How Personal is too Personal in an Admissions Essay?

The Common Application is your chance to set yourself apart from other applicants. Make sure you’re putting your best self out there for admissions officers to see.

“It’s called a personal essay, so make it personal.”

“This should feel more like a creative writing piece- a diary entry, a letter to a friend, a chapter from your personal memoir- than it should like something you’re writing for school – a book report or a research paper.”

“This is your chance for your reader to get to know what your personality is like. Show them who you are beyond grades, courses and test scores!”

These are all things you might hear me say to one of my students during a Brainstorming Meeting when we’re putting together a Personal Essay. Believe me, this is easier said than done. Being personal in a piece of writing that is going to help decide whether or not you are accepted into your dream school doesn’t come naturally to everyone.

The bottom line is that there’s a lot of pressure behind this essay, and knowing how personal is too personal is a tough question for most people. I’m often pushing my students to ‘go deeper’ and encouraging them not to be afraid to ‘be vulnerable with their reader’ but it’s hard to know where to draw the line.

Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule. I can’t tell you that it’s never okay to write about depression but it’s always okay to write about death. I’ve read some beautiful, moving and informative essays that focus on recovering from abuse.

I’ve read some essays that talk about suicide in a way that feels cold, distant and irreverent. (There’s also the issue of exploiting another person’s tragedy, but that’s an entirely different topic I’ll address once I get off of this soapbox).

The first Common App prompt is this: Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it.

If this sounds like you, then please share your story. Part of your story might be going through something difficult, like experiencing the death of a family member, or learning to deal with a mental illness, or overcoming being bullied.

Many of these things are innately personal and they are understandably such a big part of who you are, that you would almost be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t share them. There’s almost always a very honest yet appropriate way to do this. It’s all about balance.

It’s important to make sure you’re being true to yourself and writing in your own voice, but it’s also a great idea to ask an outsider or two- a friend or family member- to read through your essay and make sure you’re not sharing too much information or sharing it in a way that could hurt you.

And hey, if you’re working with a student services consultant at PES, the great thing is that you have a built-in filter, someone who is always checking to make sure that your essay hovers just close enough to that line, without going over.

– Rachel Wassink, PES Student Services Consultant

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