Mistake #1 - Starting the essay by introducing oneself rather than the story Many students have the perception they must introduce themselves immediately. After all, it’s a personal statement, right? Well, by starting with something like, “I have always wanted to be a computer scientist…” or “I am a Chinese high school student with big goals…” you not only fail to grab the reader’s attention with something interesting or surprising, but you start too broad. Instead use an individual story (an anecdote) to represent something larger about yourself. This is what is meant by the ever-common advice to “show don’t tell”.
Mistake #2 - Failing to add a proper thesis statement (or paragraph) In the writing world, this is called a billboard statement (or paragraph), and it tells the reader what the piece is about. This statement is an important transition from the attention-grabbing introduction to the theme(s) you will address in the rest of the essay. If you are struggling to find your thesis statement, look for your first declarative sentence, then flush it out.
Mistake #3 - Forgetting to demonstrate a personal value or lesson (or making it unclear) Tasked with assembling classes of students who are likely to succeed yet unique in every other way, admissions officers look for distinctive demonstrations of character. By infusing a personal value (or two or four) and/or an important lesson learned into your essay, you exhibit being the type of student they want on their campuses. Include this in your outline to ensure it is included in your personal statement. If you read through your essay and find your personal value or lesson missing, go back to the outlining stage of writing.
Mistake #4 - Missing topic sentences When writing a personal statement - which is radically different from academic writing - it’s easy to let the point get lost in the details. Start each paragraph with a topic sentence to make your writing cohesive and to guide the reader through your writing. Because Chinese students are taught a different writing style in school, I find missing topic sentences to be an extremely common mistake. To avoid this blunder, write a reverse outline.
Mistake #5 - Sounding too formal or too casual You don’t want to sound like a thesaurus, and you don’t want to sound like you’re texting your friends. Instead, write as you would to an older relative - polished but conversational.
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