The Personal Statement: The Holy Grail of College Admissions

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A person's hand writing in spiral notebook placed on a wooden desk.

The Personal Statement: The Holy Grail of College Admissions

The college application essays or personal statements are the most important part of the college admissions process.

There are tens of thousands of high achieving students with 4.0 GPA’s, 1600 SAT scores, strong leadership and community service activities, and awards from regional and national competitions to boast.

But there’s only a limited number of spots.

What do you think separates one student from another, especially at the highest echelon?

We’ll give the answer – it’s no secret. It’s the personal statement – without a doubt.

As Ivy League admissions consultants with one of the highest track records of getting students in, we have to say the essay is what separates candidates apart. It’s what distinguishes you from the tens of thousands of students out there with 4.0 GPA’s, 1600 SAT scores, Student Body President, USAMO Qualifiers, and the list goes on and on.

We will begin by stating that the personal statement that you write will be highly dependent on who you are as a person and your background – including your ethnicity, demographics, socioeconomic background, extracurricular involvement, and even your gender.

At AdmissionSight, we take all of this into account when we work with our students to help draft a powerful personal statement.

In the admissions ball game, you are only as good as you are on paper. Although you may have spent hours on a particular activity in high school, if you do not capture that in the application in a meaningful manner, then you have done nothing in the admission officer’s eyes. And that means writing stellar personal statements and college application essays.

Remember the admissions officers never visit nor see you. All they get is the electronic pdf or 12 page printout that is your college application. Sure, you might argue there is the interview – but that accounts for a small portion of the admissions process and is typically done by alumni of the school – not the admissions officers themselves.

So why do these amazing, well-qualified people still get rejected every year? Because they didn’t know how to write their personal statement.

Unidentified person typing on a laptop.

Whether you get accepted or not really depends on how you present yourself in the application. All the blood, sweat, and tears that you put into your extracurricular and leadership activities are meaningless if you don’t know how to capture how your experiences shaped you in the personal statement, or the college application, in a meaningful manner.

Too many applicants underestimate the importance of the essays and don’t put enough time to get them to a level of quality that would give them a chance at getting in. While the personal statement in no ways guarantees you that acceptance letter, it is an important factor in the puzzle that is college admissions, especially if your raw academic and extracurricular profile is on the weaker side.

Every year, we have students who have both strong profile and also a compelling personal statement to captivate the admissions officers. To us, it’s a no-brainer, and precisely why 75% of our students on average are admitted to an Ivy League school.

Getting into an Ivy League college depends on how well you craft together that college application and demonstrate those personal qualities, leadership, and contribution to your community through the personal statement. Keep in mind that in addition to the 650 main essay, there are many 250–300 word short answer essays as well as longer 650 word supplemental essays for each school.

Given how competitive it is, the essays will be your opportunity to demonstrate your voice and reflect your passions. Ensuring that those essays form a powerful picture that represents the applicants personal qualities is the holy grail of college admissions.

We’ve seen students with perfect 1600 (or 2400) SAT scores and 4.0 GPA’s get turned down by the the Ivies. We’ve also helped and worked with lower achieving students with 1800 (out of 2400) SAT scores and 3.3 GPA get accepted into an Ivy League.

In fact, we’ve always said the weakest student we’ve ever helped get into an Ivy League had a 3.3 unweighted GPA and 1180 on the SAT’s. Yes, you heard us right – and he was Asian American too – no hooks, no legacies, no NCAA athlete, nor URM.

Of course, getting tip top grades, strong SAT, SAT Subject, and AP test scores, and strong leadership and extracurricular activities help significantly with the process. In this day and age, getting those are almost required and a minimum threshold to get in. Pursue activities that you’re passionate about and demonstrate your well-roundedness and focus – we’ve all heard that over and over again. But you didn’t need us to tell you that, did you?

A woman is writing on her notebook and looking at her watch.

There are literally tens of thousands of students with perfect 4.0 GPA’s, 1550+ SAT scores, National Merit Semifinalists, National AP Scholars, and the list goes on. These exams are no longer “enough” to differentiate one student from another given so many students boast these stats. The personal statement is the one differentiating factor that separates the 1600 SAT, 4.0 GPA student from the one who has a 1580 SAT and 3.9 GPA at the same high school.

These stats are no longer “good enough” to differentiate one candidate from another – rather, they are typical scores and grades that the Ivy Leagues expect you to get. The biggest mistake that students make is not taking their application seriously enough. This tends to happen with overachievers, who believe that their grades, test scores, and even national academic awards are enough to get them in.

But does a high school student know how to write a solid essay? Honestly, it’s difficult for an 18 year old high school senior to have experienced anything dramatic in their lives. Not that it doesn’t happen, but more often than not the little neurons in your brain as a minor are barely connecting the dots to understand what is really happening out there in the real world within the confines of your household room and school.

In fact, we’d argue the formative years of personal growth happen to be in college, or getting that first job, that moment when you lead your own independent life away from safety net of your parents’ guidance and care. That first time you step out to the real world and think to yourself, “Now what?”

But you are challenged to write a thoughtful, and often times compelling and important college application essay that is supposed to demonstrate the gravity of your experiences – in high school. And that certainly makes the task challenging.

A male student using his laptop and writing at the same time.

If you’d like to get feedback from others, you might want to ask your friends and family – we’re sure they’re more than happy to take a look. But don’t expect expert feedback, and be prepared to get multiple different opinions and perspectives. It’s said that when you ask 10 people for their opinion on their essay, you’ll get 10 different opinions. And you only have one shot to do stand out from the thousands of applicants out there.

But as one of the top college admissions consulting companies in the country, we break down essays into a digestible, logical manner that is not only convincingly accurate, but time tested and highly effective. By the time we’re through, you’ll be convinced of the fundamentals of what makes good writing and what makes bad writing. Why Steven King and Michael Crighton continue to be the #1 New York Times seller on every bookshelf year after year, while the rest flounder.

How do you juxtapose the two dichotomies of “being true to yourself” while writing something fresh and different to “entertain the admissions officers”? Admissions officers will be reading thousands of essays about community service, or about sick relatives, or about the immigrant story.

What you write about is certainly important. There are topics that we absolutely have my students avoid because it would significantly diminish their odds of acceptance. It’s a big part of our strategy when we consult with our students.

But how you write and the depth of your writing is just as important as what you write.

We’ve seen situations where high school students will write about their laundry list of accomplishments. Writing highly linear essays. Not showing their voice or personality into the essays. Or even being too creative with their essay to a point where it detracts from the overall message they’re trying to deliver.

Let us give you a concrete example:

“In sophomore year of high school, I aimed to establish the Neuroscience club to help afflicted children within my community. I was motivated because of my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at a very young age, which led to his debilitating illness.”

This is the type of sentence that 95% of students out there write. It’s blatantly very average writing that simply won’t distinguish you from the pack. There’s a reason why Stephen King is the #1 New York Times bestseller year after year, or why Michael Crighton is one of the top sci-fi thrillers of all time. Their style of writing elicits a particular emotion in the reader that sends a shiver down their spine and makes them think twice. And if you can accomplish that, then you’ve got a shot at getting in.

For example, we worked with a student who wrote about her volunteering activity last year. And she was admitted to both Yale and Princeton. And you might certainly say there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of community service activity essays every year. But there are so many interesting twists and turns you can take with the essay – and it revealed not only the depth of the candidate’s experiences, but how it shaped her perspective and her approach to the world around her. It was deep and insightful, compelling and powerful.

And no, it wasn’t a sob, pitiful story about how affected she was by meeting a homeless man, and how it inspired her to help her community. But it was most certainly one of the top essays on community service submitted to the college admissions application cycle last year. After all, she landed a spot at both Yale and Princeton with only 3 AP scores on her application record.


At AdmissionSight, we’ve personally read and edited thousands of essays, and we can definitely say without a doubt that a good essay could open up the floodgates of acceptance letters, and a poor one would could keep you out.

There’s so many ways to write a college application essay – from the highly creative essays that really showcase a candidate’s lively personality to the intellectual curiosity essay that demonstrates an applicant’s voracious consumption of knowledge, to essays about travel, culture, or a personal influence.

There are myriads of ways to write these essays, and different topics that you can choose to write. And that will depend on everything from your extracurricular involvement to your personal experiences to your demographic.

Everything from the topic to how you write the essay to how it ties into your personal background matters. How you write the essay is just as important as what you write. At AdmissionSight, we take all of this into consideration before recommending a topic that you would be happy with and also increase your odds of acceptance.

Some students love writing super creative essays. The more creative your essay, the riskier gamble you take – but sometimes that risky gamble could have a huge payoff at the end.

view of a female student writing an essay

If you are to write a super creative essay, context is key and it could certainly be a double-edged sword. More times than not, we find that students who try to write a creative essay end up writing an essay that is so creative that it neglects the foundations of a college application essay and fails to show the applicant in a positive light. So if you do take this path, remember that there are pros and cons to crafting a statement that raises eyebrows.

We still believe the best essays are ones that really shows the level of introspection of a candidate – the essays that show how a candidate thinks and approaches the world around him/her, and shaped often times by a simple but powerful experience that captures the depth of the candidate’s perspective.

Writing is an art, no doubt. But like all intellectual pursuits, there’s a foundation – the fundamental building blocks – that makes words come to life. It’s with that tactical approach and Socratic method that we peel open a piece of writing and make it incredibly powerful – enough to win the hearts of the admissions officers.

a student reading his book

The one chance for Ivy League admissions officers to understand you on a personal level that you have control over is the personal statements. That’s why we always emphasize the importance of the personal statements to demonstrate and showcase that level of introspection and how you think about and approach the world around you. What are your beliefs, convictions, and values that you’d like the admissions officers to know about you? How did a particular experience shape your perspective?

By showcasing that inner voice that is identifiable to you, you will have the chance to stand out among the highly competitive candidates who may be stronger based on their raw academic and extracurricular profile, but not necessarily as an applicant. The strength of your application depends highly on the soft factors that admissions officers want to see.

We’ve said that what’s more important in an essay is to demonstrate a precocious level of maturity. The essays should build substance behind a student’s academic potential, extracurricular involvement, or personal experiences. We’d be impressed as an admissions officer if the student can think like an adult, and understand the issues at play in our society.

And if you can exhibit that level of maturity (as well as humility), we believe you can make a strong case for your admission. So yes, do pursue your passions and your interests, and work as hard as you can during your four years of high school. Just remember to capture and express all of your personal qualities in the college application itself, and write a genuine, palpable personal statement that helps the admissions officers understand the qualities that define you.

Most of the time we can tell right away if a student will get accepted or rejected based on the essays alone.

Admissions officers spend very little time (less than 15 minutes) on each individual application to get through the entire pile. This also mean every word in your application must count, and making key terms and words stand out is very important, especially since these admissions readers skim through your parts of your application very quickly.

The process works as follows: there are two readers who read the applications. It takes two readers to mark “accept” in order to admit the applicant. But if the first reader marks “accept,” and the second reader marks “reject,” then it goes to a third reader who determines whether to accept or reject the candidate.

We can’t tell you how many students every year tend to neglect the importance of these essays. If we were to give it a true weighting, we’d assign 50% of the admissions decision to the common app essay and recommendation letters, 25% to academics, 25% to extracurriculars.

But this number can change drastically when the admissions committee is making decisions where nearly every strong applicant has perfect 4.0’s and top of the line 1550-1600 SAT scores.

In fact, we will bet that a student with a lower score, say 1300 SAT and 3.8 GPA with a stellar application and well written personal statement has a better shot than the 1600 SAT student with a poorly written personal statement at getting into the Ivy League.

Three students walking with coffees while chatting.

Princeton states every year that if they could fill their entire class with valedictorians or 1600 SAT score students, they could do so easily. At the end of the day, a strong student with high academic and extracurricular stats is only just that – another profile on paper to the admissions committee.

That paper ultimately comes to life through the common app essays – who this candidate is, the applicant’s level of introspection and critical thinking, and the values and experiences that shape the applicant’s perspective. And sometimes, the admissions committee is even willing to overlook a student with low GPA/test scores if they can understand how that applicant thinks on a deeper level.

A college essay is your chance to share with the admissions officers how you think and approach the world around you. They’re not so much interested in what you’ve accomplished or achieved as much as they are about how you think. That’s the key component here. If you can give them a portal in how you process information and view the world around you, and how your experiences shape your perspective, then you’ll have written a memorable personal statement.

We’ve had students write essays about eating beef noodle soup to driving through an Inn and Out and their interaction with the cashier person. We’ve also seen and read essays about a student’s attempt to cure Alzheimer’s and desire to make the world a better place through UNICEF.

It’s the perspectives and personal insights that you bring that make an essay stand out; not what you’ve done or achieved. Show us a portal into your mind and how it works and how it reflects – we want to see that inner thinker in you. And if you can do that, then you’ve got a shot at getting in.

There are certainly many pitfalls that we’ve seen students make. Some will write an essay that ends up being a laundry list of their accomplishments.

Others will write an essay that simply doesn’t let them stand out.

The Ivy Leagues are looking for critical thinkers, and the essay needs to show your level of introspection and how you think about and approach the world around you – and how a particular experience shaped your perspective. This is key.

That’s what your personal statement should be – creative yet humble, one with flair yet introspective, and one that is deeply personal yet enables your personality to surface.

And if you can achieve that, you’ve got a winning personal statement – and a shot at the Ivy League.

So how can you get into the Ivy League?

Craft together a well thought out college application and personal statement that reflects the qualities that define you. Because at the end of the day, the bitter truth is that admissions to Ivy League schools is highly dependent on how well you present yourself on paper and draft your personal statement.



40 thoughts on “The Personal Statement: The Holy Grail of College Admissions”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up now to receive insights on
how to navigate the college admissions process.