From Alpha to Omega: Starting and Ending a Personal Statement

Pop quizzes, piles of homework, and the blank page. 

These are just a handful of the tortures high schoolers encounter on a regular basis. Yet, while the first can be overcome with constant studying and the second with intentional planning, the third offers no clear-cut solutions. Every high schooler from Houston to Hong Kong has faced the dreaded prospect of starting a paper without a clue of how to either begin or conclude it. 

College applications dial that feeling of uncertainty and anxiety up to eleven. There, high schoolers are expected to compose a piece of personal writing that simultaneously grabs an admission officer’s attention and makes a compelling case for their college acceptance. Stacked against tens of thousands of other applicants attempting the same thing, the process of just beginning a personal statement can be daunting. Where do you even begin?

Every year, Ivy Scholars helps students craft stand out college applications that tell their unique story in a compelling and meaningful way. In such a highly competitive process, it is important to compose a personal statement that is equal parts insightful and memorable. The biggest areas of impact for memorability are through the opening and the conclusions. While the opening draws the reader into the narrative and sets the tone for the piece, the conclusion leaves the reader with a clear takeaway about the applicant as a whole. 

The question becomes, though, how can you do that too?

By Hook, Not Crook

We want an essay to begin with an intriguing hook. 

In writing, a ‘hook’ is an opening that is intentionally crafted to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to continue reading the piece through to the end. The reason hooks are so important in college application writing is because admission officers must read through many thousandths of applications every year, which fractures their attention amongst many different applicants. A hook grabs them and focuses their attention on your application, compelling them to forget about the others for a moment and find out more about you.

Unfortunately, while most students know they need to create a ‘hook’, few know how to do it. While some students worry that their hook will make them sound too bombastic, others worry that they will end up sounding like they are mechanically and cynically employing a common literary device. In effect, students end up with openings that fall into any of these common trappings:

  • The hook is not striking or memorable. 
  • The hook is striking and memorable, but for all the wrong reasons (i.e. it is shocking for the sake of it). 
  • The opening lacks a hook altogether, instead beginning clumsily. 
  • The hook is not focused or well-crafted, making it seem nonsensical. 
  • The hook is too cliché and so not insightful enough about the particular applicant.

In writing, openings are important because they set the reader’s expectations. A well executed and striking hook not only compels admission officers to continue reading, but also reassures them that the piece is worth reading in the first place. This is key trust building that all applicants must do, if they hope to create a serious college application. 

At Ivy Scholars, we help students craft compelling hooks in two primary ways. The first way we help students craft compelling hooks is that we take the advice of the great short story writer Anton Chekhov seriously. In essence, Chekhov told writers that when revising they should, “throw out the first three pages.” What does this mean? In short, he was suggesting that aspiring writers throw out the unnecessary preamble that many novices tend to write and instead drop their readers right in the middle of the narrative. In other words, cut the boring opening and get on with the real story already. Consider this example from the opening of Chekhov’s 1899 story, “The Lady with the Dog”: 

It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog.  

Though unassuming, this simple opening drops the reader immediately into the story and sets up several key narrative details. In that one sentence, the reader learns the story’s setting (someplace near “the sea-front”), two key characters (the unnamed narrator and the “lady with a little dog”), and the story’s inciting incident (the lady’s sudden appearance in the sea-front town). Yet, the opening raises more questions than answers: Who is the narrator? Who is the lady? What will happen to them? Chekhov’s immediate attention to detail and craftsmanship reassures us that this is a writer who has considered these questions and will deliver on them as we continue to read. We’re hooked.  

You don’t need to be one of the most influential short story writers of all time to craft this kind of writing, though. Ivy Scholar students routinely do it themselves! Consider this excellent opening from a previous Ivy Scholar student, Adam:

Traveling back from a last-minute audition, I rested my head against the train’s frosted window as my exuberance dissipated into the old industrial buildings and barren trees. The stained, stiff seats of the Boston commuter rail became increasingly uncomfortable as I realized my acceptance to the Houston Ballet Academy on full scholarship launched me down a path of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. (Read the rest of the essay here). 

Much like Chekhov’s short story, Adam’s personal statement drops the reader immediately into the narrative and sets up his key themes. In those first two lines, the reader sees the conflict clearly: Adam is going down a path of ‘uncertainty’ and ‘unfamiliarity’ that sees him travelling from the East Coast to Texas, where he is accepting an opportunity that will challenge him in some way. The gloomy mood of the opening image – that of Adam staring out on “the old industrial buildings and barren trees” with dissipated exuberance – contrasts with the extraordinary accomplishment of being accepted into a competitive dance program on full scholarship. 

Like “The Lady with the Dog”, the reader is drawn to continue reading the piece by a series of questions: Why the tension between Adam’s feelings and his accomplishment? How will this experience change Adam? How will the conflict resolve? As readers, we want to know the answers to these questions and Adam’s strikingly focused opening compels us to keep reading and resolve the conflict he sets up in the opening. 

The second approach to crafting a hook is by using a focused opening line that makes a compelling conceptual claim, which is then supported or explained in some way through the rest of the piece. Rather than beginning with a narrative moment that draws readers in, then, this approach favors starting with a compelling assertion. This is the case with another Ivy Scholars student – let’s call him “Jay” – whose personal statement began with the following, rather cryptic, line: 

“Here is one way to tell this story: 107 to 43 and 102 to 85.”

If you are not quite sure what this means, do not worry. The point of this opening is to hook admission officers with a conceptually compelling statement that piques their interest with some critical question. We ask ourselves: What do those numbers mean? What is the story the writer is referring to? If this is just one way of telling that story, what are some of the other ways of telling it? How many other stories are there, anyway? 

Despite initial appearances, in fact, the opening is not simply a nonsensical line meant to baffle the reader. Instead, it is actually an expertly crafted line that gives the reader a glimpse into the essay’s overall narrative trajectory. In the essay, Jay relates how taking on the additional responsibility of videographer for his robotics club showed him the importance of focusing on more than just his team’s score. The opening numbers, then, are the final scores his team achieved in a big robotics competition, but Jay is challenging both himself and the reader to focus on a different aspect of the club’s engineering journey. Through the course of the essay, consequently, he learns to appreciate the team’s daily efforts that propelled them to victory as much as the score they ultimately achieved. 

Ivy Scholars helps students craft openings that make sense for their essays by pairing students with mentors that understand how to craft compelling writing. At the same time, we sensitively interview students to isolate key details that help focus their writing around the key themes that make their own work stand out. In effect, our students craft openings that hook admission officers and also tell their unique story in the best way possible.

Crafting Clear Conclusions

The only thing harder than composing a great first line is composing a great last one. 

While introductions draw admission officers into an applicant’s personal statement, conclusions leave them with a clear understanding of what the applicant is all about. In other words, the conclusion is where the applicant explicitly signals to a reader what their values are and what this story says about them. However, the dangers that applicants encounter when crafting a conclusion are myriad. 

Some common problems found in conclusions include the following: 

  • The conclusion is unfocused and does not clearly state the applicant’s values. 
  • The conclusion does not feel like a logical progression for the piece, but instead feels tacked on. 
  • The conclusion is not memorable, surprising, or insightful. 
  • The conclusion is surprising and memorable, but for all the wrong reasons and feels shocking more than anything else.

Though there are many ways to craft an excellent conclusion, one of the clearest ways is to ‘bookend’ the conclusion with the opening. What this means is that the conclusion relates back to the opening in some way. At the same time, the conclusion illustrates the applicants values clearly and resolves the central conflict of the piece. 

Consider the conclusion of Adam’s personal statement, which both intentionally resolves the conflict related at the beginning of the piece and also describes Adam’s values clearly:

I have discovered that training to be a dancer is more than just physical work in the studio – it entails development as an athlete, artist, and thinker. As with innovative academic research, the artistic and intellectual synergy of dance at a professional-level academy warrants deep thought, humility, and exploration. My daily practice has required me to become comfortable with the uncertain, the unfamiliar, and the uncomfortable to gain the openness necessary to learn and grow. Now, I am eager to be challenged in the studio, the classroom, and throughout life.

Notice how the language in Adam’s penultimate line directly mirrors the language of the second line of his opening. As a result, the piece feels intentionally structured and shaped – we see clearly how Adam evolved over the course of the piece and we have a clear summation of what he learned. There is no question for us what Adam is all about in his essay, because we clearly know: he is someone not only willing to go out of his comfort zone to grow, but he has actually has a tested track record of doing so. 

Opening Conclusion
“The stained, stiff seats of the Boston commuter rail became increasingly uncomfortable as I realized my acceptance to the Houston Ballet Academy on full scholarship launched me down a path of uncertainty and unfamiliarity.”“My daily practice has required me to become comfortable with the uncertain, the unfamiliar, and the uncomfortable to gain the openness necessary to learn and grow.”  

Similarly, consider the way that Jay concluded his personal statement. Throughout the piece, he relates how he learned to see things differently through his journey as his robotics club’s videographer. While he continued to focus on key engineering problems, he also learned to look beyond the narrow confines of binary code and competitive scores to see the myriad of ways he and his teammates solved problems. This is how he concluded his piece:

In the end, I was as proud of my competition recaps as I was of the winning robot I built with my team. Becoming a videographer changed my perspective – literally. I went from focusing only on stats to considering the numerous small stepping stones on the path to success.

As an engineer, I’m invested in the narrative of numbers; as a storyteller, I focus on the world around us. As a person, I seek a balance between the two.

Jay’s conclusion works because it returns to the idea presented in the opening sentence and with a clearer focus. Rather than discrediting “the narrative of numbers” he describes in his opening, though, Jay clarifies that he seeks to create a balance between his love of numbers and the world around him. In effect, he simultaneously illustrates that he has the knowledge required to be a great engineering student, but also the mature perspective to be a person that contextualizes the world around them

In the end, both Adam and Jay were admitted to their top choice schools, both of which were highly competitive Ivy League institutions. 

The Ivy Scholars Edge

Whether you’re composing an 11th grade book report or your college application personal statement, beginning and ending a polished piece of prose is a daunting undertaking. It doesn’t have to be, though. Through a combination of admissions expertise and professional writing instruction, Ivy Scholars help students craft openings and conclusions that both draws admission officers in and gets applicants admitted.

We don’t just help you put words onto the blank page, we help you tell your story – from beginning to end. 

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