College Admissions Essay Hack: Demonstrate A Growth Mindset Instead of Talking About Your Accomplishments

When applying for college, graduate school, or a scholarship, it’s only natural that you would want to put your best foot forward and use the Personal Statement to tell your readers “hey, I’ve got what it takes to succeed!”

But how do you set yourself apart when so many applicants have similar GPAs, test scores, and extracurricular activities?

Your Personal Statement.

It’s this (seemingly) simple, one-page essay that grants you the opportunity to show who you are and why you are the best applicant for the program. But please don’t confuse “best” with “perfect.”

You can share a list of your impressive achievements in other parts of the application (or even in a resume, if one is requested), but leave your Personal Statement to demonstrate something else: a growth mindset.

As I wrote in a previous post, a Personal “Statement” isn’t meant to convey finality. After all, you’re not done growing!

If you haven’t already heard of the fixed vs. growth mindset, here’s a quick breakdown:

  • A person with a fixed mindset believes that their intellectual abilities and talents are innate (e.g. fixed).
  • A person with a growth mindset knows that they’re capable of change as a result of hard work and dedication.

For more information about growth mindset check out Carol Dweck’s TED talk.

At this point, some of you might be thinking “Sweet! All I have to do is say ‘I have a growth mindset’ in my Personal Statement and I’m all set!”

But remember I said “show” not “tell.” 

So how do you prove to your readers that you possess a growth mindset without actually saying “I have a growth mindset”?

By incorporating these three key ideas about yourself into the Personal Statement:

1. You have the ability to learn from mistakes.

It’s true that we learn much more from our failures than we do our achievements.

I know that’s certainly true for me! Most of my personal and professional set-backs led me to reevaluate what I was doing and grow as a result— that is, once I had some time to feel sorry for myself and drown my sorrows in pasta and Netflix. 

Discussing your set-backs from the perspective of what you learned from them offers an opportunity to show resilience and growth.

So take a moment and really reflect what life lessons those “failures” taught you. 

What did failing that big Chem test lead you to do?

What did not making that team show you about yourself in the long term?

What did not doing great that year in school teach you?

Maybe these set-backs made you less afraid of going for things that were scary. Maybe they shook you out of your comfort zone in some real way. Now that’s interesting! Having the ability to learn from your mistakes shows that you won’t buckle at the first sign of a challenge in the future and that’s something your readers will very much appreciate.

2. You have a positive perspective.

Writing about a failure can be great, BUT let me be clear: if you can’t frame the set-back in a positive light, then don’t include it in your Personal Statement.

Look, I get it. Some things are too close, too raw, and too painful to discuss with a “lesson learned” mentality. If it feels like you’re “spinning” the set-back into a positive instead of really thinking about the lesson you learned, then this is NOT the direction you should pursue.

The reality is that you’re going to face more challenges in life (and possibly in the environment to which you are applying), so your readers want to see that you know how to turn a “problem” into a “challenge” that can be overcome. Do not dwell on negatives in your Personal Statements.

Avoid being critical, and try to exemplify compassion and empathy for others—even if they were in the wrong. Showing that you approach people with an open-mind and positive intentions will highlight that you’ll be a good classmate (one who will make others comfortable) and help create a positive environment. Who wouldn’t want a person like that around?

3. You have the capacity for self-reflection.

The best part about this last point is that if you actually demonstrate that you have a positive mindset and learn from your mistakes, then you’ve already got your readers to see that you are capable of self-reflection!

To grow is to change, and to recognize that change, you must be self-aware enough to honestly assess how your life experiences impacted your perspective.

That’s where vulnerability comes in. For a better understanding of strength in vulnerability, watch Brené Brown’s The Power of Vulnerability TED Talk.

There is a misconception that vulnerability means weakness or oversharing. So how do you know if you’re going too far and have now entered the murky terrain of TMI?

Think in terms of relevance.

For example, if you want to share the fact that you are a survivor of assault and now want to become a therapist who works with patients dealing with childhood trauma, then writing about your personal experience with it makes a lot of sense. However, if you’re applying for an MBA program then maybe that particular experience isn’t necessary to discuss in your Personal Statement.

Remember that the story you tell your readers doesn’t matter nearly as much as demonstrating what it motivated you to realize and do. For more on unpacking “the story” for your readers, check out this post . Show your readers that you can reflect on the silver lining by learning from your mistakes and growing as a result. 

Have you written a Personal Statement lately, or are you working on one now? What challenges did you come across? Post a question in the comments and I’ll answer it!

Leave a Reply