20 Things to Avoid in Your Personal Statement

By Douglas Fehlen

personal statement writing tips

1. Other people. Keep the focus on yourself during personal statements, avoiding too much mention of others - even if they have inspired you in your academic pursuits. Evaluators want to know about you and your qualifications.

2. Clichés. Far too many students fall to clichéd approaches to the personal statement, for instance by relating successes through metaphors like 'winning the big game.' Avoid any essay tack evaluators are likely to deem overdone.

3. Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Personal exploits unrelated to your educational and professional goals have no place in your personal statement, particularly if they potentially shine an unflattering light on you.

4. Application information. In the personal statement, there's no need to include your grade-point average or other information asked for elsewhere. Avoid repeating any answers requested on application forms.

5. Money. The prospect of securing financial awards for school is a often a big motivational force for students preparing personal statements. Mention of money, however, should be avoided in these essays.

6. Profanity or slang. It would seem obvious that application evaluators aren't interested in your proficiency using four-letter words or slang, but some students include such inappropriate language. Don't repeat this mistake.

7. Spelling or grammatical errors. Typically academic positions are very competitive. Why, then, should evaluators select someone who doesn't bother to proofread an application? They won't, but will instead choose a more conscientious candidate.

8. Exaggeration. Unfortunately, some students feel the need to exaggerate or lie in a personal statement. Even if falsifications aren't caught during review of an application, they're likely to be discovered in an interview process.

9. Repetition. In crafting your personal statement, it's important to avoid repeating information. Poorly organized essays won't find favor among evaluators. Instead reinforce important themes in unique, strategic ways.

10. Negativity. Some students feel the need to complain about past educational experiences or circumstances that have caused them difficulty. Evaluators are more likely to respond to positive personal statements.

11. Arrogance. It's great to talk up your experience and skills in a personal statement - that's what it's for, after all. Make sure, though, to avoid any hint of arrogance, which can be off-putting.

12. Humor. Humor is often an effective communication tool. With the personal statement, however, it's difficult to know your audience (i.e., who will be evaluating your essay). Attempts at humor can easily fall flat or even offend.

13. The autobiography. The personal statement is not intended to be an event-by-event summary of your life. Rather, focus only on those aspects of your experience that are directly relevant to the position you're seeking.

14. Platitudes. Writing that you want to 'save the world' or 'make a difference' is not compelling messaging in the personal statement. Provide specific detailed information on your educational and professional goals.

15. Academic discrepancies. Don't use the personal statement to address any potential problem areas in your application, for instance, a low GPA. Instead focus on the positive in the essay, leaving explanations for the interview process.

16. Nonessential information. This is a broad suggestion, but an important one. Simply, avoid including information that does not directly support themes you've established in your essay. It will only distract from your qualifications.

17. Overly complex language. It's okay to use advanced terms relevant to your particular discipline, but don't do so in a way that is showy. As much as possible, use straightforward language that states what you want to convey in a direct way.

18. Lecturing. Your area of academic interest is very important - why else would you want to pursue it? - but lecturing others on it isn't likely to be effective. Address your topic in a dynamic, personal way that demonstrates your interest in it.

19. Confessional writing. The personal statement isn't about revealing what resides in the deepest regions of your heart. Instead, it's an opportunity to write in an intentional way about your educational and professional goals. Focus on those, avoiding irrelevant digression.

20. Lethargy. In the personal statement, it's crucial to portray yourself as an energetic, engaged individual who deserves an opportunity to shine in a given role. Make sure your writing reflects the energy and optimism you'll bring to an academic position.

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