How to Write a Great Engineering School Personal Statement

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How is a Personal Statement Evaluated?

The title "personal statement" is generally synonymous with college essay, though 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. Finally, colleges want to make sure that applicants are familiar with and committed to the program. The best personal statements fulfill all of these goals, often in 700 words or less.

Does this sound like a tall order? Here are some tips for getting it right.

Six Tips for Writing a Stellar Engineering School Personal Statement

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 do not answer an institution’s question sufficiently, or who 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 to which they are applying to inquire about any additional admissions requirements. Colleges frequently draft their own supplemental essay requirements outside of the Common Application.

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 offers advice for writing an in-depth personal statement for engineering school using the “qualified match” approach. The steps include:

  • Make a statement that fits the essay prompt, like “I am a dedicated and hard-working student.”
  • Quantify your statement with specific details about your life. You might, for example, discuss how many hours per week you spend on school work and how you overcome any obstacles to committing that time.
  • Interpret how those details make you a stronger applicant. To continue with the above example, that might include writing about the knowledge you gained during your studies, your time-management skills, your passion for learning and your commitment to succeed despite challenges.

3. Be relevant

If a personal statement has only one goal, it should be to show to a review committee that you are the right fit for its school. This is why MIT recommends prioritizing intellectual experiences over personal or humanistic experiences. 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 University of Washington suggests you are in good company. Every year, the committee reads personal essays on how Legos were the building blocks to a student's career in engineering.

Engineering school applicants should avoid using cliches in their statements. It is imperative to set yourself apart from other applicants, but you must do so in a way that is meaningful and unique. 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 rather than to 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):

  • Voice. Is your voice as a writer appropriate for the task? Is it too formal or too casual? Are you using active language rather than passive and wishy-washy statements? Do you come across as studious?
  • Structure. Do your ideas flow logically and support one main idea? If you are unsure of where to start, know that it is perfectly acceptable to follow the reliable five-paragraph essay format: introduction, three supporting paragraphs, and a tidy conclusion.
  • Length. Engineering schools usually have a good reason for requesting personal statements with a specific word count. Those that are too short have too little to say, and those that are too long are likely to repeat the same concepts.
  • Grammar. College students are expected to know and use basic grammar. Edit, edit, and then edit again.
  • Completeness. Have you addressed the admissions essay prompt in full? What about any supplemental school or department specific requests?

6. Edit, edit, edit

Writing a personal statement may seem like a herculean task, so it is tempting to push it aside the moment 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:

  1. Begin with an outline.
  2. Write the first draft.
  3. Write a second draft.
  4. Read the essay out loud.
  5. Review your essay again a day or two later.
  6. Ask parents, friends, teachers, and others to read your work.

There is never any excuse for typos, and even the smallest error can turn a committee review member off. When in doubt, ask a friend or family member to review your essay for grammatical errors. 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.

Starting Your Engineering School Admissions Essay

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 a great deal of pressure on themselves to write the perfect essay.

Fortunately, many colleges try to ease the burden by providing tips online. 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 and inspire your work.

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