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Personal statement

How to Write an Excellent Personal Statement

When applying for university, college, scholarships, or even certain jobs, you’ll often be asked to submit a personal statement. This requirement can be confusing, especially if you’re not sure what a personal statement entails and how it differs from a traditional essay.

Personal statements are typically needed during the fall and early winter months when university application deadlines are approaching. In the United States, most college application deadlines fall between November and January. However, it is beneficial to start preparing and writing your personal statement during the summer to ensure you have ample time to revise and perfect it before submission.

What is a Personal Statement? Does it Just Mean “Essay”?

A personal statement is a written document that provides insight into who you are beyond your grades and test scores. It’s your opportunity to showcase your personality, experiences, and aspirations to the admissions committee or potential employer. While it shares some similarities with an essay, a personal statement has distinct features and purposes.

Key Characteristics of a Personal Statement

  • Personal narrative: Unlike a standard essay, a personal statement is deeply personal. It’s a narrative that allows you to tell your story, highlight your unique experiences, and explain why you are a good fit for the program or position.
  • Self-reflective: A great personal statement involves self-reflection. It should demonstrate your self-awareness, highlighting your strengths, discussing your challenges, and showing how you’ve grown from your experiences.
  • Goal-oriented: Your personal statement should clearly outline your goals. Whether it’s academic achievements, career aspirations, or personal development, it should show a clear trajectory of where you’re heading and how the opportunity you’re applying for aligns with your goals.

How It Differs from a Standard Essay

While both a personal statement and a standard essay are written forms of communication, they serve different purposes and are structured differently:

Purpose:

  • Essay: Often focuses on a specific topic or question, aiming to inform, argue, or analyze.
  • Personal statement: Aims to reveal your personality, motivations, and suitability for a particular program or role.

Content:

  • Essay: Usually centers around factual information, research, and logical arguments.
  • Personal statement: Centers around your personal experiences, values, and goals.

Tone and Style:

  • Essay: Typically formal and objective.
  • Personal statement: Can be more conversational and subjective, reflecting your unique voice and perspective.

What Makes a Great Personal Statement?

A great personal statement can be the key to unlocking your future opportunities, whether you’re applying for college, scholarships, or a job. But what exactly makes a personal statement stand out from the rest? Here are the essential elements that contribute to an exceptional personal statement.

Authenticity

The most compelling personal statements are authentic. They reflect your true self, your genuine interests, and your honest experiences. Admissions officers and employers read countless statements, and they can easily spot when someone is not being sincere. Share your real stories and insights. Let your personality shine through, and don’t be afraid to show vulnerability or discuss challenges you’ve overcome.

Clear Structure and Focus

A well-structured personal statement is easy to follow and understand. Start with a strong introduction that captures the reader’s attention. Follow with body paragraphs that each focus on a specific theme or experience, and conclude with a powerful closing that reinforces your main points. Stay focused on the central message you want to convey. Avoid going off on tangents or including irrelevant information.

Specific Examples

Instead of making broad, general statements, use specific examples to illustrate your points. For instance, rather than saying “I am passionate about community service,” describe a particular project you worked on, what you did, and the impact it had on both you and the community. Specific examples make your statement more vivid and believable.

Reflection and Insight

A great personal statement doesn’t just recount experiences; it also reflects on them. Explain what you learned from your experiences and how they have shaped your goals and aspirations. Reflecting on your experiences shows maturity and the ability to grow from them. It also helps the reader understand your thought process and personal development.

Relevance

Ensure that everything you include in your personal statement is relevant to the application. Tailor your content to highlight how your background, skills, and goals align with the program or position you’re applying for. If you’re applying for a biology program, for example, focus on your scientific experiences and interests rather than unrelated hobbies.

Strong Opening and Closing

Your opening and closing paragraphs are critical. The opening should grab the reader’s attention and make them want to read more. You might start with a compelling anecdote, a thought-provoking question, or a bold statement. The closing should leave a lasting impression, summarizing your key points and reinforcing your enthusiasm and suitability for the opportunity.

Proper Grammar and Syntax

A great personal statement is also well-written in terms of grammar and syntax. Use clear and concise language, and avoid overly complex words or technical jargon unless absolutely necessary. Proofread your statement multiple times to catch any errors, and consider asking someone else to review it as well. Errors in grammar and syntax can distract from your message and make a poor impression.

Adaptability

Finally, a great personal statement is adaptable. You might need to tweak it for different applications to ensure it meets the specific requirements and addresses the particular values of each program or employer. Tailoring your personal statement shows that you’ve done your research and are genuinely interested in the opportunity.

What Are Some Great Personal Statement Topics?

Choosing the right topic for your personal statement can be daunting. However, with a little creativity and self-reflection, you can find the perfect subject that showcases your strengths and makes a compelling case for your application. Here are some tips and ideas to help you brainstorm and select a great personal statement topic.

Reflect on Significant Life Experiences

Start by reflecting on the most significant experiences in your life. These could be moments that shaped your values, influenced your career choices, or taught you important lessons. Think about events or challenges that had a profound impact on you and consider how they relate to the opportunity you’re applying for. For example, if you’re applying to a medical program, you might write about a personal experience with healthcare that sparked your interest in the field.

Highlight Your Achievements

Consider your major achievements, both academic and personal. Think about awards you’ve won, projects you’ve completed, or milestones you’ve reached. Choose an achievement that demonstrates qualities such as perseverance, leadership, or creativity. Explain not just what you accomplished, but also why it was important to you and what you learned from the experience.

Discuss Your Passions and Interests

Your passions and interests can provide great material for your personal statement. Write about something you are deeply passionate about and explain why it matters to you. This could be a hobby, a subject you love studying, or a cause you care about. Showing your enthusiasm and dedication can make your statement more engaging and memorable.

Connect to Your Career Goals

Link your topic to your future career goals. Describe how your past experiences have prepared you for the path you want to pursue. If you have a clear vision of your career, discuss the steps you’ve taken to get there and how the program or job you’re applying for will help you achieve your goals. This shows that you have a well-thought-out plan and are committed to your aspirations.

Overcoming Challenges

Writing about challenges you’ve faced and how you overcame them can make a powerful personal statement. Reflect on obstacles you’ve encountered, whether personal, academic, or professional, and discuss what you did to overcome them. Highlighting your resilience and problem-solving skills can demonstrate your ability to thrive in the face of adversity.

Seek Inspiration from Others

Sometimes, hearing about other people’s personal statements can spark ideas for your own. Look for examples of successful personal statements online or ask friends and mentors for advice. Pay attention to how others have structured their statements and the types of stories they’ve chosen to share. Use these examples as inspiration, but make sure your statement remains uniquely yours.

Brainstorm with a Purpose

When brainstorming, write down all potential topics that come to mind without worrying about whether they’re perfect. Once you have a list, evaluate each idea based on how well it showcases your strengths, aligns with your goals, and meets the requirements of the application. Choose the topic that feels the most compelling and authentic to you.

Keep It Relevant

Ensure your chosen topic is relevant to the application. Tailor your story to highlight the qualities and experiences that make you a strong candidate. If you’re applying for a research position, focus on your analytical skills and experiences in conducting research. If it’s a creative role, emphasize your creativity and innovation.

How Should I Write a Personal Statement?

Writing a personal statement can feel overwhelming, but breaking the process down into manageable steps can make it much more approachable. Here’s a guide to help you write a compelling personal statement that effectively communicates your strengths, experiences, and aspirations.

Start with a Strong Opening

Your opening paragraph is crucial because it sets the tone for the entire statement. Start with a compelling hook to grab the reader’s attention. This could be an interesting anecdote, a thought-provoking question, or a bold statement. Make sure it’s relevant to the rest of your statement.

Be Clear and Concise

Clarity is key in a personal statement. Avoid using overly complex words or technical jargon unless absolutely necessary. Write in clear, straightforward language that is easy to understand. Keep your sentences and paragraphs concise, and avoid unnecessary repetition. Each word should serve a purpose.

Use the Active Voice

Whenever possible, use the active voice rather than the passive voice. Active voice sentences are more direct and engaging. For example, instead of writing “The project was completed by me,” write “I completed the project.”

Organize Your Content

Structure your personal statement with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Here’s a simple way to organize your content:

  • Introduction: Capture the reader’s attention and introduce the main theme of your statement.
  • Body paragraphs: Each paragraph should focus on a specific theme or experience. Use transition words and phrases to connect ideas and guide the reader through your story.
  • Conclusion: Summarize your key points and reinforce your enthusiasm and suitability for the opportunity.

Personal statement outline

Show, Don’t Just Tell

Instead of making broad statements, use specific examples to illustrate your points. For example, rather than saying “I am a strong leader,” describe a time when you led a team and achieved a significant result. This makes your statement more vivid and believable.

Reflect on Your Experiences

Reflecting on your experiences shows maturity and self-awareness. Explain what you learned from your experiences and how they have shaped your goals and aspirations. This helps the reader understand your thought process and personal development.

Highlight Your Fit

Make sure to tailor your personal statement to the specific program or job you’re applying for. Highlight how your background, skills, and goals align with what the institution or employer is looking for. Demonstrating a clear connection shows that you’ve done your research and are genuinely interested.

Edit and Revise

Writing a great personal statement involves multiple drafts. After writing your initial draft, take a break and then revisit it with fresh eyes. Look for areas where you can improve clarity, coherence, and impact. Proofread carefully to eliminate grammatical and spelling errors. Consider asking someone you trust to review your statement and provide feedback.

Stay Within the Word Limit

Adhere to the word limit specified in the application instructions. Being concise and to the point not only shows that you can follow directions but also makes your statement stronger and more impactful.

Tips for Writing

  • Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm, write, and revise your personal statement.
  • Authenticity is key. Write in your own voice and be honest about your experiences and aspirations.
  • Highlight your strengths and positive attributes, but don’t be afraid to discuss challenges and what you’ve learned from them.
  • Get input from mentors, teachers, or peers who can provide constructive feedback.

Example of a Strong Opening

To give you an idea of how to start your personal statement, here’s an example of a strong opening:

“As I stood in the middle of the bustling market in Nairobi, surrounded by vibrant colors and the sounds of a community coming to life, I realized that my passion for cultural anthropology was more than just an academic interest—it was a calling.”

This opening is engaging, sets the scene, and introduces the applicant’s passion in a vivid and personal way.

For more tips. read the dos and don’ts of personal statement writing.

Personal Statement Do's and Don'ts