College Essays: The Personal Statement

An Expert Guide to the Most Common College Admission Prompt

The personal statement is your opportunity to tell your story to a stranger that will have a say as to whether or not you are accepted to attend their college or university. Without trying to cover too much, you want to tell a story of some event, experience, or identity that has shaped and defined you. It is a chance for you to tell admissions officers what makes you unique. It is not a place for you to re-list your accomplishments. Your personal statement is a chance to be creative, to be reflective, and to express your aspirations and share your inspirations.

The personal statement is the primary college application essay and is required by most colleges that utilize a holistic admissions process. Some colleges may also require supplemental essays in response to their own prompts. Given this, it is important that you devote ample time to crafting your personal statement and any other additional application essays. A good personal statement is one that is infused with deep reflections that reveal something meaningful about who you are and what you hope to accomplish and contribute as a college student and beyond. Give yourself the time and space to dig deep and reflect on what you think are the most important things to share about yourself with admissions officers.

What is the “personal statement”?

The personal statement is a component of the application process for most colleges and universities. The length of the personal statement varies depending on the platform you are submitting it through. The two most used college application platforms are a Common Application and the Coalition Application. Additionally, some colleges and universities utilize their own application platform, and you will have to be aware of the similarities and differences of their prompts from the prompts of more common application platforms. Schools that use their own platform include Georgetown University, the University of California school system, and MIT.

The Common Application platform provides students yearly with the choice between seven prompts to which they can respond to in their personal statement. Prompts for the 2019-2020 application cycle, include:

“Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

“The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you face a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

Common Application personal statements are limited to a maximum of 650 words. Coalition Application personal statements, on the other hand, are limited to a maximum of 550 words. Coalition Application prompts for the 2019-2020 application cycle, include:

“Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.”

“Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.”

The University of California school system requires applicants to respond to four out of eight “personal insight questions” instead of a single personal statement. Students may elect to apply to as many of the nine UC schools as they want with their responses to the personal insight questions. The UC website describes the purpose of the personal insight questions as “about getting to know your personality, background, interests, and achievements in your own unique voice.” Capped at 350 words each, some of the personal insight questions from previous years include:

“Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem-solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.”

“What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?”

As you can see, while the prompts vary across platforms, they are united by common themes and content requirements. Personal statement prompts are a chance for you to answer the question: Who are you? Consider the personal statement to be an opportunity for you to express your values, insights, and personality. It is a way for admissions officers to get to know you absent of, or in addition to, an interview. Your statement is a way for you to communicate how you came to be, what you’ve done so far, and where you hope to go.

How to Get Started

Getting started on your personal statement can be incredibly intimidating. It is easy to get stuck for weeks on end staring at a blank page. To get started and settle on a prompt you are going to answer, try these steps to get you brainstorming and writing your first draft. Find what works best for you!

1.  Ask yourself a series of questions to initiate the brainstorming process. Spend a couple of minutes jotting down your first thoughts under each category. Don’t worry about overlap! This is just an exercise to get your creative juices flowing and to narrow down what you think are the most important aspects of you to share on your application. Questions you might ask yourself include:

  • What’s special and unique about you and your life story?

  • What are your passions and why are you passionate about them?

  • Have you overcome obstacles related to one of your identities (economic, physical, social)?

  • What ideas and/or values are important to you and how have they shaped your academic/professional trajectory?

  • Who or what inspires you?

  • How do you spend your time and why?

2. Talk through your ideas with a friend, teacher, advisor, and/or family member. Give some examples of what you have been thinking of writing about and get their feedback. Encourage your conversation partner to ask you questions. Responding to inquiries will help you develop your ideas more, as well as help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your ideas so you know what to expand on and improve. Narrow your focus to 2-3 of your strongest ideas.

3. Spend half-hour freewriting on your strongest ideas. Write everything down on the page and do not worry about imperfections, flow, or relevance at first. Capture all of the ideas floating around in your head and get them down on the page. This may take the form of a chronological narrative or a series of interconnected thought bubbles. Find a form that works for you.
4. Find your best idea. Once you have written something for each of your strongest ideas, select the one that you want to keep and refine into your beautifully crafted personal statement. If it is not evident to you which idea is the best, consider the following criteria:

  • Which idea is the most interesting and will hook the reader’s attention?

  • Which idea is the most fun or meaningful to write about? Did the half-hour feel shorter when writing about one idea over the others?

  • Which idea adds something completely new to your application or is not captured by your activities section and other supplemental essays?

5. Once you’ve selected your best idea, you can begin drafting your personal statement! And, no matter where you are in your process, you should keep an idea notebook on you at all times. This may be the “Notes” app on your cell phone or just a physical notebook. Jot down all the personal statement ideas you have randomly throughout the day, whether it be events to focus on, a line of dialogue, a clever metaphor, or an idea you want to make sure to include. If writing everything down on the page in one sitting is intimidating, try doing it piece-by-piece over a period of a few weeks.

General Advice on Writing Your Personal Statement

As college admissions experts, we would like to share with future personal statement writers some of the rules to follow when writing their personal statements, as well as some common errors to avoid.

Your personal statement should…

  • Respond to the prompt. This almost goes without saying, but make sure you are answering all parts of the question(s) you are being asked.

  • Have an engaging introduction or “hook” that latches on to the reader’s attention. Make the reader excited to hear the rest of what you have to say.

  • Tell a story. Your personal statement should use descriptive detail and not just passively summarize what happened to you. Engage the reader with active language. Be creative. And, most importantly, be personal!

  • Be specific. Avoid using too many general statements. Don’t say you learned a lot from your travels, but show the reader with descriptive detail where you traveled and what you learned from your experiences in that destination.

  • Capture your unique voice. Express yourself in your own words while adhering to grammar rules.

  • Include takeaways. Your statement should include some personal insights and reflections on the meaning and significance of whatever experiences and events you are focusing on. Let the reader know what you have learned and think is important to share with others. No more than half of your personal statement should be descriptive storytelling. Leave ample space for you to share your reflections on the importance of what you’re sharing and its impact on your future.

Your personal statement should not…

  • Use excessively fancy language that you would not use in everyday conversations. Examples of excessive language may include words like brusque, carte blanche, ennui, harbinger, malinger, maudlin, and panacea. If you have to google what something means this may be a sign that it does not belong in your personal statement.

  • Overuse clichés or confusing metaphoric language. It is often better to speak plainly and directly.

  • Talk about drugs and alcohol, express politically incorrect opinions, lament failed romantic relationships, mention engagement in illegal activities, etc.

  • Be a summary list of all of your accomplishments bragging about how smart you are.

Personal Statement Examples

If you are someone who appreciates examples as part of their brainstorming and creating process, you are in luck. There are innumerable examples of personal statements online. Johns Hopkins University, for example, shares six personal statements from their class of 2023 on topics ranging from rock climbing to teaching public speaking to potatoes as a metaphor for abundance and variety in one author’s intellectual and personal life.

Consider reading through the essays on your own. Use the commentary provided by the admissions officers at the start of each sample personal statement to get a better idea of what admissions officers are looking for and appreciate personal statements. Additionally, you can find some sample personal statements on the College Board website that are accompanied by feedback on what the writer did well and could improve on. See sample essay #1 and sample essay #2.

Concluding Thoughts on the personal statement

Your personal statement is just that: personal! It is not a list of all of your accomplishments detailed elsewhere in your application. It is not overly academic. Your personal statement should talk about personal experiences, events, ideas, and/or people who have influenced, inspired, and challenged you. Remember that your first draft will not be your best draft. Consider asking a teacher, counselor, mentor, or parent/guardian for help in refining your ideas.

And, most importantly, do not treat your personal statement like yet another requirement you have to check off in order to complete your college applications. Use it as an opportunity to do some self-reflection and appreciate the long journey you’ve traveled in order to arrive at who you are. If you do this, you’ll be sure to have an impressive personal statement. Need help drafting a personal statement? Our expert college admissions coaches are trained to help students get from brainstorming, writing, reviewing, to finally submitting!





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