How to Write a Compelling Personal Statement

By Patricia Gorden Neill - March 26th, 2013

First, let’s clarify what constitutes a personal statement, as there seems to be some confusion surrounding it. A personal statement tells a story about you in a way that reveals some personal development and self-awareness on your part. Yes, it’s an essay, and requires a beginning, middle and end, with the end touching back on the beginning. A personal statement can be in response to a prompt, or you can create the topic yourself.

The reason colleges ask for a personal statement is to put a face to the otherwise dry elements of a college application. College admissions folks want to know not only who you are, but what makes you distinct from the thousands of other applicants to the college. Transcripts, GPA and test scores provides a snapshot of academic capabilities, and letters of recommendation tell a college what other adults think of you, but the personal statement shows your personal growth in action.

It pays to put some thought into this long before you begin writing a personal statement. One thing you can do early on to help you think and reflect is to imagine yourself as an admissions counselor. You have the job of reading thousands of these short essays. Day after day, week after week, a variety of personal statements will be read, critiqued and discussed. The last thing you want is to read another boring blurb that merely repeats what other aspects of the application has already told you. You’re dying to read something vivid and intriguing that reveals a student as a real human being who has failings perhaps, but who is willing to grow and learn from mistakes. You want to read a story about a person struggling with a conflict and at the same time, revealing what makes them tick.

In other words, use the personal statement to tell a story about you, how you reacted to something and how it made you change in some way. Admissions people do not want to read about perfect students behaving perfectly in some fashion. They want to read about real students reflecting on themselves in the real world.

What you actually write about will depend on the prompt you choose, or the content you create. A personal statement should tell a story about you which will interest and perhaps move the reader, but reveal some aspects of your personality. Your purpose in crafting a personal statement is to distinguish yourself from all the other students writing the same sorts of thing every admission person dreads reading. That’s why it requires thought and reflection on your part. Your personal statement can be a deal-breaker in whether you are accepted to the college. In other words, it’s worth the time and effort to make it a great read for that admissions counselor.

Here’s some tips, hints and advice:

Show, Don’t Tell

Be concrete and specific. Don’t just describe something, reveal it in a vivid detail. Rather than write “I cut my leg and was bleeding badly,” write “The nurse’s shoes left shiny red footprints down the hall as I watched from my gurney. She had stepped in my blood.” It’s the details that brings life to a story and makes it stick in the mind.

Do the Work

It will be a huge temptation to write one personal statement and use it for all the colleges you’re applying to. Don’t give in to that temptation. College admissions can easily tell, and it will reflect badly on your application. Each college crafts prompts or asks specific questions that are slightly different from all the other colleges. Be sure you answer each college’s questions or prompts specifically.

Good Title, Good Lead Paragraph

Create a title for your personal statement. It will catch the eye and interest the reader. Write an intriguing opening paragraph that sets the scene. This leads the reader into the story. Grabbing the reader’s attention is key. Read the opening pages of novels and watch how writers involve the reader right off the bat.

Keep a Narrow Focus

Your personal statement should explore one theme. Craft a story in the first person that reveals your distinct personality as opposed to the “ideal” student you think they’re looking for. Go for depth rather than breadth.

Research the School

Know enough about the school that you can easily write about why you like it above other schools. What about the college attracted you in the first place? You need to know this going into the application process.

Proofread Carefully

Be sure to proofread your personal statement carefully and catch any misspellings or bad grammar. Don’t rely on spell check programs. These programs can find misspelled words, but not the wrong word, such as typing from rather than form.

Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite

Write a first rough draft to work out what you’re trying to say. Then rewrite it and rewrite it again. Wise writers know that no one just writes. Every good writer is actually a rewriter. Write these essays early enough in the process that you can mull them over, wake up in the night with a refinement of what you really wanted to express and work it in.

About the Author

Patricia Gorden NeillPatricia Gorden Neill edited medical and scholarly journals for over 20 years in the ivy-covered halls of the University of Rochester. She is a freelance writer, often covering higher education and the concerns of college age students, and is regularly published on a variety of websites.