By Ann Camacho, editor of Bookmarked, a collection of teen essays
The big question that so many of my students ask me at this time of year is “How do I write a personal statement that will assure me entrance to my school of choice?”
It’s no simple task to “respond to the prompt,” but that is the single most important thing I tell my students, again and again, when teaching the personal statement: Respond to the prompt. For example, I have been asked to give guidelines about writing a personal statement here, in this blog. If I wrote about my summer vacation, readers would be disappointed—no matter how interesting or entertaining my summer vacation story was. Likewise, if students are asked to write about their best quality, they need to write about their best quality. If they are asked about their family background, they need to write about their family. The number one rule for scholarship or college application essays is, Answer the prompt!
Beyond that, here are a few other tips for students. I hope these guidelines will help those of you working with teens who are preparing their college applications.
1. There is no formula. You might list your favorite things in your life and explain why, or share a specific accomplishment, or even tell about a heart-wrenching event that changed you forever. However, the most important thing is to write about what is real to you. Authenticity is key in your personal statement, more than fancy wording or an intricate tale about your life.
2. Find the seed to your own story. Everyone likes a good story or anecdote. But whether it’s a quote that anchors your life philosophy to your story or an event that has shaped who you are becoming as a young adult, focus on this seed and don’t feel forced to have to “share it all.” Writing about a particular time in your life that encapsulates your personal evolution can open the eyes of your reader.
3. Tell the truth, or at least an important truth about yourself. Not everyone has or needs a “sob story” to reveal a kernel about who they really are. This is your opportunity to share a truth you have come to know about yourself, and this is the time to reveal an inner strength or beauty that is uniquely yours.
4. Let the reader in. Share enough of your life to let someone see a slice of your personal history that has shaped you. Perhaps include your most significant challenge or struggle, and then show how you triumphed over this obstacle. Be willing to be vulnerable about what matters most to you in your quest for a higher education.
5. Use your words—your best words. Choose your words carefully and wisely, but don’t substitute elaborate synonyms for natural writing; fit your words to reflect your own writer’s voice. Some of the best essays are the simple ones. Stay away from colloquialisms and clichés; they are other people’s words. Likewise, don’t be afraid to sound educated. After all, colleges are hoping you’re already a skilled communicator.
6. Write. Edit. Write some more. Writing is hard work! But the only way to write a personal statement is to actually sit down and write, and write, and rewrite. Be willing to take constructive feedback, which is really hard to do when you’re pouring your heart onto paper; but also be willing to revise and rewrite your own essay, draft after draft. Relying on a teacher, parent, or peer to do your writing defeats the very purpose of the personal statement.
7. Embrace the “gaps.” Be content to share just enough to let the reader know who you are, realizing that few of us can express it all in 1,000 words or less. If you explain just a bit about what motivates you, you can trust the reader to fill in the gaps between your personal statement and the larger you. Let the rest of your application, including your grade point average, SAT scores, community service work, and extracurricular activities, speak for itself.
The best advice I have when it comes to writing a personal statement is Howard Thurman’s injunction: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Ann Camacho has been an English teacher for more than 20 years. She currently teaches American literature at North High School in Riverside, California. Her students (and the student body as a whole) are very diverse, and many are in the school’s International Baccalaureate program and AP classes. Ann also participates in the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) college preparation program for students who have college aspirations but are falling short of their potential or who don’t believe college is within reach. Her book Bookmarked: Teen Essays on Life and Literature from Tolkien to Twilight, is a collection of 50 essays from Ann’s former students on how literature has influenced their lives.
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