The 5 Most Common Personal Statement Mistakes (and 10 ways to avoid them)

You found the perfect summer opportunity. Now it’s time to write the personal statement for the application.

You want to appear excited but mature. Interested but not desperate. Accomplished but not arrogant. If you can already feel the headache coming on, don't worry—I’ve got you on this.

Here are the five most-common mistakes students make in personal statements, with two straightforward suggestions for avoiding each one. 

Mistake #1: Focusing Too Much on the Program

The application readers know all about the program. They don’t want to hear all its details or why it's so great. What they do want to hear about is how you connect with the program. 

Solution A

Talk about your previous experience or education and compare it to the program’s structure or content. You can discuss how the hands-on learning aspect really appeals to you because you learn by doing. Give a relevant example or tell an anecdote. Did you perform really well in your chemistry class because there were so many labs and you got to understand the concepts firsthand? Did you gain more insight into programming when you built a robot with your friends?

You can also discuss how the content of the program will expand on areas you’ve already studied. Be specific about how and why the new things you'll learn will connect to your background and existing knowledge. 

Solution B

Talk about your goals. How will you apply what you learn in this course or internship? What are your plans following the program? Be as specific as you can. Will your new knowledge or experience make you eligible for an advanced class at school? Will it prepare you for a position (whether paid or unpaid) you’ll be applying to in the fall or next summer?

Again, pick concrete elements of the program and explain how they will benefit you. This is not selfish. This is how you demonstrate that you are a serious student with big goals. You want the best for yourself, and that’s why you’re applying to this program. That’s actually very complimentary for the program directors, all without being falsely flattering.

Mistake #2: Being Too Modest

These readers don’t know you! If you don’t tell them why you stand out, they won’t know! If you haven’t talked about your genuine passion or achievement in this area, you’re about to be passed by.

Solution A

Tell a brief story that makes you come across as a real person with goals, struggles, and accomplishments. What are your achievements in this area? What does this field mean to you personally? What was your “A-ha!” moment when you realized you had a passion or talent for this field?

Solution B

Jump off the page by showing how much you care about this field, how much you enjoy learning about new ideas, or how committed you are to studying and improving yourself in general. The more specific you can get, the better. What are some concrete ideas you have about working in this field of applying your knowledge? You could list a few possibilities, such as, “With my new knowledge in [specific skill you’ll learn in the program], I know I will have the confidence to pursue x, y, or z.”

Mistake #3: Sounding Arrogant

Even though you want to show your skill and commitment, you don’t want to rub the committee the wrong way by sounding like you think you’re the best person in the world.

Solution A

Discuss your achievements without sounding like you have nothing left to learn. Talk about how what you’ve already done has left your hungry for more knowledge and experience. What questions do you have now that you’ve had the wonderful experiences you’re writing about?

Solution B

Use the theme of cooperation to take the focus off of me, me, me. Talk about how fun it was to work with a team in organizing a fundraiser or making costumes for a play. If you’re applying for a program or class, you can mention how you enjoy learning from your peers and are looking forward to being further inspired by other students who are just as excited about [the program area] as you are. If you’re after an internship, discuss how you can’t wait to learn more from the people who will be your leaders and mentors.

Mistake #4: Telling Your Entire Life Story

You’re a complex person with lots of talents, interests, and accomplishments. But this program doesn’t have the time to hear your whole life story.

Solution A

A story can be helpful in allowing the committee to understand you. But instead of starting from the beginning and telling how you arrived at this moment of your life, focus on the details that are pertinent to the program and the application question. Share your relevant experiences and how you have grown from them.

These don’t have to be limited to your experience in the particular field of study you’re pursuing. If you have previous experience learning in the way that this program will teach you, that’s relevant. If you previously volunteered at a hospital and you’re applying to be a lab intern for a chemical company, you can mention that you have experience working in clean rooms and that you've learned the importance of following safety procedures.

Solution B

Focus on what makes you different and forget the rest. If it’s not special, it’s taking up space. So skip talking about how you go to high school and study all the time. But consider including the fact that you were home-schooled or that you grew up in a bilingual household. Find an interesting detail that you can relate to your maturity, focus, work ethic, interests, or goals.

Mistake #5: Sounding Lukewarm

Whether or not this program is your first choice, your job is to make it sound that way. Why would a program be interested in a candidate who was only applying because there weren’t other options?

Solution A

Only apply to programs you want to attend! It’s hard to sound excited about something in which you have zero interest. If you read my tips on finding a summer program of your dreams, you saw that there really is no perfect program. There are only programs that are perfect FOR YOU!

Solution B

Even after you’ve narrowed your list, you will still have some second- and third-choice programs, especially if your first choice is very competitive. Your job is to make these backup programs feel special. Don’t let them know that you hope you’ll be accepted somewhere else. Maybe some of the reasons you love your first choice are also true (just to a lesser extent) about these other choices. Re-use any relevant points from your first-choice program applications. Adapt your writing to be specific about each program, but don’t be afraid to use your best, most excited response for other programs in the same field.

It's Not Easy

Sheesh! For such a short piece of writing, a personal statement for an application sure causes a long list of difficulties! But now you’ve got options for solving the 5 most common problems that stand between you and an amazing summer.  

Why are these five mistakes so common? Because writing a personal statement is hard! If you’re having trouble using these solutions in your writing, or if you’ve got some questions I didn’t cover, give a holler! I can help you move forward from wherever you’re stuck with a Writing Jump Start.