As summer approaches, rising seniors across the United States have college applications on their mind. This time around, however, things are a little different. The outbreak of COVID-19 has disrupted daily life around the world, and many students are concerned about how it will affect their chances of getting accepted to the school of their choice.
Don’t fret too much about cancelled internships and extracurricular activities or postponed SAT dates. A number of colleges, including Yale, Harvard, and Emory University have released statements assuring applicants that their admissions will not be affected by any disruptions caused by COVID-19. Universities know what students are going through right now, and are understanding of the constraints.
Nevertheless, the coronavirus will surely alter what college applications look like over the next couple of years. Without the opportunity to make their extracurricular activities stand out, students will have to lean on other parts of their application, including the personal statement or essay.
The personal statement or essay is the soul of a college application. It is your opportunity to talk directly to colleges in your own voice. It is a space to tell admissions officers who you are, what you’re interested in, and maybe even to charm them a little bit. When admissions officers read your essay, they want to get a sense of your personality, your passions, and the way you see the world.
Under the current circumstances, the role of the personal statement is even more important than in an average year.
“The reality is, the way that college admissions is going to go in the fall is not going to be based on numbers and scores the way it might have been in the past,” Nicole Hurd, founder and CEO of College Advising Corps, told TUN. “Everybody is going to have to be able to tell a story that is going to be much more based on experiences and aspirations and narrative than just on numbers.”
With that in mind, here is a guide to writing your personal statement during and after the coronavirus outbreak.
What do colleges want to see in personal statements or essays?
First and foremost, when admissions officers read your personal statement, they want to get a sense of who you are, not only as a student, but as a person. They want to know about the things that matter to you, the way you think, and how you respond to challenges.
“You may be surprised to hear this, but one of the reasons we enjoy reading your essays and stories every year is because we get to understand what a generation is thinking about,” Emory University Director of Recruitment and Talent Giselle F. Martin said in an open letter to juniors and sophomores in April. “We encourage you to take this time to think about what matters most to you. After all, there is no greater gift than time.”
Colleges are still looking for the same qualities in applicants that they always have — intelligence, leadership, creativity, passion, curiosity, and maturity.
In your personal statement, be true to yourself and your experiences. Tell a story from the heart, not one cut out from a college applications handbook.
What are the qualities that define a strong personal statement or essay?
Personal statements should be personal — It’s called a personal statement for a reason. Your personal statement should first and foremost be a story about you. Find inspiration in the big moments in your life, but also in the small moments — dinners with family, laughs with friends, etc.
Personal statements should be meaningful — You don’t have to write your college essay about a profound, life-changing moment. However, whatever topic you do choose should carry some meaning to you or else your readers will be asking themselves, “so what?”
Personal statements should be tight — Your personal statement should be tightly edited and have a strong narrative flow. Common App essays are restrained to a meager 650 words. It can be difficult to pack a whole lot of meaning into such a small space, so make sure every word counts and have a teacher or parent proofread.
Personal statements should be engaging — Hook your reader in and don’t let go. The goal of a personal statement is to make a lasting impression on whoever reads it. Boring essays simply won’t cut it!
What are the personal statement topics and questions?
The Common App allows students to respond to one of seven different personal essay prompts, including an open prompt that allows students to choose their own topic, or even write in their own prompt.
- Identity and passions: “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.”
- Overcoming challenges, setbacks, and failures: “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?”
- Thinking critically: “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”
- Solving problems: “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.”
- Personal growth: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
- Inspiration and curiosity: “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that 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?”
- Anything at all: “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.”
You can access Common App essay prompts for the 2020-2021 application period here.
When brainstorming, try to come up with at least one idea for each prompt.
Are there tips for brainstorming personal statement topics?
The most challenging part of writing your personal statement is settling on a topic to write about or a story to tell. But while brainstorming can be difficult, it can also be a fun process. Here are a few tips to help you generate ideas:
Ask yourself questions — To start generating ideas, it can be helpful to start looking inward and asking some introspective questions, such as:
- What are you passionate about?
- What do you want colleges to know about you?
- What are some impactful moments in your life?
- Who are some meaningful people in your life?
- What’s a story you will never forget? Why will you never forget it?
- How do you spend your free time? Why?
- What are you looking forward to?
- What do you want to get out of your college experience?
Don’t feel the need to impress — Crazy stories do not necessarily make better stories. Don’t get caught up in the idea that you need to tell an overly exciting or dramatic story. Likewise, don’t use your personal statement to list off achievements and awards. The point of the essay is to shine a light on who you are, not what you’ve done.
Think about the small things — Oftentimes, the most personal essays are those that focus on the details of life. Think about your favorite movies, books, and music. Reminisce on conversations and disagreements, sports events and camping trips, road trips, and walks around your neighborhood.
Avoid clichés — College admissions officers read thousands of personal statements every year and, as a result, are experts in picking out clichéd essays. While any topic can make a great essay, it is harder for yours to stand out when it sounds similar to many others. Topics like sports championships and eye-opening travel experiences can make great essays, but they are also a little overplayed, so it might be harder for them to stand out.
Should you write about the coronavirus?
Probably not. While the COVID-19 pandemic has surely been an impactful moment in many of our lives, writing your personal statement about the pandemic may not be the best choice, simply because so many others will likely also be writing about it.
Virtually everyone in the world has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in some capacity and has a unique story about the event. Unfortunately, admissions officers who have to read through thousands of college essays each year will likely have a difficult time differentiating between yours and two hundred others on the same topic.
The best college essays are memorable and unique. They have the ability to stand out amongst a crowd and leave a lasting impression. As a result, the most out-of-the box essays are often the most compelling. Writing on a common topic can make it more difficult to catch your reader’s attention.
Furthermore, when you are writing about mass events like the coronavirus, it can be easy to write more about the event and about others than about yourself, which is what admissions officers really want to know about.
That doesn’t mean that the coronavirus is completely off-limits as a topic. If you think you have a powerful story to tell, by all means, tell it. However, you should keep in mind that any essay on the coronavirus will have to be outstanding to catch the eye of an admissions officer.
A better alternative would be to use the Common App’s added question for fall 2020 admissions on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected you personally.
“That’s definitely an opportunity for (applicants) to talk about what they were planning on doing and how that was taken away,” said Joe Korfmacher, a college counselor at Collegewise. “But it also gives them an opportunity to talk about what they did instead.”
Are there personal statement examples?
These personal statement examples illustrate what works for the students who wrote them.
- Prompt #1: Identity and Passions — Rocio’s “Facing the Hot Griddle”
In this essay, Rocio makes a tortilla, and in doing so, finds herself reflecting on her Guatemalan heritage and current life in the United States. She recounts some of the obstacles that she has faced as an immigrant and how, like masa harina being made into a tortilla, has been molded by her experiences and challenges.
- Prompt #2: Overcoming a Challenge — Heqing “Amy” Zhang’s “On the day my first novel was rejected, I was baking pies.”
In this essay, Amy Zhang recounts the experience of having her first novel rejected by a publishing house on the day of her church’s annual bake sale. With a unique narrative voice that highlights her storytelling skills, Zhang relates her feelings of disappointment and grief, and how these emotions helped her spin her next novel, which she would end up selling within three days.
- Prompt #3: Thinking Critically — Callie’s “Bridging Polarity”
In this essay, Callie reckons with the difference in beliefs between her friends that she grew up with in Texas and those in her new home of San Francisco. She recounts how a visit from a childhood friend led her to value different perspectives and to listen to those with opposing views.
- Prompt #4: Solving Problems — Seena’s “Growing Strawberries in a High School Locker”
Seena assigns himself a unique challenge: to grow strawberries inside an empty high school locker. What seemed initially like a simple task quickly grew into a complex project involving a solar-powered blue LED light, an automated plant watering system, and a 3-D printed, modified lock system that increased airflow into the locker. As Seena recounts this experiment, his innate curiosity, problem-solving, and disposition toward mechanical engineering are on full display.
- Prompt #5: Personal Growth — Anna’s “Returning to Peru”
Anna remembers how a trip to her father’s homeland in Peru helped instill in her a passion for protecting the environment. She recounts witnessing pollution, lack of clean water, and environmental degradation in impoverished areas of Lima and how it motivated her interest in environmental science and conservation.
Jillian Impastato dives into her fascination with the art of tattoos and the lives of women who have them. Intrigued by the symbology and the meaning attached to them, Impastato has embarked on something of an informal anthropology project in which she asks women she sees with tattoos questions. She hears their stories and learns about the relationships they have with the art on their bodies. All at once, this essay displays Impastato’s natural curiosity, her interest in art, her outgoing personality, and her willingness to pursue answers.
- Prompt #7: Anything At All — Madison’s “On Potatoes”
Madison presents herself with a not-so-simple question: “If you had to choose one food to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?” After weighing the options, she settles on the nutritious and versatile potato. She uses this as a jumping-off point to discuss her own disposition to variance and diversity. The potato becomes a clever metaphor for her innate curiosity and openness to new ideas.
Sam Benezra is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in History from the Honors Tutorial College. He is a native of Brooklyn, New York. Sam enjoys writing on a variety of subjects, including science, music, politics, film. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling, playing guitar, and writing songs.