Here are a few samples of our own writing. These are all personal statements that we used. Note the variety of statements in length, style and topic. There is no "right" or "wrong" only essays that support the goal of what you're trying to convey to the admissions committee. So different prompts, different schools, different goals demand different techniques.
Prompt: What have you learned from a mistake? (400-word limit)
Alone and naked— the camera lost, my water gone, my clothes and backpack drenched— I sat picking leach after leach after leach from my body. I had just fallen into a leech-infested river.
It was August of 2009, and I was hiking alone on Flores, the most remote island in the Azores. I had hiked for several hours when I arrived at a small river. I knew from the beginning that it was not a good idea to cross it: there was no easy path across; I was in the middle of nowhere; and the current looked fast. But I also knew that I was fatigued and once I crossed the river I would be almost back to the road. To return the way I had come, and not to cross, would mean several more hours of hiking. I was already beat, so I decided to cross. I was almost across when I slipped and fell in. Drenched, I forded to the opposite bank. After removing my clothes to pick off all the leeches, I realized I had an even bigger problem. I had lost the trail.
I now had two terrible options: follow the rocky beach along the shore or head up a nearly 40’ vertical grass bluff and try to find the path there. I chose the shore path thinking that it was more of a sure thing. I quickly realized that this too was a poor choice: I was caught in an intertidal zone between an incoming tide and vertical cliffs; the sun was low in the sky; the large boulders made it nearly impossible to walk; and I could hear rocks falling from the cliff above. After one painstaking hour and thirty-seven cuts and scrapes from the sharp rocks, I found a road.
I had lost all of my photos of the island that I had spent the two prior days shooting and my friend’s favorite travel camera, but I was lucky. I was alive and relatively uninjured. This experience really forced me to think about risks, and those that are worth taking. Ultimately the risks you take, whether hiking or in business, need to be appropriate for the context. In the context of that day in the Azores, it was stupid to try to cross the river even if I was trying to return to the hotel to rest for my early morning flight.
What are your three most substantial accomplishments and why do you view them as such? (200-word limit each)
I can swim. Really, I can. For many years, however, I questioned whether I would ever be able to swim. My difficulty with swimming was simple: water. I was born with an acute immuno deficiency syndrome; this meant that getting even the slightest water in my nose or ears—as always happens when you learn to swim—lead to painful and serious sinus and ear infections that required aggressive medical intervention. I wanted so badly to swim like my friends, but I could not. I was habitually sick as it was, despite the medical treatments: the surgeries (9), the antibiotics (daily) and the infusions (occasional). So I really had no choice but to avoid the water, but I didn’t. I kept trying, and kept getting really sick time after time, year after year. To fail again, and again, and again, and again, is so frustrating. I was held hostage by own body. After many vicious cycles, I realized that I may never swim. But I also realized that someday things might change, and I wanted to be sure that if they did, I would be ready to seize the opportunity. Fortunately for me, things did change. My illness improved, and I was able to learn to swim.
Prompt: Personal Statement
I still remember the phone call that brought me onto the mentoring group. The Executive Director of my college’s umbrella service organization, informed me and my future co-coordinator that we constituted the entire membership of the program. The group had somehow ended Spring 2006 with zero volunteers, and only the two of us had been foolish enough to affix our names to its forlorn sign-up sheet at that fall’s activities fair. The Executive Director told us that, since we were the only people who had expressed any interest in the program, if we did not run it, it would be shut down. With matters framed so starkly, how could we not at least give coordinating a try?
The biggest decision resolved, my co-coordinator and I headed to Starbucks to actually meet each other. We discussed what excited us about this opportunity. Beyond the mentoring role that we would play, we saw this as a unique chance to build a service group that would be designed to best serve our clients, high school students from East Harlem. Aside from the institutional relationships among my school, the City Department of Education, and the high school, the group had essentially no structure, giving us incredible flexibility to experiment.
The first few weeks were admittedly rough. Our activities might as well have been improvised –even we did not know what the group would be doing each Friday until the preceding Monday – and often fell flat. Our spending was chaotic, and, without support and understanding from our parent organization, we would have imploded through failure to adhere to budgetary protocol.
Yet, slowly we fumbled our way towards a structure. After experimenting with bi-monthly mentor/mentee meetings, as the Department of Education recommended, we decided to make these events weekly because the regularity supported strong attendance. Although the college students are paired one-to-one with the high schoolers, we found that the group setting alleviated pressure on shyer mentees. And, we decided to pursue a broad mission, scheduling cultural events such as trips to theatre and museums alongside academic activities like writing workshops and sessions with financial aid officers.
By the end of my junior year, we were a bona fide success. Other service groups began following our example, leveraging the university’s name to plan events that they could not have otherwise afforded through letter and phone campaigns. Most gratifying of all, some of our students began to apply to college and found great success, receiving full scholarships to universities such as Cornell, Brandeis, and Northwestern. At the end of my junior year, our group won a Best Programming award, and I received a Best Treasurer prize. Then, my co-coordinator graduated, leaving me alone to continue the work we had begun together.
Without my co-coordinator, this year has brought an entirely new set of challenges. After spending three years building an organization, I am now taking all the necessary steps to ensure that it remains healthy after I graduate. On a basic level, this entails carrying out all the responsibilities that I have fulfilled for the last three years. I still manage the budget, plan the events, and facilitate the relationship between the Department of Education and the high school. Yet, my most important task is to create a team that can keep the group going strong in my absence.
At the heart of this effort is training two new coordinators to fill my shoes. This requires weekly meetings that allow me to take the new coordinators through an entire calendar year with the program. It also demands that I begin to surrender control over the program now so they can build a sense of ownership. This has been the most difficult part – ceding scheduling decisions to their judgment and delegating jobs to them that I know I could complete better myself. Yet, this new role has also provided me with the welcome opportunity to mentor these college students in the same way that my co-coordinator has given me advice over the years.
I have adopted a similar role with the other mentors in the program. I try most of all to lead by example, telling them about some of the steps I have taken with my mentees to help them with the college application process, such as building shared to-do lists, researching colleges and scholarships, and reviewing papers and college application essays.
I came to college on unsure footing in a new terrain. The mentoring group helped me find my place within an institution that can, at times, be overwhelming. As I prepare to embark on a new adventure, I can do so with the confidence that comes from having gotten at least one important thing at college right.