• Vrutika Soneji

Mastering the Personal Statement in the College Application Essay

As college admissions becomes increasingly competitive, it becomes harder to stand out. How can you assure yourself a spot at your dream school? While components like grades and recommendation letters can assist in your acceptance, the personal essay is arguably the most important determinant. This is one of the only aspects of the college admission process that is 100% within your control. While this may seem intimidating, don’t worry! Dev Devvrat, an assistant dean of admissions at Reed College, walks us through writing the perfect essay in a recent webinar. The full webinar is posted on the BeyondDreams YouTube channel, but here are a few summarized tips and tricks!

The Purpose of the Personal Statement

Devvrat explains, “The personal essay is the best way for admissions counselors to get to know you.” More specifically, they want to understand who you are in your community, as well as how they visualize you fitting into the community at their campus. While essays are not the only way for counselors to get to know you, they play a large part in the admission process.

Choosing the Right Essay Topic

It is common to struggle with finding a topic for your personal statement. Luckily, Dean Devvrat explains that the following exercise can assist you in brainstorming.

  1. What is your favorite gift that you have ever been given?

  2. What reminds you of your family?

  3. What is in your bag right now that is probably not in anyone else’s bag?

  4. If your house is on fire, what would you happily leave behind to burn?

  5. What object represents regret?

  6. What is something you have found?

  7. What is something that you stole? (Be careful with this one!)

  8. What represents your dreams?

These are questions to help you start thinking about objects that could potentially be written about.

Keys to the Personal Statement

Fill in the Blanks

Writing a personal statement is your way of telling the admission counselors who you really are beyond the statistics on your application. Devvrat advises to not write a resume or an activities list, since they already can see that on your application. However, he said it’s okay to expand upon one thing that you are proud of and that has shaped you. The following paragraph is an example of a weak essay.

Weak Example

In 10th grade, I was the captain of the varsity cross-country and basketball teams. I also starred in three theater performances that year and helped with the theater tech crew. It was a busy year. Last year, I started a recycling program at my school and did research with a neuroscience professor at Portland State University. This year I’m devoting more time to my classes, but still playing saxophone in the jazz band.

Be Creative with the Everyday

College admissions counselors don’t expect you to have accomplished everything! College admission counselors understand that you haven’t cured cancer yet! Rather than showcasing the most dramatic, best moment of your life, try to show who you are on a day to day basis. In the rare case that you are talking about you in the past, make sure to connect that to who you are today. The most important point is to showcase who you are everyday, so that the admissions committees can see if you would be a fit on their campus.

Weak Example

The summer after my junior year, I went to Panama with my church youth group to volunteer. We worked every day building homes, playing with the children of the village, and developing an irrigation system. I thought I was going there to help people, but really I was the one who was helped the most.

Stay Focused

“Having the ability to share your thoughts and ideas in a concise manner is something that you will benefit from,” according to Dev Devvrat. It is really easy to go on tangents when writing, but sticking to your topic will allow the admissions counselors to actually understand the point that you are trying to get across. The key is to have depth, not breadth in your essay.

Strong Example

I wear overalls to school. Dark wash denim, baggy pant legs and two straps over my shoulders fastened tight by two copper buttons. I don’t wear them for farming, painting, or railroad construction, but for the pure and sweet pleasure of wearing trousers that are held up by my shoulders. It’s not an everyday thing, but when I wear them, I feel invincible.

So What?

The heart of the essay lies in this section. Once you move beyond description and into the depths of why the topic is important to you, your essay will be taken to the next level. Ask yourself, “does this get my point across?”

Strong Example

I do truly adore lobster fishing. My love for it extends past the obvious: past the fact that I make money, past the fact that I get to work outside, in the beautiful summer weather. It extends far beyond the free lobsters, even past the blossoming friendships that I have with my colorful coworkers. I owe it a vast debt of gratitude. Lobster fishing opened my eyes to hard work and determination and in doing so allowed me to flourish substantially in high school.


You are finally at the end of the writing process, but don’t forget minor editing! Dev Devvrat says that the thesaurus is not your friend, since it is easy for college admissions officers to tell that the word does not match the style of the rest of the essay writing. You don’t need to use complex words, just be yourself. Additionally, spelling always counts! It may help to read your essay aloud to help catch mistakes. Letting other people read your essay might also help. However, be sure to limit the amount of people who view it, since you could start to lose your voice. Devvrat advises having one or two people that you trust who can provide you feedback and can let you know if the essay stays true to you.

Whether you are just starting out on your essays or nearly finished with them, hopefully these tips will increase your chances of getting into the college of your dreams. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the thought of writing essays, but remember that as long as you showcase who you really are, everything will work out!


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