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The Personal Statement: My Process and My Advice to You

This past summer I was able to work with a wonderful group of people as a student coordinator for the admissions office. Along with giving tours and running Harvard’s social media, we conducted student outreach and helped answer questions about Harvard and applying to it! A recurring request I received was to give advice on how to go about writing the personal statement. This was one of the toughest parts of the application for me and I am only too happy to give some tips and tricks for completing it!

On the steps of 86 Brattle Street (The admissions office building) the summer student coordinators sit and get ready to take a picture. However, none are ready before the camera flashes
Above: None of us were ready for this photo, but I am ready to give you some advice!


The personal statement is inevitable, and maybe even imminent, for some of you reading this. I am intimately familiar with the mandatory essay for the Common Application and, after a quick bit of research into the Universal and Coalition applications, I can say that, yes, you will have to write about yourself for these applications too. However, because the Common Application is pretty much the gold standard, I will be using its essay prompts and guidelines for the remainder of this article.

The six prompts for the Common Application personal statement
Above: Common App prompts

The personal statement has to be between 250 and 650 words and is a chance to showcase who you are outside of your quantifiable attributes such as grades, test scores, and hours of extracurricular activities. Even though there are prompts to guide the essay, there is still a ton of freedom and, with that, a large amount of uncertainty. I am not the kind of person who believes that an essay can absolutely make or break your application—Harvard’s admissions process is “whole-person”, meaning that they take into account every aspect of your application such as classes, test scores, recommendations, and the essay. Try to show yourself in a good light and have someone check over your work for spelling errors and awkward sentences, but make sure the words are your own! It’s fine if you have a few mistakes (I noticed some immediately after submitting, whoops) but utilize spellcheck and maybe grammarly (no, this isn’t an endorsement).


I truly believe that the hardest part is actually starting the essay. None of the five writing prompts interested me and so I decided to go with the 6th choose your own adventure one. 650 words may seem a lot, but it really isn’t, especially if you have no idea what you want to write about and are just rambling (my essay once hit a thousand words which was painful to edit). However, I believe this is an integral step you all should take. It took me a month or so and multiple rounds of editing to figure out what I wanted to write about. I’m the kind of person who needs my writing to be perfect on the first try, so this experience was harrowing for me. But don’t be afraid to grapple and struggle with ideas, erase, and restart if needed. I think there is a misconception that your essay needs to be on some universal truth you have discovered or about a major passion or a life-changing incident. But it can honestly be about whatever you want it to be. If you think it is important then it is; so write about it.


I decided to write about my environment and how it had shaped me as a person. My hometown was undergoing a period of change, where the new was at odds with the old. I recognized a similar situation within my family and then described how it affected my development and my worldview. However, people here at Harvard have written about so many different things. Everyone, yes everyone, has a unique story to tell. It doesn’t have to be life-changing or grand, it can just be about who you are.


Another misconception about the essay I think people have, is that you need to be an amazing writer. You absolutely need to write well, as in try to construct a compelling, easy-to-follow narrative. But you don’t have to be a literary protégé and have the admissions officers ooh and ahh at your flowery language, allusions, and subtle symbolism. Just write how you write. I am not a fan of writing first-person prose or writing about myself. I didn’t love my essay when I submitted it and looking back I like it even less. However, I did the best that I could do at the time and it worked in my favor.


Lastly, I recommend staying away from those “Essays that worked” books (even though Harvard sells those in its bookstore, unfortunately). Technically, you can say that the essay worked in that it didn’t cause their application to be rejected.  But maybe it was only so-so or only worked because it completed the story the student had been telling with their entire application. There are other components of the applications that those books don’t show. The personal statement is an important part, but it is disingenuous to say that it worked without having any context for the other parts of the applications.


So, to end this I’ll leave you with a few last pieces of advice. When writing your essay don’t be afraid to take a few risks, but make sure you are still being true to who you are. When you begin writing, consider asking yourself questions such as: “What would my application be incomplete without?” and “What do I want to show the admissions officers that hasn’t already been shown on this application?”These will help drive you to potential topics.


Constructing your personal essay will probably be a long, slow process, but don’t be afraid. You can and you will get it done.


About the author

Hello all! My name is Kez. I am from Chino Hills, a city in the wonderfully sunny southern part of California. I am a junior studying Sociology and working towards a citation in Chinese. I... View full profile

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