College Personal Statements: Get Real


Writing is Rewriting – James Michener






Tell us about a personal quality or accomplishment that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud? How does it relate to the person you are?*

*University of California prompt

The College Admission Essay prompts your teenager (in 450 words or less) to reveal her true inner self.  Geez, why not ask high school seniors to explain the meaning of life or expound upon the Fibonacci Series while they’re at it?

For adults, writing a personal statement is about as challenging as brewing tea. Mr. UnHollywood and I have had years to steep over loss, love, adversity and triumph. Judging by how often our kids don their Beatz sound-silencing headphones, we may have overdone it on recounting Glory Days. The point is adults revel in describing personal qualities and accomplishments. Millions are doing it right now on

The same cannot be said for most eighteen year-olds who fear Personal Statements more than Behind-The-Wheel Driving Tests. At times my own kids’ self expressions are best summed up through FB status and Tweets. With overscheduled lives, SAT’s, and SnapChat, how much time does a teenager really have to mull over his own qualities and then write about them in an interesting, authentic way?

Volunteering in writing classes at Beverly Hills High School or meeting privately with students to review their Personal Statements, I have yet to read a first draft ready for launch.  Most essays avoid getting real. After an initial read, the student and I talk. Frequently, the seriousness of the essay’s tone does not sound at all like the student sitting next to me.

My real problem is when the seriousness drowns out a teenager’s voice. A missing voice tipoff is word choice. They’ll write ‘amongst,’ ‘thus,’ ‘nonplussed’ and other seemingly sophisticated words that at best sound as awkward as a gurgling stomach, post-Chipolte.

Another way seriousness mucks up an essay is in theme. In their zeal to appear mature, some students write about subjects that are not, in fact, part of their everyday lives. Or they take an incident and try to infuse it with a degree of complexity that comes off like drizzling truffle oil over French Fries. Get real.

Motivation and hard work trump all the first draft goofs. At times, students just need a fresh reader to help them see flaws and make necessary edits. Other times, they realize it’s best to scrap it and start over. I pity the teenager who misses the rewrite opportunity because they waited too long to begin their College Essay or they mistakenly think they have a winner on their hands on the first try.

College essays are like pancakes, the first ones out of the pan aren’t very tasty.

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Author Description

Cynthia Baseman

Cynthia Baseman is the author of 'Love, Mom: A Mother's Journey from Loss to Hope.' She writes about motherhood, the environment and education.

There are 12 comments. Add yours

  1. 6th December 2012 | Donna Tetreault says: Reply
    Wow, lots to look forward to! Great advice. Just trying to get first son into Kinder and this is already more than I imagined. Seems as though kinder kids' parents are already thinking, "feeder to what college/Ivy???" The pressure is waaaaay too much! Take a deep breath and know college acceptance is more than just one essay!
  2. 4th December 2012 | Matt Steiner says: Reply
    This is really funny and very well-written. My favorite part of the post is about maintaining a student's voice (or finding it) in the application essay. I can't tell you how often I read personal statements that are filled with five-dollar words and lose their sense of authenticity. Excellent writing doesn't need to 'sound' just needs to be truthful and whole. I will now get off of my soapbox. ;)
  3. 2nd December 2012 | Jim Bennett says: Reply
    Be patient Baseman truth will be revealed line by line.
  4. 2nd December 2012 | Mom says: Reply
    It's a wonderful life. Young adults face fierce challenges to compete in a world of great expectations. Thank goodness that they have family and friends who can cheer them on to the ladder of success.
  5. 1st December 2012 | Brookela says: Reply
    Oh thanks for reminding me how much I'm looking forward to the next round, LOL! How 'bout you?
    • 1st December 2012 | Cynthia Baseman says: Reply
      You know me. I do enough worrying for me and my kid. It works out nice for him...
  6. 1st December 2012 | Carpool Goddess says: Reply
    It was just last year that Mini-Me was writing her college essays. I'm so glad that's over! The writing and rewriting seemed endless and so stressful on top of everything else the seniors needed to do. Excellent point BHMom, start early!
  7. 1st December 2012 | Jordan says: Reply
    Great advice. You are so right about the seriousness sometimes drowning out the student's voice. A friend of mine growing up got into Harvard from an essay about her love of doodling. The readers of personal statements probably need comic relief sometimes!
  8. 30th November 2012 | Evelyn Alexander says: Reply
    Very true! Parents of seniors should have read this three months ago. I can't tell you how many last-minute versions I've read in the past 48 hours - and they could all use weeks more of mulling and editing. Parents of juniors - TAKE HEED! Start the college search process now. There's a finite amount of work to be done, and waiting until the last minute doesn't reduce the amount of work, just the amount of time your student has to complete it. The other thing you didn't mention, Cynthia, is that it's very hard for parents to be reviewers and editors of their own children's work. You can't see your own child objectively, nor read their life stories without adding your own experience. Make sure your child has an objective third party read his/her essays - be it an English teacher, coach, clergymember or independent college counselor.
    • 30th November 2012 | Cynthia Baseman says: Reply
      I agree it's best to have an objective reader. Besides, what senior actually believes what their mom or dad has to say?:)
  9. 30th November 2012 | sandy says: Reply
    Ugh! so true! we r down to the wire...uc apps r due today!!! my brain is so fried! thanks for your blog. Reading it as i sit here drinking my coffee, i realize im not the only one....
    • 30th November 2012 | Cynthia Baseman says: Reply
      Take a deep breath and have another cup of coffee. With a mom like you, I'm sure your senior will do just fine.

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