6 Red Flag Words to Watch Out for in Your Personal Statement

I read a lot of Personal Statement drafts, about 500 per year to be exact.

Yes, I counted.

And there are a couple of things that I see over and over again that weaken what is potentially a really great essay. I can see these issues (vagueness, lack of clarity, unflattering representation of oneself) creeping in with a few tell-tale words or expressions.

In this blog post, I’ve rounded up some of those “red flag” words—the worst offenders of the bunch—to share with you so that you can avoid them like the plague that they are on your Personal Statement.

“Passion”

The Problem:

“Passion” is the at the top of the list because it is BY FAR the worst offender.

I’d say about 80% of first drafts that I look at use a version of “passion”! Passion (and to a lesser degree its cousin “love”) is one of the most overused phrases in Personal Statements.

You might find yourself asking what’s wrong with being passionate about your area of study, future career, or hobby? The short answer is “nothing.” BUT using either “passion” or “love” in your essay is generally a way that applicants tell their feelings instead of showing them.

If you show your reader that this field is important to you then you don’t need to rely on clichéd expressions of “passion” and “love.”

Besides the fact that it’s an overused expression, it generally doesn’t apply. “Passion” is a grand concept. And while you might enjoy engineering and want to pursue a master’s degree in the field, does “passion” really fit the bill?

The Solution:

Stop and reflect on what about your choice of fields really speaks to you.

Is it the intricacies of law that you find interesting?

Is it playing around with logical principals within parameters that you enjoy about computer science?

“Passion” sounds like a vague exaggeration and your reader will see you using the word as a way of avoiding deeper reflection.

So get specific! Help your readers see that you are passionate about your field for themselves. They’re much more likely to believe that way.

“Help”

The problem:

Practically every early draft of a medical school application I’ve ever read had a version of the following phrase: “I want to help people.”

Much like passion, “helping” can sound overused.

It’s also incredibly vague. There are a million ways to help people and you can do so as a teacher, social worker, physician, therapist, or crossing guard, to name just a few professions that “help” people.

The solution:

Reflect on why you have chosen this field as one through which you want to help people.

Do you want to help young adults realize their potential as an educator?

Do you want to help adults navigate childhood trauma as a therapist?

Do you want to help children cross the street as a crossing guard?

Or, replace “help” with a synonym that is more specific—words like “promote,” “assist,” “support,” or “facilitate” (you can find more synonyms here).

Whatever word you decide to use, the important thing is to be specific, be specific, be specific. 

“Thing”

The problem:

There is no vaguer word than “thing.” 

If you write “I learned a lot of things from that experience,” your reader is no closer to knowing what you learned than they were before reading that sentence.

Are those “things” you learned recipes?

Jokes?

Life altering realizations?

Without further explanation there is no way for your readers to know.

The solution:

Define “the thing” to which you’re referring.

Is it an experience, lesson, value, or something else entirely?

Did you realize a particular approach?

Help us better understand how this experience shaped you in terms of what you are now applying to do.

“This/These”

The problem:

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with demonstratives (e.g. this, that, these, those, there, here) but they’re meant to refer to a specific noun and frequently that specific noun is missing.

Too often I see applicants write a paragraph that has so many potential directions for readers to grasp at and then follow it up with another paragraph that begins simply with “These experiences demonstrate that I’m prepared for ___________.”

What part of these experiences?

What about them do you want your reader to know?

The Solution:

Identify what you mean.

Don’t ask your reader to do the heavy lifting.

Stay in control of the message by being clear.

Instead of “these experiences demonstrate x,” choose something specific.

For example, “working with children made me reevaluate my professional plans” instead of “these experiences made me reevaluate my professional plans.”

Help your reader by being direct. 

“Network”

The Problem:

Networking is a vital part of advancing in any field, but the term has some negative associations.

It sounds selfish/self-centered, like you’re planning to simply collect business cards for the sole purpose of advancing your career.

Plus “networking” is such a vague concept!

The Solution:

Instead of “network,” try using “connect with,” “learn from” and/or “share.”

Focus on how you can work together with the people you meet rather than what you will get from them.

For more on demonstrating your contribution, check out this recent post

“Allow”

The Problem:

My issue with “allow” is its passivity.

For example, when my children ask for dessert, I either “allow” them to have some or I don’t.

So when reading “participating in x, allowed me to do y,” your readers will see a dynamic similar to that of parent and child.

Was it just happenstance that allowed you to do something or did you make an active choice to take a particular action as a result of reflection?

Don’t represent yourself as a passive recipient of life, one to whom events “happen.”

The Solution:

When writing a Personal Statement, always write in active voice.

Show how “as a result of participating in x, you realized the importance of y, and then did z” (see my post here for a more in-depth discussion of how to do this.)

Reflection should lead to action, so create a cause and effect relationship.

You are the driving force. You are the motivator.

Things aren’t just moving along, but instead you’re the one moving them in the direction you want to pursue.

You don’t need permission to ask for dessert.


Writing Personal Statements/college admission essays can be incredibly challenging. If you find yourself struggling, I can help you craft a Personal Statement that reflects the best version of who you are and give you the best chance of getting into the school(s) you want. Contact me here for more info.

6 thoughts on “6 Red Flag Words to Watch Out for in Your Personal Statement

  1. Jane

    This is excellent writing advice in general! I appreciate how you’re encouraging readers to do the real work of self-knowledge and digging deep. It’s always so worth it to make that effort.

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