A Survey of Strategies for the College App's Personal Statement

By Lilly D., Concordia Applied Journalism


17 years condensed and determined by a group of strangers in less than 6 minutes? Almost every one of us has to go through the process of applying to college at some point in our lives. It is certainly not easy when colleges ask you to reduce your life down to a 650-word personal statement.

“What makes me unique as an applicant?” I pondered this question at least 1000 times starring at my empty Word document, hoping to magically experience insight learning.

With an increasing amount of applicants every year, what makes me, one of 8000 applicants, special?

Luckily, with senior year coming to an end, the wonderful class of 2020 is willing to share their journey with their personal statement.

After a few interviews, I was able to discern some patterns; the first and most important being, start brainstorming the PS early. Most of the seniors were able to finish their first draft in June. The earliest being Claire H. revealed, “I started brainstorming all the way in late May or early June, and I finished my first draft around that time as well.” Starting early gives you more time to change topics and edit.

Some seniors were lucky enough to know from the start what they wanted to write about. I knew I wanted to write about ice skating as it was something that only I did.

“From the start, I knew I was going to write about my online comic, Chasing Little Lights,” explains Evelyn S. “I thought my comic was really representative of my identity and I didn't really ever consider writing about anything else.”

Ali Z. remarks, “I stuck with the same idea of dance for all my drafts, dance was and is one of the most important things in my life, as well as my longest commitment.”

“I chose a unique experience that I went through and connected it to something I am passionate about that stood out in my extracurricular,” says Jane F.

On the other hand, a lot of seniors experienced confusion and went through several different ideas. It is okay to not know what to write about, and this whole process is all about self-reflection and discovery. Don’t be afraid to play around with your ideas and just start writing and see what happens from there. As unbelievable as it may seem, Claire switched at least 3 topics and actually ended up choosing a new topic two weeks before the ED deadline.

So how exactly does one settle a topic? Ms. Bai, a college counselor who graduated from Columbia, pointed out several directions, “gut feeling”, “take a spin on the extracurriculars”, “embrace but don’t exploit adversity” and “don’t shy away from the mundane”.

Kelly W. recounts, “I only stumbled upon what I eventually chose to write about after the experiences I had this recent summer – me working on my self-portrait in my dorm’s workroom.”

“I was texting a friend about how I don't know how to stop talking sometimes,” recalls Hayley S, “and it turned into a joke about what if I make my personal statement a list of fun facts I can force someone to read.”

Sam J. says, “I thought about the idea of a PS about a PS and I thought it was really unique and meta.”

“My parents actually reminded me of the story,” says Bill Y. “I dismissed it as not unique and powerful enough at first, but I accepted in the end because it felt writing it was most natural to me.”

Alice C recalls, “I tried to choose a topic that would show my interest in that field while also showing my personality.”

Ms. Bai encouraged me to list out 20-30 impressions or facts about myself that I think are the most important and try to link them together. As I was writing I realized the message I wanted to send to the admissions officer. After all, it’s about not letting outside influences change who you are and what you are passionate about.

As for the structure, there is no magic formula, but try to not ramble about the event itself, or even the revelation you had, and instead how it has changed and affected you today. Start with challenges, effects, feelings, needs, and your actions, then focus on what lesson you have learned, and why it matters.

There are only so many central ideas to in circulation, but what matters is how you choose to make it stand out. Choosing an unconventional topic, being quirky, and breaking away from traditional formats are all great approaches but, above all, be honest.

Ultimately, the purpose of the personal statement is a chance to show colleges who you are as a person behind all the stats and activities, and how you became the unique person you are. 

Lilly D. is a student of Concordia Applied Journalism






Want to read more about the app process? See this related story.