When I talk to students about the college application process, many tell me that what they dread most is penning the personal statement. They say they’re unsure which aspects of their lives count as “interesting enough,” and feel uncertain about their ability to tell their own stories in a compelling way.
It’s true that you should take the personal statement seriously; admissions officers will tell you that while GPA, course load, and SAT or ACT scores are generally the most significant factors in college acceptance, the essay also ranks highly.
But students needn’t be quite so daunted. It helps to think of the personal statement not as a burden, but rather as the one aspect of the application over which you have total say.
What Does the Personal Statement Ask You to Do?
While the personal statement prompts may change from year to year and may differ from institution to institution, the questions tend to be variations on a single theme. That is, they instruct students: Tell me about yourself. What makes you special? What’s your particular outlook on life?
In my work as a college admissions counselor, I’ve found that the best way to tackle such a broad topic is to home in on something very specific, often a single event or experience that exemplifies who you are as an individual. And since you’ll be telling a story about yourself, the most effective way to do that is by using a narrative structure.
What Is a Narrative?
You’re likely most familiar with narrative structures as they’re used in fiction, but they can be applied to personal essays and memoirs as well. “Narrative” simply means story, so for the purposes of crafting a stellar personal statement, it helps to think about what makes a story compelling.
Four Tips to Write a Standout Narrative Essay
1. Be specific and use a clear narrative arc.
Many students’ essays end up covering huge spans of time as they struggle to focus their own narratives. This is understandable, as your background, identity, and interests are formed over many years.
The first step to developing a more focused narrative is to do some self-reflection. What is it about yourself that you want to communicate? What are the characteristics that distinguish you from other people?
Once you decide that, start brainstorming. What have you done or experienced that exemplifies these unique qualities?
Not long ago, I worked with a student who wanted to write about how she stands up for what she believes in. Standing up for oneself, challenging authority — these are big ideas and also somewhat abstract, in that they mean different things to different people. So, my student made this concept more concrete by writing about one incident that is representative of how she conducts herself.
In her personal statement, she recalled a time at the boarding school she attended as a child. Her headmistress required the younger students to be responsible for cleanup after meals, while the older ones were free to go play once they finished eating. My student resented this, and decided to confront the headmistress about it. When her concerns were brushed off, she persisted in standing up for herself and her peers by writing a letter to the president of the school requesting a change in policy. This ultimately paid off: The rules were changed and all students, from then on, were expected to share in cleanup responsibilities.
Her story was specific, detailed, and had a clear beginning, middle, and end — and it also suggested, on a larger scale, a great deal about who she is as an individual.
2. Start with a strong hook.
You know what you want to write about, but where do you begin? Strong narratives, just like good short stories, articles, or novels, begin with a compelling hook that pulls the reader in. A strong hook often withholds some information — a bit of mystery and suspense provokes curiosity, making the reader want to learn more. A carefully-selected bit of dialogue, statement, detail, or description that teases the larger story to come makes for an excellent first paragraph. Students are often tempted to begin with a summary of their story, but consider the difference between these two openings:
Winston Smith lived in a world in which every aspect of life was dictated by the government. He was frustrated by his lack of freedom, and especially by how the government controlled how people thought and the language they used. Everything had begun to seem terrible to him.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
The second paragraph is the opening of George Orwell's novel “1984,” while the first is a rough summary of the main character’s conflict. The second — with its air of mystery and its vivid description — is much more interesting to read.
3. Remember that narrative isn’t the same as recollection.
Because students are remembering something they have been through as they write their personal statements, they often tell their stories in recollection, such as “I once had an experience that taught me a lot about responsibility.” But a narrative requires instead that students convey what happened from a different perspective than their own.
This means placing the reader there beside you as events unfold. Show her what it felt like as you lived an event or circumstance. A great way to do this is by including strong sensory details — describe what you saw, smelled, heard, or felt. Think of the “vile wind” and “swirl of gritty dust” that plague Winston Smith in the opening paragraph of “1984” — those images paint a picture of the kind of world he lives in.
4. Show, don’t tell.
You’ve probably heard this piece of advice for writers before — in fact, it’s tossed around so often it has become a cliché. But like many clichés, there’s truth to it.
What does it really mean to show something rather than tell it? Again, so much comes down to specificity and concrete detail.
A student I was advising once said she wanted to write about how she became a more compassionate person. I encouraged her to be specific: What does it mean to be compassionate? The word likely evokes thoughts of qualities and behaviors that are particular to each person who considers it. A college admissions officer, reading my student’s essay, would need to know what being compassionate meant to her.
“It means I help other people and treat them kindly,” my student said.
That still wasn’t enough, I told her — how did she help other people? What did treating them kindly look like for her?
The student then began to recall a story about a time she came to the defense of one of her classmates who was being bullied. That was more like it — instead of telling me what a nice person she was, she was showing me through a specific action.
Remember that you’re crafting a focused narrative. Not every single thought, statement, or action from the experience you’re writing about needs to be included. Cut out details that don’t directly contribute to your story and move it forward.
Have teachers, relatives, and friends read your personal statement. Ask them what works, what’s confusing, and what they want to hear more about.
Be prepared to write multiple drafts — the need to revise several times does not mean you did a bad job. Even the most talented writers don’t expect to be finished in one shot. Successful essays are nearly as much about revising as they are about writing.
Try to have some fun with it; this is one of the only chances you’ll have to be creative on your college application. And remember you’re writing about yourself — a topic you’re an expert on.