Personal Statements: Common Mistakes

Personal StatementsI know several of you are thinking about getting a BA or an MA, both of which require personal statements. Since this topic was the most popular vote (go vote in the poll on the right for what you want to see next!), I figured I’d go ahead and address it. Personal statements for your bachelor’s and master’s can differ greatly but they usually share some similarities and some common mistakes that you should avoid.

Isn’t this a broad topic Kelly? How can you give me advice without knowing what I’m applying for?

Yes, this is a broad subject. However, there are patterns of mistakes that you should try to avoid. This post will look over the most common of these and how to avoid them. If you have any individual questions after reading this, feel free to comment on this post and I’ll address your concerns!

Mistake #1: Not answering the question

Several college applications give you a guiding question to answer for your application. For Bachelor’s students, you may be able to pick one from a few, for Master’s students, you may have to answer multiple questions. In either case, it’s easy to blend a couple of questions into one answer/essay. Unless you are explicitly told to answer multiple questions in one essay, make sure the essay(s) you write answer the given question ONLY. If you’re picking one of several questions, make sure you clearly answer the one you picked! Let me give you a prime example of this mistake. Let’s say you’re supposed to write three essays, and the questions are as follows:

  • “Detail experiences from your past that prepare you for the BA/MA program at (college name).”
  • “What assets do you bring to the BA/MA program at (college name)?”
  • “Discuss your academic history, including any shortcomings in your transcript.”

The first thing you need to figure out is what these questions really mean and how you will approach them. Let’s say you’re a pretty good student in the 3.0+ GPA bracket, that had one crappy semester (it’s actually much more common than you would think), or, for high schoolers, you have a B average which was brought down by a crappy year (senioritis anyone?). Let’s also say that you are fresh out of school and have no work experience except things you did in college/high school and possibly internships.

Questions 1 and 3 can overlap a bit if you fit the above criterion. Why? If you had a crappy semester (yes, I had one. I totally bombed) and improved yourself, that’s (a) an experience and (b) a shortcoming. However, if you’re writing all three essays, you don’t want to say the same thing in two essays, right? *Nod yes here* Good.  The next thing you need to ask yourself is “Which is this more appropriate for?” Clearly your troubled academic past is more appropriate in question 3. Also, if you’re only picking one question, you don’t want to blend two questions together. The experiences you will want to highlight in question one are professional/group experiences. Were you captain of a team? First chair flute? Editor for the school paper? A tutor? Peer educator? Anything that is construed as leadership experience is always great to highlight. Question 2 brings me to the next topic of this post:

Mistake #2: Cliches

This is a huge (Repeat: HUGE) mistake that I, myself, have fallen victim too. Cliches are cliches for a reason. You don’t want to talk about your “thirst for knowledge” because (a) admissions have heard it before, and (b) it shows an inexperienced writer who cannot formulate his or her own way of coming up with things. So let’s say you are like me and really enjoy learning and sitting in a classroom. Don’t tell admissions, SHOW them. What are the things that drive your love of knowledge? For me, it’s sharing the knowledge. I love teaching and tutoring. Why do you think I made this site? I wanted to share my knowledge with others. “Sharing knowledge” is trite though, so I would show admissions how I’ve done that–probably by telling them about this site! If you have a knack for something like teaching, that’s great for question #2–it’s an asset. However, avoid phrases that have been heard before, things like “natural born leader” or anything with the word “yearn.” 😛

Mistake #3: Not being yourself

I know you think every college wants Bob the Anglo-Saxon from that super-elite private school who has a smile perfect for Colgate commercials, but that’s not true. They NEED diversity to survive; otherwise, the mean diversity monster will eat them! (Seriously, I’m just kidding, but they do want diversity.) You don’t want to paint yourself as something other than what you are, especially if there is a chance you will be interviewed for the college. And let’s say you are Bob the Anglo-Saxon and you’re afraid you’re not diverse enough to get into a college–let your experiences show the individuality beyond your skin or gender. If you try to be someone else, they’ll know. Don’t ask me how, but admissions counselors can sense when you’re being false. This is also important if you don’t have a guiding question. Don’t write a melodramatic story (or cliched! :-D), just be yourself.

Final Thoughts

These mistakes are very, very common. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to work on your personal statement. I suggest a month or more. Write the essay, put it away for a week, and then look at it for revisions. Giving yourself time between revisions will give you a clear frame of mind to rework your paper. I also suggest writing the paper “you want” to write, then ripping it up, throwing it out, and writing the essay that best works for the school you’re applying to. Good luck!

Posted in Writing Wisdom.

One Comment

  1. I just wrote 4 essays for 2 MBA programs. It is very easy to fall pray to the mistakes mentioned above. Just remember the main thing is to stand out, not in the “oh man this guy is crazy” way, but rather in the “oh man this guy is amazing we really want him in our program” way.

    The most important thing is to focus on those things that DIFFERENTIATE yourself from the competition. Bob the Anglo Saxon may from an elite private school with an amazing GPA, but what else did he do? Was he captain of the football team? A leader in extracurriculars? That is the sort of stuff you want to highlight.

    One more thought on this topic. As Kelly said there are many different types of essays that schools will ask you to write. For example, 1 MBA program I was applying to required 3 essays (2 pages per essay). The other program required 1 essay with a maximum of 750 words and asked me to address all of the same questions of 3-essay MBA program (in a page and a half!!). Sometimes there is room to be artistic with your words; however, if you are faced with a nominal maximum word requirement try to cut out “fat” by eliminating words that don’t add value to the essay.

    And yes, Kelly did read and offer my suggestions for improving my essays. Consequently, I got into both of my schools 😉

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