“What means most to you and why?” Stanford GSB’s first prompt provides a great way to think about my Rule #1 for Writing a Great Personal Statement: write more like it’s a movie than an essay.
Far too many applicants begin their essay with the rote (and boring) “Value X matters most to me because…” Congratulations. In your hyper-literal reading of the prompt, you’ve instantly bored your reader, or at the very least began your essay in precisely the same way that 50% of the other applicants did. People make this mistake because they think of this as something akin to a memo or an academic essay, and not as a venue for storytelling. When you think like a screenwriter, you know that you CAN answer the question, but do so in a way that builds on storytelling, emphasizes conflict and growth, and puts YOU and your journey central.
I've seen a lot of essays in my capacity as a professional editor and consultant, and I can attest that those that convey a memorable and moving story tend to be the most successful. Stories have the ability to emotionally engage readers, explain difficult concepts in a sympathetic manner, and leave a lasting impact. Because of this, approaching your personal statement like a movie can make it pop, or at least stand out from the crowd. Personal statements that move the needle share these things in common with great movies: they have a distinct narrative, characters, and themes. A good essay brings your reader on a journey where your ACTIONS and decisions demonstrate your values. In other words, a great story allows you to showwhat’s important to you, and why.
Let's examine some of a movie's essential components and see how they apply to your personal statement:
The story: Every film has a start, middle, and end. Your personal statement needs to be organized in a way that leads the reader through your narrative. They know who were at the beginning of a story, they encounter a crisis or moment of decision with you, they understand the choice you made, and they see how it transformed you or revealed something important about you. Abstractly talking about your values is a B- essay, and if you want an A+ personal statement, you have to show them how you were willing to incur a cost or invest something of yourself to live out your values.
Characters: A movie's characters are what make it interesting to watch. Similarly, your personal statement should highlight your personality and distinguishing qualities. Make yourself come to life on the page by using descriptive details and, more importantly, taking the reader into moments of decision. Making your readers care about you and your experience is your main objective.
The theme: Many movies have underlying themes that strike a chord with their audience. Themes that unify your story should be evident in your personal statement, too. You might investigate subjects like social justice, tenacity, or resilience. Make sure your themes reflect your beliefs and objectives and explain what is most important to you. This is obviously at the heart of the “what matters most to you,” but don’t get so focused on theme that you turn the essay into an amateur treatise on the nature and importance of that value. Instead, use your story to SHOW your values.
In my experience, Stanford’s essay is one of the best in terms of separating out great, mediocre, and bad candidates. It forces applicants to focus on a theme of personal importance, but it also presents some hidden pitfalls in that many applicants allow themselves to get distracted from the importance of storytelling.
If you’re uncertain of your approach, have us help you out! Gurufi specializes in assisting candidates with creating compelling personal statements. We've assisted thousands of students in being accepted to prestigious programs all around the world, and it would be our delight to assist you as well. Our staff of knowledgeable editors and consultants is ready to help you whether you need assistance with idea generation or writing and revising your essay.
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