personal statement

Tips for Tackling the Personal Statement*

May 10, 2023

Each year aspiring college students anxiously await the release of the Common Application Personal
Essay Prompts
. As a writing specialist, I am well-aware of the mix of emotions this experience can
evoke. Of all the aspects of the application process, the personal statement is often the most daunting,
and causes students a substantial amount of angst. Though I can’t promise that the process will be
stress-free, I can offer a few tips that will help make writing your personal statement a bit more

1. Read all the prompts before choosing one.

In my work with students, I spend a lot of time brainstorming ideas with them before we tackle
selecting a prompt. This is because students often don’t recognize how seemingly insignificant
details from their lives can turn into a stellar essay. Oftentimes, students choose the first
prompt. Though it does offer the possibility for students to write about a range of topics, it can
ultimately limit the weight of their essay. Be sure you look through all the prompts, ponder your
options for a few days (or weeks), then choose the prompt that speaks to you.

2. Find your voice and stick to it.

Each person has their own unique writing style (sometimes referred to as your “voice”) and it is
important that your essay reflects your creativity, originality and individuality. College
admissions teams want to know what you have to say, so be true to yourself and write in a way
that feels organic and natural. I know this can be challenging, since writer’s block is a real
obstacle and can leave you feeling as if you have nothing to say. If you should hit a wall, take a
break and then go back with fresh eyes. You will be amazed at your renewed perspective. This
practice also ensures that the content and style of the essays is truly your own. It can be
tempting to have someone help you write your essay, but there is a fine line between someone
supporting your writing and someone doing your writing. College admissions teams read
thousands of essays, and they can quickly spot a personal statement that a student did not
write. That is certainly not the impression you want to leave with the admissions team.

3. Limit the number of people with whom you share your drafts.

It is completely normal to want feedback from others regarding the quality of your essay, but
too much feedback can be overwhelming and even contradictory. A plethora of comments
makes addressing the most important issues under revision challenging. Furthermore, when
you invite too many readers to review your work, they are likely to disagree about what changes
you should make to your essay. I recommend that you share your essay with no more than
one (1) or two (2) other people during the revision process. If you are working with a writing
specialist or consultant, you should prioritize their suggestions above all others. A writing
specialist has specific training in reviewing and assessing essays and brings a unique perspective
to the drafting, writing and rewriting process. The second reader could be anyone of your
choosing, for example, a parent, high school counselor or teacher. Choose your readers
judiciously, then trust their input.

4. Give yourself ample time to work on your essay.

There are several reasons why the personal statement feels so stressful. First, students
generally struggle to write, so they procrastinate starting on the essay. This isn’t because
students are lazy, but rather, because they fear that they won’t write a good essay. Since
writing takes time and patience, you can mitigate some of this stress by giving yourself sufficient
time to work on your essay. Last-minute work risks appearing unpolished and haphazard, so
give your essay the time and attention it deserves. You’ll be glad you did.

5. Revise, revise and revise again.

Writing is a process, and nobody writes perfectly on the first round. It is not uncommon for
student essays to go through multiple drafts. Don’t be discouraged if your essay isn’t perfect by
the second or third draft. Sometimes your essay just needs a bit more polish to reach its full
potential. Give it that time to flourish.

As this college application season begins, take a deep breath and approach your personal statement
with confidence. Your story is waiting to be told!

*A note about supplemental essays: If one (or more) of the colleges to which you are applying requires
supplemental essays, read them carefully. The supplements are designed to tell you something about
the culture of that particular school. They are composed for the purpose of determining how you can
contribute to that college community. Furthermore, the essays serve as a litmus test as to whether or not
you are a “good fit” for that institution. As you ponder the supplemental essays, pay close attention to
those that resonate with you. Conversely, take note of supplemental essays that are difficult for you to
write or if you feel you have nothing to say. You want to be sure that the institution’s mission and
purpose align with your own values, and you can glean a lot about the college’s/university’s principles by
how they structure their supplemental prompts.

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Kerra Lynn Gazerro, Author

Kerra Lynn Gazerro, PhD has a twenty-five year career in higher education. Kerra earned her doctorate in Italian from the University of Chicago, with a specialization in Italian women’s mysticism. Before joining Johnson and Wales University as an Instructional Designer, she served as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Italian Studies at Wheaton College in Norton, MA. Kerra is a writing specialist with Educational Advocates.

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