It's the one subject most students understand better than any other in the world—and the one subject they find most challenging to write on: the college admissions personal statement. With college applications at an all-time high, competition is keen and a personal statement can determine a candidate's chances of getting admitted to the university of his or her choice. Adding just the right amount of substance and spirit just might help score that coveted letter of acceptance.

What is the personal statement?

The premise of the personal statement is simple: it's an essay that provides context to an applicant's scholastic record, a face to put in front of the test scores. Length and content requirements for the personal statement vary widely from school to school; some colleges want brief, specific responses to a set of questions while others allow the applicant to give a general outline of his or her strengths.

What not to do:

Most warnings go without saying: don't procrastinate, don't submit without proofreading, and don't plagiarize. Other red flags are not so obvious. The bottom line is that presentation and professionalism matter—just take care not to overdo it.

Although prospective students will naturally want to present themselves in the best light, they should resist the temptation to inflate their skills or aggrandize their accomplishments. A general admissions adviser at UCLA called the personal statement "a way to gain information and/or an understanding of the individual applicant within the context of their everyday life." A personal statement should come off as masterful, but it should also sound—and look—natural.

A scented résumé on pink paper and a video essay that could double as a swimsuit competition may have worked for Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, but such devices simply won't play beyond Hollywood. True, bright paper and ornamental fonts will get an applicant noticed . . . usually for all the wrong reasons.  What comes off as clever to a prospective student may seem pretentious and immature to a selections committee. An applicant's best bet is to aim for a refined look and use white or cream paper and 10- or 12-point easy-to-read typeface. This isn't to say a personal essay has to be bland; on the contrary, it can and should be a great read, but it's best for applicants to let the essay speak for itself rather than depending upon gimmicks.

Add heft . . .

A personal statement that reads like a laundry list of a student's accomplishments is bound to be feeble, and a personal statement that makes sweeping generalizations about the same applicant's goals and expectations will be equally unconvincing. One way to add weight to a personal statement is to support ideas with specific examples. If a prompt asks applicants why they want to attend a university, a decent response might mention the fact that the school has a "good college of education". But a savvy candidate knows that detail makes a difference: "Gamma University offers a special education certification program for bilingual educators, which fuses my foreign language skills and career goal of teaching English language learners." If a prompt asks a potential student about his or her most salient trait, a passable essay might broadly discuss that applicant's compassion. A great essay, on the other hand, will talk about how the applicant's four-year volunteer stint at an Alzheimer's care facility informed his ambition to help the elderly as a geriatric psychiatrist. 

One tactic that many students don't think of is to invigorate their personal statements through precise word choice. Clichés come easily when writing about individual goals and experiences—but consider how many admissions committees have already read essays about an "experience of a lifetime" or about students who have "learned the hard way".  On the other end of the spectrum are applicants who are so afraid of slipping into clichés that they attempt to cover all of their bases by vague, uncommitted language: very, a lot, really, probably, maybe. Think of a personal essay as an extension of the résumé. A résumé uses simple, declarative sentences and strong verbs in place of clichés—as a result, it is concise, apt and focused. The candidate who writes that he "had a really interesting life-changing experience as a missionary in Africa" is not going to get as much attention as the candidate who "confronted his faith in the face of racial inequality and poverty while serving in Kenya." Avoid stale figures of speech and (where possible) all forms of "to be"—is, was, were, etc.—and focus instead on verbs that give vitality and a strong sense of ethos to the personal statement.

. . . but don't forget heart.

Perhaps the best piece of advice to a student writing a personal statement is to write with feeling. Jennifer Schufer, Associate Director for the University of Colorado at Boulder Office of Admissions, says that one of the biggest mistakes potential students make "is not speaking from the heart, but rather the student trying to 'guess' what the university is looking for." She adds, "I review students' personal essays; I want an inner glimpse into who the student is. I want to know what type of community member they will be." Now is not the time to grab a thesaurus and toss around every six-syllable word that can be worked around the prompt. The most engaging essays sound as though they were written by real people, not churned out by robots; after all, even the best proofreading can't compensate for a lack of warmth and individuality. It is, after all, a personal statement.

Finally, draft and redraft

The first draft of a personal statement may come out riddled with clichés and rife with generic language—not to worry. This is what revision is for. Shrewd applicants will leave themselves enough time to write, walk away from their drafts, and return to them with fresh eyes and a new perspective, red pen in hand. A good personal statement may go through several edits and keep even the best of students up at night staring at that blinking cursor. But the applicants that balance heft and heart from the first draft can rest a little easier, knowing that their personal statements are the kind that will get to the top of the pile.