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A Word On Personal Statements

by Luis K. Feliz, LaGuardia; Amherst

We will be sharing more information about the personal essay over the coming months, including posting sample personal essays.  You can also go to the Transfer Services office (B-215) to read their books on personal essays, and research the web for resources that focus on this topic​.  Note that many sample personal essays that you may come across are admissions essays by high school students.  Personal essays by a community college transfer student (like yours) will naturally be informed by different life and academic experiences.

Even as we research and gather sample essays for this section, we want to share some wise words from a LaGuardia Honors alumnus.  We understand that writing the personal essay is a stressful and demanding exercise, even for the best writers amongst us.  Reading outstanding sample personal essays can also be stressful for some of us because it may feel that our work will never measure up to others'.  Or we may feel that we have to produce essays just like the ones highlighted in guidebooks and on websites.  So we hope that the following words will be of some encouragement to you:

"Writing models are helpful, but they also may stifle the vigor of student's story.  Sometimes students get hung up on what works for others.  They may want to replicate a similar story they've read from a fancy writer, and so they burden their stories with florid language.  When they look at their crisp sentences, they heap them with modifiers or colorful words; they burrow their prose in a forest of verbiage because they assume that is how smart people write.  Instead of writing about concrete experiences such as a typical workday, a commute to LaGuardia on a scorching summer day, they write as though they were stuffy bureaucrats discussing a contract.  I too struggled with these issues when going through the admissions process.

Yet a student writer can avoid these issues.  They can write naturally.  They can write sentences with clear subjects performing actions.  They can choose concrete details like eating a tuna sandwich for dinner.  They can write as though they were telling their story to a friend.  After writing the essay, the student writer can ask the friend: Where did your attention lag?  Where were you moved or interested?  Often students become discouraged when they read an essay someone else has written.  In part, students feel that they cannot capture the sensibilities of another student.  And that is correct.  What makes one essay flourish makes another flounder.  Writing is subjective.  Therefore, write from the self to the world.  But remember to make the world less frightening than actually it is.  Write to a friend, even if strangers will be reading your essay.  Writing to a friend does not mean mushy personal notes.  It means sincerity and intimacy, however you define these.

My best advice for transfer applicants is to have faith in the intelligence of their stories.  Once applicants write their stories, it helps to look at models in terms of structure and voice.  However, this should come at the end.  If the student reads often, she or he can revisit an essay or story that had a distinctive voice or hook and try to see how the writer makes that work.  But models are just that, models.  There are plenty of choices.  However, the best one is the one that comes from the student's own intellectual and emotional exertions.  Students need to believe in themselves and their stories in order for an admissions committee to see them from a pool of hundreds, if not thousands of applications.  

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