The Personal Statement: Good Writing vs. Strategic Writing

By Jessica Brauser, M.A., LSW

It’s too often that I have to tell a teenager that his essay just doesn’t work. “But so many people told me it’s terrific.”

“Yes, it’s a nice piece of writing, but what purpose does it serve? What are you trying to communicate with the admissions committee? What message will it send?”

Many students send me their drafts of their personal statements that they tirelessly poured over. Fourth and fifth iterations and they finally decide to ask for help. They hire me as a consultant and want feedback. It’s not always easy for me to break a student’s heart. They love (or loathe) their writing; emotions are involved. However, I don’t care if it’s a beautiful piece of prose.I want students to create an essay that moves the admissions committee; I want them to create content that helps them show a significant bit of themselves with the goal to get noticed and accepted.

It’s never too late to plan your personal statement strategically. You don’t need to get stuck with a desultory piece of work if you follow these guidelines:

  1. Plan ahead. Make a list of all your required essays (including supplements, special programs, and scholarships before you start writing.) Spreadsheets are an excellent tool for this exercise.
  2. Organize your college resume. Take inventory of your exciting experiences, accomplishments, and perspectives. Use this list to brainstorm unique stories that you might be able to share.
  3. Assess your application weaknesses. Why might a college reject you? You should know the answer, which you can use to your advantage. If you have a lower GPA, you will want to write a creative essay that subtly showcases your intellect and wit. Your goal is to create a story that proves to the admissions committee that your weakness is not really a weakness. Therefore they have no reason to reject you.
  4. Pick your writing topics. Once you figure out all your required essays, you should be able to identify repeating essay question themes. You can modify and recycle essays to be used for more than one school. However, make sure that you don’t repeat a theme when you submit more than one essay to a particular school; for example, you can only write about being class president once, even if it seems like it fits into more than one essay prompt.
  5. Make sure you answer the essay question. If you recycled an essay for more than one school, make sure that the edits work for the second school.
  6. Have fun! Identify what you want to accomplish through your writing and enjoy the process as everything else should be easy as you let your story unfold.