Addressing Weaknesses in the Personal Statement

WeaknessMany college application essays will include a question asking you to identify your biggest weakness. Students often make a crucial mistake with this type of question, deciding to answer as if the admissions committee had asked, "why shouldn't we accept you?" The goal of your personal statement is to make yourself as attractive as possible to the college, so don't give them a reason to reject you. This question should be dealt with like every other one in the packet: as an opportunity to show how great a student you will be.

The first step is to identify something that is a realistic weakness. You may be tempted to say something like "I'm a workaholic" or some other weakness-that's-really-a-strength. Don't do this. College admissions officers see variants of "I just care too much about my school work" too often to believe it. Instead, critically analyze your application and identify your biggest weakness. A low GPA, a disappointing SAT or ACT score, or low participation in extracurricular activities are all great examples.

Next, figure out an explanation — not an excuse — for your weakness. Perhaps your family moved around a lot, preventing you from rooting in a school. Perhaps you had to work an after-school job that cut into your time to play a sport. Whatever your reason, make sure it's something that you can use to make yourself look like a better candidate. It's much easier to forgive a low GPA, for example, if the reason for it was the time you spent in a professional internship.

Here are four examples of the thesis statement for your personal statement weakness. Note that they are ordered from worst to best:

"What is Your Biggest Weakness?"

Worst
"I have a low GPA."
The admissions officers already know you have a low GPA, and if they didn't, you just alerted them to go look. Your weakness should be cleverly woven into your answer rather than appearing upfront and obvious.

Bad
"I'm a very sensitive person and sometimes care too much about my friends."
This is an example of a weakness-that's-really-a-strength. You want to show the admissions committee that you can objectively and critically analyze yourself, and "I care too much" is not a realistic weakness. Additionally, this answer focuses on personal characteristics rather than on academic ones. Focus on your scholarship rather than on character flaws.

Better
"I have a lower than average GPA due to the time I spent working as an intern at a law office to earn money to support my family."
What makes this answer better than the previous ones is that it identifies a real and credible weakness (low GPA), but provides an explanation that is positive. Though colleges want to see applicants with high grade point averages, they also want to see students with real-life work experience and those who have overcome difficulties. This answer shows both of those, making the student appear more well-rounded. The rest of the answer would then discuss why the student believes his experiences as a legal intern make up for his lower GPA. There is, however, one thing that should change to make this an ideal thesis.

Best
"I worked a part-time job before and after school in order to support my family. Though the work was incredibly rewarding, it limited my ability to focus on my high school work. Though I was able to work with my teachers to extend deadlines and make up missed work, my job did limit my ability to complete all of my assignments."
Rather than leading with the weakness, this answer weaves the weakness into the discussion of the applicant's strength. The admissions officers will already know about your GPA by the time they get to this section, so it is unnecessary to call attention to it again. Instead, go right into your explanation. This allows you to write an answer that focuses on your strengths while, at the same time, compensating for your weakness. This answer also demonstrates that the student took the initiative to try to overcome her weakness by approaching her teachers and requesting extensions. Not only does this answer show that the student has a good reason for her lower GPA, but it also shows that she recognizes, addresses, and takes steps to correct her problems rather than merely complaining about them.

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