An Epic Personal Statement
In what has become something of an unhealthy race to an artificial finish line, students often spend their high school years checking off what needs to be done in the run-up to the college application process; the application season officially begins in the August before their Senior year, when the most current Common Application becomes available.
When students aren’t preparing for tests, they are choosing the right courses and the right activities, while vying for high grades and leadership positions, all with the end goal of being accepted into the perfect college. There is barely time for them to get enough sleep, let alone time to get to really know themselves outside their identity as a student and potential college applicant.
But what is the perfect college and how can a young person know where they will best thrive? While they think they are doing all the right things, and, indeed, are being told that they are by well-meaning adults around them, they are often not thinking about important questions; questions that can help them make confident and informed decisions that will impact their life at college and beyond; questions such as: What are my strengths? What matters to me? What can I contribute to the world? Who am I?
A great personal statement demands that a student know the answers to these questions. The college application is made up of many components, most of which give college admissions officers an idea of the type of student an applicant is. Grades and test scores and teacher recommendations and activities often look very similar. The personal statement is a chance for an applicant to tell the reader something that they cannot find on the rest of an application. It provides an insight into the uniqueness of the student and the person who will arrive on their campus, if accepted.
These aspects are not quantifiable, and the essay can be challenging for students, since it is often the first time that they have done the very type of self-reflection that is required by this very specific piece of writing. In a world where so many right answers are expected of them, this is a place where there are no wrong answers; indeed, there is a prompt that essentially says, “write what you want.” Faced with this directive, many students don’t know where to begin.
Students I work with are often very eager to check off this part of the application and are surprised when I tell them not to expect the essay to be done in a week, or even necessarily a month. Anyone can write about something that has happened to them but it’s that digging deeper, exploring how they are evolving and really knowing themselves, that will make their essay stand out. And that involves lots of brainstorming before fingers hit keyboards.
For many reasons, young people often find it very hard to talk about themselves, and when I ask them what matters to them, they are stumped. So, we do lots of brainstorming, exploring the whys of how they behave and finding common themes in their actions and reactions. They are often taken aback when I tell them that I don’t care (initially) about word count or perfect grammar and that we may just talk for a couple of sessions, discarding many topic ideas before we find the right one. That right topic is crucial, as it will ensure that the writing will flow easily and authentically, leaving the real student on the page when it is finished.
I hope that the students I work with come away with more than a great essay that will capture the attention of admissions officers. I hope that they have a better and deeper understanding of all they have to offer and of their uniqueness; that they are more confident about who they are now and who they can be in the future. Also importantly, I hope that they have fun in the process.
In case you missed our recent "Porch Talk" with Emma, you can watch the entire interview right here: "How to Approach the College Essay".
Emma Hoffman was born in New Zealand and has been living in the United States since 1996. A true Third Culture Kid, she grew up and was educated in six countries, including Hong Kong, Western Samoa, and Gibraltar. Emma therefore has first-hand experience of, and is particularly sensitive to, the educational and cultural challenges faced by children and families who are moving internationally. After graduating from King’s College, University of London, with a degree in law, Emma followed her true passion and earned a Postgraduate Certificate in Education from the University of London, specializing in elementary education. She has dedicated the past twenty years to educating children in a number of capacities and has taught in public and private schools in the U.K. and the U.S. She currently tutors children across grade levels and subjects, also prepares students for U.S. standardized tests, including the S.S.A.T. and the S.A.T. Emma has a particular ardor and knack for getting kids to discover themselves through the writing of epic personal statements.
Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.