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Finding the Focus of a Personal Statement

Writing an effective personal statement is a harder job than many applicants expect it to be. Often it's not just a question of content, but of focus and tone.

One time I worked with an applicant who obviously had a lot of great attributes. She had done well in school despite having first to overcome a personal illness, and then cope with a serious illness in her family. That was a big achievement. But a sense of achievement is not what came through when I read the first draft of her personal statement.

Her first draft and early revisions were almost too much about the difficulties she had faced. Of course, in a case like hers, you do want the admissions committee to appreciate that you accomplished something in spite of unusual hardships. But you don't want to sound like you're asking for a sympathy vote. The focus should be on your abilities and your accomplishments, and how the challenges you have faced in your life have made you the person you are today. It's a question of communicating the information appropriately.

We went back and forth on this issue a lot. It took a lot of time to turn her essay around so that it communicated her maturity. I knew that quality was there, and that admissions committees would value it. But I did have to work to get the client to go back and draw it out of her experience.

It was worth the effort. The client was accepted to her top choice programs. I like to think, too, that she came away from our work together with a better appreciation of what she had accomplished, and of the strengths she was bringing to her graduate studies and to her career.

– Contributed by Senior Consultant Heather MacNeill, former Assistant Director of Graduate Admission at Pacific University.

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