The Pitfalls of the Personal Statement Essay — The Shouldn’ts in Writing It

No matter what schools they apply to or when they submit their applications, all students applying to American universities will need to write a personal statement essay: 650 words that sum up their life experiences and why a college would want to admit them. This is a tall order, and there are many different ways to write a compelling, engaging, successful personal statement. There are, however, a number of pitfalls lurking for the unwary student. Beware of the following cliches and worst practices on your road to telling your story!


Sports are an incredibly common activity among high school students, and it is incredibly difficult to find anything new or unique to say about them. Additionally, most admissions readers are not former athletes, and so sports are generally devalued as compared to other, more intellectual, pursuits. Stories about winning the championship, fighting through an injury, making the team, and other such fare will not fare well as a personal statement.


College application essays in general should avoid as much negativity as they possibly can. If you faced adversity, certainly describe its impact, but do not dwell on it. Instead, overcome it, emerging from the experience triumphant. Readers should be left feeling inspired by the end of your story, not melancholy or feeling sorry for you.

Sick or Injured Family, Including Yourself

This is also a common topic and one that lends itself to too much of the negativity discussed above. It is also hard to derive a unique lesson or moral or personal growth from such a story, especially if there was no triumph or can be no triumph, in the case of a chronic condition.

Resume Listing

One of the most common pitfalls for accomplished students is the temptation to turn their personal statement into a narrative resume. Do not try to pack too many activities or accomplishments into your essay; focus on telling a good story, and cut out anything that feels shoehorned in. If you can tell that an essay is just loosely bound bragging, an admissions reader will, too.

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