College Writing Personal Statement

Writing the Personal Statement


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.

General advice

  • Start earlier than you think you need to.
  • Set up an appointment with Laura Farmer in the Writing Studio when you are ready to begin the process.
  • Think of your application essay(s) as a part of a larger whole (including the letters from your recommenders, and any other supporting documents such as a list of activities and awards, resume, or transcripts).
  • Consider your audience; write for an intelligent, non-specialist.  Make sure the terminology will be understandable to someone outside your field. The tone should be neither too academic nor too personal.  Aim for economy, enthusiasm, and directness; eloquence is welcome, but not at the expense of substance or honesty.
  • Make sure all information is accurate and that you will be prepared to discuss in some detail anything you mention.
  • Do not pad, but do not be falsely modest either.
  • Do not try to guess what the selection committee might be seeking; they want to know you, not a fabrication.
  • These documents are writing samples; all the rules of good writing (clarity, conviction, and correctness) apply.  They are read as indications of clear and organized thinking and effective communication.
  • Plan to experiment and try completely different versions.
  • Show your work to a number of readers whose comments you respect.  Ask your readers to tell you what questions your essays raise that you might not have considered.
  • Revise until you are happy that you have made these highly restrictive forms into effective reflections of who you are and what you want to do.
  • Keep to word limits and all other guidelines.
  • Proofread.

Writing a personal statement

The personal statement is a vital part of your application, and is often the most difficult to write.  What follows is a set of guidelines and suggestions to help you as you begin crafting your document. 

Where does it fit into the application? 

It’s not a resume; you are not simply listing your achievements as evidence of your qualifications.  Nor is it quite a project proposal, as your narrative should extend beyond the planned logistics of your fellowship year.  Rather, the personal statement provides a narrative of who you are, your interests and goals for the future—and even more importantly, it convinces your reader that winning this particular fellowship would be a critical, even necessary opportunity for you and your personal and intellectual development.

Personal statement components

Most personal statements contain four components, which answer the following questions:

  1. Who are you now?  What interests you and is important to you?  What personal qualities (skills, abilities, attributes) do you want to convey as your strong points?
  2. What experiences have been important in your development? These could be classes, internships, work experience, personal episodes—moments that contributed to and illuminate who you are now.
  3. What are your future goals, and what is your larger mission or purpose in pursuing these goals?  To your best understanding, of course; it’s not a contract.
  4. Why do you want this particular fellowship opportunity?  This is where it all comes together, the bridge between your personal narrative and the fellowship.

Of course, a personal statement is just that—personal—and you need not write according to this order.  You want to strike a balance between what feels authentic and compelling to you with the structure suggested or implied by the application. 

A few more points to consider before you begin writing:

  • Developa strong and specific sense of where you are now, which will help to determine what you include in the essay.  You need not discuss every course you’ve ever taken, nor that you switched majors in sophomore year (unless that’s a crucial part of your narrative.)
  • Know your audience and particular fellowship, as each has a different vision in mind and can offer you a different set of experiences. Get a sense of this by browsing their websites and blogs.  Speak with the members of the Writing Studio.  Read others’ essays; contact past winners. 
  • Show as you tell.  Qualify your interests and personal qualities by performing them in your text.  Show us your love of biology through a description of your research, why you chose your thesis topic, an anecdote recounting your first time in a lab.  Your intellectual curiosity will be much more convincing if we see you exercising it.
  • Finally, remember that like all writing, crafting a personal statement is a process.  Write more than you need, then trim.  Make multiple drafts.  Have others read your essay.  It usually takes several versions before you’re content with your text, but the result is well worth it.   

Writing an Academic/Project Proposal—Common Elements:

  • Key questions to consider (where, when, what, who, how, why).
  • A description of your course of study or project; topic(s), research focus, degree goals, methodology, itinerary, (budget).
  • Why you have chosen this course of study (at this particular institution, in this particular country).
  • Or why you want to undertake this project in this particular setting.
  • Evidence that your plans are consistent with your preparation, academic qualifications, and long-range goals.
  • Evidence of project feasibility: knowledge of programs, courses, and facilities; cooperation of host institutions and individuals (professors with whom you wish to study; have they sent or are they willing to send a confirmation of their support?).
  • Perhaps why you are choosing a new area of study, or what makes your project particularly timely.

Combined Statements (Rhodes, Mitchell):

  • This statement combines elements of the academic proposal within the framework of a personal reflection.
  • It should not force an unrealistic unity; you are not a totally unified person.
  • It should balance both components together effectively.
  • The balance of these two aspects will vary according to what best represents you and your goals.

(Rhodes recommends no more than 1-2 paragraphs to present the academic proposal.)

These guidelines have been adapted from materials from the National Association of Fellowship Advisors and the Office of Fellowships, Amherst College.


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