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.”

How to Write a Great Personal Statement

Wondering how to approach the Personal Statement on the Common Application? You’re not alone.

So often, folks write in asking for assistance with their “college essay.” It’s something of a pet peeve of ours here at Ivy Coach. There is not one college essay. There are many college essays, as just about every highly selective college asks students to answer supplemental essay prompts. And despite what you may think, each one of those supplemental essay prompts is as important as the Common Application’s Personal Statement.

Imagine a college applicant with an outstanding Personal Statement — but their “Why Penn” essay isn’t specifically tailored to Ben Franklin’s school. Do you think the 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? Let us make it clear for you: the answer is no. Applicants have to demonstrate their love for each institution to which they apply, and that means focusing on supplemental essay questions just as much as the Common App’s Personal Statement.

What Your Personal Statement Really Needs to Do

We recently read a great editorial in “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 — in fact, many are flat out wrong. Rachel, in her tell-it-like-it-is style, gets it absolutely right. Now, will reading her editorial give you a clear direction on how to approach your Personal Statement? Of course not. 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.

These days, everyone has an admissions essay with a mile-long list of accomplishments. Yours needs to do something different. As Rachel writes in “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.”

For the Best College Essays, Choose Conflict

So how do you make them fall in love with you? Good question. Rachel has an answer for you:

“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.”

Your college applications need to make you stand out from the crowd; not demonstrate your cookie-cutter accomplishments. In other words, you need to be wonderfully weird. So yes: in a college application essay like the Common App’s Personal Statement, conflict is a good thing.

Amen to that, 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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