Grades, test scores, and teacher recommendations are all important. But the heart of your college application is your personal statement. This is where you get to take the reins and show colleges exactly why you are such a great fit for them!
Here are four reasons your college essay deserves some tender loving care.
1. It’s the area where you have the most control
In other parts of your college application you didn't come across as well as you'd hoped. You had to check the box indicating that, yes, you are terrified of spiders. Your scores (like your height percentile) are less than impressive. And when asked about your leadership experience, all you could think to write was, "My gardener really looks up to me."
But in your personal statement, finally you can direct the conversation! You can write with brilliant clarity about the quest you undertook to throw an evil ring into a volcano, and how all along the way you fought the strong desire to keep the ring for yourself, or to simply quit and go home.
All of a sudden, you're looking like a pretty mature, impressive candidate for college! You've learned valuable lessons, taken risks, found your strengths, stayed loyal to your friends, and resisted the temptation to take over the world!
OK, so you can't hope to have experiences as intense as Frodo's. But you can write a personal statement just as memorable as his would be by explaining your own journey. You can frame your story and your accomplishments in a way that resonates and leaves a lasting impact on readers.
The personal statement is not a checklist or fill-in-the-blank situation. It’s not even an essay in the sense that you have been forced to think of essays in your high school career.
- You get to choose the topic (as long as you can relate it to one of the broad prompts).
- You get to create the structure.
- You get to choose the language.
- And you get to share a perspective that is uniquely you.
When you take full advantage of this freedom, you can make the personal statement the stunning centerpiece to your application. A centerpiece that shows you in the best possible light.
2. It can take the pressure off a low GPA
It’s not about excuses. But not all students' circumstances are the same. I worked with a very bright student on her college essays. She had always earned high grades and was very committed to her academic career. In her junior year, a friend of hers became deeply depressed and eventually took his own life. She was devastated by both his illness and his death, and, needless to say, her school performance suffered. When she wrote about these events in her personal statement, she showed colleges that had handled a major tragedy with deep inner strength and maturity.
You may not have gone through a situation as intense as that one, but there is always a context surrounding your academic life. Your personal statement is an opportunity to provide the qualitative data that underlies the quantitative data of all your stats from your GPA, SAT, ACT, AP, etc.
Schools are attuned to the fact that test scores and grades don't tell the full story. For example, UC Berkeley’s holistic admissions practices specifically look out for students who have potential but who faced some kind of adverse circumstances that prevented them from fulfilling that potential while in high school.
Your personal statement is your opportunity to show the full picture so that less-than-perfect grades don’t seem like a lack of effort.
- Did you have to work at an after-school job?
- Did you miss some school so that your dance team could compete at a national competition?
- Do you have a disability that has been an obstacle to learning?
And what about the whole business of weighted versus unweighted GPAs? Don’t freak out if you didn’t take a ton of AP classes in junior year or aren’t able to take them in senior year. Again, using UC Berkeley as an example, admissions committees take into consideration that not all schools offer a full range of AP classes. If this is the case for you, or if another time commitment prevented you from taking APs or joining school clubs, you might write about the challenge of having to prioritize conflicting pulls on your time.
3. It helps you stand out from the crowd
What if your application is chock-full of impressive stats? Do you still have to put effort into your personal statement? Absolutely!
It’s not that you were wasting your time getting good grades or studying for the SAT or ACT. It’s just that those numbers don’t tell the whole story, and colleges know this. Meanwhile, colleges are struggling to sort through an increasing number of really good applicants.
You might have an excellent GPA, but so do many other students. You might have nailed your SAT or ACT, but, again, so did many others. Volunteering? Playing sports? Attending summer enrichment programs? All these “extras” that used to make some students stand out from the pack have become more and more the norm.
But the answer is not to think of what you have done that is bigger than what anyone else has done. The colleges you are applying to know you are a high school student. They can’t very well expect you to have cured a disease, made your first million, or invented the next piece of smart tech.
Don’t worry about whether or not your life story is exciting. Instead, the key is to think of an experience or perspective that you have that is different from what anyone else will write. Come up with a way to express your unique point of view in the world and to show your passions.
- Why is your approach to life interesting and compelling?
- How are you different from any other human on the planet?
- Why would you be a fantastic addition to the schools you're applying to?
- What would your voice add?
There are tons of smart, talented students in the world, but there is only one you. The personal statement is truly the only place where you will be able to show this effectively.
4. It shows your ability to think for yourself
It's a cruel irony that a lot of what brought you to this point of applying to colleges is totally useless for being in college. You have grown up in an era of standardization. You've been judged by rigid multiple-choice tests scored by machines.
You've been encouraged to study longer for more difficult classes. And when you have managed to squeeze in some extra time for non-academics, you've probably been steered toward those that “look good on college applications.”
But what colleges (and employers) want more than anything are creative, independent, innovative, and innovating students.
If you played by the rules this whole time—working hard to keep up your GPA, bubbling your heart out on state-mandated tests, studying for the SAT or ACT, and joining the clubs that offered you leadership experience—you have all the credentials that your teachers and guidance counselors told you would be money in the bank.
And it’s not that they were wrong. It’s just that colleges want it ALL from you. They want you to have studied hard and earned high grades, all while also developing your unique outlook on the world and discovering your true potential.
There is pretty much nowhere else on your application where you can show that you are a thoughtful, creative, passionate individual! Those scores, volunteering hours, and leadership roles could be the result of an automaton doing what he or she was told. But when you bust out an eloquent personal statement that shows your unique way of thinking about the world, they'll know you are a fascinating, wonderful human.
Your personal statement shows definitively that you are ready for the challenge of classes that require you to think and interpret. It is an insight into your active brain. Without it, how will your potential schools know that you know how to think, rather than just to regurgitate facts and eliminate bad answers on multiple-choice tests?
Now you know why your personal statement deserves your best.
But how do you do it?
It starts with taking the time to think through your strengths, challenges, triumphs, and milestones. Then comes drafting, re-drafting, and revising, as you refine your structure, tone, and word choice. Finally, there's intensive editing until your essay truly shines (and meets the word limit!).
If that sounds like a lot of work, it's because it is. What would it be like to have expert guidance along the way?
Complete College Essay Coaching offers all the expert coaching to take you from your first idea to your final proofread with less stress and more creative joy. You'll dig deep to gather your best stories, then shape them into stellar essays for all your applications, from your personal statement to your supplementary essays.