The Story of Me: Writing the Personal Statement

by Dr. Elena Olsen, College Counselor

Seniors are still seniors for a few more weeks, but in many ways they feel already in a sort of limbo – between their lives here at Eastside Prep, and their future, as of yet unknown lives post-EPS. While our college counseling team, along with the entire faculty, cherishes celebrating the seniors over the next few weeks, the perspective of the college counselors is also shifting: the junior class is now the rising senior class. Counselors are in round two of meetings with rising seniors and their families, and a primary focus of these meetings is to lay the groundwork for a productive summer and successful senior fall.

Rising seniors may know a few colleges to which they are going to apply next fall, but they are also still in exploration and information-gathering mode. Questions become more refined: what are the strengths of the particular academic programs I might pursue at each college? What is campus residential life like? Does the campus have the culture and feel that makes me happy? That last word is an important one – it’s difficult for high school students to imagine what it is like to live at school, even if they do spend long hours on our campus. Quality of life and happiness often depend not only on academic program or location, but also such seemingly “small” aspects of college life, such as food, intramural sports culture, or the walkability of campus. Not all “happiness quotients” can be known, of course – and that is ok. But thinking about this component of college choice connects to an important part of how the Class of 2019 should spend some time this summer – writing.

The personal statement is an essay that requires sustained reflection and a long writing process. It is not an essay to be knocked out in two weeks. Two months is a better time-frame. This is because the personal statement is the applicant’s opportunity to tell their story – or one of their stories – in their own words. The wrong approach for this essay is to ask, “What do colleges want?” The right approach is to ask, “What do I want to tell colleges about myself? What do I want them to know about me?” College admissions staff are real people, interested in the real person behind the application file. They’re not interested in the perfect or perfected version of that student, but rather, in something that really matters to the student, or something that makes them “tick.” They know that high school seniors are still growing, are perhaps entirely undecided or unsure about what their future might look like – and they also know that each student brings unique interests and strengths to their campus. They want to know something more about what those are.

To that end, rising seniors’ time this summer will be best spent putting some words on paper – whether that means generating a couple of pages of brainstorming notes, or drafting an actual essay (or 2) – answering the question, “What do I want colleges to know about me?” Often an experience or extracurricular is a starting point for reflection, but ultimately the essay is not about an experience, school, activity, travel, family, or any other topic. Rather, the personal statement reveals insight and truths about its author. Writing about oneself is a daunting task. Ms. Luhrs and Dr. Olsen, the College Counseling Writing Coaches, are here to guide and support that process every step of the way, but the essay and its voice are entirely the student’s own. We look forward to helping those voices emerge and are honored to be these stories’ first readers. Ultimately, that’s what the college process is all about – each senior authoring the next chapters of their story.