How to Apply to Spelman College: A College Essay Guy Crash Course (2021/2022)

A great personal statement contains all these qualities and helps the reader:

  • Feel closer to and empathize with you

  • Identify your insights on your past experiences and growth

  • Recognize your values

  • See the time, process, and craft that went into your final draft

How best to structure your statement depends on your topic and the answers to the following questions: 1) Do you feel like you’ve faced significant challenges in your life … or not so much? And 2) do you want to write about them? (Because, to clarify, you don’t have to write about a challenge you’ve faced. That is a common misconception. But it is definitely a misconception.)

If you said no to either or both parts, then the Montage Structure is what you’ll probably want to try. (Here’s a guide to the Montage Structure, and here’s a guide to brainstorming a montage topic.) If you said yes to both parts, then a Narrative Structure is most likely to work for you. (Here’s a guide to the Narrative Structure, and here’s a guide to brainstorming a narrative topic.) 

Regardless of which structural approach you choose, you’ll want to do some thorough brainstorming, and these exercises are a great place to start.

For more on the differences between narrative and montage and on the whole personal statement writing process—including links to great example essays that worked—check out our recent blog post here.

Now, let’s take a look at some differences between narrative and montage by analyzing a sample of each.

Example 1: Narrative

“Salasha!” My parents called from upstairs. My grandfather named me: ‘Sa’ for Saraswathi, ‘La’ for Lakshmi, and ‘Sha’ for Shakthi, the Hindu goddesses of knowledge, prosperity, and power respectively. This meaning behind my name created the central mantra of my life: knowledge provides the power to become prosperous. Little did I know that answering my parents’ call to come upstairs would lead me to discover that the father I admired and loved was not my biological father. This knowledge rendered an indomitable feeling of powerlessness in me.

It didn’t make any sense. But it did, all the same. All those vague memories of being present at my parents’ wedding, those times where I was denied access to the old photo albums–the pieces seemed to now come together. My first barrier of defense was to falsely claim that I somehow knew it all along. I was determined to be strong in front of my parents, to nonchalantly brush this off as a part of the past. 

I may have tried to fool my parents, but I wasn’t fooling myself. My brother was now my half-brother, my grandmother was suddenly my step-grandmother, and so on for my “father’s” entire family. I was devastated and no longer recognized myself. Who was I? Where did I come from? Why do I deserve this? These questions plagued me for the next few years.

So, I immersed myself in fictional tales. I found synergy in the estranged child genius Artemis Fowl and the passionate fight for minor emancipation in My Sister’s Keeper. I discovered a quiet, strong power in books that empowered me with all the knowledge I thought I needed to take care of myself. Nevertheless, a part of me knew that closing myself off from real human connection was only a coping mechanism to ‘protect’ myself from insecurity and distrust.

While I was creating my own fictional solitary version of a family, I was also beginning life in a brand new school. Looking up from books one day I found myself in an assembly run by an overly energetic yet welcoming group of people known as Leadership. With cheers reverberating in my ears that night, I accepted what I had been brushing under the carpet  for so long–I genuinely missed being a part of something larger than myself. Leadership showed me a model of family that I wanted to participate in: honesty and assertive communication.

Leadership has taught me confidence, but also how to find power in vulnerability. I slowly regained my ability to trust other people, which in turn lead to bursting out of my self-imposed bubble, including my current position as Senior Class Vice President.

Though I still engage in solitary acts, I now discern a clear line between being alone and being lonely. I go to concerts alone, but I see it as a connective experience. In a room full of strangers, we are all bonded by sharing the same joy. Learning to share my solitude with others felt like inhaling petrichor: the smell of the earth after rain, when everything is completely cleansed. I learned also, to connect with my family again. Intentionally distancing myself didn’t do anyone any good, including me. Ironically, a whole journey that started with a betrayal of trust has made me more trusting.

And so I carry my name sometimes as a blessing and sometimes as a burden. I take strength from those goddesses, and have been able to gain an inkling of their wisdom. I may not have the power to rewrite my past, but I do have the power to control how I navigate the future and the ability to feel connections with people that I have yet to meet. This to me is the very essence of prosperity.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

  1. Succinctly describe compelling challenges + effects. In the first three paragraphs, this student shares a personal challenge and its external consequences. She shows some of her feelings in that section, but more directly shifts to her internal journey. If you know you’ve experienced some significant change but you’re not sure how to describe it, or how much it’s affected your decision-making and growth, use our Feelings and Needs Exercise to get started.

  2. Focus on both showing and telling what you did and learned. The temptation (and pitfall) with narrative essays is to make the story of the challenge itself the main focus of your personal statement, squeezing in your reflections at the very end. It’s more difficult (and effective) to condense that story to an appropriate contextual length (probably about one-third of the word count) so you can spend more words highlighting what you did in response to the challenge and the ways it changed or reframed your behavior and thinking—which is what admission officers want to read. To answer the questions that plagued her, this author “ immersed [herself] in fictional tales” while acknowledging that she “genuinely missed being a part of something larger than [herself].” As a result, she joined Leadership and “regained [her] ability to trust other people, which in turn led to bursting out of [her] self-imposed bubble.” Remember that you’ll want around two thirds of the essay to focus on what you did and what you learned.

  3. Show insight by answering the question, “so what?” The final paragraph really brings this essay home by highlighting the bigger picture. It answers the “so what” question because it shows that she took the lessons she learned during a difficult part of her life and applied them more broadly—i.e., a story that began with a betrayal of trust made her more trusting and empowered her “to control how I navigate the future and the ability to feel connections with people that I have yet to meet.” After writing your first draft, go back through it and make sure you’ve clearly shown what you’ve done to act on your reflections and exercise your values.

Example 2: Montage

Apparently, I have a natural “mom vibe.” 

On my volleyball team, I am team mom in every way. As a natural worrier, I like to make sure that everyone has all of their necessities: knee pads, water bottle, hair elastic, uniform. Did everyone go to the bathroom before leaving on the bus? Did we count to make sure that all fourteen of us are here? Does anyone want an apple slice? Over my many years of playing volleyball, I have learned how to play every position well enough to fill in for any member of my team, whether that’s front, back, libero, setter, or hitter, so that I can always be there for my team in a pinch. 

A few years ago, I transitioned from looking after only my teammates to also helping actual children. I started volunteering at my former elementary school as a teacher’s assistant. I guide third graders through difficult word problems or sentence structures, sometimes translating the lesson to Mandarin for the Chinese students who are struggling with English. I live for that moment when the impossible suddenly becomes possible and I see a student use what they just learned correctly without any assistance.

I love helping kids ask big questions, and think about how to solve them, because it reminds me of how my parents guided me. Ever since I can remember, every time my father and I are alone on a long trip, we ask each other questions and the other has to answer with scientific evidence. Do birds have eyelids? Why is gelatin gelatinous? What does schizophrenia look like in a brain? I love thinking about how things work from the molecular level all the way up to the mechanical level.

During a recent internship, I had the opportunity to ask big questions through research, a step beyond the guesstimating I was used to doing in my dad’s CRV. The team I was working with was conducting studies focused on treating alcoholism. My job was to “clean up” the data, or make it more readable. I sifted through spreadsheets, digging for the important data and piecing everything together logically. Knowing that my contribution would have a positive impact on people’s lives was incredibly meaningful.

I’ve always enjoyed putting things together like a puzzle. As Chief Layout Editor of my school newspaper, I help my designers compile every edition. Like a real-life game of Tetris, every article must fit perfectly with the other articles around it, lined up into evenly lengthed columns. No matter how much experience a graphic designer has, no one gets all of their articles laid out nicely on the first try. We solve every edition by trial and error, which often results in lots of frustration, but no amount of frustration can surpass the pride and satisfaction once we have all the pages compiled and printed.

As a pediatrician, I will be able to strengthen and use all these parts of me. I will have the chance to treat a multitude of illnesses and injuries and problem solve my way through each one. Each day, I will be able to think critically and scientifically to give families possible solutions and peace of mind about their child’s health. I hope to continually expand my knowledge as medicine advances and ask big questions by frequently participating in research. Hopefully I’ll be able to work with a great group of peers in a clinic and in public health. I want to find new solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems, and finally, use all of my skills and qualities to help better the lives of others. 

Plus, as a pediatrician, I will be able to take care of children who cannot always advocate for themselves, so my mom instinct will be one of my greatest assets.

— — —

Tips + Analysis

  1. Convey your values throughout your personal statement. Note how the author infuses each paragraph (whether directly or indirectly) with a mix of values: responsibility, a desire to help others, curiosity, connection, expertise, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking, to name a few. That Values Exercise we linked earlier can help you find the ones that resonate with you (and with Spelman). You can reflect your values in several ways—by establishing the values as they relate to the core of who you are, the values around a certain theme or topic, and/or even the values you aspire to embody someday.

  2. Reveal insight and growth about your experiences. Remember that admission readers need to be reassured throughout your essay that you’re going to be a great asset to their campus, and showing your awareness of your own growth and development is a great way to do that. Note how almost every paragraph of this sample essay answers the question, “so what,” in a compelling way. Like this: “I live for that moment when the impossible suddenly becomes possible.” And this: “I love thinking about how things work from the molecular level all the way up to the mechanical level.” 

  3. Commit to craft. Because this student chooses aspects of her life that mostly relate to children and young people, it makes her intro and conclusion language choices that much more suitable and engaging. “Apparently, I have a natural “mom vibe” becomes “Plus, as a pediatrician, I will be able to take care of children who cannot always advocate for themselves, so my mom instinct will be one of my greatest assets.” That’s a good way to show craft, but there are almost infinite ways to do so. Ultimately, you’ll want to be sure it’s clear to your reader that you’ve spent time revising and refining, and that your phrasing choices are well-considered. Don’t know if your essay is crafted well once you’re on draft 3 (or 10)? Take this Great College Essay Test.

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