By Burton Rojas, Director of Development for Latinos in Action – June 15, 2017
Recently a student from Alabama got accepted to Yale with a personal statement about pizza.
I haven’t read that student’s personal statement but I’m confident it was written in a way that told the readers something important about the writer, not just about pizza. Perhaps the most difficult task you will perform when preparing your college and scholarship applications is writing your personal statement.
In the same way interviewees struggle with the question “Tell me about yourself,” writing about yourself is not easy. There are some things you can do to make the process easier. And know from the start, it is a process. I recommend you allow about three months to prepare your personal statement.
You may be wondering how it could possibly take three months to write a few pages about yourself. This timeline will explain how and why…
Month 1: Creating a Working Draft
Your first step is not to decide what to write about. The first step is to determine what you want the reader to know about you.
- Is there a defining characteristic you want to share about yourself?
- Have you overcome extreme hardship?
- Have you achieved a great accomplishment?
- Do you have a deep passion for something?
These are legitimate things to say and write!
Regardless of what you choose to write about your statement should be more than a fascinating or impressive story. It should be more than a story of adventure or excitement. Your personal statement should tell the story of you.
Once you decide what you want the reader to know about you, you will be able to choose stories, events, and experiences that best illustrate that point. When writing the first draft your focus should be on getting the story into the document. Don’t worry too much about grammar, the general flow, or tone. You’ll be able to fix those later. The most important thing at this stage is to tell your story. Whether you start with an outline or free write continue to work on your statement until you have a narrative that reveals something important about you.
Month 2: Refining Your Statement
At this stage pay attention to grammar, tone, and vocabulary. Make sure your story flows naturally from the introduction to the body to the conclusion.
It is extremely important that each word in your statement is the exact word you want to use. Go through your statement word by word with a dictionary to make sure you understand the definition of each word you use and that each word is being used properly. Do this until you are satisfied you have used the words that most precisely express your thoughts.
As you go through your statement check for unnecessary words. You have precious little space to write your statement. Extra words must be eliminated. Ask for each word “Would this sentence say the same thing if this word were eliminated?”
Finally, ensure that every word is spelled correctly. Few things have the power to ruin a beautiful statement more than a misspelled word.
Throughout this stage ask others to read what you have written and ask them for feedback. These should be people who know you well enough to recognize your voice. Far too often students write what they think the reader wants to hear using words that do not flow naturally in their narrative. Find readers who can tell you “This doesn’t sound like you.” Authenticity in tone and content is a must. In the many statements I’ve read it was easy to spot the writer who was less than authentic.
When you receive feedback find out not only what the person thinks but also why. This feedback is vital. It will give you information you cannot get by reading your statement yourself. You are too closely tied to the statement to see it objectively. You must recruit the help of others whose praise will flow as freely as their constructive criticism. Assure your readers that only an honest critique will allow you to make the necessary improvements.
With each revision you will find your statement becoming not only more concise but more and more powerful in its ability to tell the reader what you want him or her to know about you.
Month 3: Asking for Objective Opinions
Ask people you know and trust to give your statement to others who do not know you. These should be people qualified to read and critique your statement on a higher level. This will allow you to get feedback from people who do not see your statement through the lens of having met you, grown up with you, know your family, etc. This reader will have no other information about you than what appears on the pages of your statement.
This simulates the situation under which an admissions committee will read your statement. Admissions officers may have already seen your transcript, your letters of recommendation, and possibly your resume by the time they read your statement. Your personal statement is their chance other from you. Your anonymous readers won’t have the benefit of seeing the rest of the information you will submit with your application. They will therefore read your statement and make judgments about you based solely on the words on the page.
Ask these readers to answer the following questions:
- What does this writer want me to know about him or her?
- What is his or her character?
- Would I want to meet and know more about this person?
- And most importantly: Why?
- You may also ask for other comments the reader would like to give about you and your statement.
The response to these questions from your anonymous readers will be a strong indicator that your statement says what you want it to say and may call for further revisions.
There is nothing easy about writing a powerful and concise personal statement. It takes a good amount of courage and must be a result of skill, practice, and revision. As with anything of great import, only when you have put in the effort will you be able to have full confidence in your final product.
Burton was born and raised in the great San Joaquin Valley in central California. He graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelors degree in Education and earned his law degree at Pepperdine University School of Law. He has worked on stage as an actor, in retail sales, as a Coordinator of Diversity and Student Services, as a recruiter and member of the admissions office at Pepperdine University School of Law, as a juvenile probation officer, as an Executive Assistant to a renowned film actor/director, as an immigration attorney, and most recently as the Director of Development for Latinos In Action. He is passionate about helping others and has served as a mentor to students of all ages for nearly 30 years.