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Training Module 4

Writing and Editing the Personal Statement

About This Module

In this module we will provide an overview of one of the first tasks you will handle as a college coach, the personal statement. We will cover the Do’s and Don’ts of editing, as well as some tips you can offer your student when they begin drafting their personal statements.


We estimate this training should take 45-60 minutes (including mastery assignment).

Why the Personal Statement?

One of the first milestones students begin working on early in their senior year is the personal statement. We cannot overemphasize the significance of the personal statement in the college admissions process. It is your students’ opportunity to offer a compelling glimpse of character beyond numbers and grades.  Remember that your role is not only to edit essays for flow and accuracy but, perhaps more importantly, to encourage your students to recognize and articulate their personal strengths with confidence.

This is your students’ opportunity to expand on their application or give admissions counselors a deeper understanding of who they are. For the personal statement, students should focus on why they do what they do rather than solely what they do (or what makes them who they are) as their application already does that.

Advice from Admissions

An admissions officer who reads hundreds of essays can always tell when an essay is dishonest or sounds like someone trying to be something they are not. When all is said and done, students want to be able to read their essay and say, “This sounds like ME.”

Learn firsthand about the nuances of the personal statement from admissions officers by viewing the video below.

College Admission Essay

Guidelines for Editing

Coaches should:

  • Help a student brainstorm.
  • Encourage a student to talk about what they want to say, what details to include, and what points to make.
  • Read a rough draft and offer advice (e.g. “Let’s check your thesis and see if it addresses the essay topic question.”)
  • Allow a student’s voice to come through. Rather than changing the student’s voice, try to help them clarify their personal voice to make the essay more effective.
  • Determine whether an essay is close to a final draft by answering:
    1. Does the essay answer the personal statement prompt?
    2. Does it flow?

If yes to both of the above, edit an essay for grammar/spelling.

Coaches should not:

  • Provide a thesis statement.
  • Provide specific details.
  • Suggest specific wording.
  • Edit specific errors on a first read (save this for the final draft).

Pitfalls to Avoid

Below are some essay topics to steer clear of.

  • The first set consists of topics inappropriate for college applications.
  • The second set consists of extremely popular topics which won’t enable your students to stand out from other applicants.


  • Their romantic relationships or break-ups
  • Their religious beliefs
  • Their political views
  • Sex
  • How great they are
  • Their SAT scores
  • Big ideas that they have not given much thought to before


  • The importance of a college education
  • “The Best Game of my Life” or another athletic incident written in glib style
  • Their trip abroad, unless truly noteworthy


Note that there are always exceptions, and some students can create enough context and detail that the reader does finish the essay with a greater understanding of them.

Other Common Mistakes:

Other common mistakes students make include:

  • Using cliches such as “My hard work really paid off,” or “It made me who I am today.”
  • Using words plucked out of the thesaurus. (Two examples overused in college essays are ‘plethora’ and ‘epiphany.’)
  • Not answering the question (or being very general).
  • Writing about tragedy for the dramatic impact.
  • Writing about a deceased relative without saying anything about themselves.
  • Choosing a topic they don’t feel passionate about.
  • Letting other people in their lives add their voices to the writing.
  • Choosing a deeply personal topic to write about (parents’ messy divorce, coming out in high school, sexual abuse) without getting feedback from a trusted adult. This is the hardest part for students choosing a topic—knowing when a topic is just too personal and revealing, although it is of great importance to them.

    As you work through the Personal Statement with your students, remember a good essay can boost an application that might not otherwise stand out in a field of highly qualified and competitive applicants.

(Tips courtesy of our friends at 826 Valencia)

Essay Prompts & Themes

Review of the Common Application and the UC personal insight questions.

While most public universities tend to have their own application portals, nearly all private schools accept applications through the Common Application.

The Common Application

offers 7 essay prompts for students, of which they will choose one.

The University of California

offers 8 personal insight question prompts, of which they will choose four.

Review the Common Application prompts for the 2019-2020 school year here and the UC prompts here.

Some colleges may require additional supplemental essays, most of which are short-answer format. Here are a few examples from past years:

  • “What’s so odd about odd numbers?” (U of Chicago)
  • “Creative people state that taking risks often promotes important discoveries in their lives or their work. Describe a risk that has led to a significant change (positive or negative) in your personal or intellectual life.” (Simmons College)
  • “Describe the most challenging obstacle you’ve overcome; discuss its impact and tell what you have learned from the experience.” (Guilford College)
  • “You are required to spend the next year of your life in either the past or the future. What year would you travel to and why?”  (Brandeis University)

Regardless of the differences in the prompts colleges offer, the underlying themes these questions are pointing to remain the same.

Essay Topics

How to Go Beyond the Obvious

Listed below are the most popular essay topics students choose, along with tips for encouraging your students to exceed what can quickly become generic about each.

Great if you: Explain a path of discovery, make personalities come alive, create an essay about you (not someone else!).
Go Beyond: I’m open-minded and compassionate, I know a lot about (insert feeling here), I am sensitive enough to really understand someone.

Great if you: Take the reader on the trip with you; use imagery and avoid clichés.
Go Beyond: The world is so complex! People all have the same hopes and dreams. I’m thankful for what I have.

Great if you: Avoid glorification; explain how you handle the problems that stand in your way; realize effort is often more impressive than victory.
Go Beyond: I have a problem. Though it may seem to be common, my problem is BIG/different/unique. Even though I have a problem, I’m okay.

Great if you: Do not simply list everything you do; don’t repeat your application; personalize and analyze; write about what you have really learned—not what you are supposed to learn.
Go Beyond: Generalizations or I do a lot of things; I have learned responsibility and teamwork from those activities.

Great if you: Are thoughtful, sensitive, responsive, and indicate change and growth; realize that one incident rarely changes someone completely, but can be used to express change; are realistic, not contrived.
Go Beyond: A very specific incident changed my life and I’ve never been the same; after I saw poverty/disease/pain up close, I became a better person.

Great if you: Are lively; are brave; use wit and let lots of people read it to confirm you are witty.
Avoid Being: Inappropriate; obnoxious/not funny.

Tips to Offer Students

Relax. Writing the college essay can be intimidating. It may be the first time you’ve ever written a personal essay, which is always a little bit scary. Try to remember that every high school senior who is applying to college is in the exact same boat—and remember: we’re here to help!

Keep an open mind when picking an essay topic. An activity that you hated and are sure you never want to be involved in again may make a good essay topic because you learned an important lesson from it.

Focus on your strong points
. Maybe writing isn’t one of your strengths. That’s okay. The freshman class at every college is made up of all types of students. An admissions officer who reads essays has that in mind. Tell them, in your own voice, what you have to offer the freshman class.

Make it your own voice and ideas. Be honest. Don’t try to guess what the admissions office is looking for and write to fit their format. Think of your essay as an opportunity—the chance to tell a college something very important about you that they won’t learn from the application.

Wait until your final draft to proofread
, then copy edit closely and polish. Use the dictionary, spell check, and read your essay aloud to yourself or someone you know. If you have time, put your essay away for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes and ideas.

How to "Dig Deeper"

Here’s a list of questions you can ask your students based on certain topics or themes that they are writing on. The point is to encourage students to “dig deeper” and get to the richness of their thoughts and ideas.

Remember, students should explain the why rather than the what. This list can also provide you a great starting point when brainstorming essay topics with students. 


Additional Resources:

Grammarly: 7 Helpful Tips on Writing a Memorable Personal Statement

Essay Samples: 12 College Essay Samples that Worked in 2019

Additional videos from Khan Academy

Module 4 Assignment

To complete this training module, please complete the following assignment:

Your student has just shared a first draft (provided by a former ScholarMatch student and edited to fit this assignment) of her personal statement. Please provide feedback for her, assuming that this is your first round of essay edits. We would ask that you:

– Offer suggestions to help the student focus a narrative and define central theme
– Determine if the personal statement directly addresses the essay prompt
– Pose open-ended questions to help students identify specific points where they can provide more supportive evidence and detail
-Provide validation and encouragement on the essay’s strengths

We will evaluate your submission based on the four criteria listed above.


1. Please 
make a copy of the essay document to mark your edits.
2. Please note our guidelines on Personal Statement editing tips before starting.
3. Please mark any changes or guiding questions you make to the essay in 
4. Please include any guiding questions you would ask the student in the essay document. (Be sure to mark these in RED)
5. Save the file as a PDF.

Once you have finished, you can access Training Module 5A here if you are a matched coach.

Once you have finished, you can access Training Module 5B here if you are a drop-in coach.