Does the College Essay/Personal Statement Really Count?

It can count for a lot, especially when several applicants present very similar qualifications and there appears to be no objective way of distinguishing one from another. In almost every case, the personal statement is intended to allow the reader to hear an applicant’s voice and to get some sense of the applicant’s personality. The essay reflects the care with which the application has been undertaken, and the choice of topic can help a reader have some sense of how he applicant would be able to respond to the program the college offers.

It is the one moment in the entire process in which the student has the chance to say, “Here I am. This is what I want to say about important issues.” It is a great opportunity for the student to distinguish himself or herself from other applicants, and yet, many essays are tortured, hackneyed, and tedious. What is the problem?

“I am a senior in High School. How can I possibly write about anything SIGNIFICANT? Who could possibly CARE about what I think? Nobody listens to me; why are they even asking?”

Over the years I have worked with thousands of college bound students trying to come to grips with the college essay. My job is to ask provocative questions in order to jog the imagination and to follow up with questions arising from the first, second, or third draft. It’s an easier task for some writers than for others, but when it is a sticky issue, it generally has to do with one of the following issues:

  1. The whole application process is uncertain and terrifying. The thought of writing personally is particularly anxiety inducing as it can feel as though the essay is a trap door, about to open under the writer’s feet. It’s hard to start under those circumstances, and the resulting essay can be so self-protective that the writer disappears behind the smokescreen.
  1. To the applicant it can seem obvious that there is a “right” answer or “right” essay to be presented. The writer tries to guess at what a college wants, but no guesswork is ever certain, so the essay is tentative, bland, and dull. Even the writer knows it’s dull.
  1. It can seem that the essay is almost TOO important. Grades and scores don’t tell the story; the writer has one shot (600 words or less) to sum up a lifetime and a lifetime’s dreams and aspirations.
  1. It can seem that the essay is COMPLETELY unimportant; everyone tells the applicant that grades and scores count for 90% of the admissions decisions.
  1. The writer doesn’t want to brag; it seems egocentric to write about oneself as if the applicant’s attainments are extraordinary.
  1. The writer doesn’t want to reveal weaknesses or shortcomings.
  1. It is incredibly difficult to write to a nameless, faceless admissions machine. Who is going to read the essay? Will the reader understand what I’m trying to say?
  1. The many guides to essay writing have presented so many examples that it can feel as if no essay can seem authentic or original.

There is no “right’ answer. No two readers will read an essay in the same way. Ordinary people sit at a table reading essay after essay. What they want more than anything is to connect with a real person telling a real story.

It takes a leap of faith for a writer to write authentically, writing to connect not to impress. I give writers a hundred prompts, hoping that a subject inspires a sentence or a paragraph that will become a vivid college essay. When a writer is stuck, I may suggest writing as if to a close friend or relative with whom you have been out of touch for several years. What does that friend need to know to understand who you are today?

In the end, writing an authentic and lively personal statement demonstrates the writer’s ability to meet a difficult challenge with some grace, perhaps with a sense of humor or genuine insight.   It is a challenge, in some cases a daunting challenge, but it may be the most significant opportunity the applicant has to speak to the application with his or her own voice.

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