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How to Write a Stellar Personal Statement for Your College Application

Writing "The College Essay" can be very stressful for many students applying to college. It might feel overwhelming if you lack confidence in your writing ability or find it difficult to write about yourself. You might feel like you don't have anything worth writing about, or that you should write about a specific topic even if you're not excited about it. You force yourself to sit down and write, but...

What IS a "personal statement"?

It's best to start by understanding what a personal statement even is. There are all kinds of "personal statements" out there, but for our purposes, we are talking about the personal statement usually required as part of a college application. This personal statement is not just another essay, it's a unique opportunity to tell the school something about yourself that they can't learn from any other part of your application (like your transcript or resume). You can articulate the values, skills, interests, and characteristics that you would bring to the college community, making your application stand out.

Your personal statement should focus on your characteristics, not your accomplishments. Your accomplishments are evident throughout the rest of your application. Your transcripts and test scores, activities list, and resume all focus on what you have accomplished, so colleges have a very clear picture of that.

What colleges need and WANT to know from your personal statement is:

Who are you? What is important to you? How is that evident in your life? How will you show up in your campus community?

When you break it down, you'll want to share two things:

  1. What happened

  2. Why it matters

The way you keep the personal statement focused on you is the second part. If your topic is your relationship with your mom (for better or worse), the essay should not focus on your mom or even that relationship (that's what happened). It should focus on what that relationship says about you and who you are (why it matters).

*A technical note: most colleges will tell you how long your personal statement should be. The Common App and Coalition App are 650 words max; however, it's always best to check directly with each school to which you apply.

What NOT to Do When Writing Your Personal Statement

It's great to know how to write an effective personal statement, but it's almost equally important to first know what NOT to do.

  • DON'T sound like a grown-up. Colleges want to get to know YOU in your personal statement, and they can tell right away when you're trying to be someone you're not. Don't be overly formal, use big words, or try to sound intellectual if those things aren't natural to you. Use YOUR voice (with good grammar!).

  • DON'T pick a topic because you think you should. Many students will aim to impress colleges by choosing a topic that doesn't mean a lot to them, but they think will sound good to the admissions readers. Or, it's common to think you have to find a unique topic that the admissions readers have never seen before. These misconceptions will lead to an essay that sounds forced and is miserable to write because you aren't into it. Your topic should be something meaningful to you. Truthfully, just about any topic can work if you approach it correctly (see more about that below).

  • DON'T summarize your resume. As mentioned above, you should focus on showing your characteristics, not accomplishments.

  • DON'T listen to your own negative self-talk. Ignore any thoughts that you can't write or you're not a writer. You CAN do this. You're the expert on YOU.

Steps to Write Your Best Personal Statement

STEP 1: Brainstorm - include exercises

For most students, the hardest part is getting started. Finding a topic you care about can feel daunting, but there are many brainstorming exercises that can help you discover what you want to write about to represent who you are to colleges. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Values: What do you value? What are some examples of when you have lived out your values? Here is a great list of values to get started.

  2. Objects: Look around your bedroom. Identify five objects in your room that mean the most to you. Free-write for 10 minutes about each object—don't think, just write. Don't judge, just write. What is a story about that object? When did you first get the object? Why did you keep it? What emotions does it elicit and why?

  3. High & Low: What has been the highest (most joyous) moment in your life? What has been the lowest moment in your life? Reflect on each of those moments. What did you learn from each? What do those moments mean to you? How have they impacted your life since they happened?

  4. The Future: What is your best guess, in this moment, of what you'll be doing and who you will be in 10 years? What is it RIGHT NOW that makes you think that will be your future? What has happened in your life to make you want that future?

STEP 2: First Draft - All About Content

The focus of your first draft is content. Take your brainstorming notes, free writes, and reflections and write them into an essay format. The first draft is just getting it all out on paper. This is NOT the time for worrying about structure, grammar, or the word limit.

Here are a few tips for your first draft:

  • Remind yourself - you need to write about what happened and more importantly, why it matters. Why it matters is what the admissions reader really wants to know. It may help to actually write these two parts separately for this first draft. Write only about what happened. Once you've done that, write about why that matters. They probably won't stay completely separated for long, but it can help initially to draft this way.

  • Is there an "anchor story" that can represent your topic? Also sometimes called a "hook," this is a specific story that draws in the reader to your essay, typically right at the beginning. Look at your brainstorming exercises. What stories came out of these that might be something you want to include in your essay?

  • The first draft should be longer than the word limit. It's much easier to cut, restructure, and edit content as you write future drafts than to add it later. Don't be afraid to write a lot.

STEP 3: Revise & Finalize

Ideally, you write three drafts total, so for this step, you're thinking about a second and then a third (final) draft.

Draft 2 should focus on content and structure. Make sure you have all the content you want so do a final check of your brainstorming notes. Is there anything new you have thought of? When it comes to structure, look at your first draft. Does it make sense? Do you want to write chronologically or start with a recent moment and then flashback to tell what happened? There is not one right way to structure a personal statement, but it needs to flow well to a reader. I recommend showing your second draft to a few people you trust to give you honest feedback.

Draft 3 will hopefully be your final draft, focused on polish. In this draft, the content and structure should be solid. Your task now is to make sure your voice (no one else's) is clear, grammar, spelling, and punctuation are correct, and that your essay meets the word limit. I recommend having a few people (the same or different as the second draft) read your essay. One of them should be someone you trust regarding correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Don't feel that you have to change things to meet everyone's feedback or you'll never be finished, but address anything that you feel is important to make your essay shine.

Want support writing your personal statement?

This has been a very brief overview of how to approach writing your personal statement. I offer coaching for students writing their personal statements and other writing-based application materials, such as supplemental (school-specific) essays, activity lists, and resumes. I would love to learn how I can support your application through essay and writing coaching, so reach out to get started. This summer is the perfect time!


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