits all"
"One size fits all" isn't just a lie in the fashion industry; it's also a lie for personal statements. You shouldn't submit the same personal statement to multiple different schools, just changing the school and program names. Even though the application committee won't know this for sure, they'll get a sense that the whole statement is just a little too generic. Worse, you're proving to yourself that you don't have what it takes to write a different statement for each school, which is a little lazy and pretty insulting to the addressee. So don't do it!
Many hopeful students, especially at the post-grad level, make it a point to show they've done their homework, mentioning particular researchers at the school whom they'd love to work with. Remember that one size never fits all.
4. Taking the "personal" out of "personal statement"
Let's be honest. Nobody wants to hear about the rising tuition costs in America or how the field you're in is progressing at a steady pace. Generalized statements are a killer in personal statements because, of course, the focus should be on you. Talk about how these things affect you specifically. Make your personal statement personal!
Home in on a level of specificity, and keep zooming in until all of the broad statements are vanquished. Instead of talking about rising tuition costs, talk about how you worked two jobs to feed your cat.
On that note, though . . .
5. Telling a sob story
Don't tell a sob story. Everybody has one; it's part of being human.
But you can't let something bad that's happened to you become an excuse. You don't want to rely on it, and you don't want the application committee to think you're trying to gain pity, so it's important that you remain professional. If you have overcome a struggle or a tragedy and it has genuinely influenced or changed you, of course you can and should talk about it. However, try to put a new or positive spin on it when possible. Talk about how working those two jobs was worth it, the different things you learned from your two bosses, or how your experiences made you who you are today.
6. Blasting to the past
In writing a personal statement, you should present yourself as a well-rounded individual but outline your achievements in different areas like academics, athletics, the arts, and your work, volunteer, and social experiences. Make sure, though, that you've moved on from high school. Your experiences should be current and professional.
What you did last weekend is more important than a project you completed three years ago. The application committee wants to know who you are now, not who you once were. What will you do in your free time today, tomorrow, and in the future? It's important that the application committee gets a sense of who you really are.
7. Apologizing and making excuses
Maybe you lack experience. Maybe you've never had a job in your field, or you haven't volunteered enough. Maybe your marks fell halfway through school, or you lost a scholarship. Maybe you don't have any extracurricular activities to list, or you've been out of the game for a while. The worst thing you can do, when faced with these common problems, is to make excuses. Don't even make excuses when they're valid, and don't apologize. There are always explanations for doing poorly, doing nothing, or just not doing the right thing, but they should never be used as excuses. If you absolutely feel the need to address your mistakes, try to talk about what you've learned or how you've grown and changed for the better.
8. Putting on a show
Another common mistake on the flip side of the last is putting on a great big show. Drop the dramatics. If you haven't found a cure for the common cold, then don't act like you have. Can the over-the-top descriptors, adjectives, and adverbs, and let your accomplishments speak for themselves. Similarly, the jargon, the overly academic language, and the stuffy personality have all got to go. It's okay to keep your personal statement simple because that will make it genuine. Write like yourself, and the personal statement will not turn into a drama.
9. Taking the backseat
It's important, though, that you don't take the backseat. This is your personal statement. What is it about you that the application committee needs to know to understand who you are and how you function? How can you best demonstrate your strengths, achievements, and ability to overcome challenges? Which ones have made you the person you are? These are all worth considering.
There will be points where you have to brag a little bit, but do so subtly. Mentioning your achievements is important. Explaining how you made them and what you learned is more important.
10. Forgetting give and take
There's a very fine balance to strike in your personal statement, and it's one that's often overlooked. This is probably the most important tip! Here it is: you need to balance how you can benefit the school in question and how the school in question can benefit you. If you focus too much on the first, you'll come across as arrogant. If you focus too much on the second, you'll come across as desperate. So make sure you balance it out.
What does the school gain from accepting you? That's important to answer, and that's the whole point of writing a personal statement. Answering that question well will get you accepted. At the same time, you have to thoroughly explain what it is about the school that makes it so desirable. Without that, the application committee may believe that you don't think you need its school and that any school will suit your purposes fine. Make sure you give and take!
11. Failing to convey excitement
If you're enthusiastic about the prospect of attending a school, say so! Most students decide to apply for a program because they are excited about the material and the prospect of using the knowledge they'll gain in their future careers. You can also add a touch of altruism by explaining how you hope to harness your passion to help others. For example, if applying to a business program, express your excitement to take advantage of its prestigious alumni roster as well as your hope to help a particular nonprofit. Be specific about why you're excited about the opportunities a school or program will provide.
12. Turning into a clichÉ
Focus on highlighting unique experiences that could have only happened to you. This will help get your personal statement remembered and cared about. Show that you have energy and passion, that you are committed, and that you are unique (because you are). However, be humble. Unique does not mean "the best." There's always room for improvement, so instead of trying to sound like the best, try to sound irreplaceable. What makes your point of view your very own? That's what you want to demonstrate. Everybody's different, so make sure the application committee understands how you're different by the end of your essay.
13. Thinking it's finished when it's not
Here's the hard truth: one typo can make or break your personal statement. You need to have your personal statement edited and proofread, whether professionally or by a friend or colleague. Seriously, just do it. There's always, always room to improve. Even if you have flawless grammar and spelling (and no typos), perhaps you can work on clarity, tone, structure, or flow. Having others look at your document for you can provide a fresh perspective not unlike that of the application committee. An editor will not only improve the language in your piece but will also give you pointers on how to improve the content. Your personal statement isn't complete unless it's been edited!
Time to start writing!
Now that you know the common mistakes students make, you can avoid them. Writing a personal statement can be a little more than intimidating, but following these suggestions will at least put you ahead of the others. Here's to getting your personal statement on the top of the pile!
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