Mastering the art of the personal essay

Lisa Nguyen, Staff Writer

Maintaining grades and extracurricular activities as well as taking the SATs and ACTs are just some of the major priorities of a typical college-bound senior.  The time has come to focus on what may be one of the most important concerns yet: the personal statement.

Many find the college application process to be stressful, especially the personal statements that are required for UC applications.  A personal statement is a short essay or story about oneself written in response to a given prompt.  Although colleges do not base their decisions solely on personal statements, they are a significant component to the application.

“I think personal statements are overwhelming and intimidating,” senior Henry Nguyen said.

Although personal statements may seem daunting, students should not fear writing them.  Personal statements are meant to reveal a better understanding of an applicant’s personality and character; they allow students to express things that cannot be conveyed by the simple information in the application.

“A personal statement gives yourself a face to the university,” AVID teacher Jason Johnson said.  “It’s a way to show them the real you.”

Many students understand the importance of personal statements and take advantage of it.

“The personal statement gives me a chance to show who I am and highlight my qualities and strengths,” senior Jaspreet Nijjar said.  Nijjar plans to write one of his personal statements about how his lifestyle changes have shaped him as a person.

“Overcoming my failures at the gym gave me motivation, dedication, and perseverance,” Nijjar said.  “It gave me a new mentality to face future challenges of going to college and medical school. I want to show colleges the new mindset that I have gained through my experiences and how it has helped me become a better student.”

Moreover, the personal statement can be a crucial aspect for students who do not have the best grades or test scores.

“It’s beneficial to people with lower SAT scores and GPA,” senior Tommy Le said.  “It gives colleges another perspective than just academics.”

Still, the personal statement’s favorable intentions are not enough to ease students’ minds.

“I want to take my time on it, but at the same time it’s stressful and I just want to get it over with,” senior Meagan Blachly said.

Writing the personal statement can be a difficult task, but Blachly has the right idea of how to approach it.  Taking the time to carefully write the essay is key.  It is advised that students do not procrastinate and wait until the last minute to write their personal statements.  Students should ensure that they have sufficient time to revise several times and to proofread carefully.

If students are stuck on where to start, they can try brainstorming before writing to remind themselves of any special skills, activities, experiences, honors or anything that shows who they are as an individual.  These unique characteristics can be illustrated in the essays.

“Use the application to tell a compelling story about who you are and what you will bring to the college,” columnist Steve Rosen wrote in “Tips for a Great App for College” published in “The Record.”

Rosen summarizes tips from college counselors Anna Ivey and Alison Cooper Chilsom. Ivey and Chilsom are also authors of  a new book called “How to Prepare a Standout College Application.” They recommend students focus on portraying four main significant characteristics: passion, talent, initiative and impact.  Students should try to include these qualities about themselves in order to demonstrate that they are a strong applicant.

A common tip given to students is to write about themselves, not about their mother.  This simply means that students should focus on themselves rather than describing the hardships that their relatives or anyone else has overcome.

Another simple tip to follow when tackling the personal statement is to start off with a strong hook to grab the reader’s attention.  Using rich details can keep the reader engaged in the essay and make the student’s story more appealing and memorable.

“Support what you say with vivid personal experiences,” AP English teacher Lynda Farrar said.  “You want to show rather than tell what kind of person and student you are.”

Students should keep in mind the other essays that the colleges are receiving in addition to their own essay.  Students’ essays should be unique and demonstrate their own personal angle to their story.
“[Colleges] are inundated with boring essays that all start to sound the same: ‘How my grandfather’s dying words changed my life…’ ‘How my trip to Mexico for the weekend opened my eyes to diverse cultures…’ ‘How my role as [student body president or volleyball captain or news editor] taught me the value of teamwork and leadership…’,” said founder of SHINE: Education Consulting, Dr. Bridget Hoida.

A 1994 Bear Creek alumna and author, Hoida is currently a professor of composition at Saddleback College, and has taught writing at various levels, from high schools to universities like USC and UC Irvine.  She has successfully assisted students in gaining acceptance into premier universities and professional schools since 1998.  SHINE is dedicated to admission counseling and essay writing strategies.

Hoida’s point is to avoid clichés and personal statements that anyone can write.  “How are you different? What is the story only you can tell?” she asks.

Hoida also advises students to be honest and sincere.  “Never, ever lie, exaggerate or otherwise ‘invent’ your life,” Hoida said.  “You are fascinating. Tell your story.”

The personal statement seems like a lot to take in, but students should not feel intimidated.

“It’s one of the essays that has the fewest rules,” Johnson said.  “It’s about you, and it’s always easiest to write about yourself because no one knows you better than you do.”