Keeping Your College Personal Statement the Right Length
Achieving an ideal length for your college personal statement can make the difference between a personal statement that is read in its entirety, one that is skimmed, or one that is quickly dismissed. This is something that many applicants struggle with as they work to create their personal statements. And it is completely understandable. In an effort to fully convey a story or to explain complicated situations, people often end up with a college personal statement that is significantly longer that what is allowed for the application process.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for applicants to write out their entire essay, only to realize that they will need to cut one-third or more of the essay to bring it within the personal statement word or character count limits. However, this situation can be avoided through careful planning so that you can keep your college personal statement the right length.
The most amazing anecdote, the story of your above-and-beyond most significant accomplishment, or the explanation of the most challenging experience will not work in your favor if it does not fit into the length of the essay. Therefore, brainstorming your essay ideas and creating a basic outline will prove helpful in the creation of your college personal statement. If you know you only have 500 words to work with, decide in advance how much space to devote to each paragraph and stick to it when you are in the actual writing process.
Even if There are No Set Word Counts or Character Limits for Your College Personal Statement, Take Your Program’s Guidelines Very Seriously
Programs are increasingly imposing hard word count or character count limits, especially for centralized application systems. However, other programs offer guidelines, approximate, or ‘ideal’ lengths while still allowing you to submit a college personal statement that is the length that you choose. While your application will not be rejected outright if you include a personal statement that is significantly longer, take your program’s guidelines very seriously. They’re telling you what they want. They’re just also giving you some leeway to say what you need to say.
For this reason, don’t view ‘soft’ guidelines as a free-for-all. Not going over 10% of the recommended length is a good rule. Therefore, if the program asks for a single-spaced personal statement of approximately one page, think carefully before submitting a college personal statement that is longer than one page and one paragraph. The admissions committee will be happy to read an extra paragraph for a strong essay.
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Here’s an example of a common prompt: ”A personal statement of 1,000 words or less from the nominee describing his or her background, interests, plans for graduate study and career aspirations. The statement should include a discussion of some experiences and ideas that have shaped those interests, plans and aspirations.”
As Mary Tolar has noted, “If you are applying for nationally competitive scholarships, for graduate school, or for a number of post-graduate service or employment opportunities, you have seen the vaguely phrased request; in one form or another, it comes down to “tell us something about yourself… You are asked to share your “academic and other interests. A clearer charge might be: compose an essay that reveals who you are, what you care about, and what you intend to do in this life. Tell this story in a compelling manner, and do so in less than a thousand words. What’s so hard about that? Simply make sense of your life. (right.) But what does that mean?”
The personal statement is more like a genre than a rubric; there are set of constraints, but no formulas. This means that we need to triangulate our understanding of what it will be with more than one piece of advice rather than a single definition.
For that reason, I recommend you begin by printing out Mary Tolar’s advice. Highlight the phrases that strike you as helpful. Chances are, these are the phrases that surprise you or confirm what was a hunch. Noticing what stands out will help reveal assumptions you may not have even known you had. (This is a stage in the process that should not be overlooked in your rush to master the personal statement. The more you notice what you are learning, the easier the process will become.)