Let me start by stating: appearing as smart as possible should not be the primary goal of your personal statement.

There are other aspects of the college application process that can highlight your academic achievements and intellectual curiosity. The admission counselor will see it in the topic you chose, how you articulate your values, and the insights you draw from your experiences.

Now, having said that, there are ways to showcase your intelligence in your personal statement and I’ll share three of them below. But just to be suuuuper clear – again – this should not be your primary focus. Don’t just put lipstick on a pig. First, make sure you’ve got a really fine pig. Then, consider the techniques below to be different shades of lipstick that will make that pig look fabulous.

3 ways to sound smart in your personal statement (even though that shouldn’t be your primary focus)

1) Ask great questions.

Anyone can make a smart-sounding statement; it’s easy to restate and 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.

(to read this entire essay, check out my free guide)

The smart statement could have been copy-and-pasted out of a science textbook. The smart question shows the author’s curious mind and tells me the kind of person he might be in the classroom.

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.

2) Use (just the right amount) of geeky language.

Did you notice that I didn’t say “stuff your personal statement with polysyllabic SAT words?” Geeky jargon shows that you understand the inner workings of an area of study. Or, as Luci, a very smart student I know, wrote to me once, “If you’re just saying the word for the sake of saying a big word, it’s meaningless. But if you’re using it within the context of a sentence that SHOWS you care about what that word actually means, that’s what makes it geeky.” And we mean geeky in the great way.

Here’s an example of someone using just enough geeky language:
Through switch-side policy debate I not only discuss a multitude of competing ideas, but also argue from both sides of widely disputed issues. By equipping me with Protagoras’ antilogic and Dissoi Logoi, switch-side policy debate has provided me with a forum to cultivate a diversity of intellectual perspectives that has informed my own intellectual growth.

And here’s an example of someone on the flip side using 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.

Did you stop reading that last example after the first sentence? Yeah, me too. 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? Yes? 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, or who sees
beauty in A=(s(s-a)(s-b)(s-c))^(1/2). Again, it’s 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 details.

3) Show and tell.

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. Essentially, you paint a beautiful, color-saturated picture for the admissions counselor … and then you share insightful thoughts about said picture.

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 images; a critic is in charge of saying smart stuff about the images (by answering “so what?”). In your personal statement, do both. Here’s one of my favorite examples of someone who struck this balance really well:

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.

The “show” demonstrates you’re a talented writer. The “tell” demonstrates you’re a critical thinker.

When you’re writing, make sure you put your ‘show’ before your ‘tell.’ Here’s why: The images you describe create 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.

Once you deliver your interpretation (aka the “so what?”), the specificity of your articulation will be more surprising because it will be something the reader won’t have thought of (cough make sure it’s something the reader won’t have thought of cough).

Choose images and examples that you can provide insight on. If the image > insight connection is too obvious, simply choose a different image! You’re the painter, you can do that. Aim to include 3-5 insights in your essay. More insights = more smart.