What Schools Look for in a Personal Statement
by Chino Baluyut


The season for private high school applications begins in the fall.  A significant part of this process is for prospective 9th graders to answer an essay prompt and write a thoughtful 250-word “personal statement.”

What do admissions officers look for when they peruse through thousands of essays?  The Sentence Center interviewed admissions directors from Bay Area private schools, and here are the top five qualities that they seek.

1) Unique Voice and Creativity

The personal statement should be, as its label indicates, a narrative that could have only been written by a specific individual.  As such, admissions directors want to read about unique experiences that give an insight to the applicant’s character. According to a representative from Lick Wilmerding, each essay should reflect one’s personality and individuality. Memorable essays, says the Admissions Director of Sacred Heart Atherton, leave an indelible mark. She went on to give an example of how a student wrote that “the mirror” is an invention that the world would be better off without. Why? So that people would care less about their personal appearances.

2) Daring and Curiosity

Schools love kids who are risk takers. They see this quality by looking at a child’s varied interests outside of school.  According to an admissions officer from Drew School, essays that reflect a teenager’s willingness to try new things – hobbies, passions, entrepreneurial pursuits – is a huge plus. In fact, institutions such as The Urban School encourage its applicants not to disregard any of their previous endeavors, even if the activity is deemed unpopular. Worked as a lifeguard or referee this summer? Built a hydroponics system in your backyard? School administrators would rather read about those topics instead of the usual baseball and soccer experiences.

3) Thoroughness

Not to be ignored, of course, is careful essay formatting and writing thoroughness.  Saint Ignatius College Prep’s admission officers keep a close watch on each essay’s word count and avoidable errors. Similarly, a meticulous spelling check and grammar edit reveals much about how much time the applicant has spent on the essay.  University High School’s Director of Admissions always recommends spending ample time on applications and avoiding procrastination.

4) Collaboration

Schools such as Nueva place a premium on a student’s ability to work in a group setting. As more high school classes today depend on collaboration, teachers want students who can be team players. What better way to showcase this than by writing about a beach cleanup or a tough rugby match.

5) Authenticity

Finally, schools want to see the actual student on paper.  Because applicants are asked to write essays on the spot during the SSAT and ISEE, admission directors can detect whether a third party prepared an applicant’s personal statment.  Crystal Springs Uplands School, for example, regards authenticity and consistency in writing as crucial for admission into their institution. Minor edits and cosmetic changes are fine, according to an admissions officer from University High School, but changes to content and sentence structure will be detectable.

These are the top five qualities that schools look for when reading a personal statement. Though this may be a tall order, the best advice I have heard is simply to allow an applicant to focus on one’s passions.  This way, the young writer will care enough about his or her essay to make it truly matter.


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