The title "personal statement" is generally synonymous with college essays. However, some admissions professionals use it to refer more specifically to written statements that explore applicants’ program readiness and intentions if admitted. The purpose of these statements for engineering school applicants is three-fold.
First, colleges want to know that they can write well, and not just from a technical perspective. Of course, grammar matters, but perhaps more important is the ability to communicate ideas.
Second, engineering schools want to know who a student is—the nuggets that are not conveyed through a conventional application or school transcripts. This is the written equivalent of the interview question “tell us about yourself” and is the applicant’s chance to share who they are, what they want to do, and how gaining admission to this program will be mutually beneficial.
Finally, colleges want to ensure applicants are familiar with and committed to the program. The best personal statements fulfill these goals, often in 700 words or less.
Does this sound like a tall order? Here are some tips for getting it right.
1. Do the research
It may sound simplistic, but one of the most important (and often overlooked) steps toward getting into the right school is taking the time to research a prospective engineering program, review its admissions policies and—this cannot be overstated—read and reread its application essay prompt. Candidates who don’t sufficiently answer an institution’s question or convey some misunderstanding about the prompt or its expectations are unlikely to be admitted.
Prospective students completing the Common Application should take the time to contact each engineering school they are applying to inquire about additional admissions requirements. The Princeton Review emphasizes that a personal statement should not repeat a previously discussed part of your application, nor should its information contradict another part.
2. Go deep, not broad
Personal statement prompts tend to be targeted. Engineering schools want to know what specific qualities or experiences make each student a good fit for their programs. Common inquiries include recalling a time you solved a problem, explaining why you applied, describing your academic goals and intentions, and addressing any extenuating circumstances that might have impacted your school record. Rather than offering a broad synopsis of your life, choose the experience or intent most relevant to the question and explore it in depth.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Graduate School offers advice for writing an in-depth personal statement for engineering schools using the “qualified match” approach. The steps include:
3. Be relevant
If a personal statement has only one goal, it is to be shown to a review committee that you are the right fit for its school. That’s why applicants to Stanford University’s Institute for Computational & Mathematical Engineering are asked to specify their personal and professional goals in their statement of purpose, as well as discuss their developments and intentions for study and life beyond their doctoral program.
Read the mission statements of each program to get a feel for what they are looking for and keep that in mind as you write. Rather than getting carried away detailing the hours you log volunteering each week, discuss experiences and activities as they relate to your academic and career goals or scientific interests. Also, be sure not to waste valuable ink rehashing information available elsewhere on your application, such as extracurricular activities or your stellar GPA.
4. Avoid gimmicks and cliches
Did you love playing with Legos as a kid? Did those plastic bricks lay the foundation for your drive to be an engineer? If so, the College of Engineering at the University of Washington suggests you are in good company, but not in a good way. Every year, the committee reads personal essays on how Legos were the building blocks of a student's career in engineering.
To stand out, engineering school applicants should avoid using cliches in their statements. Of course, setting yourself apart from other applicants is imperative, but you must do so in a meaningful and unique way. Admissions review panels have seen it all and are unlikely to be moved by creative gimmicks and attention-grabbers that do not get to the heart of what makes you a great candidate.
5. Mind your mechanics
This tip refers more to the mechanics of writing than any scientific drive, though the latter undoubtedly has a place in an engineering school personal statement. Remember when we said one of the goals of college essays is verifying applicants can communicate effectively? Applicants should consider the following elements as they prepare their outline (more on that next):
6. Edit, edit, edit
Writing a personal statement may seem like a herculean task, so it is tempting to push it aside when you type that final period and not look back. This is a mistake—and perhaps the biggest one you can make. Sometimes we get so caught up in our thoughts and ideas that we miss lapses in our writing, whether grammatical or contextual. To avoid this:
There is never any excuse for typos, and even the slightest error can turn a committee review member off. Ask a friend or family member to review your essay for grammatical mistakes when in doubt. It may be intimidating, but the process is an excellent way to identify missing words or ideas. What's more, applicants today are blessed with the power of technology. Online tools like Grammarly are free to use and quickly catch any glaring typos.
One of the biggest challenges to writing a stellar college essay is simply getting started in the first place. Personal statements are, by design, personal, and that can be intimidating. Applicants also put significant pressure on themselves to write the perfect essay.
Fortunately, many colleges try to ease the burden by providing tips online. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab offers examples of successful personal statements. Some engineering schools even post examples of successful personal statements, including MIT, Johns Hopkins University, and Cornell University. While your essay should be wholly original, these resources can guide you through creating a unique and inspirational narrative to impress admissions committees.
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