Because a personal statement is unlike other documents you write in college, many students struggle with understanding the fundamentals of its definition. First off, don’t let the term itself confuse you—some application materials will use other terms such as “personal essay,” “reflective essay,” “statement of purpose,” or “narrative.” Regardless of the term used, such essays are defined by their comment elements, as detailed below.
One of the best extended definitions of the personal statement I’ve seen appears on a website from the Fellowships Office at Bryn Mawr (see the article "Advice from Fellowship Foundations"). Below I offer a condensed version adapted from that website.
A personal statement is:
- A picture. Provide a snapshot of who you are as a person.
- An invitation. Your job is to “bridge the assumed distance of strangers.” Invite your reader to get to know you.
- An indication of your priorities and judgment. Your selection of material reveals your priorities and ability to discern effectively.
- A story, or more precisely, your story. The personal statement allows you room for creative, meaningful self-reflection.
A personal statement is not:
- An academic paper with you as the subject. The objective distance of academic writing disengages the reader from you in a personal statement.
- A resume in narrative form. Other parts of your application, which might include a resume, already tell readers about your accomplishments. A personal statement must reveal and interpret well beyond a resume.
- A journal entry. A common mistake is allowing your personal statement to read like a diary. Share only relevant material selectively, in a voice that remains both individual and professional.
- A plea or justification. Don’t beg and don’t defend the (incorrect) assertion that you are more worthy than other candidates—it only backfires.
Of course, nuances to this definition may be added based on the circumstances. For instance, at times an application might require three different essays with highly specific parameters, and perhaps one of these essays involves a personal narrative while another poses you a philosophical question to answer. Always look to the application itself to determine the degree to which the definitions above apply, and know that when there is a series of questions in an application at least one of them is usually designed to elicit a personal essay from you.
I manage the UChicago Admissions Tumblr (uchicagoadmissions.tumblr.com!) and recently came across a great question in our inbox from Amy W, a prospective student. Amy asks:
First off: Amy, you can defeat it! We assure you! Whether you’re writing a personal statement for the Common Application, Universal Application, or another catch-all application essay, don’t freak out. (And don't worry that we're not talking about our Uncommon Prompts here-- we've got another post coming up soon just on that topic!) We know this can be a bit of a daunting time, so we have some tips and tricks we think will help make the writing process a bit easier for Amy (and other Amy-like students lurking out there in the internetiverse!)
The common things we always like to see in an essay are pretty basic, and pretty limited: we like to read things that are written coherently, have a good handle on the conventions of English spelling and grammar, fall within or near our suggested word count, don’t have the wrong school’s name included in the text, and don’t cross basic lines of social propriety. And that’s where the common stuff ends. I think one of the things that makes a great personal statement is when students take their essay to a place that isn't terribly common. If there was one thing I wish I could call out from the rooftop of my office in Rosenwald Hall to the high school seniors of the world, it is that you don't need to write about the thing your friend is writing about, or write exactly like the example in the "100 Best Essays" book, or write the essay your mom is pushing for your essay to be good. In fact, doing those things will probably guarantee that your essay is not good, because the thing missing from the mix there is “you”—your voice as a student, a writer, and a potential contributor to our campus.
When you choose a topic for a personal statement, keep in mind that whatever you write about should cause you to say "yes" to the question "Is this something, and perhaps the only thing, I think a perfect stranger should know about me?" Your essay doesn't necessarily have to be about your most life-changing moment—it can be about something you like, an academic or social idea that’s important to you, an experience you’ve had, or something offbeat if you so choose—but just make sure that you feel comfortable expressing this idea, that it is truly important to you, and can apply a reasonable level of self-reflection and analysis to your writing. Self-reflection really means two things here: it’s both giving us a little analysis of your subject within your discussion of a topic AND thinking beforehand about whether your topic and tone are appropriate to share with an admissions officer. Telling a good story is interesting, but relaying facts about the story ad nauseum is not as important as giving your reader a good sense of why you feel compelled to write about it. And telling a story that in no way reflects who you are (example totally-made-up-but-very-plausible title: My Horse Is The Best Horse), paints an inflated or unrealistic picture of your accomplishments or goals (My Plan for World Economic Domination Before Graduation), only tenuously connects to or ascribes too much weight to an event's real significance in your life (I Stubbed My Toe: The Reason I Want Pre-Med), or leaves your reader feeling awkward or uncomfortable (Top 10 Things I Love About My Girlfriend) are not ways to help your reader feeling like they’ve had a genuine interaction with you, or give a sense of how you’d contribute positively to campus.
Of course, this is all one lady’s opinion—while I have several years’ experience reading application essays as an admissions officer at UChicago, know that opinions and ideas can come from many sources. Make sure to utilize the knowledge and expertise of your teachers, counselor, and, yes, your parents—but keep the idea of writing something that is authentically “you” at the front of your mind throughout this process. And please make sure someone besides you takes a look at your essay before you send it off-- they'll help you catch those unfortunate circumstances of accidentally leaving in [insert other school name here] before submitting your application.
(AKA: Grace Chapin, UChicago alumna, cat lover, humorist? and Senior Assistant Director of Admissions)
PS: That’s not all, folks! There are many other types of essays you’ll write as part of your application to UChicago, and to many other colleges. Stay tuned in to the blogosphere (blagoblog? Blogiverse? Wordplace? Internet. Watch the Internet.) for tips on college-specific essays, our Uncommon essays, and other portions of your application coming up soon.
PPS: Welcome to the revival of our Uncommon Blog! As you might (or might not), have noticed, this is our inaugural (in-blog-ural?) post in a slightly new style and space. We’ll have posts from admissions officers and current students here throughout the year, and we hope that it’s a source of valuable UChicagoey information for you. Have any questions, or a desire to see a post on a specific topic here? Feel free to connect with us via email at email@example.com or by phone at 773-702-8650.