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International University Applications: The Personal Statement

The personal statement, or essay, is probably the most demanding component of a university application abroad. This is usually not something required in the application to university in Argentina and our students are not very familiar with this challenge.

Tuesday 15 May, 2018
The Tokyo University entrance exam results on display. With Tokyo University being the most prestigious university in Japan, passing these exams is a major step in one's personal life. By tradition, new students are cheered on by current students and thrown in the air.
The Tokyo University entrance exam results on display. With Tokyo University being the most prestigious university in Japan, passing these exams is a major step in one's personal life. By tradition, new students are cheered on by current students and thrown in the air. Foto:Chris 73-Wikimedia Commons

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Of the many tasks that are required of students applying to international universities, probably the most challenging and demanding is writing the personal statement or essay. 

Unlike the system in Argentina, where admissions to most universities is contingent mostly on secondary school records, many countries around the world implement a comprehensive evaluation of students. Usually referred to as “holistic assessment” because of their goal to assess the “whole” person rather than focus solely on past academic performance. 

This method, widely practiced in the United States and the UK, as as well as other institutions in Europe and elsewhere, introduces an additional component of the admissions evaluation, a task known in the UK as the “personal statement” and more familiar to US applicants as the “college essay”. 

The personal statement is designed to explore in-depth additional layers of information about you as a person and student than otherwise can be found only in objective and numerical indicators such as secondary school grades, test scores and even a dry list of extracurricular activities. The purpose of the personal statement is, at its core, to give applicants an opportunity to present themselves, even “market” themselves, in the best light they see fit, adding important dimensions to the file upon which an admission decision will be made. 

The personal statement exercise is both a challenge and an opportunity. It is the only place and time during the application process — with the exception of the interview where it exists — that the applicant is given a window to allow admission staff a better understanding beyond the impersonal. It is a chance to show who you are as a person, an individual, and in what ways you are a member of your community and other possible circles, your contributions, your leadership and the mark you leave behind you. 

The essay is your one shot at giving your evaluators a glimpse at your true passions, depth of your interests in certain areas and what is in your heart, unfiltered and without limitations. 

It is of utmost importance for university communities to find out how you relate to others and what are your interpersonal skills, as you will, after all, be joining a community of people whose success depends on these relationships. The statement affords you an opportunity to describe, explain and demonstrate these traits in your own life, both interpersonal and intrapersonal. 

Many applicants secretly say to themselves: “If I could only explain to the university this or that about me...if they only understood why and how.” The personal statement is a perfect medium to utilise for that end. Were there any special circumstances in your life that may have had a bearing on your academic performance, such as health issues, family crisis, economic factors, personal situations? This is your opportunity to explain. Not as a way to justify low marks or poor performance, but as a way to help understand fluctuations or result below what was expected. An otherwise outstanding student whose marks drop during one semester, can explain, for instance, that his parents were going through a very conflictive divorce that placed the family in chaos and exerted much stress on him.  

Likewise, on  the positive side, you may choose to reveal, discuss and elaborate on things about yourself that the committee otherwise will never know. For example, that in your country you published a book, or that you are a talented athlete or musician with documented accomplishments and so forth. 

The personal statement is also an indirect way for the committee to get a snapshot of your ability to think logically, be analytic, develop a coherent thought and put it into academically accepted writing level. Nowhere else in the application packet will they have an opportunity to review this skill, nor will you have a chance to show it off.   

Likewise, this is the only component of the application fully in your control, where you can choose what to present and how. This is your opportunity to shine and “sell” yourself in order to set yourself apart from other candidates with equal academic performance.

There are subtle and not so subtle differences between personal statements expectations in the UK and those in the United States. While the length they both expect is no more than 600-650 words, the content and style may vary. The UK personal statement has no prompt question and students are free to write whatever they wish. From past experience, however, we are very much aware of the fact that there is clear preference on students writing about their academic interests and strengths as well as their plans to incorporate those to their course choice. To accomplish this, you may need to consider addressing issues such as what you wish to study and why, specific aspects of the courses that interest you, examples of coursework you have completed, practical work you have experienced that will contribute to your success, specific skills you have acquired towards this course and so forth. Other personal topics are also expected but to a lesser degree of priority. 

By way of contrast, the college essay in the United States will allow an open topic presentation but, in most cases, students will respond to a question — or prompt - to guide them through the writing. The prompts usually aim at revealing certain aspects of the lives and inner self of the candidates. For example, these are some of the prompts used this year in the Common Application: “1) Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2) The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 3) Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?” 

A few final comments about your statement: first and foremost be sure you write your own. When admission committees read your essays and compare it with the rest of your application, it is actually quite easy to detect plagiarism. There is a multi-million dollar industry that lures students to buy written personal statements, there are private counsellors who offer to write it for you. Don’t be tempted by any of it. You can seek help and advice, but at the end of the day the personal statement (hence the name) must carry your voice and must match the profile that comes across in the rest of your documents, such as your records and school recommendations. Work hard on the personal statement, go through several drafts and give it your best, for it may represent the one difference in your favor and set you apart from the pack.

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