By: Victoria Gaor
Columbia University Nursing
When people talk about how to write a personal statement, the main focus is usually content. However, content alone may not be enough to make your personal statement stand out. Remember, it’s not just what you’re writing about, but also how you’re writing it.
Having a well-written essay could make all the difference to admissions committees who have to go through hundreds of statements. Grammatical errors and poor stylistic choices in your writing can distract readers from what you are trying to say and may come off as disorganized or even unprofessional.
After reading many personal statements, I’ve picked out 5 common issues that people often overlook. Here are some helpful tips and reminders to improve your writing so your personal statement can shine in every way!
1) Don’t Overuse Words or Phrases
It can be hard to notice how often you are using certain words or phrases, but repetition can be glaringly obvious to an outside reader and make your essay sound tedious. People tend to repeat certain adjectives, healthcare terms, and transition words (like “thus” or “furthermore”). Do a quick control+F of your essay to search for your favorite words or phrases and replace a few of them with synonyms (or if possible, delete the word altogether). The thesaurus is your friend!
2) Choose Your Words Wisely
Yes, the thesaurus is your friend. However, this comes with a word of caution. Make sure you fully understand the meaning of the words you choose. This means more than just looking up the definition. Make sure you understand the connotation associated with a specific word, as this can greatly affect your tone and what you are trying to convey.
Remember, words sometimes have a positive or negative connotation, evoking either positive or negative emotions and associations. While two words may in essence have the same definition, they don’t necessarily imply the same meaning.
Think of the different feelings you get when describing a place of living as a “house” versus a “home.” What about the “stench” versus “aroma” of a person? Sometimes, these differences can be much subtler.
3) Vary Your Sentence Structure
This is another easy way to keep your writing from sounding tedious. I have found that people tend to avoid using short sentences. While a series of short sentences can certainly sound too simple or halting, on the other hand, too many long sentences can become frustratingly wordy and difficult for your readers to follow. More people have issues with wordy and run-on sentences. Don’t be scared to break them up. Ask yourself: can this be split into two sentences and still convey my meaning?
There are other ways to use varying sentence structures to your advantage. For example, a sudden, concise sentence (especially when contrasting a previously long sentence) can be used to emphasize a point or grab the reader’s focus. Think of it as an exclamation point at the end of a paragraph.
4) Get Rid of Filler and Fluff
Most personal statement prompts have a word or page limit. You don’t want to waste your valuable space. Spend your words on the ideas that matter most.
On a micro level, comb through your essay and delete unnecessary adjectives that don’t truly add to your narrative. If you can’t omit words, at least replace them with more meaningful and descriptive ones. Make every word count.
On a more big-picture level, make sure you are not wasting space in your essay with unnecessary story-telling. I’ve seen a lot of people use up 3/4 of their essay setting up a story, only to use the last quarter explaining what they learned from it and actually answering the essay prompt. Don’t fall into this trap. It’s important to captivate your audience. Just don’t forget that your personal statement has a purpose.
Sometimes you need to take a step back and simply remind yourself again, “What question do I need to answer? Am I actually answering it?” Don’t make the admissions committee guess why you should go to their school.
5) Stay Organized
Naturally, you’ll have so much you want to say in your personal statement. However, you need to make sure your essay flows and is not just a jumble of different ideas. Stick to a few main points and make sure you structure your entire essay around those points.
One strategy I use all the time when editing statements is color coding! Choose a color for each main idea, then highlight all pieces of supporting evidence (these are your anecdotes, your reflections, etc.) related to that particular point in the same color. This way, you can easily visualize which ideas may be lacking or have excessive evidence. You can also identify areas where you have just thrown in random ideas without fleshing them out, which does nothing to contribute to the strength of your essay (which is, in essence, an argument).
In the end, sometimes the easiest way to catch these mistakes is with a fresh pair of eyes. Read your essay out loud to yourself, have friends read it, or if you need further help, consider using our personal statement review services!