03 Aug The Unconventional Personal Statement, Part 1

Sometimes, you just need to go for it. Step outside the bounds of what’s considered normal and embrace the novel and unexpected. Prospective applicants who go in this direction tend to fall into two camps: they are either brilliant writers or they need to compensate for certain deficiencies in the rest of their application by demonstrating how cool they are. If you’re not in these two camps, a more conventional approach is probably the way to go. But for the brave, read on…

I’ve identified five types of unconventional personal statements that I’ve encountered. Expect me to discuss more in an upcoming post.

THE POEM

Writing lyrics or poetry is probably as outside the box as it gets (unless you’re applying for a poetry-writing program). I’ve seen it done, but I’ve never seen it done well. Not to say that you can’t. But unless there’s at least a 50 percent chance you’ll be a future Poet Laureate, you probably shouldn’t. Why? Because it smacks of pretentiousness and/or laziness. In general, you should be sweating about the word limit while writing a personal statement. Short of a Homer-esque epic, that isn’t gonna happen in poem form.

THE METAPHOR

I am a…<fill in inanimate object here>. Jigsaw puzzle. Peanut butter sandwich. Tootsie Pop. Whatever.

Some prompts ask you to liken yourself to an object. Other times, it’s poetic license. Either way, The Metaphor is a fun and usually vibrant approach. A couple things to keep in mind here: one, embrace the whimsy. Everyone knows you’re not actually a pizza slicer. To attempt the Metaphor but then take it too seriously is the personal statement equivalent of a belly flop. Two, this is a PERSONAL statement, not a commercial. In the end, it’s only as good as the amount of truth it reveals about you.

THE QUIRKY HOBBY

The Metaphor’s cousin. With the Quirky Hobby, instead of saying you are something, here, you talk about how you love to do something. But that something isn’t tutoring, participating in Science Olympiad or even something athletic. It’s an activity not otherwise reflected anywhere else in your application. I recently read an essay (not an SG client) about the applicant’s obsession with collecting Coca Cola paraphernalia. Trivial and pointless, right? Harvard didn’t think so. Having a random hobby shows passion, which is one of the key things admissions officers look for. To mitigate risk, it can help to link the hobby to personal development. Another personal statement I read was written by a young woman who was obsessed with this boy in her class. She would go to such lengths to be in his presence that she joined various clubs, the student council, etc. To be seen as more desirable to him, she began dressing better, being more social, coming out of her shell. Unfortunately, he started to date someone else, but because of this girl’s transformation, she got nominated for and elected to class president. Now, thanks to the strength of her personal statement, she’s at a top college with the last laugh.

THE DIARY

Some personal statements read like the writer is talking to themself. They might begin like, “Here I am trying trying to write a personal statement. What should I talk about? Should I talk about winning the state championship in track? Yeah, that might be good. I’ve seen how expansive [The School's] beautiful campus is. I think they’d like to know I have the velocity to get to class on time.”

An essay I recently worked on was told from the perspective of the applicant’s future self addressing his younger self. It conveyed how valuable going to a particular school was in achieving his goals. Great stuff.

When going with the Diary, you have to be humorous. You just do. If you don’t have a knack for being funny on the page, steer clear. Also, the essay still has to be focused, even if it feels like it’s rambling. If you really were writing to yourself, chances are, you would ramble. Great for yourself, but for a personal statement, it’s death. Never forget, you are not the audience, even if you seem to be on the surface.

THE LETTER

The Letter takes the form of a personal letter addressed to someone, often a deceased family member or mentor. This approach is especially effective when the prompt asks you to describe a person who has been an influence on your life. Well, what better way to express this than to speak to them directly? Having that frame of mind can draw something deep and powerful out of you. The emotional impact of what results can be off the charts.

You don’t have to be funny here (though it helps… one memorable opening I read: “Dear grandfather, you’re probably never going to read this since this letter is going to be mailed to an admissions office.” Don’t get overly sentimental, though, the point of this isn’t really to convey information about the person you’re addressing. Ultimately, this personal statement and any personal statement in any category isn’t about anyone else but YOU.

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