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Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate school or trying to get into graduate programs, many applications require a letter of intent or personal statement. Personal statements are one of the most important parts of the application and sometimes the deciding factor for admission.
Personal statements give a better understanding of who you are, beyond the rigid constraints of the “fill-in-the-blank” application.
Like many around this time of the year, I am finishing my graduate school applications. Looking for advice and guidance, I decided to compare different schools’ personal statement requirements and ask admissions offices for advice. Here’s what I found:
1. Be yourself
The Columbia Graduate School for Journalism encourages students to write about family, education, talents or passions. They want to hear about significant places or events in your life; about books you have read, people you have met or work you’ve done that has shaped the person you have become.
Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.
2. Show diversity
Rayna Reid, a personal statement guru, received her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Law degree at Columbia. Reid says a personal statement is really just a way to make the college fall in love with you.
“The essay is where you really get a chance to differentiate yourself from the other applicants,” she said. “Explain why they should accept you. What will you contribute?”
Sean Carpenter, University of Southern California Student Services Associate and undergraduate student, reiterates the importance of differentiating yourself from other applicants.
He works in the Annenberg School for Communication admissions office and deals with prospective students daily. Carpenter says USC or any major school want to see diversity.
“They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants?” Carpenter said, “Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”
3. Do research and tailor each essay accordingly
Every college is different, so each personal statement should be different. Many students try to get away with having a universal essay but admissions departments will notice.
“Do research to give concrete reasons why you’re interested in particular program,” Carpenter said. “Speak with a faculty member that you’re interested in working with or doing research for and mention that in your statement. It would also be beneficial to say what classes you’ve taken that were relevant to the field of study.”
4. Be concise and follow directions
Make sure you read the directions carefully. One of the biggest red flags for an admissions office are students who don’t adhere to word limitations. Don’t give them a reason to throw out your application.
Believe it or not, there is a way to say everything you want in a page or less. If you need some help, ask several faculty members to read over your essay and give you feedback.
5. Go beyond your resume, GPA and test scores
Many students worry about how their GPA and test scores will affect the admissions process. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain any strengths or weaknesses in your application — such as changes in major, low GPA or lack of experience.
For instance, Reid was worried about not having a 4.0 GPA. Since Reid didn’t have the perfect GPA, she explained what she did with her time to make up for that fact. Being on the Varsity rowing team and a Teach for America Corp member are great examples of how devoting her time to other things made an impact on her GPA.
6. Tell a story
“Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner,” Reid said. “For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”
One of the worst things you can do is bore the admission officer. Make yourself memorable by telling a story about something distinctive from a creative or different angle.
With this advice, your personal statement will be the highlight of your application. Good luck!
Alexis Morgan is currently a senior at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in public relations, broadcast journalism, print journalism and production. Alexis truly believes if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.
Alexis Morgan, Columbia University, Cornell University, grad school, Penn State University, the application, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS
Common App Personal Essay - Prompt 1 (2016-17)
Prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
The other night, I was invited to stay at my friend's house for dinner, videogames, and a sleepover. I texted the news to my mom, who replied, "I don't think so. You need to work on your algebra." It was a Friday night, and I have an A in algebra.
That's the way it goes in the Mitsuhashi household. Hard work comes first, family comes second, and everything else follows. Although my parents have lived in the United States for 20 years, they have instilled in my brother and me their Japanese way of life. While they raised us in a relatively prosperous area of Connecticut, we weren't able to attend primary school with our neighbors. Instead, my mother drove 25 miles each way so we could attend a Japanese school north of New York City. Even though those days are over, we must log at least five hours per week of Japanese on our online dashboards. Still, I don't live in fear of my mother; I enjoy my classes and want to get the most out of school.
Another indicator of a culture is its eating behavior. We Mitsuhashis are certainly different from our neighbors. On weekends, we have to eat lunch precisely at noon, regardless of hunger or extracurricular commitments. If we are at home studying, we are permitted to rise and proceed to the table only when our father appears at our door or study area. Just like any growing teenager, I long for junk food, a taste for which I developed at parties growing up. But if my father finds out we had french fries or pizza, he insists that we go to a trainer. When we eat out, our meals are bound to include rice; in fact, our restaurant choices are generally Japanese or Asian fusion. I sometimes prefer to eat meals at my friends? houses, especially since my parents stopped insisting that I present a wrapped gift to my hosts.
When we as a family are not studying and eating, we enjoy sports, which in our culture means baseball. Despite my father's busy work schedule, he plays baseball almost year-round, waking up at dawn on Sundays and driving to Randall's Island, where he can participate in the men's Japanese league. When I turned 13, I began to accompany him, and it still feels special. I also treasure our trips to Citi Field, where we have a favorite spot for viewing games and can enjoy the ballpark food. (My hitting improved dramatically when I was sent to baseball camp and had access to American snacks!) Through DirecTV, we can catch the Nippon League as well, and I enjoy listening to the broadcasters bantering in Japanese. Baseball, unexpectedly, has brought us closer.
If I were to listen to my peers and neighbors, I might be convinced that life is all about having fun. But school is a reality. When our high school subjects got noticeably more difficult, I followed my parents' model and persisted until I figured out assignments, usually on my own. (In Japanese, we say, "Nana korobi, ya oki," which means, "Fall seven times, and get up eight.") Since I had to keep up with schoolwork in the summer, I never experienced transition issues from grade to grade. Thanks to baseball, I can always strike up conversation at a party, either American or Japanese, and have lifelong friends that I made at camp. Since Japanese meals are high in protein and grains and low in sugar, I've never been anything but slim. And while it was once embarrassing to show up with wrapped gifts, I know to be courteous to my host. In other words, I don't just understand my Japanese roots; I also appreciate them.