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Crafting the Personal Statement
By Ijaaz Jackaria
Essay writing is often seen as a long tiresome process. You can spend hours waiting for an inspiration to come and you can spend days brainstorming possible topics. Even when you think you’ve finally nailed down that one elusive but brilliant idea, there is the equally daunting task of putting it down into words, reviewing, and editing. For those about to embark on the journey of applying to US colleges, this is how writing a personal statement appears to be. However, rest assured that we have the tips and tricks to make the process a lot more efficient, enjoyable, and truly enriching.
Wait a minute… What is a personal statement again?
Well, it is one of the major components of a college application alongside school transcripts, standardized test scores, recommendation letters, extracurricular activities, and supplemental essays. It is a 650-word long essay that is required by most of the universities that you will be applying to. You’ll need to write a personal statement for those universities on the CommonApp - the online portal through which you apply to US colleges. Universities such as MIT and the University of California have their own separate portals and do not require a personal statement; they have their own supplemental essay prompts.
I see… what should I be writing about in my personal statement?
The easiest way to go about it is to understand (1) what is expected of you in a personal statement and (2) what things you should not include in there. Once you know your frame of work, then you can move on to decide which topic you want to write about.
1. There are two things that your essay should demonstrate, namely the mastery of standard American English language and your personal growth. You should be able to set the tone of the essay, use appropriate vocabularies to build the imagery and metaphors, and avoid redundancy. As for personal growth, your essay should be dynamic and portray a character development - you are the protagonist.
2. Your essay should not be directed toward any specific universities nor describe your intended field of study in college; these are supplemental essay topics and there should not be any overlaps between the two. It should also not fall into the cliches of the identity conflict when you moved to Dubai - everyone here in Dubai has pretty much the same story. You should avoid talking about how a family member greatly influenced you - otherwise, the personal statement might end up being about them.
Okay… I kinda know what I shouldn’t be doing, but what should I actually be writing?
The short answer is literally anything - at least in theory. You would want to start thinking about a time which was pivotal in your life, a time where you accomplished something non-academic, or a time where you felt strong emotions: fear, sadness, excitement, conflict, you name it! You can talk about big themes such as challenging a stereotype to “mundane” things such as fixing the fan in your room. Everything is welcome as long as you are able to relate how this event impacted you on a personal level. The following are personal statement prompts from the CommonApp for the 2019-2020 application cycle. As you’ll see, they have very broad themes but they can give you a better idea about what to write in a personal statement.
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
That’s hard! I feel that there is nothing interesting to talk about in my life...
C’mon, you are a teenager in the 21st century… I am sure you have exciting stories to tell. Do not overthink and try to get to the trip-to-the-moon kind of story; just think of what matters to you and how you choose to define yourself. Think of an apple - a pretty common fruit, there are thousands of them and they look the same, i.e. there is nothing special about it. However, what if I tell you to think carefully about it? Was it not an apple that fell on Newton while he was theorizing about gravity? Was it not the fruit that caused the downfall of Adam in biblical literature? Is it not the most popular tech company? Is it not what keeps the doctor away? And the list goes on...
You too are the same, you just need to rethink who you think are and who you choose to be. And that’s how you nail down a personal statement topic!
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