The Worst Possible Personal Statement

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Writing personal statements is hard. We have a lot of tips for writing a great one, and we spend a lot of time with our students helping them polish their prose and create an essay that beautifully shows off who they are to admissions officers. A great personal statement takes an application to the next level.

We aren’t doing that today.

Instead, in honor of April Fool’s day, we are bringing you the worst possible personal statement. We wrote this ourselves, to bring you a bit of levity and a piece of relaxation amidst the stress of college applications. We’ll also cover some of the obvious (and less obvious) mistakes the essay makes. Let’s jump in!

The Essay

My life has been a series of trials, and also tribulations. Fortunately, I have weathered this sea of woes, and am now well prepared to matriculate at Harvard (or any of the other schools I’m applying to. Look, we all know Harvard’s the best, and I don’t see why we pretend otherwise. If I’m good enough for them, I’m good enough for you too).

My struggle began freshman year, when I joined the football team. I am a talented athlete, and will definitely be an asset to any coach who wants to recruit me. My teammates were jealous of my obvious talents, and went out of their way to smash me to the ground, or let defenders through when I played quarterback. The coach lied to protect them, saying that getting tackled was part of the game, and that this would help me develop as a player. I shortly thereafter joined the equestrian team; a more civilized sport where mediocre talents cannot vent their rage upon the kneecaps of their superiors. 

Athletics is not the only area where I have had to adapt to overcome a world pitted against me. My English teacher sophomore year opposed me at every turn, sneering at my ideas as inferior minds have always lashed out at new ideas beyond their ken. Indeed, my seminal essay analyzing “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift, and exploring how these bold ideas could be applied to our current society, received a C grade, as she stated that “I clearly did not understand the work.” This is patently false; I am the only person who truly understood Swift’s vision, and I founded the Society for Ethical Population Control at my school to explore his ideas with the gravity they deserve. My club has since grown; we have a website and are working on a letter-writing campaign to have our ideas explored at a national level.

I encountered a further struggle in the summer after my junior year, after I crashed the car my father gave me for my birthday. He refused to replace it until I showed responsibility, even though I was not at fault for the accident. After all, I had the right of way, not the school bus. He insisted I do some volunteering, to show my civic virtue. Fortunately, I was able to find a volunteering trip abroad in a tropical locale. Here, I saw true poverty for the first time. It was awful. I then resolved to study business, that I might never suffer the same fate. 

This trip was difficult for me. We were expected to work five, even six hours at a time, with only an hour’s break for lunch. While I’m sure the orphans were grateful for the masterfully constructed lodgings I built, they were quite recalcitrant when I tried to organize them into doing dances for the latest TikTok trend. Fortunately, I was able to bribe them using my allowance, and the videos we created went viral, proving to my dad that I had learned my lesson. I left content that they had helped me at least as much as I had helped them, and thus had not wasted my valuable time for naught.

While life has thrown up numerous roadblocks on my path to success, I know that through my skill, intelligence, resourcefulness, resolve, diplomacy, connections, and humility I can overcome all challenges that face me. College is the next necessary step upon my journey to the success which awaits me. I can see myself now, sitting behind a mahogany desk, diploma on the wall behind me. The only question is what school will be on that diploma. Don’t hesitate, I could bring all my talents to your institution; the decision is yours.

So That Was Bad…But Why?

There are a lot of things to criticize with that essay; that’s part of why we wrote it. We encourage you to think about this now. A personal statement is meant to tell colleges who you are, both as a student and as a person. What does this essay tell you about who this student is? Would you let this student into your college if you were an admissions officer? Why or why not?

While we don’t expect any of you to write an essay like this, seeing something done this poorly can still help you understand how to succeed by virtue of providing counterexamples. We’ll go through two lists; the first are the major problems, the second are the minor.

Major Problems

  1. Tone. The author comes off as condescending, especially in how they address the reader directly throughout the essay. Directly addressing admissions officers is fine, but you should take care to show respect for their time and talents. 
  2. Values. A personal statement should demonstrate your character; what you believe and stand for. The author comes across as tone-deaf, conceited, self-absorbed, and incapable of introspection. These are not traits that colleges are keen on.
  3. Jonathan Swift. Swift’s satirical treatise “A Modest Proposal” is well known. In this essay, the author demonstrates that not only did they misunderstand the satire, but they agreed with the points. There are multiple correct interpretations of written works, and exploring your own interpretations is encouraged. However, advocating for class-based cannibalism is bad. Don’t do it.
  4. Crime. If you have committed a crime, or a crime-adjacent activity (like running into a school bus) don’t cover this in your essay. If necessary, you should discuss it in your additional information section. Also, don’t run into school buses, even if you do have the right of way.

We don’t expect you to suffer from any of the problems above. You may, however, find echoes of the more minor problems in your own writing. These are mistakes even skilled writers can make, and are things to be aware of when editing.

Minor Problems

  1. Mentioning colleges by name. This is fine to do in supplemental essays which are going to a single school, but you should never mention schools you are applying to by name in your personal statement. While the above example is extreme, this is how colleges will take it.
  2. Overstating challenges. Not everyone has overcome major challenges by the time they graduate high school, this is fine. Some students, however, believe they have to write about overcoming significant challenges in their personal statements. While the above example is exaggerated, you don’t need to write about challenges if another form of essay would suit your story better.
  3. Explaining bad grades. While this can sometimes come up organically in an essay, the best place to do this is in the additional information section. Your essay space can be better used. 
  4. Listing your values. You should demonstrate your values through what you do and learn; listing them outright is far less effective. The show, don’t tell is old advice, but no less true for that fact.
  5. Voluntourism. The example above is of course beyond the pale, but we have a whole article on the pitfalls of voluntourism, and how to show authenticity in your volunteering efforts.
  6. Motivations. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get a great job in order to earn a great salary. That said, you should not express that as your primary motivation for attending college in your application essays. Colleges are looking for passionate and dedicated students who want to help better the world, rather than students after the cynical pursuit of profit.
  7. Recruitment. Coaches do not read your application, and your athletic talents will not weigh on admissions officers unless you are specifically recruited. Even then, how much this impacts admissions varies by school.

You may or may not suffer from any of these in your own essays, but they are worth watching out for. College admissions officers are looking to admit people, not just students. They want to know what kind of person you are, so your essay should show you in the best possible light. 

Final Thoughts

We know writing essays can be difficult and hope this has given you a brief respite from worrying about your own. While college applications do require a lot of hard work, it’s good to take a break every once in a while.

If you are worried about your own applications or want to know how we can help you perfect your own essays, schedule a free consultation with us. We have long experience helping our students craft stellar personal statements; check out our essay archive for some examples. We know we can help you tell colleges your story as well.

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