A Guide to Writing College Application Statements

12/04/23 | 7 MIN READ

The Purpose of College Statements

College statements are often called “personal insights,” or  “personal statements.”

These statements allow the applicant to reflect on and share their background about what they have done in their high school years. A high school career's relevance is showing admissions and reviewers how you have prepared for college and stand out with the available opportunities. That being said, it might not be clear what it means to stand out. More often than not, high school students confuse standing out with believing there is an ideal mold that they must fit into. Speaking to high schoolers, some share “I need to be an extraordinary applicant,” “How do I stand out?” The issue with these questions is that they are asked under the assumption that there is a formula that needs to be followed, and that assumption is far from the truth. In all reality, there is no way to measure someone's success as a college student readily. It is heavily emphasized that colleges consider honorable merits, such as high grades, a challenging curriculum, and standardized tests. These measurements are more common and provide performance feedback but do not represent the entire applicant. College admissions need to review the college statements because they aim to embody the applicant's genuine character. Through well-constructed questions and answers, admission officers can better gauge the student applicant and how the student might fit into their campus.

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🔬Learn About: Applying to Undergraduate Education

What do I Write About?

When writing these statements you might wonder what is acceptable to include in statements. For one, when responding to the prompt it is best to personalize the statement. The application portal will provide space to fill in activities and extracurriculars. The application will also already have a section for classes, grades, awards, and honors. Hence, whatever information is on your resume and transcript is already available to admission officers, so there is no interest for them to hearing this information again. Personalizing statements can be easy because almost every campus will request at least one statement from you. That being said, when a school requests a statement, the prompt and guidelines will also be written out. The prompts usually stay the same year to year, but they are different across each campus. When applying for multiple schools, you might notice that there are similarities in the questions, which means your statements will only need minor tweaks and adjustments. That being said, there is no way to state each question collectively. Instead, we will try to understand the possible college statements that can be submitted by painting a diagram of the topics commonly requested. 

Open-ended Questions

No matter what, there will be open-ended questions because they are meant to invite the responder to share more about themselves and their experiences. When an applicant effectively uses the response it provides an in-depth explanation of their background. A few items to keep in mind when responding to the open-ended questions is to personalize the response. Schools want to know why you have chosen to pursue their school, specific major, and what motivates you to continue pursuing education. Try to use language that can be presumed as personal and stray away from that which can sound arrogant. The best approach is to respond to these statements concisely, confidently, and in a way that tells a story. It is true that “Less is simple, and simple is better.” Begin with an anecdote that sets up a framework hinting at the rest of your statement. Possible anecdotes might be highlighting and demonstrating characteristics or describing a small scene from one of your experiences that might be a defining moment. No matter how you present responses, remember to capture the reader's attention and write organically. In the end, college statements are mere writing prompts and the best advice I ever received for writing is “How you write, is how you will talk, and writing conveys intelligence.” 

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Assigned Topic

Although all questions are open-ended, some applications will assign narrow topics to respond to. Assigned topics are quick short response prompts. These prompts are meant to help the applicant answer the free-response statements. Given they are free-response, these sections will have a word, character, or line limit. Typically the limit will be about 350 words (not counting spaces), that is about 2,000 characters, and about 20 to 30 lines of space. Vaguely stated example topics may include: 

  • Leadership experiences that have positively influenced others?
  • How do you express your creative side?
  • What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? 
  • Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity.
  • Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
  • Describe how you have furthered your academic interest inside and outside the classroom.
  • What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  • What do you believe makes you a strong candidate for admission?   
  • Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it.
  • How has the world you come from shaped your dreams and aspirations?

Please note that the list provided is a general list of prompts that were commonly asked. The list was based on multiple undergraduate application portals and the question is not written verbatim. Instead, the questions were compiled and generally stated as topics found in the prompts. Always read the application for the school you are applying to and make sure that you submit the correct version to the school. 

Unassigned Topic

Unassigned topics will still be open-ended questions, but these questions use more broad language. Since these questions are broader and can encompass answers to the assigned topics in a well-thought-out essay, the allowed space to respond is typically much larger. Most of these statements will range from a minimum of 500 words to a maximum of 2000 words. That means you should be submitting anywhere from two to six paragraphs. These essays have higher variability in responses, but their purpose still aims to understand the applicant and the depth of their experiences. Prompts you might find that are less focused might sound like this:

  • Tell us your story.
  • Where do you see yourself in the future?
  • What’s a hot take?
  • How do you want to be remembered?
  • Do you have regrets?    

These questions are a general list of questions that might be asked in a college admissions application. Even though there is less direction in the questions and the prompt is broad, sometimes these questions make for better statements. It gives room to explain in-depth stories and be free with writing. When done correctly, college admission directors can get to understand you through your skills and traits. These skills may not be immediately known, but you might expose your thinking process in the application. With this matter in mind, be aware of both the questions that come up and the different cases in which they are asked. 

Additional/ Supplemental Questions 

If these questions do not come up in your college statements, it is good to know that some institutions conduct interview processes for admissions. Others might also offer supplemental questions if you are being considered for a scholarship. In other cases, the school might be interested in offering you a spot, but they want to know more before offering a guaranteed offer. In the case that you are asked to submit supplemental statements, the school will send a clear notification. That notification might be a request for an interview, or additional questions because you are being considered for a scholarship or admission. Be prepared to answer any of these questions and other possible ones that might not be mentioned above. Again this blog outlines a vague view of the college statements for the admission process. 

🔬Learn About: Interview Prepration

How to Stand Out

To stand out to admission officers leave an impression in your statements. Leaving an impression can be done in many ways, but focus on being genuine. The more genuine, the more authentic and unique your statement will be. Admission officers have been reading statements for decades, so a cliche statement is apparent. These reviewers might not reveal their holistic review to others, but having so much experience, they see the value in outstanding authentic statements versus trite statements. No one has lived your life and so writing statements can be made unique following four main qualities. 

  • Value
  • Vulnerability 
  • Insight 
  • Craft 

Value

Pick out 4 to 5 core quality values that show your motivation and why you take the action you do. Examples of core values include autonomy, resourcefulness, diversity, perseverance, and adaptability. All values have variations and can represent someone's ethics in a social environment. When discussing your values they should be told in the form of a vulnerable study that explains how you gained these values or where they came from. 

Vulnerability 

Being vulnerable in any situation is tough, so converting these feelings and thoughts on paper can be increasingly challenging. After reading your responses, the person reading the application should know more about you and feel closer to you. The responses should sound like they came from your innermost thoughts and reveal who you are and who you want to be. Being vulnerable on paper requires one to reflect on who they are today and the experiences that have shaped them. When being vulnerable every part shared should be significant. Aside from relating the story to your values, it should offer insight.

Insight 

The insight in your statement is valuable because it provides a deep intuitive understanding of your journey. Sometimes it is helpful to ask yourself “So what,” because it helps put into perspective the relevance of your life situations. These should be illuminating moments that highlight interesting connections that you have experienced. The easiest and most practical way of accomplishing this goal is taking the lessons you learned during your experiences and then applying them to your life outlook/practices more broadly. Sharing every part of these points successfully does require a certain level of craftiness.

Craft

It is easier to tell pieces of the story but having great structure in statements is often underestimated. Being able to put together one’s ideas is a skill. Every idea should connect and it should flow together seamlessly. A well-developed statement shows attention to detail and consideration for presenting logical and cohesive content. Pay attention to how you present yourself, specifically emphasizing the chronological order of events. Start by sharing a hook or anecdote. Then share defining values. Expand on these values by vulnerably sharing what experiences brought to light these values. Finish by tying everything together and presenting clearly what you learned in the process and any insight that can be applied in the future. 

Once your statements are put together, seek a peer reviewer.

Peer Reviewing

After writing your statements, consider any initial statement as a bad draft. Find someone who can peer review and edit your statements. Having others read your statements is helpful because another pair of fresh eyes can help improve your application. When going through the peer review process it is good to reach out to people who also went through the same application process and know/understand what each school is looking for in their applicant's statements. If you are the first in your family to attend college, finding peer reviewers around you can be especially challenging. Remember a peer reviewer can be anyone such as a teacher or friend. There are also free and available organizations/resources, often on high school campuses, that can help students fine-tune their statements.      

Editing and Submitting

At the end of the peer review process, take every comment seriously and continue editing, reviewing, and editing, until the statements seem like they cannot get any better. Every statement submitted she seamlessly flows. In the end, once you feel that they are as good as they can get, you are ready to submit. Best of luck in writing your college statements and may these statements be the beginning of your college years.

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