Personal Statements 101: General Advice for a Superstar Essay

I can see you now: sitting at your desk by lamplight, alone on a Saturday night. It’s late December and you’ve decided to finally finish the last piece of your college applications – the long essays. You think “No problem, this won’t take long at all. It’s just a simple essay about me.” Right?

Well guess what – you’re dead wrong. For Chinese students, the personal statement, or 个人陈述, might be the single most important part of the application. Why? Because 99 out of 100 students write terrible essays. Trust me, I know. I’ve read more than 1,000 application essays written by Chinese students, and most young people don’t understand what admissions offices expect of them. However, if you’re one of the ten students in Shenzhen who write excellent essays (all my clients, of course) then you’re going to look even more impressive.

A great resource for learning all the general rules about personal statements is the website for the University of Michigan’s Admissions Office (http://admissions.umich.edu/essay/tips/). They’ve published a list of guidelines that will help 99% of Chinese applications improve their essays in a big way.

My favorite piece of advice they offer is this one, as it’s the most common mistake Chinese students make: “Avoid re-writing your accomplishments in paragraph form.” This isn’t a resume. It’s not a list of awards. It’s a statement about who you are as a person. Essays that simply list awards and honors are highly annoying to admissions officers – they’ve already read that information elsewhere in your application! They want to know who you are. So, be honest and tell them.

Another great tip is Read and answer the question asked. Your essays should pay very close attention to what the topic has asked you to write about it. If you can’t follow directions, then you might as well write “Hi, I’m not very smart” across the front of your application.

Perhaps the most important tip that Chinese students should remember is this one, which I’m going to quote directly because it’s just too perfect:

Tell us what is unique about you. Why would you stand out among our 20,000+ applicants? Is there something different about your personal experiences? Your response should provide us with an opportunity to get to know you on a more personal level, beyond your GPA, test scores, and curriculum.

You’re an awesome person. You really are. You’ve lived 18 years in one of the coolest cities in the world, and you’ve got stories to tell. Tell those stories, show your dream school how unique you are, and I promise you’re really going to shine. Now get to work, that acceptance letter from Harvard is only one essay away.

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