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What is a personal statement and what is its purpose?
You probably know that developing a well-written, evocative personal statement is vital to your college application process. But what is the personal statement?
Think of a personal statement as a “good self statement”. The best personal statements details who you are and what matters to you outside of your gpa and test scores. This essay is one of the only “human” elements in your college application. Without trying to cover too much, you want to tell a story of some event, experience, or identity that has shaped and defined you.
The purpose of this college essay to help admissions officers understand what kind of presence you will bring on campus and how you will contribute to campus culture. Will you be leading community service efforts across campus, challenging the status quo, or conducting research in your dorm room?
How do you start a personal statement?
We always advise students to work backwards. Start by asking yourself, “what do I want the admissions committee to know about me?” There is no right or wrong answer here. Maybe you want them to know how much you respect your culture or what challenges you’ve faced. You don’t even have to begin with your personal statement introduction. You can start writing the middle or even conclusion of your essay. It doesn’t matter! The most important thing to do is to start writing. You can edit and revise after you have a few words on paper.
How do you write a personal statement for a college or university?
There is no one way to write a personal statement. However, completing the following steps is a good place to start!
Begin by reading the essay prompts. But you should know that you are not limited to the prompts on the Common App. No matter what essay prompt you choose, your essay should highlight who you are and what is important to you. Start by brainstorming what personal characteristics you want to highlight.
Here are some of the common questions we encourage Prepory students to answer in order to get their gears turning.
If you can’t think of anything, phone a friend! Ask friends or family members, “What is important to me? How can you tell?” They may provide a perspective you never thought of or remind you of a story that you can use. Write down a few ideas. It is always better to have more ideas to work with. You may find that the idea you thought was the best is actually difficult to write about.
Narrow down your ideas
Now that you have a few ideas, you want to narrow it down to one topic. Which story, characteristic, or value do you find most easy to write about? Don’t try to pick the idea you think will make you stand out. In other words, the craziest story is not necessarily the best. Instead, choose the trait that best describes you and what matters to you. The best story is honest, authentic, and true to you.
Write your first draft
Your first draft should not be your last. Essay writing is a long process. The first time you write your essay will be rough! Do not make the mistake of thinking you cannot improve your essay. You should write and rewrite your application essay to ensure the story makes sense and showcases who you are. Focus on the organization and storytelling in the first few iterations. You want to make sure your story is specific and vivid. After your essay, the college admissions committee should learn something new about you. Your essay should add dimension to your application!
Revise, revise, revise
You should begin revising your essay after you have determined a great structure for it. Revision and editing are extremely important in the writing process. Proper grammar and mechanics makes can turn a good story into a great one. At this time, you should read your essay carefully. Pay attention to awkward sentence structure and grammatical errors. Grammatical errors could include misplaced commas, dangling modifiers, or run-on sentences.
Phone a friend, again!
The writing process should not be an isolated process. Enlist teachers, good writers, and/or parents to provide suggestions and edits. While you do not need to take all of their advice or suggestions, some people may provide some valuable insight.
How to end a personal statement?
Your conclusion should round out your essay. The best way to do this is by referencing something you discussed in your introduction and discussing how you have changed. All conclusions should be forward-looking.
What to avoid when writing a personal statement?
While there isn’t a right way to write a personal statement, there are some things you should try to avoid.
Discussing academic achievements
Your personal statement is about your humanness. It should focus on the person you are outside of the classroom. Try to avoid including your GPA, SAT/ACT test scores, or other data points regarding your academic abilities. Not only is this fairly boring to read about, but admissions officers already have this information. You want to use your personal statement as a way for admissions officers to get to know you personally.
Being overly negative
Some students may choose to write about a hard time in their life. This type of personal statement is definitely allowed and okay! But, try not have a negative tone or attitude throughout the entire essay. You want to make sure you end on a positive note. The last thing you want to do is seem bitter about the negative experiences in your life.
Using vocabulary words you have never used before
We have read tons of essays where students try to use a polysyllabic word to try and sound smart. You do not need to break out SAT words to impress colleges, especially if you don’t use those words in real life. More often than not, you will misuse the word. It is always easy to tell when a student actually uses a word in real life as opposed to just dropping it in their essay. Remember, this essay is about you! It should be true to your real voice and vocabulary.
What’s the right personal statement format?
There is no right way to format a personal statement. Truly, it depends on the story you are trying to tell. Some students may want to begin their essay with a story. Some may choose to begin with an explanation or description of a theme they will discuss throughout. The decision is yours. Both freeing and terrifying, we know.
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How long should a personal statement be?
The Common App and Coalition App personal statements should be 650 words. You can write more if you’d like to for longer requirements, but be sure you can cut it down to 650 words.
Winning personal statement example for college applicants
Below are some personal essay examples that have worked in the past. Use these as examples of effective personal statements, not a template. Remember there is no right way to write a personal statement.
The elevator dinged on the 13th floor. I could hardly wait for the elevator doors to scrape across the floor to a different kind of home. My dad’s office was buzzing with activity. The chaotic sounds of people furiously pressing on their keyboards, fighting with the copy machine, and laughing on the phone felt just like my home on 22nd Street.
The essay opens with lots of imagery that help us understand who this student is. He takes us into his world with him. He is in his dad’s office. He calls it home. We can tell he spends a lot of time at his dad’s office without him explicitly saying it. This paragraph is a great example of vivid imagery and an excited voice.
But when I was 14 years old, this memory came to a screeching halt. I arrived home from school and noticed my mother sitting at the living room table, frozen and mute, “Mario, podes venir para aca?” I complied and cautiously moved towards her, she pursed her lips and said “Mauro, despidieron a tu papá. Vamos a tener que ajustar el cinturón.” I felt my breath get shallow, my heart rate jumped, and the room began to spin. After eight long years, my father’s employment was terminated, the place we called home closed in front of us. It happened far too quickly for any of us to fully comprehend.
In this paragraph, we learn a bit more about Mario and his family. Mauro grew up in a Spanish-speaking household with two parents. Mario’s father worked at the same company for many years and his family visited the office often. All of the information thus far provides background and the exposition for the story the writer will eventually tell.
After becoming accustomed to my lifestyle, I struggled to understand what actually happened. Feeling betrayed and overwhelmed by isolation, I realized the visits to my home country, games for distant soccer leagues, and spontaneous gifts from my parents would become a rare commodity. I watched my mom take on extra shifts to maintain our family afloat as she hid the stress she was enduring; I felt as though I was merely weighing my family down. I could no longer tolerate being an anchor.
Mario uses imagery and metaphors to help understand how he was feeling. The end of this paragraph tells us Mario is going to share his growth with us as he finds ways to help his family. This paragraph also tells us a lot about Mario’s character. We learn that he values his country, playing sports, personal responsibility, and his family. In fact, his mother’s stress drives him to get a job.
Obsessed with the idea of contributing to my family and becoming self-sufficient, I scoured a mountain of job opportunities without a single clue of how to begin the process nor what to do once I had finally arrived to a decision. Climbing the mountain required time and effort, but I finally earned a position as a soccer referee; I was given the opportunity to marry my love for the sport and my desire to contribute to my family. Infuriated parents and suffocating heat waves couldn’t dull my excitement. I finally had a way to help my family. Each day I had to arrive early so that I could have a fighting chance against the veteran referees at obtaining a decent match. This was my final hurdle before becoming a full-fledged referee. Eventually, I gained their trust and they started to see me as a fellow peer. Interacting with my peers, dealing with a boss, and maintaining professional behavior were my first experiences treated adulthood. Contributing to my family by trading my labor and determination for monetary gain allowed me to finance personal expenses and unburden my parents. Hearing my mom say “Gracias hijo. Gracias!” as she held me tight overwhelmed me with relief.
Here, Mario shows us how has preserved through many challenges with the simple goal of helping his family. He took initiative and found a job without any guidance. But his growth does not stop there, he tells us the struggles he faced at his job. Mario shows us how he grew up and changed without explicitly stating, “I turned a bad experience into a learning experience.” Instead, he focuses on the story and allows us to make our own inferences.
Now, I arrive home, collect my referee equipment, and say goodbye to my family before rushing to my next soccer game. I close my eyes and I remember my father’s cramped workspace that I used to call home. Then, quickly reflect on my own short yet impactful career and recognize the fruits of my labor and the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity. I open my eyes again and take in the smell of recently cut grass, fresh air, and the open field much like the opportunities that lie ahead.
In his conclusion, Mario focuses on the future. And we see that he has grown. Now, Mario sees his father’s office for what it was, just a cramped space to work. He juxtaposes the imagery of his office with the wide-open fields at his job. As readers, we can see Mario has grown to learn independence and perseverance. His values are clear and matter a great deal to him.
Final points on writing a 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!
FAQs about personal statements
In many cases, you can submit the same personal statement for your scholarship. In other cases, the scholarship will require you to respond to a particular essay prompt. We always recommend working smarter. Before rewriting your personal statement altogether, see if you can retrofit the personal statement you already have to fit the scholarship essay prompt. If you can’t, undergo the same processes you would if were a personal statement. Reflect on the essay prompt, think through a few answers, and choose the answer that is the easiest to write about.
Similar to the personal statement for undergrad, your personal statement should focus on your values. The only difference is that you may want to root your essay in the reason you want to practice medicine. While it may be difficult, you may want to avoid the “helping people” cliche. Most likely, most people go into medicine to help others. Try to add some nuance to your essay. What specific moment made you want to become a doctor? What experiences confirmed your desire to become a doctor? Why do you want to study this form of medicine? Try to be specific and tell a good story.
Some law schools have specific page limits, while others allow you to write as much as you want. As you can probably guess, you don’t want to write an overly long personal statement. We recommend sticking to the page limit most law schools ask for even if there is no limit. We recommend writing around 2-4 pages. If you start writing and it is a little longer, that is probably okay. But you do no want to write more than 7 pages.