Personal Statement Content to Avoid

By Ryan Hickey updated on February 7th, 2013

The undergraduate admissions season is winding down, but there are still many graduate-level programs, including law and business, that will accept applications well into the spring. If you’re targeting one of those programs and haven’t yet written your personal statement, this post is for you. Actually, this post is for anyone who hasn’t written a personal statement but may need to someday. It’s also for people who have written a personal statement but want to improve it. Hm. So I guess it’s for a lot of people… honestly, the advice isn’t confined to this year or admissions cycle and will remain good far into the future.

And what is that advice? Today, I’m going to focus on content you want to avoid in a personal statement. More specifically, I’m going to focus on several types of content that many applicants believe to be a good fit for a statement but in reality do nothing to help you.

1. Accomplishments, grades, awards, and the like. This is an easy mistake to make, as applicants believe talking about positives like a high GPA, prizes, and extracurricular achievements will reflect well on them. In reality, however, anything important enough to warrant listing in a personal statement should be highlighted elsewhere in your application, most likely in your transcript and resume/CV. Some applications even include a specific section separate from the personal statement where you list notable accomplishments, particularly leadership positions and honors. As a result, unless you’re elaborating on one or two particular instances – explaining the extensive research process that led to an academic award, for example – and it contributes to your larger narrative, you should avoid content like this in your statement.

2. Extensive personal background, particularly related to your family. A personal statement needs to be about you, not your parent, sibling, friend, coworker, boss, idol, or anyone else. Even if your father is your role model, mentor, and general inspiration for life, spending a paragraph detailing his rise from poverty into a Fortune-500 executive isn’t going to impress, or even interest, the person who reads your statement. There are rare occasions when you need to include a bit of information like this, but it should never comprise a significant chunk of your statement, nor should it play a pivotal role in your introduction.

3. Basic information about the program pulled from its website. A great personal statement should absolutely show why you are a great fit for a particular school or program and why you have chosen to apply there. While most applicants understand that, many go about doing so in an ineffective way, combing through descriptions, professor listings, and course offerings and then throwing that information into a few sentences or short paragraph at the end of the statement. Dropping a couple professor names and an extracurricular organization, along with a factoid (location, exclusivity, mission statement, available resources, and the like) into your statement is easy. Unfortunately, admissions personnel can immediately tell that you spent no more than 5 minutes researching and adding that info, which reflects poorly on you. Instead, dig deeper into the program and come up with a more original, detailed way to justify your interest in and fit for that particular place.

4. Overly detailed and/or ambitious plans. You may think you have the rest of your career planned out already. Good for you! If you’re just now applying to graduate programs, though, having an intricate road map that covers the next five decades of your life is probably overkill. No matter how confident you are in declaring where you will work, what positions you will hold, and how you will contribute to your field, the simple truth is that if you’re still in school, what you hope will happen after graduating is nothing more than hypothetical. A great personal statement shows that you have considered your future and have direction and goals at some level, but avoids grandiose or overly elaborate plans.

5. Excuses. There is not a single applicant on this planet who is perfect. Schools know this and fully expect every applicant to have struggled, made mistakes, and even – <gasp> – failed, not just a few times but on many occasions throughout their lives. Applicants, on the other hand, tend to feel like any shortcoming, no matter how small, is a giant black mark on their application that must be covered up or somehow justified. That leads them to spend precious space in their personal statement explaining how they caught the flu, broke their leg, and lost their dog the night before the GRE, which ultimately caused their Analytical Writing score to be a half point lower than it surely would have been otherwise. Don’t fall into this trap. Accept and own faults in your candidacy; doing so will make you seem like a more reasonable and even confident applicant, especially if your application in whole shows that you have ultimately thrived despite inevitable obstacles and errors. Also, some applications give you the chance to elaborate on issues like these (struggles, failures) in a supplementary essay. Only write an essay of that type if 1) you have a truly unique and extenuating circumstance or component of your application that demands additional explanation, and 2) providing that information will give the reader a significantly better understanding of you. Optional essays of that type are not the place to claim that standardized tests aren’t fair, complain about a professor you thought didn’t like you, or argue that your life has been remarkably difficult because you had to balance work with school at some point along the line.

6. Embellishment. A GPA of 3.1 is not an A- average. Going to a half dozen practices your freshman year does not make you a varsity athlete. A six-week unpaid internship during which you answered phones for two hours per day does not expose you to the inner dealings of corporate M&A work. Volunteering a couple times does not constitute a lifelong commitment to community service. Being on the email list for an extracurricular group does not make you the club secretary. Selling an old computer on eBay does not make you an entrepreneur. I could go on like this for a long time, but the message is simple: avoid blowing things into something they are not. Be honest and be yourself, don’t BS.

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

One Response to “Personal Statement Content to Avoid”

  1. laura says:

    Great piece of writing. It has explained everything which should have been avoided in a personal statement. I have learnt many things from this writing. Keep up the good work.
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