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Anyone who’s had to navigate the college admissions process or apply for scholarship funds knows the importance of a great personal statement.

Although most personal statements are only around 500–1,000 words in length, you may be surprised by how difficult it can be to write about yourself, especially when it feels like so much is on the line.

To make things easier for you, we’ve created this guide to help you craft a personal statement that will showcase everything you have to offer for admissions counselors.

What Is a Personal Statement?

A written personal statement is part of the application process for many colleges, universities, and even scholarship programs.

In addition to your transcripts, letters of recommendation, and other academic information, the personal statement is your chance to tell colleges who you are, in your own words.

Your personal statement should help create a more complete picture of who you are and what you will bring to the table.

The numbers and letters on your transcripts can only tell admissions counselors so much; just because a student performs well on tests doesn’t mean they’ll be a great fit for a specific campus’s community or environment. This is why sometimes a student with even mediocre grades but a knockout personal statement may get accepted over a straight-A student whose character just didn’t shine through their personal statement.

Therefore, it’s important that you treat the personal statement with as much importance as the rest of your application materials.

How to Write a Personal Statement

These 7 steps will help ensure that you shine bright on your college applications and make a great first impression.

1. Choose your prompt or topic.

Many colleges and scholarship programs will offer you several prompts to choose from for your personal statement.

For example, here are some of the questions applicants using the Common App can choose from for the 2020–2021 application period:

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Others will offer you the freedom to write a general personal statement, in which you can describe yourself and tell your personal story in the best way you see fit.

However, all that freedom may leave you wondering where to start!

Ideas for Your Personal Statement Essay

Here are some guiding questions and things to consider when planning your personal statement, so you can highlight what makes you you and showcase why you’d be a great fit for that school.

  • What is unique, distinctive, or impressive about you or your life?
  • What have been some of the defining moments of your life? This might be an accident, the formation or loss of a special friendship, a personal struggle, an achievement, a travel experience, moving to a new place, or a discovery about your family.
  • What are your passions? What do you choose to spend time on? This can include a hobby, sport, a pet, or other personal goals that you’re working toward. Think about why that matters so much to you.
  • What inspires you? Is there someone in your life (or even someone you don’t know personally) whom you look up to? How have they affected you and why do you wish to be more like them?
  • Think about an accomplishment or a personal quality that you’re proud of. Maybe you’re able to remain calm under pressure, or you’ve demonstrated excellent leadership. Discuss some examples of when that skill or quality came in handy.

2. Identify what makes you unique.

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Your personal statement should convey who you are and what makes you uniquely you. This does not mean that you must have a heart-wrenching story about overcoming an illness, or an epic tale of how you made it to the Olympics in order to get an admission counselor’s attention.

It may be a cliché, but everyone really does have something that makes them unique, even if you feel your life has been pretty ordinary. No one else can say they’ve experienced your life in the exact same way that you have.

So don’t feel like you have to write an epic life story. Simply reflect on your personal experiences and how you feel they’ve affected you and led you to where you are now. Think about where you’d like to go next, and how what you’ve learned from your experiences (good or bad) will help you.

3. Create an outline.

Once you’ve chosen a prompt or decided on a general approach to your personal statement, you’ll want to brainstorm the most important ideas you want to mention, then organize them into an outline.

As this is a “personal” statement after all, you may find yourself getting lost in the excitement of a personal story. It’s good to write with passion, but just make sure that you keep the contents of your story to what’s essential for understanding your character.

Your outline will help you stay focused and on topic so you can hit all of your main points in the most effective way.

4. Consider your audience.

When writing your personal statement, it’s important to consider your audience. If you’re applying to a college or university, you’ll want to think about how you will fit in with the school’s culture and how to best demonstrate that.

In case you’re applying to more than one school (and chances are you will be), you may need to write several different statements to answer their specific questions, or consider adapting your general statement so it feels custom to the specific school in question.

If you’re applying for a scholarship, you should consider how you support their mission or values, and highlight that throughout your statement.

5. Be yourself.

All that being said, while you should consider your audience, the most important thing to remember when writing your personal statement is to be yourself.

Much like a job interview, the purpose of a college application is to help both parties find a good match. You shouldn’t try to paint a picture of someone you’re not just to get accepted into what you think is your dream school, only to discover later that you’re miserable in that campus’s environment.

Admissions counselors want to find students who will thrive and shine on their campus, and you want to find somewhere you can do just that without putting on an act, so it’s always in your best interest to be yourself.

Don’t be afraid to write in your natural voice; this is a personal essay, so you don’t need to use the same academic tone you usually reserve for research papers or professional letters. You still want to put forth your best writing skills, but imagine you’re telling your story to a friend or writing in a journal.

6. Tell a story.

No matter which kind of prompt you choose for your personal statement, try to include at least one personal anecdote.

Telling a story is much more effective than writing a laundry list of your best traits and qualities. In fact, it’s pretty much necessary if you really want to make an impression on admissions counselors.

To write a personal story that’s impactful, review our tips for showing instead of telling.

7. Get feedback.

It’s always a good idea to have a friend or parent read through your work to make sure there aren’t any glaring errors or ideas that aren’t explained adequately. You can also use a proofreading software like Grammarly to do an extra sweep for typos, as well as things like passive voice.

However, you should also consider asking a trusted teacher or guidance counselor to review your personal statement. Most likely they’re pretty familiar with the college admissions process, and they may be able to point you in the right direction and offer some helpful insights.

What Is the Best Way to Start a Personal Statement?

There’s no right or wrong way to start your personal statement. However, you should strive to make your opening unique and engaging as much as possible.

Again, this doesn’t mean you need to have a story about that time you saved a train from derailing—but you can do admissions counselors a favor and save them from imminent death by boredom.

They’ve probably read a thousand essays this week that start with “I’ve always wanted to be…” or “I’ve always wanted to study [subject] because…”. Don’t make yourself number 1,001.

However you choose to start your personal statement, you’ll already be among the more memorable applicants simply by avoiding these clichés and overused themes.

Write an Unforgettable Essay

Your personal statement is basically an essay, but unlike the boring history papers or science reports you’ve written before, you get to cover a topic that no one knows better than you: yourself!

To make your statement the most powerful it can be, review our tips for writing a great essay and thesis statement. These tips will help you focus your ideas and communicate them clearly so you can write a stellar personal statement!

Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!


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