What Colleges Look for in Personal Statements — Interview with Natalie Grinblatt, Educational Consultant at Accepted



TUN sits down with Natalie Grinblatt, an educational consultant at Accepted and former admissions director at Cornell, to discuss what colleges look for in personal statements for undergraduate admissions.

TUN: Natalie, thanks for joining us. 

GRINBLATT: Thank you for having me.

In undergraduate admissions, while filling out the Common App, the Coalition App or other types of applications, students are often required to answer at least one main essay prompt. These responses are often referred to as “personal statements.” 

My first question is, how important are personal statements in college admissions? Can they make or break an applicant’s chance of admittance?

That’s a great question. I would say, that depends. You need to meet specific criteria in order for a university to feel comfortable that you’re going to succeed in the program academically. Once you meet the criteria, the big differentiators are things like the personal statement, activities and recommendations. 

But, in terms of the highly selective schools, those personal statements can make or break a candidate because they get so many candidates that meet or exceed the academic criteria.

What makes a good personal statement? What boxes should students check off when they’re writing their personal statements?

I hate to look at it as boxes that they need to check off because I don’t think of it as boxes. I think of this as a very organic process where the candidate really needs to do some soul-searching.

Be sure to answer the prompt

If you want to check a box, the box that I would check is, are you answering the prompt? I’ll give you an example of this. 

A lot of the prompts have a secondary part to them. They ask a “what” and then they ask a “why.” A lot of candidates don’t really answer the “why.” That’s the more important part. 

You need to do a lot of soul-searching in order to answer that “why.” Even if it’s a prompt that seems like a piece of cake to answer, like the “problem you solved” question in the Common App, the “why” is really important.  

So, if we’re gonna check a box, it is to answer the prompt and make sure you answer that second part of the question. 

Be authentic

In terms of the organic process, I think the key thing is to be authentic. This has got to be about you. It can’t be about other people. It’s about you. It’s a statement that says, “This is what you’re going to get if you admit me to your program. This is who I am.” 

It needs to be your voice. It needs to be sincere. 

I, personally, like essays that go layers deep and help me understand what makes that candidate tick. What is the candidate’s motivation? 

The key thing here in terms of the soul-searching is really to find what you want to tell the admissions committee about you. What’s something that is really personal?  

Don’t think about this as wanting to write something that they want to hear. Instead, think of it as a conversation that you want to tell them.

A great thing to do when you’re thinking about the idea that you want to write about is to consider, “How do I want to explain this story?” It should be something that’s really important to you. 

The other thing I find is that the best essays are ones that can talk about one thing that crosses into multiple parts of the writer’s life. I’ll give you an example. 

I had a client who wanted to write about debate. He just loved debate. To me, that was kind of ho-hum. What I knew about this candidate is that he also had a speech impediment. 

He got over that speech impediment, and that was kind of critical for him in terms of wanting to be a debater. So, I asked him to think about what that speech impediment felt like the first time he got up on the debate stage and what that did to him. 

The first time he got on the debate stage, he couldn’t speak. It was really difficult for him. But, by the end of his four years of high school, he was a national debate champion.

Now, every candidate doesn’t have a personal struggle. They might want to talk about activities that they’ve been involved with. But, it just has to be really meaningful to them. 

My own kids talked about their camp experiences. That might seem cliche. But, when you delve deeper and can bring the ideas into another aspect of their life, like what they were able to learn, it makes so much sense. 

Provide details

I also think you need to be detailed enough. I like to think about it like color commentary in sports. It’s like taking a coloring book and filling it in. Be detailed enough that you bring the reader into your world. 

Again, you’re having a conversation with the reader, and they know nothing about you. So, give them enough details so that they understand what’s going on. 

Just by nature, because the essay forces you to have a limit on your words, you shouldn’t edit when you first write. Don’t edit yourself because you won’t create the content that you need. Write as much as you can. But then, scale back and edit later. As a result, you’ll be concise. The story will be tight.

It does have to be logical. There are some people who want to use gimmicks. I don’t think gimmicks really work in admissions essays. 

Evoke some emotion

And, of course, they need to be well-written. They need to be memorable and evoke some emotion. Not necessarily sadness. It’s not always about crying. 

One of the most memorable essays I read, when I was an admissions director, made me laugh so hard that people could hear me, even though my door was closed in my office. 

If you’re naturally funny, that’s great. If you’re not naturally funny, that’s okay too. But, evoke some kind of emotion, whether it is happiness, empathy, sadness, warmth or something. 

Check TUN’s interview with Eric Eng, the founder and CEO of AdmissionSight, for more tips on how to write a college essay to help you get into your dream school.

How big of a role do grammar mistakes and punctuation mistakes play in whether or not an applicant’s essay will be taken seriously and graded highly?

What mistakes say about the candidate is that they might not care. And, you really need to care about this essay. It is really important. 

So, proof, proof, proof and proof again. Have your friends proof it. Have your parents proof, and have siblings proof. Have a teacher proof it. 

Make sure you do that because mistakes show that you maybe don’t care. Maybe you’re trying to get this in at the last minute and you really didn’t take the time or care enough to make sure that punctuation and grammar were correct. 

Thanks for joining us, Natalie. 

Thank you for having me.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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