Selling yourself through the personal statement

It's that time of year again: a nip in the air, leaves falling — and high school seniors stressing over their college applications, especially the essay part.

The Common Application, used by most colleges and universities, requires a 650-word personal statement — "PS" — as part of the application. Prompts are provided, suggesting how a student could approach the PS, but they're generic enough to offer a great deal of latitude.


For many years I've been a volunteer for organizations that help students craft their PS. I've dealt with more than 1,000 students, and my goal has been to convince students that they have an interesting personal story to tell, and then help them tell it.

In order to drive home what's important in a PS, here's the mnemonic I use: PEDOS.

Yes, I know what it means in Spanish, but since this is a family newspaper, let's call it flatulence. Students who know Spanish usually stifle an embarrassed laugh when they hear me say this, but they also remember it, and that's the whole point with a mnemonic device.

Let me break it down.

P is for passionate. Don't write about what you think an admissions officer wants to read; instead, write about something you're really passionate about. It can be softball or puppetry, dancing salsa or volunteering at the local Y, training a pet or performing slam poetry, taking nature photos or a trip you took abroad. Or it can be about how you overcame a difficult or tragic situation. It can be almost anything, so long as you're genuinely passionate about it and you can use it as the context that shows personal growth.

E is for experience. Not your parents' experience or your teacher's — your experience. Colleges want to know who you are and what you've lived and how you've dealt with challenges. If you're determined to write about a heartrending story that you yourself have experienced, that's fine, especially if it shows that you rose above great obstacles. But be careful. A couple of admissions officers I've spoken with recently feel they've reached their saturation point with tragic stories, and one told me that she was delighted when she came across a PS about growing tomatoes in the backyard: failing, learning, then finally succeeding.

D is for details. As I tell the students I work with, there's all the difference in the world between "a bottle of soda" and "a two-liter bottle of Diet Sprite." Because it's specific, the latter has credibility. We believe the latter much more than the former, and if we believe the details, we're more likely to believe and have sympathy for the story the student tells. But be careful not to overload the PS with too many extraneous details. A few well-chosen details (smells, shapes, tastes, sounds) will help your PS come alive.

O is for organization. Start strong. Come up with an opening line that catches the reader's attention and compels him or her to want to read more. Here are a couple I've seen: "You don't call a pit bull 'Fluffy'." "If my mother were to see me now, I wonder if she'd recognize me." "There are some stains you can never get out." After an opening that grabs the reader, make the PS flow, so that one part segues seamlessly to the next. Try to connect the different parts of your story so that they form an integrated whole. And end it strong, with a paragraph, sentence or idea that the reader will not forget.

S is for story. A personal statement is not an essay for English class; it's creative nonfiction. As my friend Ethan Sawyer (known as "The College Essay Guy") says, a PS follows the same story beats as many movies: the protagonist (i.e., the student) faces obstacles and further complications, then he or she finds a way to surmount those difficulties. And, like a movie that grips you, tell a good story about yourself that shows you've overcome obstacles. Show is the key word here; as in any good writing, instead of telling the reader you're strong, tell a well-crafted story that shows your strength.

So if you want to write a PS that will make you proud and give you a leg up in the college admissions derby, remember the Spanish word for flatulence — PEDOS — and you'll end up with a sweet result.

Roberto Loiederman grew up in Baltimore and is co-author of "The Eagle Mutiny," a nonfiction account of the only armed shipboard mutiny on a U.S. vessel in modern times. His email is