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How to craft a compelling personal statement

In the fifth of her 12-part series, Katherine Ernst Mehta talks about how to write a really compelling essay, which can make help distinguish your application.
BY Katherine Ernst Mehta |   01-07-2016

The main essay (also called the personal statement) can be both the most rewarding and the most stressful part of the college application process. The essay is your opportunity to distinguish yourself in your own voice, round out your application, and show admissions committees who you are beyond your grades and test scores.A well-written essay can add immense value to your application.

But for many students, the essay is also a source of anxiety. If you’ve never written in this style before, you may feel unsure of what to write about, and where to start.  Should you elaborate on several activities, or only one? Should you highlight your greatest achievements, or talk about a failure to show a more human side? Should your tone be serious or light?

These are all valid questions. Read on to find the answers, and learn how to craft a winning personal statement.
 

Start Early, and Rewrite Often

Wondering when you should start your essay?  Well, right now.  Starting early – ideally in the summer before Class 12 – gives you plenty of time for reflection, writing, and editing.  The best essay topics usually don’t come to mind right away.  Rather, they’re developed over several hours of brainstorming, writing, and reworking drafts. Some of the best essays I’ve read came about only after the tenth draft, because they required that much time and thought for the ideas to surface. Don’t be afraid to rewrite, and abandon some ideas that aren’t working in favour of ones that seem more promising.

Your best writing also won’t happen when you’re stressed out or pre-occupied by other things like schoolwork and tests.  That’s why the summer is ideal for drafting your essay, and polishing it to perfection.
 

Use a Narrative Approach

People connect to stories.  Therefore, one of the best ways to connect to the admissions officers reviewing your application is to share stories from your life.  It could be several shorter stories that demonstrate a larger theme about your life or personality, or it could be a single story of an event that was profound or meaningful to you.  Either way, it should shed light on who you are, and allow readers a glimpse into your life and experiences.
 

Avoid Clichéd Topics

Students are surprised to learn that the most mundane topics often make for great essays, because they give insight into your personality, your thought-process, and how you spend your time.  They also allow for more originality.  An essay about your summer fishing trip, learning to cook with your grandmother, or your passion for stamp collecting is bound to be more interesting than an essay about the time you scored the winning goal or won the student council election – topics that are tired and overused.

Writing about what you’ve learned from failures (rather than achievements) can also be an effective approach, because it allows you to demonstrate reflection and resilience.

Unless you feel you can bring a particularly unique angle, avoid certain overused topics, includingsports, travel, and brief volunteer or MUN experiences.
 

Let Your Voice Shine Through

Finally, your essay should always be in your own voice.  It could be funny or serious, sincere or irreverent – as long as it’s true to you.  A good test of voice is to have your family or close friends read your essay.  If they say that it sounds like you, then you know that you’ve succeeded in making your voice and personality come through clearly, and you’ve written an essay that will give colleges a better impression of who you are



Katherine Ernst Mehta is CEO and Founder of Edvanta Consulting, which works with international high-school students seeking admission to US universities. She first came from the US to India for research, and now lives in Delhi. You can reach her on Twitter at @EdvantaCo. Previous instalments of her 12-part series on US college admissions are here.
 

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