Applying to university? Perhaps graduate studies—a master’s program or a degree in law or medicine? If so, you’re probably well aware of the required essays and personal statements that supplement an applicant’s academic record. While graduate and professional programs have long required these supporting documents, undergraduate programs are also increasingly relying on supplementary essays—especially in hyper-competitive programs such as commerce, life sciences, or engineering, where the number of applicants far outstrips available spots. In these cases, admissions officials often use personal statements to distinguish amongst a large pool of candidates, almost all of whom have stellar grades. A strong essay should be the proverbial cherry on top of your application—showcasing YOU and what sets you apart from your peers.

So, how do you write a strong personal statement? In this first installment of our two-part blog, we’ll consider a couple of crucial tips to keep in mind when crafting these kinds of essays.

Answer the Prompt

First, pay attention to the prompt (i.e., the question or statement to which you are responding) and ensure that you’re addressing all of the components of the question. Application prompts typically ask writers to highlight an experience related to leadership, teamwork, or personal resilience along with any lessons learned or insights gained. While it’s certainly important to describe your selected experience, don’t forget the second part—the lesson learned. Too often, applicants devote the bulk of their essays describing what they did while offering few, if any, details on why the experience matters. Don’t skimp on this part; it’s just as—perhaps even more—critical than the actual narration of the experience itself! Admissions officials want to see that you can reflect on your experiences and identify insights to be applied to future situations. 

And these challenges may persist, even as this year promises something of a return to “normal.” Needless to say, staying on top of it all can certainly be a daunting task - in any school year, but especially in this one.

Show, Don’t Tell

Secondly, remember the old advice of your past English teachers: show, don’t tell! Rather than touting your maturity, leadership, initiative, respect for diversity, etc., explicitly demonstrate that you embody these attributes by sharing specific examples or anecdotes. Identify the key steps you undertook as part of a large project, for example, or the specific problems you encountered in a given situation and how you resolved them. Be as precise as possible and avoid generic, general statements. And, again, as noted earlier, highlight what you have learned and how you have grown as a result of the experience. Your achievement cannot stand on its own; connect the dots between what you did and how it changed you. 

Next up in Part 2 of our roundup: the power of originality and good grammar!