How to Perfect the Personal Statement – By Not Making It Perfect! – College Bound Mentor Podcast #4

Welcome to the College Bound Mentor podcast! Each episode, hear trends, case studies, and interviews with students who have gone through it all

This is Episode #4 and you’ll hear how to perfect the Personal Statement and our interview with a student, Alexandra, who shares her experience writing a stellar Personal Statement. Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast spots – follow and leave a 5-star review if you’re enjoying the show!

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College Bound Mentor Podcast Episode #4: How to Perfect the Personal Statement – By Not Making It Perfect!

There are lots and lots of myths about the Personal Statement. What should you actually believe? In the first part of this episode, we detail what a Personal Statement is, how to choose a topic to write about, and how to be yourself. We then feature an interview with a student, Alexandra, who shares her experience writing a stellar Personal Statement. Hear how she chose between 2 very different essay topics, how to showcase your skills in your essays, and her advice for fellow students as they approach their Personal Statement. This episode covers everything from the Personal Statement to essay topics. Here’s a small sample of what you will hear in this episode:

  • What were some interesting topics students wrote about this season?
  • How do you “be yourself” in your Personal Statement?
  • What are some myths and truths about the Personal Statement?
  • How did Alexandra feel about writing her Personal Statement?
  • What is the Personal Statement?
  • Which topic did Alexandra think she would go with?
  • What advice does she have for fellow students getting started on their Personal Statements?
  • How did she feel after the brainstorming process?

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Check out the episode and show notes below for much more detail.

Show Notes

  • How to Perfect the Personal Statement – By Not Making It Perfect!
    • [0:18] Welcome to College Bound Mentor
    • [0:27] Lisa Bleich, Abby Power, Stefanie Forman
    • [0:43] What were some interesting topics students wrote about this season?
    • [3:12] What are some myths about the Personal Statement?
    • [4:02] What is the Personal Statement?
    • [7:15] How do you “be yourself” in your Personal Statement?
    • [11:52] COVID-19
    • Interview with Alexandra
    • [14:48] How did Alexandra feel about writing her Personal Statement?
    • [15:38] How did she feel after the brainstorming process?
    • [16:28] What are the 2 topics she was considering?
    • [17:42] Did she ever think about how her list-making reflects on her as a person?
    • [19:45] Which topic did she think she would go with?
    • [24:45] What advice does she have for fellow students getting started on their Personal Statements?
    • Truths about the Personal Statement
    • [27:19] What are some truths about the Personal Statement?
    • [28:31] Subscribe to College Bound Mentor on your favorite podcast platform and learn more at
    • Theme Song: “Happy Optimistic Americana” by BDKSonic

What is the College Bound Mentor podcast?

Lisa, Abby, and Stefanie know college. They also know students. With over 30 years combined experience mentoring young people, they’ll show you why understanding yourself is the key to finding the right college. Each episode, hear trends, case studies, and interviews with students who have gone through it all – giving you valuable insight to survive the college application process and beyond. Hosted by Lisa Bleich, Abby Power, and Stefanie Forman, Partners of College Bound Mentor.


Please note: this transcript is not 100% accurate.

Alexandra 0:01
Just write all of your ideas down and just like, keep track of them, come up with a bunch

Lisa Bleich 0:07
Hey CBMers, welcome back to College Bound Mentor, where we help you survive the college application process and beyond. Were your co hosts,

Abby Power 0:26
Lisa, Abby, and Stefanie.

Lisa Bleich 0:28
And today we’re talking about how to perfect the personal statement by not making it perfect. So what were some interesting topics that some of your students wrote about from last season.

Stefanie Forman 0:39
So this year, I learned about fire throwing was something I had no idea was a thing. There’s a proper name, I think that I am not quoting correctly. So anyway, I had a student who had a fear of fire because they had an apartment fire. And they also were questioning their identity. And they overcame this fear. And they overcame some of this identity woes, by becoming a fire thrower and gaining confidence in that and taking pride in that so and was also really poetic. So it was really fun seeing how she, it was like a puzzle, just piecing everything together. So

Lisa Bleich 1:19
how about you, Abby,

Abby Power 1:21
I had one young man who was a rock climber who wrote about his fascination with lichen. That was super interesting. And I learned a lot. And another really interesting one was, I had a young woman who wrote about her habit of writing lists for everything, to give us insight into sort of what she was thinking about on a daily basis. I thought that one was really interesting, too. So pretty diverse topics all across the board, though.

Lisa Bleich 1:49
Yeah, I had a student who leaned into the ugly and she used that as a metaphor for how she used her improv and her public speaking, the the uglier she became, the more confident she became. So that really became a metaphor for that. And then I had a student who was just a really nice young man. And he wrote about how he connected with this Ukrainian student through Linkin Park. So that was kind of fun. I learned about a new a new, yeah, new band. Yeah. That’s great, that he put it together. So it was really, really fun. And I think what the other thing that was a big theme on that was that, you know, all of these, this idea of, it has to be a perfect statement. So let’s talk about some myths that students have, because we hear them all the time, that you can’t write about a certain topic. So the first myth is I have to have overcome hardship. I have to be unique or extraordinary. I have to be a great writer, I have to use big words, I have to sound smart, I have to list everything that I have accomplished in my essays, my strengths, my community service, my leadership, my accolades, my uncle and aunt who think I’m great, I have to embellish or lie about what I’ve done to seem impressive. And I can’t write about divorce deaths, sports camp, mental health, learning differences, or any other list of things that I can’t talk about. So what do you think about those myths? By

Abby Power 3:14
definition, the personal statement is personal. So generalizations general rules don’t even really make sense. We shouldn’t be applying them. So I think you can write about anything that’s personal to you, that gives the college’s insight into who you are. And it does not have to be extraordinary in terms of a challenge you’ve overcome, or an accomplishment you’ve had, it can be something as ordinary as writing a list or doing improv or you know, what have you. So I feel like just to start with, it’s not productive to look at rules about writing the personal statement.

Stefanie Forman 3:56
I totally Yeah. And I was also going to say, if we can back up for a moment, can we explain what the personal statement is just because there’s so many different writing elements with the college application process. So it’ll be real quick, but the personal statement, it’s part of the Common Application, which most colleges and universities take, it’s a 650 word, essay, Max, there are seven prompts. And the seven prompt is basically write whatever you want. So we don’t even tell our students what the prompts are, because whatever they write fits at least two or three prompts again, that seven one being you know, pick a topic of your choice. So just to start with that. And the other thing I wanted to say is that Lisa and I we always reference one of the abbey students because Abby said you know, really roundabout whatever you want and it’s all about authentic voice, but she had a student write about why a deviled egg was was was the best snack food. So anytime I show a student that like the light bulb goes off. They’re like, Oh, we really can write about anything as long as we’re passionate about it. And as long as it’s true to me, and so I just love that anecdote of when I have students who are really stuck, I always referenced that deviled egg essay. I do too.

Abby Power 5:15
That was that was a classic. That was a classic, classic essay. And I’ve read it so many times. And I still think it was great. And it’s interesting, because we were, we were just at a conference. And that was something that was really interesting that came out. And not that surprising, but in the sea of great inflation and tests optional. And so many things that are not in the application are harder to perceive, or harder discern, and the application, the essay has become really important. And they really want to hear your voice. And we hear that all the time. What does that mean? And I feel like a lot of times parents, or in the era of group sourcing to write an essay right group think they don’t want to have everybody else writing your essay, they don’t want something super polished, they don’t want something that sounds like a 45 year old. And they can tell the difference. And that was something that I thought was interesting this year, they said, if we say something to polish, we just we just take it out, we don’t even really pay it any mind. They’ve read 1000s and 1000s of essays. And they know what a 17 year old voice sounds like. So that’s another thing that was really important or critical that we got from that is don’t over Edit, don’t make it sound like a professional piece, because that’s not really what they’re looking for. A lot of times, the other thing that’s interesting is it a lot of times a personal statement, topic is not the only piece of writing. So if you want to talk about your love for a particular academic area, that might be better suited for one of the supplements. So it’s really important to understand all of the writing and the whole application, each piece of the of the application. And each writing supplement and the personal statement, tell a story that complements and connects. And that’s the part that’s really important about the writing. And the personal statement is the only opportunity for you to just talk about anything that you want to talk about with a lot of specifics so that it shows who you are as a person. Great. We also always get the question of be yourself. Okay, what does that actually mean? What does that mean to a 17 year old or a parent? Be yourself?

Stefanie Forman 7:24
Oh, I think tea? That’s a great question. But a lot of times, they don’t know. And it can be so daunting, so And some students they come in they’re writers, it’s natural for them, and they just go for it. But a lot of students and this is no judgement of their intelligence, or the story that they have to tell, but they just don’t know where to start. Because that’s not what they think about. So you know, something that we do, which is super helpful, because it’s hard for all of us to talk about ourselves and to be reflective and to be honest, is we do a brainstorming session with them. But But even before the brainstorming session, we have them think about, you know, we break it down, we started really easy. We do five adjectives that describe you the best, either like close friends, or a teacher or a parent, we talk about strengths and weaknesses. But what we really focus on after that is about experiences, or talents, or what am I missing is an interest interested in dress

Lisa Bleich 8:27
values, things that you really value? Because at the end of that brainstorming sessions, typically a two hour, it’s always a two hour plus brainstorming session, you start to see themes that emerge. And everyone says, oh, what should I write my essay about? We don’t know, until we’ve done that self reflection with the student and ask them questions about themselves and have them really think about what are the key drivers? You know, what are they thinking about? What are the things that go through their mind? What motivates them? How are they interacting with other people? Is there a driving force that informs the way they interact with other people? How do they solve problems? What are some of the ways that you they do that? Are they someone that’s very quick? Are they someone that collaborates with other people? Do they have different ways that they do that? That’s really what they the goal of the personal statement is to get at those questions. And that’s what’s so hard if you haven’t taken the time to reflect and think I was just brainstorming with a young man, this is for medical school. And he was having a really hard time answering one of one of the many, many many questions that you have to write radicals is he had exhausted? And one of the questions. It was about a diversity like the way that you think and he’s a white male from grew up in Minnesota. He doesn’t have a lot of diversity on the surface. But when we dug down I kept asking him well, what what are the ways that you were raised? What were your lived experiences? What were some Have mantras that you have like your values, the way that you thought about things. And one of the things that came out was that he never watched TV because his parents would always say that’s a waste of time. That’s a waste of time. So it was always doing something productive. And he was always working hard. And he always felt like he had to be responsible, and doing something that was creating value for himself or for other people. And that’s what was driving him to become a doctor. So it’s that under the surface, there’s always a reason why somebody is doing something. And that has to be shown through the personal statement. I love that

Abby Power 10:34
because it’s probably something that he thought was such a small thing, that he wasn’t allowed to watch TV. So it is, it is true that through those deeper discussions, you realize even those small moments are small things that maybe are so habitual to you, that you don’t think about. But you really have to think about those things that what motivates you, what makes you who you are, and what do you need for colleges to understand about you? Are you going to come to college and be their campus and be a collaborator, a creative a leader, you have to tell them who you are and what you’re going to be able to accomplish on their campuses. That’s what they’re looking for, oh,

Stefanie Forman 11:14
and how that has been associated right to their personal growth that they’ve made and the personal growth that they’ll continue to make and their future communities.

Lisa Bleich 11:23
It’s all about connecting it with something that you’ve already done to show that you can’t just say, I’m a leader, and I’m gonna come on campus and be a leader, you have to show that through leadership that you’ve already done, impact that you’ve already made connected with how you’re going to move that going forward. When we were at Yale, we met this young woman who was a first generation student was my tour guide. And she went to an under resourced High School during COVID. So there wasn’t a lot of things that she could do. But she had started a community service club that was still it was still going on when she graduated. And so she had left a legacy there. And one of the things that was a driving force for her was that she could figure things out. It wasn’t easy for her when she got to Yale, but she knew how to ask for help. She knew how to access resources, she knew that she could learn. And she was in a place where there was a lot of support for her. And she took advantage of it. So that’s the type of things that you have to be able to show to a university is what you’re going to be doing and how you’re going to take advantage. Both of the resources that are available and the people that are around you. Right doesn’t have to be extraordinary. But you need to show what is your unique way and the way that you approach problems and ideas. So we have an interview with a student who wrote her essay and Abby’s talks to her about her process and how she came to her essay and how it didn’t start off in the best way but how she ultimately got to what she really wants to write about.

Abby Power 13:02
So we’ve talked a lot about how students tend to be anxious about the personal statement, because they feel like they have to be completely unique. And or tell an earth shattering story that’s going to impress admissions reps. So today, we’re going to speak with one of our clients Alexandra, who’s headed off next year to her Ed, one choice school, which is a top 25 school. And we’re going to talk to her about her experience going through the essay process. One of the reasons that I’m excited to speak with Alexandra in addition to the fact that she wrote an incredibly delightful essay that is just like a pleasure to read, but is that she did a fabulous job of putting herself on the page, and allowing the admissions reps to get to know her. Also, she started out with two possible choices for her essay. And you could argue that one was more substantive and might have been the obvious choice. And the other was a less traditional topic. And she ended up choosing the latter the less traditional topic, which was more fun and really did a better job of reflecting her personality and who she is. So we’re going to talk to her about how she came to that decision and the process overall and how she felt about the whole thing. So thanks Alexandra, how are you? I’m good. How are you? Doing okay, gearing up for essay season. So thinking this is very top of mind. So I just wanted to start by asking you how you were going through this almost a year ago to the day you were gearing up to to get going with your essay. So if you can sort of put yourself back in that mindset. I’m wondering how you were feeling about the idea of writing your personal statement.

Alexandra 14:57
I was feeling okay, I think I didn’t Following understand what it was I knew, there’s this one essay, you have to write that all the colleges you apply to will see and read. And I knew it was important, but I didn’t really know what goes in it. Even when my sister did her essay writing, I never read hers, I never was really involved in that process. So I was feeling okay, mostly because I didn’t really have that many expectations about it. That makes

Abby Power 15:28
sense. And then once we started brainstorming ideas, and you started to understand what this was going to be all about, did you feel more anxious, or more excited? Or more relaxed? How did you feel as the process got going? I

Alexandra 15:47
felt more excited just because I realized it would be the kind of writing that I liked doing the most just more, you know, personal narrative essay, where I can really just like, throw my thoughts on the page. That’s what I like doing the most. So I got really excited to write it, because I thought I would have a lot of fun doing it.

Abby Power 16:06
I love it. Okay, good. And I think in the end, you kind of did, there were some anxious moments. But in general, you did have a really good time, which was one of the best was the most fun things to watch. So can you talk about, can you tell us about the two topics that you are considering?

Alexandra 16:26
Yeah, so the first one was about building community through my work at our school newspaper, and just about certain stories that I’ve written, that made me feel connected to the community and helped other community members feel connected to the student body as well. And then the second was about all of the lists that I make, and the ones that are more obscure than my to do list that really have a lot more to do with how I process events, how I think of things, you know, how I categorize certain moments, songs, books, things like that. Yeah, so those are the two and I ended up writing the second,

Abby Power 17:12
right, so you’re a list maker, and you made you wrote about all the different kinds of lists that you make and have made historically, over the last few years. How those lists help you reflect on your past experiences, and even grow as a person. Before we started the process, when you thought about your list making, did you really consider it in the bigger picture? Or were they just something that you loved to do and keep and read? Did you ever think about how they reflect on you as a person?

Alexandra 17:52
I think a little just because I started doing it when I was in middle school where I would create these really big, fake to do lists were the items on it were just like tasks, I wanted to try out things that I wanted to try. It was like learning to play the piano learning to juggle like, it wasn’t, oh, go get a car wash things like that, that are more like to do it was more abstract to dues I guess it was more like to learns, I guess is a better way to phrase it.

Abby Power 18:22
I love that. Did you realize that before you went through the essay writing process.

Alexandra 18:28
I think a little just as I would look back and read my old lists, I’d be like, Oh, this is really interesting that I’m still trying to do this. When I was younger, if I hadn’t gotten something by now I probably would have just given up. But so I think a little but I honestly do think like writing the essay made me actually like verbalize it and put those thoughts into the forefront of my mind. It might have always been there. But I don’t think I like fully realized that until I started writing.

Abby Power 19:01
I love that. So if you think about the two topics, the one where you would talk about what you contributed to the newspaper and helping to build the community at your school. Community Building is definitely something that colleges are interested in. And if you think about the second one, you are able to show how your thought process how you reflect how you’ve grown as a person in a really entertaining actually way. So they’re both pretty appealing. And they both probably would have gotten the job done. So how did you choose the list making, which I would argue is a tougher choice because it’s a less traditional topic, and it’s not as meaty maybe it honestly

Alexandra 19:48
just came down to writing it. I initially thought I wanted to go with the first option. Because I was like, I had the assumption that it would be maybe easier to write All right, I was wrong. It just wasn’t really working. And I’ve always said that when I’m writing something for school for whatever that’s important. It’s supposed to be like reflective of me. I want to be like having fun. I want to have fun while I’m writing it, like anytime I have to give a speech, I think if I’m not having fun writing this, I’m not gonna put it out. And so I just kind of realized, Okay, I can’t get myself to write this as like not essay, this personal statement. And that definitely means something.

Abby Power 20:37
I think that’s exactly right. That’s unbelievably insightful. Because we see a lot of students struggle to write on a topic. And I think you’re exactly right. That means it’s not your topic. That’s not what you should be writing about. And then I very vividly remember, once you really sat down to write about the lists, I mean, it just flowed out of you. You know, you had so much to say, and then it was edited over time to make sure that you said exactly what you wanted to tell the colleges. But I remember you struggling to write one, and then just with a big smile on your face, putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard on the other one. So I think that that is, it’s amazing that you that you realize that. So you had also said something really interesting to me about your essay, which was you felt like when you were writing it that you were speaking to the admissions rep. Yeah. Yeah. So it was really your voice coming through and telling them exactly what you wanted to tell them?

Alexandra 21:41
Yeah. And I honestly think, choosing a topic that initially, if I was just pitching it, when we seem like not the worst choice, but like, I don’t know, I feel like if I just pitched the two topics, most people would want to go for the first one, myself included, because clearly I’d like that. But I think choosing the topic that would maybe be a little bit harder to uncover, and is also a little more unique, really did help me and having that voice come through where it felt like I was just talking, because it took more work to actually say something with substance, I guess, because the topic maybe on the surface didn’t have that. But to me, it did. And so I think having to show that is what made it come off as more purely me because the topic was just so specific to me and my individual growth, rather than just talking about community, which is great. But I feel like it’s something a lot more people can maybe relate to, whereas the list making is very, like a very specific way that shows how I’ve grown. That

Abby Power 23:09
I think that’s amazing. I think that’s exactly right. The first topic seemed like it should have been pretty easy to write about, because it was, it seems so substantial. It was it was an accomplishment. You know, it was one of your accomplishments. And one of your core accomplishments. By the way. The other one, you really had to dig down deep, super deep into all of the different events, accomplishments, relationships that you developed and written about in your lists, and really kind of work hard to communicate how those have helped you to evolve. I mean, you did such a beautiful job. I am going to just read one little line, just one, okay. I don’t want to, you know, embarrass you. This is one of the lines in the first paragraph. This is not a grocery list made to be thrown away. The items I jot down are based on my curiosities, not my obligations. And then it says, you know, through my years of bliss makings, I’ve learned many lessons. I think that that’s exactly right. You develop this way with not even without maybe even knowing it for sure to track your growth. And then you were able to reflect on it and really use it to show the college reps who exactly you are I just everyone who read it just said, Oh my gosh, that’s so her, you know, which is really, really what you’re going for. All right. So do you have any advice for students who are getting started on their personal statements?

Alexandra 24:53
I guess just write down a bunch of ideas. Even if you think they’re going to be bad. Put them down, talk them through with people. Because the more you talk about it and think about certain ideas, the more you’re actually going to see what you can do with them. And maybe some of the ideas that you initially think you want to write about, you’re just having a harder time talking about them and explaining the significance. So I would say, just write all of your ideas down and just like, keep track of them, come up with a bunch. Think about experiences that you’ve had, maybe things that you’ve done, but not in like, just like the shell of, oh, this is something I’ve done, but how it relates to you personally, and like how much it actually matters to who you are now, who you were, when you started, things like that. And then I guess just if you have an idea you like, even if you think it’s not going to be good, try writing it. Don’t be scared for it to be bad, because you’re never going to know what can come from it if you don’t start. So that’s my advice.

Abby Power 26:13
I think that’s fantastic. And in your case, again, with your sort of less traditional essay topic, you did come up against some resistance from people who read it thinking that it might not be serious enough, substantive enough. And I just love how you advocated for yourself, and fought for what you believed in. And obviously, it worked really well, which was not a surprise, because as I said before, it was really a delightful essay. Super insightful, super intelligent, super clever. We really all loved it. So I think that’s all I’ve got. And I want to thank you for doing this. I really, really, really appreciate your time. And it’s always so great to see you.

Alexandra 26:57
Thank you. It’s great to see you too.

Lisa Bleich 27:03
That was a really amazing interview. I’m so glad that you were able to bring that to us, Abby. So let’s talk about what are some truths. We talked about myths, but what are some truths? So what do you let’s talk about what are some truths in essays?

Stefanie Forman 27:15
So colleges read essays for character? Like who, right that that quote that cliche quote about what you’re doing when when no one’s watching? So are you going to be a good classmate, a good friend, a good roommate, business partner, etc? Are you going to be someone that people want to be surrounded by? And you’re going to make people better? What motivates you? What are you thinking about? How do you interact with others? How do you solve problems, which is something that we’ve mentioned earlier? There. So they’re more concerned about something, how something has shaped you, and what you will do with that experience than the actual experience itself?

Lisa Bleich 27:52
Right. And I think that’s when it comes to if somebody’s worried about talking about a hardship or mental health, it’s not that you can’t talk about that. But if you’re going to talk about that the focus has to be 80%, about how it shaped you, and maybe 20% about the incident itself, because that’s really what they want to understand. And if it’s something that was really and sometimes that information might be better used in one of the supplements or in the Additional Information section on the application. So we hope that we’ve given you some good tips on how to write your essays and how to think about that. Thank you so much for coming on to College Bound Mentor and thank you, CBMers, for tuning in. To catch more episodes of College Bound Mentor, make sure to Follow or Subscribe on your favorite podcast platform and tell a fellow parent or student about the podcast. To learn more, visit Until next time, you got this!

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