How to Write a Personal Application for College Admission

If this is your first time seeing your high school student in the college application process, you will likely find that certain aspects of the process fill him with the same fear as writing a personal application.

It makes sense: the personal statement required by most four-year colleges requires many teens to show in 650 words or less what makes them unique, what factors shaped them into the people they are today. They must reflect on their lives and write clear, concise memoirs – a task that will be challenging for most adults, let alone 17 or 18 year olds.

But on the positive side, the personal statement is the only place on the college application where students can get creative. It is also something that they have complete control over, as opposed to, say, their GPA or SAT. And a memorable personal statement can give students with less impressive characteristics an edge over the competition. Here’s how to create it.


After working as a consultant in college for several years, I have found that often the hardest part for students is to generate ideas. “I have nothing to write about. Nothing interesting has ever happened to me, ”the general refrain sounds.

It probably isn’t, but it can be difficult to see your life with enough clarity to know what others might find attractive about it. (In a conversation with a student who claimed that her life was boring, I learned that she grew up in a Tibetan refugee camp. I told her that I thought this might interest the college admissions staff.)

But while loss and turmoil are obvious food for memories, some of the best personal statements focus on smaller and calmer experiences; The trick is to convey them in style and tension.

Brainstorming is a good place to start. When students feel stuck, I ask them to make lists: I tell them to write five to ten events from their lives that should be included if someone writes their biography. Then I ask them to list people they admire and times they have experienced setbacks and successes.

It is also helpful to ask teenagers to describe themselves and talk about their hobbies and interests. (One student quickly identified herself as a feminist; she also mentioned that she was a swordsman who beat her father in matches on more than one occasion. Combining these two passions, we had an essay on teaching swordsmanship as an act of feminism, how he endowed her with the strength and agility to fight with patriarchy.)

Often, when talking about events, hobbies, and goals they have listed, students stumble upon the seed of an essay. It can be helpful to take a look at the Common Application essay tips as they do this, and consider which one might fit their story. Fortunately, the prompts are open, and even if students apply to schools that don’t use Common App, the colleges they are interested in will likely have very similar prompts. (Tip: Stay away from the last request, which gives candidates the opportunity to submit an essay on “any topic”; I’ve heard admissions officers see this as an excuse.)

What makes a good topic for a personal statement?

I try not to be prescriptive when it comes to topics, with two exceptions: if a student is uncomfortable speaking on a subject, I would advise him to choose another; they don’t have to tell a faceless administrator, especially about a difficult experience they haven’t worked through yet.

Another topic to avoid is a charity trip or a volunteer tourism experience that has led a student to discover poverty and learn not to take what they have for granted. This is the fastest way to tell colleges that they are unaware of their economic privileges (and, frankly, the world beyond their bubbles).

Her campus adds any politically controversial topics, achievement lists, and tearful stories to the ban list. By “tearful stories,” the author includes an essay, which is based on the tragic events taking place with the writer, not the difficulties that he is actively overcome. This is a really compelling essay where the writer portrays himself as a person with freedom of choice and resilience, although I think that any subject can become a personal statement if it is focused and made into a story with a beginning, middle and end.

A transformative experience makes reading fun; one of my students wrote about how he took over his mother’s responsibilities as she recovered from surgery, cooked (and burned) dinner for the family and ran to the laundry between homework, and how he increasingly appreciated heavy work of parents. Finding passion can also be fun: another student described her visit to her family in India, where she learned that DDT is still in use; caring for the health of her relatives prompted her to pursue environmental justice. Another wrote about being ostracized in high school, which is not uncommon, but she resorted to moments of bullying with such specificity that I felt her pain and her strength when she continued to persist.

It all comes down to writing. Which brings us to:

Placement on the page

Any creative popular science project is best started with a brain dump. Having a strong idea does not mean that the writer knows how it will structure his essay; if you put your thoughts on the page without having to write something organized and primordial, this structure can begin to emerge.

Another good guideline is to apply artistic techniques to a personal essay: instead of briefly telling their story (“When my mom got sick, I learned important lessons about responsibility”), high school students should strive to write about their experiences in a scene showing, including detailed description, dialogues, own thoughts and feelings at the time. (For example, for an essay about a sick parent, the student might start from the moment the parents told him about the illness and describe his thoughts and feelings about it.)

The personal statement should function as a storytelling that puts the reader in the writer’s shoes. I encourage writers to crochet a specific moment that symbolizes the theme of their story. For example, a student who wrote about bullying engaged in dialogue, portraying a moment when she heard classmates talking about her. Often times, when writers have a beginning, the rest of the essay flows from that.

Because the personal statement is relatively short — usually just a couple of pages — it is important that authors are selective, including only the details and context that serve their story. The essay doesn’t have to be linear — many students open up a scene and then go back to show how they got there — but it all needs to stick together.

The ending is just as important as the beginning, and it is also where students may be most tempted to use clichés about how they learned and grew up. But the last sentences will remain with the readers, so they must be carefully selected.

The best way to learn this form of writing is to read; Fortunately, there are many personal essays out there these days, so encourage your children to look for a few examples. Some schools also provide examples of personal statements they liked – look at these, written by Johns Hopkins, as a starting point.


As with any other form of writing, editing is an important part of the process. When I work with students on this, we look at their drafts both macro and micro, considering organization, pace and clarity, as well as word choice and sentence structure.

The following questions should be considered during the revision phase: Does it tell a story? Does it grab me at the beginning and does it keep my interest all the way through? Does it make sense and does it have any impact? Does it answer one of the queries? Does he show me anything interesting about who this person is as a person?

Watch for repetition and verbosity. It’s okay to aim for a difficult language, but it’s also important to be short, and it’s usually obvious when a high school student uses words that don’t work for him. Ultimately, a personal statement must be made in the writer’s own voice, as this is what colleges are interested in hearing.

This all can take a while – I’ve seen some students revise as many as 20 – so it might be a good idea to start working on personal affirmation in junior high, before high school students get overwhelmed with SAT prep and college applications. autumn.

Alanna Schubach is a freelance writer, teacher, and college counselor who has trained high school students to write personal statements through the Sunnyside College Prep and Gotham Writers Workshop.


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