College Application Personal Statements

Writing the Personal Statement

Summary:

This handout provides information about writing personal statements for academic and other positions.

Contributors:Jo Doran, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-03-07 02:18:40

The personal statement, your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process, generally falls into one of two categories:

1. The general, comprehensive personal statement:

This allows you maximum freedom in terms of what you write and is the type of statement often prepared for standard medical or law school application forms.

2. The response to very specific questions:

Often, business and graduate school applications ask specific questions, and your statement should respond specifically to the question being asked. Some business school applications favor multiple essays, typically asking for responses to three or more questions.

Questions to ask yourself before you write:

  • What's special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?
  • What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
  • When did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
  • How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
  • If you have worked a lot during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed to your growth?
  • What are your career goals?
  • Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
  • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
  • What personal characteristics (for example, integrity, compassion, and/or persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
  • What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
  • Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school—and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?
  • What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?

General advice

Answer the questions that are asked

  • If you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar.
  • Don't be tempted to use the same statement for all applications. It is important to answer each question being asked, and if slightly different answers are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.

Tell a story

  • Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. One of the worst things you can do is to bore the admissions committee. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you'll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.

Be specific

  • Don't, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer, or whatever should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.

Find an angle

  • If you're like most people, your life story lacks drama, so figuring out a way to make it interesting becomes the big challenge. Finding an angle or a "hook" is vital.

Concentrate on your opening paragraph

  • The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader's attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.

Tell what you know

  • The middle section of your essay might detail your interest and experience in your particular field, as well as some of your knowledge of the field. Too many people graduate with little or no knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the profession or field they hope to enter. Be as specific as you can in relating what you know about the field and use the language professionals use in conveying this information. Refer to experiences (work, research, etc.), classes, conversations with people in the field, books you've read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of specific information about the career you want and why you're suited to it. Since you will have to select what you include in your statement, the choices you make are often an indication of your judgment.

Don't include some subjects

  • There are certain things best left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally not a good idea. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (for example, controversial religious or political issues).

Do some research, if needed

  • If a school wants to know why you're applying to it rather than another school, do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.

Write well and correctly

  • Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good written skills and command of correct use of language are important to them as they read these statements. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.

Avoid clichés

  • A medical school applicant who writes that he is good at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away from often-repeated or tired statements.

For more information on writing a personal statement, see the personal statement vidcast.

Examples of Awesome Personal Statements

Article Type: Tasty Bits

Write your own awesome personal statement with our COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAY LAB, which will guide you through the process, providing tips and even more examples along the way.

Before you start, check out our own sample essays—or scroll down for the Best of the Web. Whether you're an athlete, a minority, or no one special (or, uh, probably some combination), we've got you covered.

No One Special

Minority

Athlete

Emotional Hardship

Physical Hardship

International Student

Special Skills

Non-Traditional Age


Some are surprising and some are clever, but they're all good examples of a "hook," not the kind with the pointy mustache but something that writers use to grab their reader's attention and make them want to keep reading.

Grab Them with the First Line
Stanford Magazine compiled the following list of great opening lines written by hopeful Stanford applicants.

Essays That Worked
Connecticut College posts a list of college essays “that worked.”

More Essays that Worked
Hamilton College provides access to some of their favorite application essays.

Other Resources for College Essay Writing

Writing the Personal Statement
The Purdue Online Writing lab offers a guide to writing all kinds of personal statements.

UC Berkeley Has a Say
Check out the University of California at Berkeley’s guide to writing the personal statement.

Application Tips: Tackling the Personal Essay
Abc.com provides some good tips on approaching the personal essay.

10 Tips for Writing the College Application Essay
The famous U.S. News & World Report offers some writing advice.

The Elements of Style
Flip through this famous guide to writing by William Strunk, Jr. that many students and teachers use. Read the 1918 version for free online.

Get Your Writing On
Some great handbooks on writing by writing guru Andrea Lunsford.

A Guide to Grammar and Writing
A cool interactive guide to grammar.

Grammar Resources
The University of Chicago’s guide to grammar.

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