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How Personal is Too Personal?

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How Personal is Too Personal in Your Application Essays?

The personal statement is a terrific opportunity to share an intriguing and unique aspect of your life with the admissions committees. How much should you tell? At what point are you crossing the line into TMI? 

When I applied to college, I wrote a personal statement describing some challenging family circumstances I’d had while growing up. I can still remember my best friend warning me that it was too risky, too intense. So I went back to the essay and asked myself: What did I learn from this experience? Does it speak to my strengths and individual qualities, or is it something meant for a therapist’s office or a private journal?

I studied the essay carefully and made sure it gave the reader a good sense of who I really was, and that it wasn’t just about the people in my family. I was careful to focus on what I had learned from these challenges and how the experience had made me grow into a more independent, compassionate person.

I decided to send it in and I was accepted. In fact, one admissions counselor even wrote me a personal note about my essay! So in that case, taking the leap was well worth it. But, in some cases, it is not.

What are the adcoms looking for?

All admissions committees want to accept a wide range of interesting, talented applicants. They want – as you would, if you were picking a team of any sort – a diverse group of smart, motivated, innovative individuals who can come together to create a dynamic, richly layered community. They want people with integrity who will get along with others, and they want people who will enhance their campus community in an endless variety of ways. They also want applicants who are resilient, stable and confident, and who have already achieved important things in their lives.

How do you choose a personal, but not too personal essay topic?

Prepare for your personal statement by listing the most meaningful and significant events in your life. Which experiences really changed you, influenced you, and made you the person you are today?

Questions you may want to address that would offer lively, distinctive essay material include:

  • Did you grow up overseas?
  • Do you speak several languages?
  • Are you from a cultural background that might make you stand out or may have enriched your life in a special way?
  • Do you have a handicap that has in fact made you stronger?
  • Do you love to cook Thai food, run marathons, play the piano?
  • Do you have a passion or interest that gives meaning to your life?
  • What have you had to work really hard at?
  • When have your values been challenged and how did you respond?
  • When have you had to take a risk? What was at stake?
  • Have you had to overcome a personal challenge?


READ: 7 Simple Steps to Writing an Excellent Diversity Essay >>

Mark the questions that helped you clarify your values and your direction in life. The situations you describe can be personal, but only up to a point: beware of revealing too much that is emotionally intimate. Ask yourself: Do these experiences make me sound emotionally unstable, ambivalent, or insecure? If so, don’t bring them to the admissions committee. But if your topic has helped you become stronger and wiser, then I’d consider it a viable option.

Tips for sharing personal stories

Here are a few additional tips to help you determine if your personal statement is too personal or just right for displaying your inner truths and ambitions:

  1. Always be honest, but avoid overdramatization. Admissions committees can smell exaggeration from a mile away!

  2. Don’t give details about your current or past romantic relationships. This is information to share with your therapist or best friend, but not the adcom!

  3. Don’t focus your anecdotes on resentment, anger, or other feelings of ill will. Instead, focus on strength, recovery, and growth – in short, resilience.

  4. Don’t simply write about an experience that happened. Instead, emphasize what you learned from the experience and show how it has changed you. Describe how your new self-knowledge has led you to make new, perhaps bolder decisions, revealing you as a more mature, evolved individual. 

With these guidelines in mind, start your creative engines and begin to write! Be authentic, be yourself, and show how your life experiences have helped you grow.

The expert advisors at Accepted can help you with your application essays, from choosing a topic (and making sure it’s an appropriate one!) to putting the final touches and making it ready to submit. Explore our Graduate Application Services and we’ll match you with a personal admissions coach who will help you GET ACCEPTED.

From Example to Exemplary: How to Use Sample Essays to Make Your Essay Outstanding

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This article originally appeared on blog.accepted.com