Accessibility links

Breaking News

Step One to a Personal Statement for College: Make Sure It's Personal

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: writing a personal statement for college.

RS: Rachel Toor is the author of "Admissions Confidential: An Insider's Account of the Elite College Selection Process." She worked for three years in undergraduate admissions at Duke University in North Carolina. Since then, one thing she's been doing is counseling college applicants on their essays.

RACHEL TOOR: "And I did some work with international students, mostly students from England, who were applying to American colleges and universities. And they tend to write these very formal, treatise-like documents: 'This is who I am and these are the things I've studied and this is what I expect to study at university.'

"And that may be fine for the U.K. system, but at least at American colleges and universities, it's a much more subjective process. The admissions staffs know all those things already. They know what courses they're taking, they know what their academic interests are.

"So, really, the rhetorical task of a document like that is to shed some insight into who the person is and how they think and what they're going to be like in the classroom, what they're going to be like in the dining hall, what kind of a friend they're going to be, how they're going to teach other students about the world."

RS: "Well, how do you go about doing that? What kind of advice would you give to a foreign student who's applying to college in the United States, so that their personal essay doesn't sound typical?"

RACHEL TOOR: "Well, one of the first things to understand is that it has to be personal. Good writing is vivid and specific in its details. What I often encourage students to write about is their families, because everybody has a family and everybody's family is weird in one way or another.

"And I tend to encourage students not to write about the things like -- this is a standard American essay: 'I went to a foreign country and discovered that poor people can be happy.' This is the standard kind of mission-trip essay, where they go into another culture and, bingo, they have this epiphany that there are people who are different from them but in some ways they're similar and they share similar insights and values."

AA: "You saw this when you were at Duke?"

RACHEL TOOR: "I probably read about twelve hundred essays just like that. And the thing is, it's an important experience for students to have. I'm just saying, when they write about it, they tend to be less insightful.

"You know, I had one of my favorite essays was by a student who started out saying: 'My car and I are a lot alike. I drive a nineteen eighty-seven Buick Century. It's brown and red; the red is rust. It goes from zero to sixty -- well, you know, it actually never hits sixty. When it rains, it smells like a wet dog, but I love my car, and here are the reasons why.' And by understanding what he was saying about his car, it gave me a sense of who he was as a person.

"And I think for foreign students, it feels often self-indulgent, it feels boastful, it feels immodest. But really, they don't have to be personal and spilling lots of gory details about things we don't really what to know about, but they have to be specific to the person."

RS: "One of the things that I think that foreign students might be timid about is actually revealing, not the gory details, as you say, but just revealing things about themselves, going personal."

RACHEL TOOR: "Yeah, and it's exactly antithetical to what they're taught in English classes. And even in the United States, you know, the first thing that you do when you start teaching in college is you unteach the five-paragraph essay: there's an introduction, there are three supporting paragraphs and then there's a conclusion.

"And one of the things that we try to do when they get to college is to say: 'You know what? It's more complicated than that.' Sometimes you can do it in three paragraphs, and sometimes you need five pages if it's a more complex idea. So I think that the way they're taught to write in expository writing classes doesn't serve them well when they're asked to do different kinds of writing.

"You know, I worked with a student from China, and she was a very, very smart girl and a very, very good student, but she tended to overreach, and so she would use words that seemed more complex and more complicated and harder and bigger, but that didn't feel like the way she expressed herself. So what I try to encourage students to do is -- and I think it's harder when it's not your first language -- but to be more conversational and less formal in this kind of writing, because, again, that allows voice and personality to come through."

RS: Rachel Toor is now an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. More on this topic next week.

AA: And that's WORDMASTER for now. For more help with American English, go to With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.