With so many moving parts to keep in line (relevant experiences, education, hobbies, background info- and the list goes on and on), school applications can be pretty overwhelming. But, with some planning and honest self-evaluation, you can greatly decrease the stress associated with writing essays for your apps! I’ve listed out some things to keep in mind as you write your personal statement (or any other essay) that will come in handy… whether you’re in the beginning stages of planning your statement or if you’re about to hit the Submit button!
No matter where you are in the application process, PLEASE do not be disheartened if you have done any of the things mentioned below. What I have 1. may not even matter for your particular app (see #10) or 2. can be incorporated into your next essay!
Let’s look at some things to avoid:
10. Reading too many articles like this one.
Don’t get me wrong- I’m really glad you’re here. Plus, there’s plenty of great essay-writing advice out there and a lot of it comes from people who have either already been admitted based on their high level of writing, or are experienced in reviewing applications for admission. The thing is, however, that no one article or even all of the available advice put together will be the perfect guide for crafting your personal statement. What works for one person might end up being an admissions deal breaker for another. For example, if you read five different articles, all of which tell you that it’s a good idea to work in a dramatic story to catch the reader’s attention…but you don’t have an honest story to tell, you could end up making the mistake of conflating something that happened or inventing a new story altogether. Trust me, admissions officers have been doing this a long time- they can tell.
Something else you may have noticed about posts that provide advice on writing personal statements is that a lot of these sites often contradict each other. Let’s take the example above- five different writers tell you that it is crucial to have a gut-wrenching story in the beginning to really connect with the reader emotionally. Let’s say you happen to click on the sixth article and find that this poster tells you never to talk about anything emotional or personal, as this may cause the reader to feel uncomfortable. Still another person might tell you to ditch the stories completely and to focus on the prompt at hand.
I once attended a Pre-Health Club panel where an admissions officer said that an applicant should definitely address any academic missteps or bad grades in their personal statement. This should have put me at ease; I had already come up with a way to write about those grades which were lower than average (sometimes I forget how many of those there really were…). My problem came two months later when, during a PT school open house, a different admissions officer told me to never, under any circumstances, bring up any bad grades in an essay or interview UNLESS I am directly asked about it. She was so adamant about it that I felt like I was about to get into trouble with my mother for putting dirty dishes from the dishwasher back into the cabinet (I will neither confirm nor deny whether or not this actually happened yesterday…).
Action Item (20 min): Mixed messages from schools you really want to get into can be confusing and a little scary. Start by making a list of the advice you’ve gotten and then mark out what doesn’t align with your writing style or core beliefs. If it makes you uncomfortable, it will probably show in your writing.
To decrease the anxiety of not knowing what to say when, it was important for me to become more detailed in my research on each school.
This brings me to my next point…
9. Assuming that every school wants the same thing.
This paragraph is at #9 for continuity issues, not because it isn’t the most important. Because, in my opinion, IT IS! I can’t stress this point enough- please, please do not plan to submit the same application to every school. This is ESPECIALLY important when applying to graduate schools, which typically accept fewer students than undergraduate programs.
Here are some issues that may arise if you submit the same app to every school:
- It will be obvious to admissions officers that this is what you have done. They’ve probably either been doing this for a while, or have been trained on what to look for…and why to disregard a particular applicant.
- You might forget to change the name of one school to another between applications. It’s great that you’re excited about Yale and think you’ll be a perfect fit…but the Harvard admissions team may not be so excited if they’re the ones that get this essay.
- The personal statement usually ends up sounding too detached. See next point.
- It is difficult to show why you are a perfect fit for a certain school. Schools have different resources, priorities, curriculums and even target patient groups. If one school is really into rural healthcare, but another spends more time on research, you’ll have to make the choice between the two in terms of the focus of your writing.
Action Item (1 hour): Create a list, either in a notebook or online, of each school to which you’re applying and what each expects. If you aren’t familiar with a program, or if you want information beyond that which is provided on a school’s website, it is actually extremely beneficial to reach out to the school for more. School administrators can set up a tour or meeting with a current student, faculty member, or admissions counselor. This not only helps you to better structure your application, but also gets your name and face out there. Many schools keep a list of students who reach out to find out more about their program!
Shoot me a message here for a template to keep track of your schools where you can add or remove columns as you see fit!
8. Not having enough people read over and edit.
You’re probably a great writer, and that’s definitely a great start! But while we are usually our own harshest critics, it can be easy to overlook even the most obvious mistakes in our own writing. I would highly suggest finding people to read over and edit your personal statement before you submit it.
Stories often flow better and jokes often come off funnier to us because we wrote them. A third party reader might not see enough detail in your writing or understand the continuity of your thoughts if they don’t know you personally. This is why it’s important to have different types of people reading your personal statement before it is submitted. I would recommend 2-3 proofreaders. Try to find people who are experienced with writing/editing essays, and who will give you honest feedback. Professors and classmates can be a great way to go.
Avoid handing it to your mom for proofreading, unless you know that you’re guaranteed objective feedback on your work…
If you can’t find enough people to read over your personal statement, read what you have written out loud in a quiet room. This is an effective way to catch any spelling mistakes, awkward grammar, and repeated phrases.
Action Item (15 min): Make your list of potential proofreaders. Start off with a long list of people who you trust with the task and then cut down later.
Bonus Task (10 min): Read what you have written out loud in a quiet room. This is an effective way to catch any spelling mistakes, awkward grammar, and repeated phrases.
On the other hand…
7. Having too many people read over and edit.
Invite too many cooks to the kitchen and you’ll never serve the dish.
The more people you have read over your personal statement, the more it’ll be changed around. It’s like a bad game of Telephone, where the final product becomes unrecognizable. Trust yourself to produce something that is genuine and good.
Like I said, I personally prefer 2-3, maybe 4, solid editors.
Action Item (15 min): Start connecting with your proofreaders now. It’s okay if you haven’t started writing your personal statement yet- people will appreciate a heads up that you’ll need their help at some point down the road.
**Note: there’s really no way to know how far in advance you should notify someone that you’ll need their help. Some people like to know as early as possible so that they can plan for it. Others will ask you to remind them in a few months when the time has come. It doesn’t hurt to ask!
6. Trying to write it in one, two, or seven sittings.
Powerful writing takes time. Here’s what worked for me: I wrote down a quote or an idea as soon as it came to mind. I would come up with random words and sentences that had nothing to do with anything that I had already written, but I thought might sound nice in some personal statement, somewhere. I would document it- type it into my phone, write it on my hand, tell a friend- immediately. Later, when I had different sentences and ideas down, I pieced them together. It was fun writing this way- I was fitting together the pieces of a puzzle.
This method of piecing together an essay rather than writing it straight through from start to finish might not be your preference. Regardless, it’s important to note that you might not create a masterpiece your first time around. Here’s the timeline I followed when crafting my personal statement for the Master of Physiology program at NC State:
December-January: Coming up with topics to write about and actually putting pen to paper. Draft-writing.
February-mid-March: Editing and revision.
End of March: The application was due at this time, and yet I still wanted to change things around!
It may never feel perfect, but if you start writing early, you can take out some of the stress of always wanting to change things up. Plus, you can always keep editing down the road.
Action Item (45 min): Put your goals down on paper (or keyboard). Create a timeline of when you’d like to complete various parts of your application, and then try to stick to it. Add extra reminders in your phone, tell a friend- whatever you need to do to hold yourself accountable and stay organized. I’ve provided pages here and here to help you get started!
5. Enhancing an experience.
Your application is a sales pitch for yourself. Have faith that you are good enough for admission into the program- I do.
Seriously, I have faith in you!
You should be looking to give the admissions officers a full and accurate account of who you really are. It’s okay if your grades are below average or if you are lacking in your volunteer experiences. Have a genuine passion for the work, and it will show.
Don’t say you conducted a study if your only responsibility was to clean the lab (a very important job, but not the one you advertised). Instead, explain why showing up to clean the lab every day enhanced your skills in organization, time management, and fine motor movement.
Did you only volunteer at one place for 4 years? Talk about why this volunteer opportunity was important to you, and what you learned. This shows dedication and loyalty.
Were you really low on shadowing experiences throughout high school or college? Well, did you use that time to do something else amazing- babysit your younger siblings, study abroad, tutor classmates, volunteer as a research assistant, participate in work study?
Action Item (45 min): Write down 3-5 things you’ve done that you’re proud of. These can be volunteering positions, travel experiences, spending time taking care of family- anything at all. Now, under each experience, list some keywords that describe how you’ve grown as a person. Feel free to expand on the words after you’ve gotten them down.
Use this word tree for inspiration!
4. Trying to fit in all relevant experiences.
Your application will most likely have a section for you to list all of your extra-curriculars. Don’t try to fit them all into your personal statement. This creates an unfocused essay and can get readers off-track from your core message. Have one central theme to your personal statement and mention only the experiences that are relevant to your message. Save all of the other great things you’ve done for the parts where the application asks you to list and describe your research, volunteer work, job experience, etc.
If your application does not have a section for you to explain these things, try speaking with an admissions counselor about where/how you can communicate these parts of your application. It may be that the school is more focused on other facets of your application- standardized testing scores, personal statement, letters of recommendation- and does not necessarily need a list of past experiences. This is not a bad thing, just different.
Action Item (45 min): If you do not have an updated resume, or have a shortened version, it can be difficult to come up with a master list of all the good work you’ve done in just one sitting. Create categories for your academic and extra curricular work/honors and start listing everything that you can remember; update the list as more experiences come to mind.
3. Not starting with something to hook the reader.
I wrote in #10 above that you don’t have to add in a dramatic story if you don’t have one to tell, or if it doesn’t connect with the message in your personal statement. However, it is important to keep the reader engaged with your writing. An admissions team member might be reading hundreds to thousands of essays- show why they should be interested in you in particular.
You don’t have to start with a story. It can be a question, a direct answer to the prompt that you’ll expand on later, or simply a well-phrased introduction. Try to avoid clichés or quotes- they end up taking away from the personal aspect of the personal statement and if someone else uses the same quote, it’ll be even harder to make your essay memorable.
Action Item (20 min): When someone is reading over your personal statement, have them mark every spot where they become bored or confused. This is a quick form of editing and will help you to keep track of the parts of your personal statement to reconsider.
2. Veering too far from traditional essay format.
Please, no mixtapes, construction paper resumes, or haikus in lieu of a personal statement. Keep it interesting, but keep it professional.
Action Item (1 hour): Show your personal statement to a professional or two (doesn’t matter what field) and see what they think. Does your essay look like it was crafted for a graduate program? Have them provide feedback on any formatting or language issues. (**Note that by “language issues,” I’m not referring to dialectical or tonal differences. But using hashtags and text messaging language will most likely indicate a lack of serious interest in the program).
1. Wasting time trying to be someone else instead of advocating for yourself.
Don’t just list your experiences- clearly show why your relevant background, skills, and interests make you a strong candidate. Be your own fiercest advocate. It’s too vague to simply write a narrative of your resume and hope that an admissions counselor will piece together why they should select you. Instead, tie up any loose ends yourself and be upfront about why what’s in your personal statement means that the admissions committee should be enthusiastic about selecting you.
Action Item (7 seconds in, 11 seconds out): Take a deep breath. You’ve got this.
What worked for you as your wrote your personal statement? What kind of feedback have you gotten? Are you just starting out with writing? What questions do you have that I didn’t address or should expand upon? Be sure to comment below!
If you have any questions or are interested in getting some more free templates that I used as I completed my applications, subscribe and send me a message here!