A reflection on personal statements

Writing a College Essay: The Miracle of Swindon Town #153

I’m a big fan of John Green’s insights into the wonderful world of writing. In his latest video he talks about college application essays and gives some useful advice. For example, don’t be melodramatic,  make sure your writing isn’t fancy and flowery and unnecessarily overwrought. And the importance of drafting… wow does that take me back – I can’t quite believe it’s been practically two years since I was starting to panic about having to write my personal statement for university. Because I was applying to Cambridge, I had to submit by UCAS application by mid-October unlike most of my peers who had the luxury of having teachers nag them to get theirs finished right up until after Christmastime.

I remember sitting down in front of a computer, later a blank piece of paper (in the hope a change of ‘scenery’ would magically inspire me), and trying to conjure up some kind of argument as to why on earth I wanted to study English Literature, why I loved it, and most importantly why the university should pick me over the next application they read. At first it seemed pretty basic, talk about why you enjoyed the subject you want to study, talk about extracurricular responsibilities and interests, chuck in some stuff about skills gained from work experience and twist them to be handy for your proposed degree. Don’t use quotations, don’t start your essay with something you found by Google-ing ‘inspirational quotations’. And while you’re at it, try not to be too cliche, don’t say “From a young age, I have always been interested in <insert your hopeful degree subject here>” – no matter how that is phrased, it sounds cliche and… false. Most people don’t emerge full-formed from the womb knowing they want to go to university to study medicine, later becoming a doctor, before working in their local hospital, rising the ranks until they become a consultant. Kudos to those who do. Check your sentence lengths, check your grammar, check your spelling (especially homophones, computers don’t pick that up) and check what you’ve said actually makes sense to someone who is not you.

One of the most important things I learnt during the university application process was to never be afraid of handing your personal statement over to another (a teacher, a peer, a family member), but make sure this person will be honest with you, make sure you pick someone who could could tear your work to shreds if they felt like it needed it. Above all, accept constructive criticism and actually bother to make the changes people suggest you should make. Do not get precious over your first draft. Chances are, it’ll be terrible, it’ll lack coherency and brevity, you’ll waffle to try and pad it out to get to the character limit on the UCAS form. There will be unnecessary crap, completely unrelated to your proposed subject that, no matter how hard you try, cannot be twisted to sound like it’ll be an invaluable skill. Listen to other peoples’ advice. In the end, your personal statement isn’t solely about your fitness for the course you’ve applied (relevant work experience, good grades and a genuine interest is preferable however), rather it’s about your ability to communicate, to put across your thoughts in a clear and understandable manner, and to do so whilst your writing remains firmly yours.

Oh and don’t be disheartened if you’re rejected. It sounds easy to say that now, looking back on it. I was rejected by 3 universities I applied to (granted they were pretty competitive to gain a place- Cambridge, Durham and Edinburgh if you’re wondering) but that doesn’t matter now. What does matter is that a university read my application and thought ‘hey now, I like this girl’s essay/grades, let’s offer her a place to read Literature’. And here I am.

So don’t leave your essay until last minute, don’t think you’re going to get it all done on the first draft, and don’t hide your personal statement away and refuse to take account of other peoples’ comments about it. If you take the time to step back from your work, avoid being overly protective of it, and listen to feedback, you might just end up with a pretty damn awesome personal statement… in my opinion.

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