Nailing the Personal Statement: Using Narrative Structure

The Common App personal statement aims to encapsulate a very large chunk of an applicant’s personality in just 650 words. At first glance, it may seem like a long essay, but really this is a limited number of words to sum up all that you’ve achieved academically and personally. Ultimately, each word carries a lot of weight, so it’s absolutely crucial to make every bit count. One way to do this is to identify your major points and think about how to present them as a narrative or “story” of who you are academically and personally.

Of course, this leads to the problem of maintaining narrative form and structure. It’s actually quite common to run into the issue of sounding too simplistic and monotoned when it comes to squeezing in that word count. Students ought to avoid this, because writing style can make a lasting impression on the college admissions officer, who has likely leafed through hundreds of essays prior to reading yours. Here are a couple of tips for adding a personal touch to your personal statement:

1. Make a story out of it.

Because the personal statement is the only place where you can illuminate all your star qualities, it might seem like a good idea to incorporate a series of anecdotes to fully capture who you are. Often, that may work best depending on your own personal spin on the prompt. However, as is the case with any other essay, if you cram too much into a single space you might cause the reader to lose sight of what you’re trying to convey. So consider narrowing the focus of your essay down to a particular moment and elaborate on the key details in a revised version of a memoir. This will keep your reader engaged and it will allow you to organize your key points with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

2. Don’t list facts; integrate them.

The toughest part, at least for me, when writing the Common App essay was to make sure it didn’t sound too “preachy”. Of even greater concern, I didn’t want to outwardly feel like a complete braggart. Sure, sometimes that’s just the reality of how these essays work, but it’s still important to write in ways that don’t present your achievements as just additional statistics. Each word counts. Perhaps start off with a list of star qualities that you want to demonstrate and integrate them into the narrative structure of your essay. For instance, in a statement about a time you solved your way through a problem, you could use the classic “show-don’t-tell” method of illustrating your star attribute and how it helped you work toward solving the issue. These problem-solving attributes make awesome ways of finishing up a body paragraph if you ever get stuck.

3. Bring it back to you.

This sounds obvious, but you’ve got to remember that your personal statement is about you! While you’re always welcome to have other characters in your narrative, you should keep in mind that in a Common App personal essay, they should be secondary characters. So even though the role model in your life may have played a significant role in your own self-actualization, just talking about that person’s actions won’t reveal much about you as a person. To tackle this pesky obstacle, think of it this way: don’t be a recipient; be an actor. You don’t want your narrative to just be about you reacting to something. Instead, take charge and be the character who causes change. Really consider the different ways you were able to create something special or meaningful from a role model’s advice or example and the impact it made for you and potentially for other people around you.

4. Be able to reread your essay without feeling that it’s ingenuine or impersonal.

The end of your essay should be the most formal way of outlining the key takeaways from your personal statement. Sure, it might sound cheesy, but we always want to cut the admissions officer some slack by explicitly laying out the significance of your experience and what it says about your overall character. Once you’ve wrapped up your essay, determine whether or not your personal statement gives off the sort of genuine, positive vibe that you want your reader to feel. This can be pretty tough, so consider setting your draft aside for a couple of days before reading it later with an open mind. It’s okay to cringe at some parts; it might feel weird to write about yourself with such high regard, but always remind yourself that everything you’ve written is absolutely true and should be celebrated! However, if you do find yourself questioning too many “cliché” moments that cast a very generic image of the “perfect student,” then this may be a sign for you to rework that specific portion to make it true to your person. Ultimately, the person reading your essay should pin the narrative to you, not to any academic stereotype.

And there you have it: four points to keep in mind when developing the flow and style of your Common App personal statement. This narrative style is just one approach to answering the prompts, so feel free to explore other routes, so long as your personal story shines through in the end!