close up photo of black framed eyeglasses

Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, distilling the essence of your identity into 650 words can be one of the more difficult parts of any application process. (Although it does bear mentioning that when this writer applied to colleges, she was allowed only 500 words. 150 extra words is pure decadence!)

Let’s go over some important steps:

  1. Prioritizing parts of your personality and background
  2. Free-writing
  3. Remembering the mission
  4. Editing

Ready? Let’s start.

Who Am I? This writer does not condone a full-blown existential crisis. However, the best way to start a personal statement is to write a list of all of the traits and activities you believe are essential to who you are as a person in the order of their importance. This may take a few days, but you want to get to the root of who you are and what drives you.

Are you an environmentalist who loves rowing? A painter who discovered their love for city rooftops at the age of fourteen?

Even at the age of sixteen or seventeen, the daily grind of high school and extracurriculars makes it easy for us to lose touch with ourselves. However, personal statements require us to be somewhat sure (or confidently unsure) of ourselves and of our place in the world.

Free writing. There’s nothing better than a 6 AM free write with a large mug of black coffee. But for high school students waking up to catch the bus or parking their car just in time for homeroom, this kind of activity is a fantasy.

Find a time when you can just sit and write. Pick a comfortable seat. You can use either a laptop or an old notebook. Either way, you want to have your list in front of you and think back to it. Any memories that ring a bell?

Maybe you want to write with relevant family albums or other artifacts in front of you, to get the creative juices flowing. Don’t be afraid to pause your free-write session to ask parents or siblings about any events that may have collected dust in the recesses of your memory.

One free-write session won’t cut it. Maybe you’ll look at the product of your first session two days later and think to yourself, Why would I ever write this? Or maybe you nailed it on the first attempt. However, it’s always worth a re-read and certainly a re-write.

This writer suggests that you attempt a few different takes at the same topic. You should then take stock of the different (rough) finished products and see which direction feels right.

Remembering the mission. At the end of the day, our personal statements do have to tie back to either an achievement, moment of learning, or our future aspirations. Though an essay on setbacks from a camping trip can be funny or riveting (or both), it must ultimately show why you are a good candidate for admission into the school.

Ensure that you have hit the “crux” of your essay about 50% of your way in. For example, if you’ve been recounting stories of how you fended off a bear or caught fish with your bare hands, you want to hit on how this experience changed you as a person at least midway through the essay. If the essay is about how you sit at home and watch Netflix (and more power to you if you can make this work), you must explain how this ties into your personal achievements or future aspirations. Remember that the majority of your application is just data – the common app essay and supplements are your best opportunity to give the admissions committee a sense of who you actually are.

Editing. We have free-written and we have incorporated the meat and potatoes into this product. However, now is the time to edit and to “kill your darlings”, as writers are wont to say.

Is it repetitive? Remove it. It doesn’t matter if both sentences sound good. You only need one.

Is it not adding to the story? Remove it. 650 words does not allow for unnecessary sentences.

Are there run-on sentences? Break them up into sentences that make sense. Then, try removing a couple of those sentences.

At the end of the day, the personal statement entails exactly what its name suggests. Nonetheless, it requires us to invest a serious amount of time and emotional energy. Breaking this larger assignment into smaller steps allows us to not only stay on task, but also makes an essay with a very large overall goal relatively doable.