The Personal Statement that Got Me Into Cornell University

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Photo by Marcos Paulo Prado on Unsplash

Last winter, I graduated from Cornell University in 3.5 years with an undergraduate degree in Operations Research & Information Engineering. If you’d told my younger self that I would end up graduating early from an Ivy League, I would most likely call you crazy and immediately dismiss the thought. In high school, I definitely was not the type of student you would expect to be admitted into Cornell University, let alone a top tier college.

Four years ago, I was the type of kid that didn’t really put the effort into school and just did the bare minimum to get by. Looking back now, I realized this was because I never thought about the future and had zero expectations for myself. Unfortunately, my lack of effort definitely showed in my grade point average. I was pretty adept at the more technical classes such as Linear Algebra or Physics but barely held on with straight C’s in my English, History, and Spanish classes.

Despite my poor academic performances, I firmly believe that there was one aspect that helped me claw my way to the top of the college application pool. This was my personal essay, a meager 650 words that set me apart and above the list of exemplary students from across the country. Below, I have copied my personal statement word for word and will go through my thought process when writing it as well as advice for other college essays.

Each year, there are a few prompts to choose from for the Common App(the most widely used application for colleges in the United States). I applied in the 2015–2016 academic year and this was the specific prompt I chose to answer:

The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

This prompt seemed to be the easiest to answer since everyone has some sort of story they can tell from their failures. For me, I was always overweight as a child and definitely went through some hardships due to that. This also was a topic I was very open about and would be easy for me to structure my personal statement around this.

My Personal Essay I Used for Cornell University

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Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

“You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.” But then again, if I never shot a ball people would never see how helpless I was at basketball. Or almost any other sport for that matter. I hated recess in middle school because that was when everyone played kickball, or basketball, or lacrosse. It didn’t matter because I failed at everything that required any sort of ball-handling. Oh yeah, did I tell you, I was fat too? So if I say middle school recess sucked, then gym was an airtight vacuum. Every week, I had one day in gym when my self-esteem was reduced to zero. That day was physical evaluation day. It meant that I would have to do push-ups, sit-ups or some other test of physical ability. The worst physical evaluation days were when I had to run the mile. For me, running was painful. Not like “ugh, this is god-awful “ painful, but like “if I don’t stop, I’m going to explode” painful. So I was the one kid in the class who had to take a break in the middle of every mile and sit down panting like there wasn’t enough oxygen in the world to save me. There were no dreams of athletic glory for me.

Then my parents decided to make me try swimming. It was a sport, so I immediately said no, there was a zero percent chance I was doing it. However, after some prodding and persuading, I decided that I couldn’t be that bad at it. So I tried swimming. And it was bizarre. Swimming is a weird sport that requires no hand-eye coordination but is still considered extremely difficult. That’s because swimming is a training sport, which means the longer I train in the pool, the better I will become. Swimming takes perseverance: Swimmers must be extremely mentally strong to wake up at 5:00am every morning in the dead of winter to dive into a frigid pool. I have to be dedicated and enjoy swimming to be in the pool and around the same people for so long. I must also accept others and be willing to let others help me. I can’t hide much when almost naked, frozen into paralysis and only wearing a speedo. My teammates accept me for who I am and suffer through the same effort of moving in the water one stroke at a time. I love that about swimming and it’s taught me how hard work has the potential to create something greater than refining natural talent. Sure, people with talent are able to become athletes, but in swimming, I could be as competitive if I put in the time and investment.

I have been competitively swimming for the last eight years and it’s become a part of my life that motivates me to work hard. I’m committed to both my club team and my high school team and can confidently say that I love my teammates. When I’m spending up to five hours a day with the same people fighting to finish the same sets, I find it really easy to be open and welcoming. The members of my swim team act like everyone is family and that camaraderie is what makes swimming so endearing to me. When I’m swimming I realize that not everyone has to be the best football player in the world to be an athlete and that there’s a place for everyone to thrive. I love my team and they have taught me to not dwell on my weaknesses, but to accept them and instead, to figure out ways in which to improve them. I’m not the pudgy boy embarrassed by physical evaluation day in gym anymore, I’m a confident and determined swimmer who’s willing to put his effort into both the water and the world.

Breakdown of my Personal Essay

“You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.” But then again, if I never shot a ball people would never see how helpless I was at basketball. Or almost any other sport for that matter.

I chose this prompt because I knew it would be easy to answer. With the same logic, I also expected this prompt to be a very popular choice among other applications as well. I knew I had to carefully construct my essay in a way to exude originality. If I was successful, my application would easily outshine others. With this in mind, I took a pretty substantial gamble here by opening my story with such an obvious cliché. This was a calculated risk as most first impressions are already made by the first few seconds, or words, in the case of an essay. I took advantage of the almost groan-inducing cliché to set an expectation for the reader. I trapped the admissions officer to anticipate that the essay would follow the overplayed cliché story line. Yet, right in the second sentence I crush those expectations and go an altogether different route and interpretation of Wayne Gretzky’s words.

I hated recess in middle school because that was when everyone played kickball, or basketball, or lacrosse. It didn’t matter because I failed at everything that required any sort of ball-handling. Oh yeah, did I tell you, I was fat too? So if I say middle school recess sucked, then gym was an airtight vacuum.

In the next few sentences, I continue to write sentences in a very unconventional manner. The sentence structure starts out grammatically incorrect with two “or’s” but is written as you might hear me say the sentence in conversation. In this way, my personal statement starts to seem almost like an intimate conversation the reader stumbles upon. I write as if I am pouring out my thoughts and experiences which not only builds more of a background on the “failures” I overcame, but also creates rapport between the reader and myself. Moreover, especially with the last two sentences of this section, the essay slowly manufactures a personality in the mind of the reader utilizing a bit of wry humor and metaphors.

Every week, I had one day in gym when my self-esteem was reduced to zero. That day was physical evaluation day. It meant that I would have to do push-ups, sit-ups or some other test of physical ability. The worst physical evaluation days were when I had to run the mile. For me, running was painful. Not like “ugh, this is god-awful “ painful, but like “if I don’t stop, I’m going to explode” painful. So I was the one kid in the class who had to take a break in the middle of every mile and sit down panting like there wasn’t enough oxygen in the world to save me. There were no dreams of athletic glory for me.

Everything so far in my personal statement has been pretty general experiences whereas the prompt specifically calls out an singular incident or time. In this section, I picked a time where I repeatedly experienced failure each week in gym class. I definitely try to abuse the pity card as much as I can here. I remembered running the mile was universally dreaded and went the route of fishing for empathy from the reader. At this point, I am running low on my 650 word count and need to transition out of my pity party so I end it by saying that I had “no dreams of athletic glory” which will contrast well with the final section where the sport of swimming actually helps me overcome my failures.

Then my parents decided to make me try swimming. It was a sport, so I immediately said no, there was a zero percent chance I was doing it. However, after some prodding and persuading, I decided that I couldn’t be that bad at it. So I tried swimming. And it was bizarre. Swimming is a weird sport that requires no hand-eye coordination but is still considered extremely difficult. That’s because swimming is a training sport, which means the longer I train in the pool, the better I will become. Swimming takes perseverance: Swimmers must be extremely mentally strong to wake up at 5:00am every morning in the dead of winter to dive into a frigid pool.

This is the turning point in my essay and where I introduce swimming as how I eventually overcame my failures. In the first few sentences, it is clear that I am very apprehensive about trying swimming out but I eventually open my mind to at least trying it out. In order to improve my college application and my chances at admission, I needed to parade my good character traits in front of the reader. Yet, if I did this outright it would never work so I cleverly described swimming in a way that emphasized the exact same character traits I wanted to show. Instead of saying I was a very hardworking individual that never gave up, I wrote “swimming takes perseverance: swimmers must be extremely mentally strong”. Aligning myself as a swimmer, I also align myself as a potential student with desirable traits.

I have to be dedicated and enjoy swimming to be in the pool and around the same people for so long. I must also accept others and be willing to let others help me. I can’t hide much when almost naked, frozen into paralysis and only wearing a speedo. My teammates accept me for who I am and suffer through the same effort of moving in the water one stroke at a time. I love that about swimming and it’s taught me how hard work has the potential to create something greater than refining natural talent. Sure, people with talent are able to become athletes, but in swimming, I could be as competitive if I put in the time and investment.

In the following segment, I continue to connect myself with desirable characteristics as well as insert some descriptive imagery in a humorous way to keep the reader interested. This part is essentially just my personal ode to swimming demonstrating that I have productive passions outside of school.

I have been competitively swimming for the last eight years and it’s become a part of my life that motivates me to work hard. I’m committed to both my club team and my high school team and can confidently say that I love my teammates. When I’m spending up to five hours a day with the same people fighting to finish the same sets, I find it really easy to be open and welcoming. The members of my swim team act like everyone is family and that camaraderie is what makes swimming so endearing to me.

In the last paragraph of my personal essay I can start to wrap everything together and bring my story up to the present. In this section, it is clear that I have devoted a huge amount of time into swimming which demonstrates an example that I work hard towards my goals and time management skills. There is also an aspect of team and community that I do not forget to mention here. This I believe is something that colleges are especially susceptible to appreciating since they are always looking to build a strong sense of community on campus.

When I’m swimming I realize that not everyone has to be the best football player in the world to be an athlete and that there’s a place for everyone to thrive. I love my team and they have taught me to not dwell on my weaknesses, but to accept them and instead, to figure out ways in which to improve them. I’m not the pudgy boy embarrassed by physical evaluation day in gym anymore, I’m a confident and determined swimmer who’s willing to put his effort into both the water and the world.

My personal essay is finished with a very simple lesson that I learned through swimming which is to not only keep an open mind but to always work on learning and improving. Ending this essay showing the growth I experienced definitely leaves a strong impression on the reader and is a short and simple way to condense the previous 650 words into the last few sentences.

Originality is paramount in a strong college essay(or any writing). There are millions of students applying to college in the U.S. alone. As colleges continue to lower their acceptance rates, it becomes even more essential to stand out in order to stand a chance. Easy ways of accomplishing this is to learn how to translate personality into text or transform existing ideas into new ones.

Good luck!

Personal Finance Enthusiast / Post-grad Life / Just your typical boy in the Midwest

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