Harvard Langdell Library

What is the best way to make a good impression with the personal statement?

We often respond to questions from readers on the admissions process for graduate and professional schools. Here is a question we recently responded to: 


Q: What is the best way for a candidate to make a good impression with her personal statement?

A: The best way to make a good impression in a personal statement is, ironically, not to think too much about making a good impression. Instead, focus on telling a compelling story about who you are, what you value, and the things that are important to you.

The key is to tell a story. People are naturally drawn to stories. Admissions officers are no different in this regard. An applicant who can tell a compelling narrative about her experiences, particularly when written with a clear sense of purpose, has a powerful advantage over other applicants because she is making herself memorable.

Why is that important?

When all the applications are read and the admissions officers are sitting around a table debating which applicants to offer admission to, how do you think they refer to specific applicants? They can’t possibly remember all their names. Instead, they refer to them in terms of what was memorable about them.

That is why an applicant who is referred to as “the girl who took 9 upper-division classes, won the piano competition, and volunteered 15 hours a week at the hospital” is certainly a wonderful human being and a compelling student — but not necessarily the most memorable. Her profile isn’t rooted in a story, a journey, and doesn’t convey a clear sense of purpose.

On the other hand, an applicant who is remembered as “the girl whose dad showed her how to broadcast a radio transmitter to connect with other radio enthusiasts across the country, which inspired a sense of wonder to learn engineering and excel in math, ultimately leading to building a robot prototype with her professor that won a major NSF grant,” and how that experience taught her how to cut against gender stereotypes, is not only telling a story, but developing that story around a narrative theme — one that shows a clear purpose about who she is and what her goals are in the world.

Use your essay to tell a personal story about what you have experienced and why it is important to you. That is how you show an admissions committee who you are. And that is the only thing they are trying to understand. So don’t focus on “making a good impression.” Instead, show them who you are and what you care about, write about these things genuinely and sincerely, and you will make a good impression without even trying to.

Be sure to check out our law school admissions guide “How to get into Harvard Law School (whether you have the highest scores or not)” for in-depth tips on writing your personal statement and strategies for winning admission to elite law schools!

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Andrew C.

Andrew Chen is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He was admitted to Harvard on his first attempt at applying – in the very first round of applicants. He was also admitted to the law schools at Stanford, Columbia, NYU, and Chicago among others – also all in their first rounds. You can follow him on LinkedIn and Twitter.