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Personal statement writing tips

  1. Why do colleges want to read my story?
  2. How important is my personal statement?
  3. How many minutes do college spend reading my essay?
  4. What NOT to write?
  5. How long is the essay?
  6. What to write?




  1. College Essays that Made a Difference (Strongly recommended!)
  2. The College Application Essay
  3. One-hour College Application Essay

In this first post, I aim to discuss the personal statement portion on application. Even though every school has different topics, most school wants you to write a about your life. The decision you have to make is which part.

  1. Why do colleges want to read my story?

It is insufficient for a college to know you as a person based only on your GPA, test scores, and extracurricular activity. When you write about yourself, you write the most/-est part of your life, namely the proudest, significant, saddest, memorable…etc. You can also write about a single event or the most “you” part about yourself. Here’s the bottom line, if I don’t feel like I know you more after I’ve read your essay, your essay fails its purpose.

2. How important is my personal statement?

For many private schools, the admission decision ratio between academic and non-academic is about 50-50. That means the personal statement probably weights about or below 20% of the overall decision. If you are an excellent student, but you submit a piece of careless writing with a soulless story, you might get rejected because of it. If you are way below the academic standard, no personal statement in the world can save you. If your grade is right in the ballpark but not great, a well-crafted essay that seamlessly fuses your activity, interest, background, personality, and passion into a vivid image of yourself, might just be what you need to push you over the edge.

3. How many minutes do college spend reading my essay?

Depending on the school, here are some data to consider.

  • Amherst: 3-10 mins
  • Johns Hopkins: 1-15 mins
  • Northwestern: 10-15 mins
  • Yale: ~20 mins
  • UCs: ~5 mins

Why is there a range? When a story is captivated, people tend to spend longer on it. If you write a boring story or just rehash your activity, people are not going to spend much time to read a list in the form of paragraph.

4. What NOT to write?

When I say what NOT to write, I don’t mean to belittle your life experience or your ability as a writer. What I am trying to emphasis here is that some topics might not be suitable or are very difficult to write. Now having said that, here’s the list:

  • Mission trip/teaching English far away (It’s been done WAY too many times)
  • Immigrants’ tough life (Your experience is probably not that unique)
  • Your well-established family (It’s not your dad who’s applying)
  • Sports injure (If the toughest time of your life is when you can’t play golf, your life is pretty good)
  • When you win the game for your team (You might just sound too cocky)
  • Your violent past (You beat up other people)
  • Your sex life (Just…don’t…)
  • Your drug abusive past (Probably not here)
  • Essays with no real personal substance (I went, I saw, and I did)

Again, nothing against your past, I love second-chance story, but there is a time and a place for it.

5. How long is the essay?

This post so far is just about 500 words (I purposely made it happen). The answer really depends on the school, but you are look at around 500 words give and take a few hundreds..

6. What to write?

Make sure you are writing what you are comfortable writing, not what your parents or some experts or a neighbor’s cousin’s pet’s godfather who goes to Harvard wants you to write. Take ownership of your own writing.

Volunteer: A student writes his experience playing piano at a senior center, but those wonderful senior citizens keeps heckling him, asking to speak louder and play different songs. He ends his essay by saying “The next week, and for many weeks afterward, I came back to play at (this center).” It’s a wonderful story that demonstrates his heart and grit. He was accepted into Duke, Georgetown, U of Virginia, and Vanderbilt University. He went to Duke.

Passion: A student write his passion for John Williams’ music, his encounter with John Williams, and lastly how gratified he feels when he introduces John Williams to others. He was accepted to Yale, Northwestern, U of Chicago, and U Penn. He went to Yale.

Major life event: A student writes at the first-half of the essay how demanding both physically and psychological her cross-country bike ride is. She then ends her essay with her witnessing of an elder lady passing away. The contrast between the youth and the aging is really powerful. She was accepted to Brown, Stanford, U of Michigan, and Yale. She went to Yale.

A person: A student writes how she bounces back after finds out her first-love has a new lover. This student ends up as the student president of her class. This was a very well written essay. She was accepted in Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn State, U Penn, and U of Michigan. She went to Harvard.

Facing a challenge: A student writes about her anxiety before every piano performance and how she eventually conquers her fear by practice a lot. Her last sentence is “I am ready for the challenge.” She was accepted to Cal Tech, Claremont McKenna, Harvard, UCB, UCLA, and UCSD. She went to Cal Tech.

This is not a list of what to write. This is just to inspire you to find out what you can write. There is no guarantee whatsoever that you can get into the same school if you write the same topic. The takeaway message here is to know that you need to write what’s NOT already on your application (e.g., the cross-country bike ride story), or write the behind-the-scene motive of your activity. (e.g., the student president story); therefore, admission officers can get a greater picture of you.

Most importantly, make sure you proofread your essay before you send it out! Good luck to all the students. Enjoy writing! What? last question? Sure thing. Can you lie or have someone write you essay?……..No, and can’t believe you had to ask… What’s the worst that can happen? I will kick you, so just don’t.




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