As I have noted in my blog post, “Personal Statements for Mere Mortals,” many colleges require a unique essay—usually 500-650 words-long—as part of the admission process.

As a former admission officer and high school college counselor, and now as an Independent Educational Consultant, I have read, edited, and helped students with thousands of these personal statements.

Are there any particularly important elements that make up a great essay?

There are.

However, in my opinion, about 75% of the advice commonly given about what makes a good personal statement is pretty boring. That is because most of the information you can find about this topic is simply focused on having a well-written essay.

Well-written, though, is something different in the eyes of the admission officer than it is for others—such as your English teacher, a friend, or a professional writer.

In fact, there are very distinct things that stand out for an admission officer in comparison to other people.

Two Things to Remember About Your Audience

In order to write a great personal statement, you must remember:

  1. Admission officers read a lot of applications and essays. While they certainly want to do a thorough job, they are often pressed for time and cannot spend a lot of that time reading your essay.
  2. Admission officers are evaluating your essay to see if you can produce a clear, well-written assignment in any subject for your professor if you get admitted to their college.

Therefore, your audience (the admission officer) needs to be able to read through your essay relatively quickly and make an assessment that it is a clear and crisp personal statement.

How can you provide this?

Technical Elements of a Great College Application Essay

The mechanics of a well-written personal statement are the foundation upon which the whole essay stands.

This structure consists of three components:

1. An Outline

The format for a personal statement is often different than the five-paragraph essay you may have been taught in high school—reflecting a more formal, somewhat traditional idea of writing.

Admission officers are looking for an outline with clear ideas that flow. If this is not evident in your essay, they may conclude that the lack of a good outline potentially shows that your thinking is not clear.

2. A Level of Organization

At a minimum, a good essay must have a clear beginning, middle, and end—just like in storytelling.

The beginning would introduce a problem or a conflict—perhaps something that happened to you that presented a challenge or something you had to solve. Or it may introduce an idea that you will explain further.

The middle would get into the details of how you solved the problem. Or it can give examples of steps that you have taken to clarify the main idea you presented at the beginning.

The end would show how the information you presented applies to the college application. It may be an interesting story, but you must explain what it has to do with you going off to college and taking steps into adulthood.

What qualities have you developed? What lessons have you learned? How do the things you have encountered apply to the way you will handle challenges in college? How do they relate to your future?

Lamentably, students often fall short at the conclusion of their essay. That is because they spend so much time on the beginning and the middle that they take up too much of the word count. And then, they run out of room to really address the most important part the admission officers need to hear—why is the information relevant?

3. Clear Transitions

Once you have a clear outline and good organization (beginning, middle, end), you must make certain that the transitions from one section to another, from one paragraph to another, are clear and smooth.

Many writers (not just high school students) have problems with making good transitions. It is a matter of skillfully handing-off and guiding the reader from one part to the next in a way that they can easily follow and understand the change so that the flow of reading will not get interrupted.

Remember, a good storyteller makes their story like a smooth road—easy to walk, not riddled with stones that make the reader trip with every step.

The American novelist Elmore Leonard once said, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it!”

Likewise, your college application essay needs to sound like you—natural, not forced or artificial.

Clear, organized writing makes up some 75% of the personal statement. What makes up the other 25%? That is something I will talk about in my next post, “The Crucial Elements of a Great Personal Statement – Part 2.”

If you would like personal assistance for writing your college application essay, please contact me. As an Independent Educational Consultant, I have years of experience with the requirements for these types of unique compositions.