How important are personal statements?

Student walking

The competition to get into highly selective universities is getting tougher each year. This past year Stanford accepted 5% of the 42,497 students who applied for undergraduate admission. Harvard admitted only 6% of 37,307 applicants. The number of applications to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) surpassed 100,000 in 2017.
Still, in general, admission to American universities is not as competitive as you may think. Fewer than 100 universities in the United States are highly selective, meaning that they accept less than 25% of applicants. Close to 500 institutions accept more than 75% of applicants. The challenge is not getting in. The real challenge is finding universities that are a good match for you.

What are universities really looking for?

Exposure to a rigorous high school curriculum is the best predictor of performance in university. Unsurprisingly, for American universities, the most important factors in admission decisions for the Fall 2015 admission cycle were: grades in university preparatory courses, strength of curriculum, overall high school GPA, and admission test scores.

For international students, the English proficiency test score was the top factor, 85% rated it as considerably important. All other factors for admission decisions were rated remarkably similar to those for domestic students. There was one exception: the essay/writing sample. It was also considerably more important for international students. Twenty-two percent of universities rated it as considerably important for domestic students compared to 37% for international students. Why? The answer is simple. Admission offices likely use it as another indicator of English proficiency.

Source: 2015 NACAC State of College Admissions

Tell me more about personal statements

Widely considered by universities as the fifth most important element of most applications, personal statements are a big source of stress for many students. Why? Well, there are several reasons. Perhaps the most important reason is that many students start writing them at the last minute. It’s hard to do anything well in a rush. Our students begin work on their essays during the summer months.


Another challenge is that personal statements put us in a conundrum. The essay prompts appear to ask you to be great, to be remarkable. With so many others applying for a limited number of spots, how could you try to sound anything less than awesome? At the same time, you’ve been taught not to “brag about yourself.” Negotiating this can feel like a catch-22. You can’t win either way.

So many students try to impress by using big words. You are after all applying for admission to a university. Sounding smart seems like the right thing to do. Other students, worried that they have underachieved, emphasize deeds they think would appeal to an admissions committee. The danger in this approach is that you miss the opportunity to show who you really are. Remember: You are not yet expected to be a university graduate. Admissions officers are more interested to learn what makes you tick, to learn about your passion and commitment.


It goes without saying that you should give yourself ample time to write your personal statements. You’ll need time to understand how your goals and interests align with those of your preferred universities. In essence what you need to do is make a case, and the case is why you and the school are a perfect match. To do this well, you need to give yourself time.


You can also use the extra-time to review the other parts of your application. Personal statements are your best opportunity to introduce yourself to the admissions committee. Be sure to provide information that is not contained in other parts of the application. What else do you want the university to know about you? Use the personal statement to demonstrate what makes you unique, and how you will contribute to the university community.

Here are some things you’ll need to do:

1. Be yourself

Universities are genuinely interested in getting to know you. Be yourself. In many ways, the personal statement is a love letter to the university. You want to display your best qualities in an honest way. You want the university to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be, so you can make a good match.

2. Highlight different aspects of yourself

Universities like interesting students. Personal statements are your chance to differentiate yourself from other applicants. They give you a chance to highlight a strength or to address a weakness. Show how the university will be a better place with you strolling its halls.

3. Be specific

Each university is different. Therefore, each personal statement should be different. Admission officers are able to spot generic essays.

4. Follow directions

It is absolutely possible to say all you need to say within the word limit. Don’t give admission officers a reason to red-flag your application. If you can’t find ways to be concise, ask for advice. Shameless plug: we can help.

5. Tell a story

Admission officers read hundreds of personal statements. You want your statement to engage not bore them. Make yourself memorable by sharing a personal anecdote using a creative angle.
VerveSmith helps students find universities and programs that match their aspirations, and to develop an admissions application strategy. For additional help, contact us.

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