The Personal Statement: Questions to Ask Before Writing

Written by Lisa Bleich.

As we meet with our clients to brainstorm for their personal statements (or college essays), it reminds us how much we enjoy delving into the depths of our clients and helping them think about how best to tell their story.  We are always amazed by their unique experiences and how they approach their lives differently depending on their interests or background.

However, it is also the most challenging part of the application process for most students.  Up until now the bulk of their writing has been in the form of a non-fiction, analytical essay about a book they read or a history paper.  Many struggle with what they should write about because they don’t know exactly what they want to communicate.  And for those 17 year olds who know what they want to write about, very few know how to tell it in a compelling, interesting way.  The personal statement must not only be compelling and interesting, but it should also convey the writer’s voice and personality in approximately 650 words.

I was reading a Forbes interview with Ryan Blair about how he became such a successful entrepreneur and it made me think how his story had all of the elements of a great personal statement. 

So what are some keys questions to ask yourself before you sit down to write to get at your own unique story?

What Are Your Strengths and Weaknesses? Most people have something to overcome, something that makes them different from their peers.  How did you grapple with a weakness or accommodate for a weakness with your strengths?  The specifics of a story are what make for an interesting essay. Blair shows how he identified his strengths and weaknesses and used them to his advantage. He describes how what he learned in jail made him a successful businessman.  After reading this description, we care less about the fact that he was in jail and more about his business acumen.

What Are Your Key Themes?  Everyone has certain themes that run through his or her life.  Whether it’s that you enjoy working with kids, that you never quite fit in with your peers, or that you seek and enjoy challenge in academics and athletics.  Think about themes that cross over into various parts of your life and find a way to illustrate that theme through a particular story or series of events.  In Blair’s instance it was his ability to take risks and own his past mistakes.

What Is Your Inciting Incident?  In the literary world, every story has an inciting incident.  This is the incident that sets the story in motion.  So think about your own life and identify if there is one event that caused you to think about yourself or the world differently.  It could be suffering an injury that prevented you from playing sports, almost losing your first job because you forgot to tell your boss you wouldn’t be in, or something as seemingly mundane as watching a program on television that sparked your interest.  The key is to show the reader how and why this event impacted you.  In the Blair example, he had two inciting incidents, the first was a guidance counselor who told him had no real future and the second was his time in jail.  Each one impacted him to take risks and prove that he could be successful.

What Do You Want to Communicate? Once you determine your topic, think about what you want the admissions person to say about you after he or she has read your application.  It should tie back to your strengths and weaknesses.  The personal statement is the opportunity to go beyond what is listed in your application and learn more about you.  What drives you?  What makes you tick?  Why do you think the way to do?  What anecdote will best communicate how you approach the world?  Blair believes passionately in fighting instincts and the willingness and ability to change and adapt to any environment as the key to success.  He illustrates this by describing anecdotes about playing Connect Four before hiring employees and (not) writing a business plan.

Good luck writing your story.  We welcome suggestions for writing the personal statement from those in the trenches!

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