Getting Personal

By Carol Hogan

Guest Writer

For countless students, writing is tough. For others, writing about themselves is pure torture. And you know a student has a problem when they’re called upon to write a personal statement for a college application and they have to ask “what’s it all about?”

It may seem obvious, but, well… a personal statement is about YOU; a “bells and whistles” essay, sometimes optional, but always a critical part of your college application, that tells the college Admissions Committee things about you that can’t be learned elsewhere on the application.

On November 3, Western Washington University’s Jeanne Gaffney, Senior Assistant Director of Admissions, will be on campus to conduct a Personal Statement Workshop, in Cascade 131, at 4 p.m.

It’s an opportunity you don’t want to miss, because whether you’re a transfer or Running Start student (applying as a freshman), your personal statement is “really a chance to communicate to the admissions committee who is reviewing the file,” said Gaffney. Western’s handout, titled Writing the Personal Essay, states “The personal essay provides an opportunity for admissions committee members to learn more about you as an individual.”  

“It’s a chance for students to help us understand their transcript, Gaffney said, so if there’s a quarter where a student struggled we’ll notice that and it’s an opportunity for the student to give the committee some context.”

Earlier in the year I attended Gaffney’s personal essay workshop at Whatcom. She provided insight and depth to the handout, and answered many questions from the attendees. In a recent telephone interview I asked her, “What is the most important thing the committee is looking for?”

“For us, one of the most important things, in addition to cumulative academic performance, is major preparation,” Gaffney said. “We are looking for (transfer) students who can come in at the junior level and be ready for their major.”

They are also looking for “some insight into a transfer student’s academic and career goals,” she said. “That helps us understand why they’re interested in their major and the steps they’ve taken to be competitive for their major,” especially where there are limited spaces.

As a career journalist, older, non-traditional Whatcom student, and writing center tutor newly graduated from Whatcom with an A.A.S. transfer degree, like many of you I recently completed a personal essay for Western.

While writing it, I questioned whether I should have mentioned taking Math 97 twice and Math 98 three times before I passed (jeez), or whether I should have written about the health issues I experienced (I didn’t want it to be a sob story).

But the Western handout says there is no right or wrong response, so the answer was yes, because they need to know grade trends and the factors that affected my academic performance. I also asked myself how far back I should go in my life experiences, (way too many pages to write – and read).

But, the handout states there aren’t any length requirements and the Admissions Committee reads it “word-for-word.”  Moreover, this year students can add attachments to their electronic applications, too.

I sought additional help from the Writing Center for advice about what was important and what wasn’t, rewrote it, read it aloud, checked the spelling (again), and finally, met with Whatcom’s Nancy Mullane, associate director for transfer advising & prior learning. She read it, chuckled in the right places, and said I was on the right track, so I completed and submitted my application.

Some words of advice: if you’ve attended other colleges or universities, request your transcripts well in advance to guarantee they arrive around the same time as the application submission deadline. You need to submit transcripts for every institution you have attended.

“Students shouldn’t wait until the deadline to request transcripts because some schools take longer than others,” Gaffney said. Applications are considered incomplete until all transcripts have been received.

The submission deadline for spring quarter at Western is January 15, 2011.

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