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Shadow on Concrete Wall

Writing is an art. The college essay is a science. 

Wondering how to write a personal statement that will float you to the top of the admit list? Read my guide below!

First, understand the role of the personal statement. 

Before you start writing, it’s important to understand the function of the personal statement within the larger ecosystem of your application. Whereas the activities list and supplemental essays are opportunities to elaborate on your extracurricular activities, leadership pursuits, and community impact, the personal statement is your chance to express your values, background, and personality. 

Now, consider these tips!

Be authentic

Embrace the mundane

Don't be afraid to be vulnerable

Avoid cliche

Hook your reader

Reveal your multitudes

If you're not authentic, your essay will backfire. Instead of trying to be someone you're not, you should aim to be exclusively and unapologetically yourself. As you draft and revise your essay, check in with yourself. Does this sound like me? Is it in my voice? Do I feel like my true self is coming across? If not, consider why. Is the tone too formal? Is your rhetoric stilted? Are you writing what you think the committees want to hear instead of what rings true for you? If so, take a break from the essay, grab a pen, and write a stream of consciousness for twenty minutes in a journal. What comes out when you are writing just for you? Writing by hand can often help you overcome writer's block and access your authentic voice without your inner critic getting in the way. 

Believe it or not, embracing the mundane can actually work in your favor. Though you may feel tempted to wow the admissions committee by writing about your bungee jumping adventure in New Zealand, your creativity, sense of humor, and intelligence will really shine if you write an interesting essay about something relatively banal. You'll dazzle readers with how you see and think about the world, and they will appreciate your humility. I once had a student get into Brown writing about making avocado toast! 

Real people are reading your essays–not robots! It is our natural tendency as humans to care more about people who dare to be vulnerable. It's how we form meaningful connections with one another. This does not mean you should write a sob story. It simply means that it's okay for you to come off as human rather than superhuman. Don't be afraid to self-reflect, admit mistakes, or share your personal challenges. Colleges will appreciate your honesty, self-awareness, and capacity for growth. 

Since your personal statement needs to distinguish you from other applicants, it is essential to avoid cliche. That said, it can be challenging to come up with a wholly original essay topic, especially when the prompts are so generic. So, how do you avoid cliche when discussing universal themes? The answer: specificity. It doesn't matter if a thousand other kids are writing about their family's annual picnic. Only your uncle wears polka-dotted suits and serves watermelon gazpacho. Only your grandpa closes his eyes and hums to himself in order to digest a heavy meal. These are the details that bring your essay into focus and help you stand out from others. 

Imagine it's 4pm on a Wednesday. The admissions counselors have already read 1,000 essays this week, and yours is next. How are you going to grab their attention? The first few sentences of your essay are in many ways the most important. They determine whether the reader will skim over your essay or lean in for a closer read. Use vivid language, stick with the present tense, and don't be afraid to get creative. My recent Harvard admit opened her essay with, "Whomp, squish, blurp, wheee!"

At the end of the day, an outstanding personal statement is never about just one thing. The aforementioned epicurean student wrote about making avocado toast as a metaphor for finding joy in the midst of grieving the loss of her father. My student who wrote about flying airplanes (which is, admittedly, far from mundane!) was ultimately discussing how accessing a flow state made him a better problem-solver. A great essay will interweave multiple themes, draw novel connections, and convey a sense of thoughtfulness and depth. I guide my students through various brainstorming and mind-mapping exercises in order to hone in on the most compelling topics. 

Consider all the puzzle pieces

Remember, each component of the application should reveal something new and interesting about you. You don’t want to spend weeks writing a personal statement about your love of tennis only to find yourself with nothing new to say for the supplemental essay prompt that asks you to elaborate on your favorite hobby.


That’s why it’s important to consider how each individual component will contribute towards a more nuanced and multifaceted portrait of who you are.

I have my students fill out a master spreadsheet with all of the essay prompts from the various schools to which they are applying. We then categorize the prompts by theme (leadership, intellectual curiosity, personal identity, community engagement, etc.) and brainstorm specific topics for each one, zooming out to consider how the various topics will complement one another. 

Want help planning your essay topics? Schedule a free strategy session. 

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