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I am writing a personal statement for applying to a school, and I have a question about past tense. The following paragraph describes things that happened several years ago:

My school is located in a rural area and has an extremely small Asian-student body. During my first semester, I did not have a car and could not go anywhere outside of the school.

My question is: since I am describing things which happened in the past, should the first sentence be past tense? But I think the first sentence is describing something that has not changed now, so present tense is okay as well?

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You could defend using the present tense, but in practice most native speakers would use past tense in this particular case, because by normal standards, it's no longer your school long after you've left it. Also, if you're going to continue with more references to your time there in the past tense, the natural thing to do is make all the tenses agree. –  FumbleFingers Jan 28 '13 at 6:23
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2 Answers

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Yes, your first sentence should be in the past tense. The tenses of your sentences should agree. Maybe this year the number of Asian students has risen markedly, but it's not important now -- it might have been when you went there, though.

I wonder what kind of school you're talking about. Sounds like a college because you were already driving.

I'd revise the first sentence to read:

I went to an isolated rural college with very few Asian students.

I'm assuming that this was in an anglophone country, probably the USA (because of the car reference).

I'd revise the second sentence to read:

First semester, I had no car and did not leave the campus.

You don't want to sound helpless by saying that because you had no car, you couldn't go anywhere off campus. I added "isolated" to "rural" because, if you didn't leave the campus solely because you had no car, it means that there was no local town within walking distance and no public transportation. It's necessary to think a little bit more about the implications of what you say and how you say it.

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Thanks, you did not only answer the question,also brought up potential hazard of the 2 sentences. I was studying at a liberal arts college in middle west in USA. The food issue was really a headache. It's really a year without pizza. –  LouisTan Jan 28 '13 at 8:41
    
No pizza? Really? That's strange. Must've been underground Midwest. Nobody delivered pizza and beer to the campus? –  user21497 Jan 28 '13 at 8:46
    
ha. I am an asian, so my feeling was like "No pizza" as for Americans. There was pizza guys, people love pizza, I was not able to catch up with food structure at that time. –  LouisTan Jan 28 '13 at 8:48
    
We have lots of pizza places here in Taiwan. Taiwanese love pizza too. –  user21497 Jan 28 '13 at 9:17
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Yes, that's right. The first sentence is fine because it's describing the situation that is still the same. The second sentence is right too.

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I don't think it's important that the situation at the OP's school is still the same. What's important is what the situation was when the OP attended that school, so I disagree that the first sentence is fine. The second sentence is grammatically correct but semantically not good. The reason for not leaving the campus is lame because not developed. Grammaticality isn't a sufficient criterion for judging writing or other aspects of usage. Style, content, nuance, implications, and how the language works in context must be taken into consideration. –  user21497 Jan 28 '13 at 7:26
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