How to Approach the Personal Statement

Personal Statement Approach, Common App Essay Approach, Common Application Approach

There is a terrific editorial on how to approach the Personal Statement of the Common Application in “The New York Times.”

Wondering how to approach the Personal Statement on the Common Application? So often, folks write in asking for assistance with their “college essay.” It’s a pet peeve of ours here at Ivy Coach. There is not one college essay. There are many college essays since just about every highly selective college save for the likes of Washington University in St. Louis asks students to answer supplemental essay prompts. And every one of these supplemental essay prompts is as important as the Common Application’s Personal Statement. Imagine a college applicant has an outstanding Personal Statement and a Why Penn essay that isn’t specifically tailored to Ben Franklin’s school. Do you think that University of Pennsylvania admissions officers are going to want to admit that applicant, a student who didn’t take the time to research the university and express what he or she hopes to contribute to it? If you’re unsure, the answer is no. Applicants must demonstrate their love for each institution to which they apply.

But on the topic of the Personal Statement, there is a really good editorial on the pages of “The New York Times” written by former Duke admissions officer Rachel Toor that we wanted to bring to the attention of our readers. So often we read editorials on how to approach the Personal Statement that are just plain bad — and wrong. Rachel, in her tell-it-like-it-is style, gets it absolutely right. Now by reading her editorial will you come away with a clear direction of how to approach your Personal Statement? No. But her piece astutely presents some common pitfalls as college applicants navigate the writing process.

If you choose to boast about your accomplishments in your Common Application Personal Statement, you likely won’t be boasting of your admission to your top choice college anytime soon.

As Rachel writes in her piece entitled “How to Conquer the Admissions Essay,” “The truth is, most essays are typical. Many are boring. Some are just plain bad. But occasionally one will make an admissions officer tear down the hallway to find a colleague to whom she can say, ‘You have to read what this Math Olympiad girl said about ‘Hamlet.’’ Your goal is to write an essay that makes someone fall in love with you.”

She continues, “Here’s a tip: Choose a topic you really want to write about. If the subject doesn’t matter to you, it won’t matter to the reader. Write about whatever keeps you up at night. That might be cars, or coffee. It might be your favorite book or the Pythagorean theorem. It might be why you don’t believe in evolution or how you think kale must have hired a PR firm to get people to eat it. A good topic will be complex. In school, you were probably encouraged to write papers that took a side. That’s fine in academic work when you’re being asked to argue in support of a position, but in a personal essay, you want to express more nuanced thinking and explore your own clashing emotions. In an essay, conflict is good.” It sure is. Amen, Rachel.


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  • Tod Hawks says:

    The correct admit rate for Columbia’s class of 2021 is 5.8%, which makes Columbia the third most selective school in the country, behind only Stanford and Harvard.

    I could find none of this information on your website.

    • Ivy Coach says:

      Hi Tod,

      Then you didn’t peruse our website very closely because Columbia’s admissions statistics are readily available on our website as seen here:

      But, just so you’re aware, a school’s admit rate does not in itself convey a school’s selectivity. Many schools encourage unqualified applicants to apply simply to lower their admit rate and invariably boost their “US News” ranking. Is Columbia one of America’s most selective institutions? Of course. But to label it definitively the third most selective school in the country based on admit rate alone is misguided.

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