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Your College Application Personal Statement Chapter 3: Selecting a Topic

Three of the four qualities we listed in our last blog chapter – maturity, self-reflection, and intellectual curiosity – must be combined well in order to be effective; your essay must tell a story whose conclusion demonstrates the fourth quality, the impact as expressed through personal reflection. You are not simply telling a story; you are demonstrating your observational powers at this stage in your life – specifically, how your story affected who you have become.

The story you ultimately choose to tell – the story on whose framework you’ll build a presentation of your personality for the admissions reader – is probably right there in front of you, so to speak.

And what might those “stories” be? What could they describe? Here are some examples:

  • The moments before ascending a high-dive platform

  • A drive from Washington, D.C. to Manhattan

  • Lost in a foreign city

  • Chinese calligraphy as a reflection of a way of thinking

  • Assertiveness on the theater stage

  • The debate I lost

  • Revelations in my grandmother’s garden

  • Icing a cake

  • A failed lab experiment

Details, details, details. Write the name of that street; name that piano étude in F sharp; describe groupers and sea bass on the blue-green reef; have the reader visualize motes of dust from a pale-red dirt road; smell the wet shoes descending the subway stairs; hear the dull, omnipresent sound of a slow evening surf; feel the athlete’s pumping heart; and so on and so forth. Get into your moment. Sweat beneath the spotlight. Evoke the sights, sounds, and smells that might surround your memories. Bring the reader into your story with your vivid descriptions; let her feel what you’re feeling, see what you’re seeing, as if the reader could close her eyes and put herself into your shoes.

In this essay about a stumbling Special Olympics runner, a moment is captured:

All he could see was that one step at a time. You couldn’t help but be stirred by his resolve. I began to cheer him on. I made him smile and even laugh, and he actually lifted his head from looking down to looking ahead. My twin sister’s ESP must have been working because when I turned around, there she was, walking and cheering with us. We continued to walk with Craig, and waved over a group of nearby volunteers to join us. Soon, there was a small army, rooting for a tenacity that touched all of us. As we rounded the track, we caught the attention of the people in the bleachers who were packing up to go home. As they saw what was happening, they started to stand, a few at time, then more, then groups, and their chants for Craig grew louder like rolls of thunder. As Craig finally crossed the finish line, we all lost it with tears of joy. Strangers were hugging each other, and everyone was rushing up to high-five Craig.

In the end, this student reflected on the dynamics of group interaction.

Here’s another:

At my brother’s Cooperstown baseball tournament, I caught a $125,000 bracelet. Neither gold nor silver, with no real monetary value in the silicone wristband, the bracelet had, instead, value that could only be measured by the eight-year commitment it represented. Players from the previous summer had started a club in Minnesota and were heaving these club bracelets into the stands. This nine-year-old was going to catch one no matter what. In fact, I sprawled across two of my family members to make the play and grab one. At the time, I was content with a free souvenir to wear home. I had no idea what this bracelet would ultimately signify.

Noteworthy is the anticipation that’s produced in the last sentence above.

Now, a third excerpt that’s rich in detail:

Eons passed before we recorded the ending scene. With a nod from the director, I recited the concluding lines in its fifth take. With another nod, Uncle Ben collapsed on cue and was dragged off screen. We held our breath as we reviewed the take, wondering if it would be a wrap. To our amazement, the scene was spotless. For the arduous task of editing in Adobe Premier, we spent hours tuned out from the outer world, splicing takes, adding transitions, and perfecting timing of entrances learning the software skills along the way. With everything rendered, we had our actual video.

Makes you wonder what the rest of this excerpt was about, doesn’t it? In this instance, we appreciate a learning experience, a chance to see the past through the lens of the present.

The word or character limit of the personal statement is pretty reasonable. About 500 words should be a marker for you, a goal to shoot for, although you can probably go a bit beyond. But don’t count as you draft your piece. Applying limitations will come later. It’s actually much easier to pare down an essay that’s over the limit, and you may actually cut quite a bit from your initial draft as you refine your writing.

The opening sentence, often referred to as the “hook,” is another topic altogether, one that we’ll address in Chapter 4: Writing a Great Opening Line. It’ll be fun. You’ll see.

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