Where exactly does the personal statement fit in the college application process?
For some admissions readers, it’s the first thing they look at. And as everyone knows, first impressions are everything.
But for larger, more numbers oriented admissions offices, the personal statement may be lightly scanned and play a relatively small—if any—role in the decision to admit or reject.
Regardless of the size or mission of the institution, everyone agrees that the evaluation of personal statements is an entirely subjective process. There’s no science here.
And no two readers are alike in their approach to essays, so responses can vary enormously—even within the same admissions office!
While no essay will make an unqualified student suddenly acceptable, a good essay can help a qualified applicant stand out from the competition.
And a great essay might just be what turns a “maybe” into an “admit.”
You'll find all kinds of advice on the internet on what goes into writing a winning essay. But perhaps the most useful may be found directly on college websites and comes from those who read them.
Here are 14 excellent essay tips from admissions offices and those folks who are likely reading your essays. While you’re at it, check out a few “essays that worked” from Johns Hopkins University, Connecticut College, and Tufts University.
Amherst College, MA
"Admissions staff want to read about personal experiences and how you responded. SAT scores can't describe losing a family member, winning your swimming meet, the best view in your town, or how it felt to cook Thanksgiving dinner for your family for the first time. A good essay will draw the read[er] in, give them a glimpse into your everyday life."
Carleton College, MN
"The essay is one of the few things that you've got complete control over in the application process, especially by the time you're in your senior year. You've already earned most of your grades; you've already made most of your impressions on teachers; and chances are, you've already found a set of activities you're interested in continuing. So when you write the essay, view it as something more than just a page to fill up with writing. View it as a chance to tell the admissions committee about who you are as a person."
Cornell University, NY
"Give careful thought to the questions asked, but don’t try to write the answers that you think we want to hear; give us the answers that tell us about you."
Dickinson College, PA
"When writing your essay--focus on a blade of grass, not a whole field. Tell one good story, not a condensed mini-series."
Gettysburg College, PA
"Don't overthink it. The more you wonder 'will this impress an admissions officer,' the more likely we can tell that you've spent too much time deciding on the 'right' topic, causing your essay to lose personality and authenticity."
Middlebury College, VT
"Make your first paragraph compelling. Don't let the first paragraph put your readers to sleep. Look for a better first paragraph somewhere else in your draft."
Providence College, RI
"Be unique – And we don’t mean stand on your head and juggle at the same time (figuratively speaking). Whatever your topic, show how it relates to YOU – your growth, your development, your personality, your future. Those things, in and of themselves, are unique."
Smith College, MA
"The purpose of the essay is to convince admission officers whom you’ve never met, in less than ten minutes, that you would be a good match for their colleges. At the most basic level, it allows admission officers to evaluate your communication and writing skills. In addition, the essay allows admission officers to discover more about you as a person – a side of you not shown by statistics like grades and SATs. The essay gives information about your history, attitudes, interests and creativity; it gives a sense of your values and goals. What admission officers are doing is creating a community...looking to see how you would fit in that community, what would you bring to that community and what sets you apart."
Tulane University, LA
"Edit. Then edit again. Then again. There is no excuse for errors anywhere on your application or essay. None whatsoever. It should be flawless, people. Take the time to edit and review and revise your full application multiple times."
University of Notre Dame, IN
"Regardless of the length, we find your Essays to be the most enjoyable part of the application reading process. Why? Because we learn about important decisions you’ve made, adventures you’ve survived, lessons you’ve learned, family traditions you’ve experienced, challenges you’ve faced, embarrassing moments you’ve overcome."
University of Pennsylvania, PA
"In the holistic review of applications, we look beyond your academic qualifications to the intangible qualities of our applicants. Be authentic when drafting your essays, so that we can get a sense of who you are and what you might bring to our community. If you are true to your experiences, ideas, and aspirations, we will have a better chance to get to know you."
University of Puget Sound, WA
"Not all colleges are the same, so it follows that not all colleges will evaluate your essay in the same way. Some colleges prefer a well-executed traditional approach, while others laud the avant-garde or the risk-taker. Regardless, your best bet is to write the essay that you think exemplifies your best work and represents who you are as a person."
University of Southern California, CA
"While we like to see students who try something different in their essay, just keep in mind that you also don’t want to offend someone who reads your writing. At the very least, you know that the audience for your college essay will not be your peers."
Wellesley College, MA
"You don’t need to have had extraordinary experiences to write an extraordinary essay. You don’t need to have done incomparable things to be interesting."