Keeping it Personal

By Ryan Hickey + updated on August 4th, 2011

Your personal statement is precisely that: it is unique to you.  But after having read countless examples of personal statements, you’re probably wondering how best to set yours apart. There are many effective strategies, but today’ we’re going to focus on just three of them in this post.

Facts, Facts, Facts: They Distinguish You

An ideal personal statement is comprised of content that only the individual candidate can offer.

Consider this sentence:

I have wanted to be a doctor ever since the age of 15, when in Mr. {NAME’s} {SPECIFIC CLASS} at {NAME OF SCHOOL}, my research project on {SUBJECT} was selected as the best in the class. I then developed it into a poster presentation for {NAME OF CONFERENCE}.

You get the idea: Nobody else can offer this material.  If you leave out the facts, you wind up with a sentence that almost anyone could offer:

I have wanted to be a doctor ever since the age of 15, when my research project was named “best in class” and I developed it into a poster presentation.

Nothing sets you apart like the facts. Nothing works better in your personal statement then offering names, locations, timelines and specific subjects of research and study that have motivated you to go on and pursue a particular field. When you review your personal statement, ask yourself this question with respect to every sentence that appears in it: Could another candidate offer this sentence?  If the answer is “yes” to more than 20% of the material in your essay, you have a problematic personal statement, because it is too generic.

Be Creative

Some of the best application essays are those that deviate completely from accepted formats that suggest that you should open with an anecdote, go on to “touch certain bases” such as leadership, academic achievement, and professional goals, and conclude with the synthesis of what you have just offered.  The key is to choose material that will play to what your reader wants; in other words, the key is to know your audience.  If you are applying to an international business program in which cultural sensitivities are considered a vital priority, an entire essay devoted to how you demonstrated your own cultural sensitivities in a particularly compelling context could very well serve your best interests.

International Students: The “Coming to America” Cliche

If you are an international student, the best way to talk about the many challenges that you encountered as an immigrant to the United States is this: don’t.

Unfortunately, content of this type is vastly overused in admissions essays of all types. As a result, sharing stories of this nature will only serve to make your application less original, and may even cause the reader to associate you with a stereotype.

The one exception to this is if you have a particularly humorous story (which several individuals have assured you is very funny, and is in good taste) about your immigrant experience. If that is the case you may wish to include this in your personal statement. Almost anything else that you offer in the context of the challenges faced by an immigrant student will come across to your reader as clichéd.

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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.

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