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Personal Statement Do’s & Don’ts

Your personal statement is an opportunity to put a special mark on your college applications.

Beyond following a few basic directions, you likely have a considerable degree of freedom to choose a topic to write about. But, this wide latitude makes many students nervous.

To help you write a personal statement that reflects well upon you and is an asset to your application, I’ve prepared some personal statement do’s and don’ts.

Do Tell a Story

To keep admissions officers interested, tell a story about yourself, rather than write a traditional five-paragraph essay.

Admissions officers read thousands of personal statements every year. You want yours to be compelling and memorable. So, tell a story about yourself that conveys an aspect of your personality or a facet of your life that you want the admissions committee to know about. Be creative with this. Think about an experience or an aspect of your biography that is special to you. Plenty of people have volunteered for Habitat for Humanity or been captain of their high school basketball team. It’s fine to write about something like that, but tell the story in a way that gives your reader an insight into who you are.

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Do Brag About Yourself

It’s a personal statement—it’s okay to write about your strengths and accomplishments.

Most of us aren’t comfortable bragging about ourselves. But that is exactly what you should do in your personal statement. Talk about your accomplishments, good deeds, moments where you made yourself proud. Just remember to do so tastefully. How do you strike that balance? Show, don’t tell. Don’t tell the admissions committee you’re a good person; show them you’re a good person by writing in detail about a good deed you performed. Don’t tell them you’re the best basketball player in the state; set a scene and describe how you led your team to victory in the championship game. A good rule of thumb to follow here is, use verbs, not adjectives.

Do Respect Word Limits

Busy admissions officers won’t agree you’re worth more of their time than are other students—so keep your word count within the limit.

Most schools will have a word limit for personal statements. You might think you have a particularly compelling story to tell, and therefore need a few more paragraphs or pages than are allowed. Don’t give in to this temptation! While being over by a few words isn’t a huge problem—admissions officers aren’t going to waste their time counting word for word—going way over the word limit will not be a plus for your application. As mentioned, remember that admissions officers have to read thousands of personal statements every year—so don’t go and give them extra homework!

It’s also likely that you can tell a great story about yourself without going over the word limit. Being confined to five paragraphs or a couple of pages will force you to get rid of unnecessary details and only write about the most important, interesting aspects of your story. If you’re having trouble meeting the word limit, on the other hand, you probably don’t have enough to say about the topic you’ve selected, and would be better off writing about something else.

Do Obey the Rules of Grammar

It’s okay to use a more personal style of writing, but admissions officers want to see you know how to write well and grammatically.

Although you are writing a personal statement, and therefore have more room for creativity and a personal touch than you might for a paper in your high school English class, you should still use formal language in your writing. Your personal statement is not the place to use slang or casual language. Obey the rules of grammar, and use the personal statement as an opportunity to show off your command of vocabulary. Don’t go overboard with fifty-cent words, but an elevated vocabulary word here and there will help show you’re ready for college-level writing.

Do Personalize Your Statement

Make sure you reference the school you’re applying to in your personal statement, and don’t accidentally tell Yale how much you’re hoping to attend Harvard.

Even if you’re using the Common App, you should tailor your personal statement to each and every school to which you’re applying. Mention the school in your closing paragraph, for example. It’s fine to recycle the same personal statement for several applications—almost everyone does this—but don’t simply use the find-and-replace function to change the name of the school. Do a thorough edit and once-over to make sure you haven’t inadvertently mentioned how much you want to attend Harvard in the personal statement you’re sending to Yale. (This might seem like a no-brainer, but admissions officials report goofs like this happen all the time.)

Do Get Feedback

Make sure plenty of sets of eyes look over your personal statement before you submit it, both to catch typos and to assess its strengths and weaknesses.

Once you’ve written a draft of your personal statement, it’s a good idea to show it to others—your friends, parents, teachers—and ask their opinions. Do they think you’ve done a good job of revealing yourself to the admissions committee? Did you misspell the college’s name or leave a comma out of place? By the time you’ve finished writing, you’ll need a few other pairs of eyes to help you see what you’re missing.

Don’t Restate Your Resume

Don’t repeat information admissions officers can find in other parts of your application.

You want your personal statement to stand out in the sea of applicants, and you also want to show an aspect of yourself that isn’t shown in other parts of your application. So, don’t make the mistake that many applicants make and simply restate a laundry list of your extracurricular activities and academic accomplishments. The admissions officials can already get this information by looking at your application and high school transcript.

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Don’t Argue Your Case

The ideal personal statement sheds light on something particularly great about you, rather than recites a laundry list of reasons you’re a good candidate for admission.

Don’t turn your personal statement into a five-paragraph argumentative essay with a list of reasons why you should be admitted to a particular school. By and large, whether or not you are admitted to any particular school is mostly dependent on your GPA and test scores. So, no matter how convincing of a case you make for why you’re the ideal applicant, it’s not likely to make a difference in whether or not you’re admitted. The best thing you can do is show the admissions committee what type of person you are—the type of person they would want to welcome to their community—by telling a compelling story about yourself.

Don’t Write About Sensitive Topics

Don’t write about anything that might make the reader feel awkward or uncomfortable. The overall thrust of your essay should be positive and uplifting.

There are certain topics—domestic violence or sexual assault, for example—that might have had a profound impact on your life. You might be tempted to write about these things, as a way to show how you have successfully overcome adversity. Don’t. Not to downplay these experiences and their importance to your life, but these topics, and others like them, are simply too sensitive to write about in a brief personal statement. It’s not a bad idea to write about how you have overcome adversity, but the general thrust of your personal statement should be more positive, and leave your reader feeling good, not uncomfortable.

Don’t Mess with Form

Unless encouraged to do otherwise, write in prose paragraphs rather than more creative, experimental forms.

In general, your personal statement should be written in first-person prose, in paragraph form. Unless the school to which you’re applying has invited you to, don’t go outside the box and write your statement in the form of a poem, or in stream-of-consciousness, or any other unconventional format. It’s important that you show you can follow instructions. If you’re keen to show off your creativity, you can do this by telling a story about a creative project you’ve completed, a play you performed in, a piece of music you wrote, et cetera.

Don’t Outsource Your Statement

Admissions officers will be able to tell if you’ve had someone else write your personal statement, so make sure the writing is all yours.

This might seem like another no-brainer, but each year, plenty of applicants have someone else write their personal statement, thinking that asking a stronger writer or a native speaker to pen their essay will leave their application in a stronger position. However, admissions committees are alert to this, and if your ‘voice’ in your personal statement is significantly different from that in your SAT or ACT writing sample, admissions officers are likely going to know they’re not reading your writing. Submitting someone else’s work as your own—also known as plagiarism—is not a good look for your application, and might result in an automatic ding.

Don’t Rely on Clichés

Show admissions officers you’re self-aware by avoiding topics that might make you look spoiled or insensitive.

I advise dozens of students every year on their personal statements, and there are two big mistakes I see over and over again. One is writing about a topic that the admissions committee is likely going to read over and over again—about an athletic triumph, for example. It’s certainly okay to write about high school sports, but if you do, make sure that you do so in a way that’s unique to you, to help you stand out among the thousands of other applicants.

Another mistake is not being aware of some of the advantages you’ve grown up with. Plenty of students want to write about their life-changing trip to Costa Rica, but unless you do so in a way that shows true cultural awareness, or engagement with global issues, all you’re really doing is bragging about a really cool vacation that you took. And that’s not something that an admissions officer wants to read about while sitting with a giant pile of applications at his or her desk. Nor is it likely to reflect well upon you against other applicants writing about being the first in their families to attend college, or overcoming illnesses, for example. Just think about how your choice of topic will come across, and you should be fine.

Best of luck writing your personal statement!

Shaan Patel

Shaan Patel is the founder of Prep Expert Test Preparation, a #1 bestselling SAT & ACT prep author, an MD/MBA student at Yale and USC, and winner of an investment deal with billionaire Mark Cuban on ABC’s Shark Tank. He raised his own SAT score from average to perfect using 100 strategies that we teach in our Prep Expert SAT and ACT courses.