How to Sound Smart in Your Personal Statement

These three tips will help you sound smart in your college application essays—just as smart as you really are.

Let me start by stating: trying to sound like a rocket scientist should not be the primary goal of your personal statement. You want to sound like you—you just want colleges to see how smart you really are. Following these tips will simply help your intelligence shine through. College admission counselors will see it in the topic you chose, how you articulate your values, and the insights you draw from your experiences. So, without further ado, here are three ways to sound smart in your personal statement—just as smart as you really are.

Sound smart by asking great questions

Anyone can make a smart statement; it’s easy to regurgitate clever things we’ve read elsewhere. But smart questions? Those are noteworthy. Consider the difference: 

  • Smart statement: The amount of heat absorbed is also affected by how light or dark an object is. A dark object of a given color will absorb more photons than a light object of the same color, so it will absorb more heat and get warmer. I learned this from my second grade science project.
  • Smart question: In second grade I enrolled in a summer science program and built a solar-powered oven that baked real cookies. I remember obsessing over the smallest details: Should I paint the oven black to absorb more heat? What about its shape? A spherical shape would allow for more volume, but would it trap heat as well as conventional rectangular ovens? Even then I was obsessed with the details of design.

The smart statement could have been copy-and-pasted out of a science textbook. The smart question (questions, really) shows the author’s curious mind and innovative thought process. If you’re mentally compiling a list of questions to tuck into your personal statement, you should also know: you don’t actually have to answer all the questions! Questions can be philosophical, metaphorical, or rhetorical. Here’s an example from an essay a student wrote about her grandfather’s life in North Korea:

In particular, I am interested in the North-South Korean tension. What irreconcilable differences have prompted a civilization to separate? Policy implications remain vague, and sovereignty theories have their limits—how do we determine what compromises are to be made? And on a personal level, why did my grandfather have to flee from his destroyed North Korean hometown—and why does it matter?

Those questions are impossible to answer in a short personal statement, but they demonstrate that the author has thought long and hard about complex issues.

Related: Top College Essay Tips From Admission Insiders

Sound smart by using just the right amount of geeky language

Did you notice that I didn’t say “stuff your personal statement with polysyllabic SAT words”? Using the correct real-world terms for any concepts you’re trying to explain shows that you understand the inner workings of the topic. But using big words for the sake of big words shows little more than the fact that you know how to go onto (harsh but true).

  • Too much geeky language: The first project that I was involved with investigated the extraintestinal manifestations of IBD. Patients who suffer from IBD often have diseases called extraintestinal manifestations that also affect multiple other organ systems and can be just as, if not more, debilitating than the intestinal inflammation itself. My contribution involved examining data in Dr. Shih's clinical database, which led me to discover that the skin is one of the most commonly affected organ systems in patients who suffer from IBD.
  • Just enough geeky language: Through switch-side policy debate, I not only discussed competing ideas but also argued both sides of widely disputed issues. By introducing me to Protagoras’ antilogic and Dissoi Logoi, switch-side policy debate has provided me with a forum to cultivate diverse perspectives that have informed my own intellectual growth.

That first example...yowza. It’s not poorly written, but it’s basically an excerpt from a research paper. An admission counselor reading this passage in a personal statement might wonder why the student included so much (academic) detail. If you’re not sure if you’ve used too much geeky language, ask someone who is somewhat familiar with the topic to read your essay. Do they understand it? Does it make sense in the context of your essay? Yes on both counts? Great.

If you’ve over-geeked, add a clarifying sentence in “plain English” to the end of the paragraph. Like this:
I’m the math geek who marvels at the fundamental theorems of Calculus and who sees
beauty in A=(s(s-a)(s-b)(s-c))^(1/2). For me, it’s all in the details: one bracket off or one digit missing and the whole equation collapses. And details are more than details; they can mean the difference between negative and positive infinity, an impossible range of solutions. Even someone who doesn’t speak math can appreciate the comment that beauty lies in the intricacies of Calculus.

Sound smart by showing and telling

Every English teacher you’ve ever had has probably told you to “show, don’t tell.” And while that’s great advice, I’d argue that in personal statements, you want to show and tell. You paint a beautiful picture for the admission counselor…and then you share insightful thoughts about that picture. Sounds pretty smart, right?

When you’re writing your personal statement, put yourself in the role of both painter and art critic. A painter is in charge of creating the beautiful images; an art critic is in charge of saying smart stuff about the images. In your personal essay, you do both. The “show” demonstrates you’re a talented writer—that you’re ready to write at the college level. The “tell” demonstrates you’re a critical thinker—that you’re ready to think at the college level. Here’s a favorite example of mine:

Many nights you’ll find me in the garage replacing standard chrome trim with an elegant piano black finish or changing the threads on the stitching of the seats to add a personal touch, as I believe a few small changes can transform a generic product into a personalized work of art.

When you’re writing, make sure you put your “show” before your ‘tell.” Here’s why: it creates an interesting puzzle in the reader’s mind: What do these images mean? What will they add up to? You engage the reader’s imagination; you grab their attention. Then, once you deliver your interpretation, you can wow your reader by surprising them with something they wouldn’t have thought of (*cough* make sure it’s something the reader wouldn’t have thought of *cough*). Choose images and examples you can provide insight on. If the image-to-insight connection is too obvious, simply choose a different image! You’re the painter. You can do that. Aim to include three to five insights in your application essay. More insights = more smart.

Related: What NOT to Do in Your College Application Essay

Want even more help with your personal statement? Insights into the application process? Find more advice by visiting our Application Essay Clinic!

The above is adapted from Ethan Sawyer's book, College Essay Essentials. Learn more at

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About Ethan Sawyer

Ethan Sawyer

Ethan Sawyer, "The College Essay Guy," has been helping students tell their stories for more than 10 years and is the author of the forthcoming College Essay Essentials: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing a Successful College Admission Essay. He has reached thousands of students and counselors through his webinars and workshops and has become a nationally recognized college essay expert and sought-after speaker. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and received an MFA from UC–Irvine.

Ethan was raised as a missionary kid in Spain, Ecuador, and Colombia and studied at 17 different schools. He’s worked as a teacher, curriculum writer, voice actor, grant writer, theater director, motivational speaker, community organizer, and truck driver (true story). He is also a certified Myers-Briggs® specialist.

He is an active member of the Western Association of College Admissions Counselors (WACAC) and the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC). He lives with his wife and daughter in Los Angeles. For more information, visit


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