Appendix A: Reach School Risk-Taking
Published November 2009
For those of you who like to play poker or take a gamble here or there in life, you might want to consider sending a riskier statement to one or two of your reach schools. If you anticipate that a typical applicant with your numbers will be rejected, a unique and compelling statement may help a reach school look beyond those numbers. Note that “risky” means imaginative, but not cute. No matter what, you should never send your personal statement in the form of a poem, legal brief, restaurant menu, visual image, a song, a video, or any other form that is not a short essay. However, the short essay is one of the greatest challenges to the creative mind. Shakespeare wrote sonnets because they are the most condensed and difficult form a writer can choose. Likewise, the short personal statement is a definitive challenge to a good writer to capture a wonderful story in economical but deeply satisfying prose.
If sending a slightly riskier personal statement to a reach school appeals to you, then by all means, try writing two personal statements. Your first should be well-written and solid, with a good story and strong specific examples, which demonstrate your qualities and show how you are unique and talented, and articulate. This is the statement you send to schools to which you feel you have a good chance of acceptance. There the goal of your personal statement is to be beneficial, and most certainly not alienating. Your second statement should be a bit more extreme; you can take a few more risks, play with the language more; make yourself a little more memorable.
What makes a candidate memorable? A bizarre or funny story, a striking or even weird metaphor or theme carried through your essay, more comedy than you usually try, more sensory description than you usually try: These are all strategies that might make your statement memorable to the admissions committee. You still want to make yourself come across as responsible and likeable, even if your self-portrait aims to be completely unique. A riskier statement is kind of like an independent film. It won’t be standard Hollywood fare; some of your critics (the admissions committee) will love it, and some might hate it. You’re banking that someone on the committee loves it enough to fight for you. If someone on the committee is willing to fight for you, you will probably get in. They’ve got to really like you, connect with you, and want to get to know you as a friend.
A risky statement will show—not state—your qualities as you move through a profound story. Presumably, if you are an amazing writer, then your main personal statement will shout this out to the sensitive ears of the admissions committee. If you are less confident in your writing skills, in order to be risky, you should probably stick to telling a striking story with loads of sensory details, or trying to incorporate more humor. Make the story or the humor as specific to you as you can, and make yourself an enormously likeable character. Pick a topic or a structure you think is original to you. Give yourself the license to be a little silly or weird, to push the envelope a little or be a little off kilter. Don’t go overboard though. For an example of this kind of risky statement, see Personal Statement 5: The Minimalist.