Five ways to write a fascinating personal statement

A witch can’t smell a child through a layer of dirt, just like an admissions officer can’t smell your uniqueness through bad writing.

On a recent episode of This American Life, one college admissions officer said that 19 out of 20 essays he reads suck. How do you make yours stand out?

Remember this: admissions officers have to be bored out of their minds. They spend all day sifting through thousands of essays, most of them falling into the same small handful of categories. The admissions officer on This American Life spoke of the fabled Central American Service Trip essay with such unbridled scorn that I blushed to remember the community center for which I laid bricks in Costa Rica, and I didn’t even write an essay about it.

The “mission trip” has become such a cliché that it’s hard to believe anyone actually writes about it anymore. But despite admissions officers’ professed boredom with the same tired themes, it would be a mistake to turn the essay into a contest for the most obscure and outlandish topic. Good writers know that the best essays can make any topic interesting. Here are the top five ways to do it on your personal statement, even if you’re not a good writer:

1. Don’t try to be perfect. It’s fine to show your essay to a trusted adult, but don’t let them smooth over all the rough spots. To an admissions officer, an authentic high school voice is like catnip to a kitten. You should sound like a high schooler, because that’s what you are.

2. Perform yourself. Funny people don’t go around telling people how funny they are—they just tell jokes. Remember this when writing your essay. When Julian Cranberg wanted to show colleges that he was a bold critical thinker who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, he took a college to task for sending him loads of wasteful marketing collateral:

“Why, in an era of record-high student loan debt and unemployment, are colleges not reallocating these ludicrous funds to aid their own students instead of extending their arms far and wide to students they have never met?”

3. Break some rules… If you’ve chosen a topic that’s genuinely important to you, don’t worry about silly rules about certain topics being off-limits. One applicant began her essay, “My college counselor told me not to write about my mother’s cancer, but if you want to know anything about me, you have to know what I’m dealing with every day of my life.” She got in almost everywhere she applied. And I’ll bet the admissions officers who read her essay were impressed by her moxie.

4. But not others. Needless to say, your grammar and spelling should be impeccable. You can be an iconoclast when it comes to the topic you choose to write about, but even iconoclasts proofread. Bad grammar doesn’t make you quirky and lovable, it makes your writing less relatable and muddles your voice.

Remember the Roald Dahl book The Witches, where the clever aunt character advises her nephew not to shower, because witches track down kids by their smell, and clean kids smell more like themselves, while dirty kids just smell like dirt? Well, bad grammar is like dirt. Your writing should smell like YOU.

5. Be specific. One of the easiest ways to transport an admissions officer into your story is to use lots of sensory details—especially at the beginning and the end of your essay.

Eleanor Smith, who graduated from Dartmouth College in 2004 and is now a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, wrote a personal statement about her love of newspapers. From her opening paragraph:

“At the breakfast table, I drink my juice, fill a bowl with cereal, and arrange the paper so that it is perfectly propped up against two blue candlesticks.”

She went on to spend the bulk of her essay talking about why she loved newspapers and her responsibilities at the Berkeley High Jacket, but her final sentences return to sensory details and leave a strong impression:

“I am the person who carries all the newspapers in from the delivery car, my hands smudged with newsprint. But I’m not complaining. I like newsprint: its cheap smell, gritty feel, and the pleasure it brings me.”

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