Your personal statement can be one of the most satisfying-or frustrating-writing experiences you'll ever have

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Writing your personal statement can be one of the most satisfying--or frustrating--writing experiences you'll ever have.

The personal statement is an important part of your application package. Depending on the topic you choose, the essay you write provides additional evidence of your intellectual and creative achievement. The essay is also the only opportunity for the readers of your application to get a feel for you as a person as well as for you as a student. The essay is also the place where you can put your academic record into the context of your opportunities and obstacles.

There is no one correct way to write a personal statement, but in general those who will read your essay are looking for two important things:

HOW the essay provides evidence of your achievements that isn't reflected in other parts of your application

HOW and WHY the events that you describe have shaped your attitude, focus, and, most of all, your intellectual vitality.

This information will help you think about and craft a personal statement by taking you step by step through a process of brainstorming, drafting and revising. At the end, we hope that you will produce a personal statement that you are proud of and that will provide admissions officers with an accurate portrait of who you are and why a college education is important to you.

Characteristics of a Good Personal Statement

But before you write a single word, make sure you know what is expected of a successful college essay.

A good essay...

-Is thoughtful and honest

A strong personal statement is reflective; that is, it demonstrates that you have thought about and gained a clear perspective on your experiences and what you want in your future. It does not simply tell a reader what you think he/she wants to know. Instead, it gives the reader a vivid and compelling picture of you--in essence, telling the reader what he or she should know about you. Remember that the focus of the essay is YOU--your achievements, your obstacles, your goals, your values.

-Strives for depth, not breadth

A good essay is not a list of your accomplishments. Remember when your mom told you that it's quality, not quantity, that counts? Well, the same adage applies for your college essay. A reader will be much more interested in how your experience demonstrates the theme of your essay, not the number of accomplishments you can list. What is NOT interesting: an essay that devotes one paragraph each to a variety of different topics. This type of approach denies you the ability to give depth to your essay.

-Follows the conventions of good writing

A good essay uses appropriate grammar and syntax, uses precise and vivid language, and does not contain any spelling errors.

-Conforms to guidelines

If the essay instructions tell you that the essay should be two pages long, on white 8.5x11 inch paper, then the essay should be two pages long, on white 8.5x11 inch paper. Less is not more, and more is not better, either.

-Answers the question!

A good essay is the result of a writer who has examined the essay question and written an essay that explicitly addresses that question. For example, if you are asked to describe your greatest accomplishment or any unusual circumstances or challenges you have faced, then your reader will expect you to use vivid language that will enable the reader to visualize your accomplishment and share your sense of success.

-Benefits from several drafts and feedback from others

Revision allows an essay to grow. Revising is not editing; revising is the act of "re-seeing" and of looking for those parts of the essay that would benefit from more explication, more (or less) vivid language, or even deleting parts that simply don't work to move your primary theme forward. Similarly, feedback from others can help you identify those parts of the essay that work well--and those that don't.

-Contains a catchy introduction that will keep the reader interested

It is important to recognize that essay readers will read hundreds, maybe even thousands, of essays during the application review period. That means that an essay with a catchy introduction, one that gets right to the point and uses precise language and vivid imagery, is going to stand our more than an essay that is predictable and conventional in its opener.

-Transforms blemishes into positives

It's okay to have flaws! The essay is your chance to show how you have transformed blemishes. For example, if your essay theme is "overcoming obstacles" and you earned a poor grade in a class, but went to a community college at night to repeat the course, it is important for your reader to know this because it is an example of your perseverance. The reader does not want to hear complaints about poor grades or circumstances, but rather wants to know how you have overcome them.

-Demonstrates your knowledge of the major/college

No one expects you to know everything about the college or university to which you are applying. However, readers will want to know that you have done your homework. For example, if you write an essay that states your interest in becoming an engineer, but the college does not have an engineering program, then you haven't done your homework.

-Exudes confidence--you will be successful no matter what

A good essay doesn't beg or brag. Colleges and universities want to admit the best students, and the best students are those who can demonstrate their ability to pursue their goals regardless of where they are admitted. Think of this as quiet confidence--the kind that reveals itself through your description of lifelong interests, sustained commitment, and/or perseverance in the face of adversity.

Keep these characteristics of a good essay in mind as you compose. And be sure to avoid the typical college essay blunders.

Brainstorming For Your Personal Statement

Brainstorming is the first stage of writing, often called "prewriting." Brainstorming is the process of gathering all of your ideas and getting them on paper without editing them.

The brainstorming stage does not involve editing, so don't censor your ideas. There will be enough time to edit later; right now you want to get all of your ideas down so that you don't forget anything. Brainstorming is NOT an outline, NOT a draft and certainly NOT an essay. The purpose of brainstorming is to write out ideas, thoughts, pieces of thoughts, without regard for their connections with each other. Structure and form are not important at this point. What is important is to get everything out of your head and onto paper.

Begin by creating a brainstorm sheet. Be totally honest! Ask yourself the following questions, and write out your answers.

What are my strengths?

What are my weaknesses?

What is special about me?

What kind of person am I?

What do I care about?

Why is (BLANK) more important to me than (BLANK)? (Fill in the blanks.)

What is it like growing up in (BLANK)?

What is it like going to school at (BLANK)?

Gathering Information and Developing a Theme

After you've completing your brainstorming, you'll want to filter the fruits of your brainstorming and identify ONE area you wish to pursue in more detail. Look for areas that might seem interesting or different to a reader. A good way to do this is to group similar ideas together to highlight patterns; these patterns can then uncover a potential theme for your essay. (Your essay's theme is its controlling idea.)

For example, if after brainstorming and grouping your ideas, you find that your talent for writing shows up in your hobby as a budding novelist, your community service as a teacher of creative writing to youngsters, your extracurricular work as a writer for the school newspaper, and your award for outstanding history essay, then you should consider focusing your essay around this talent and how this interest in writing shapes your place in the world and your goals.

Remember--it is the quality of your experience as you describe it that matters, not the number of experiences.


Begin to focus your thoughts by examining your actual experiences. Use the information you've uncovered through brainstorming to address the following topics.

• An achievement that made me feel terrific...

• Something I have struggled to overcome or change about myself or my life...

• An event or experience that taught me something special...

• A "real drag" of an experience that I had to get past...

• Someone's act of strength or courage that affected me...

• A family experience that influenced me in some powerful way...

• A lesson, class project, activity or job that had an impact on my academic or career goals...

• A time I blew it, failed, made bad choices, and how I got past it...

• Some memorable event or advice involving an older person...

• An event that helps to define me, in terms of my background...


Choose one or two of your favorite respones from the list above (or combine a couple that evoked similar responses). Check to make sure your written description addresses the following three questions. If it doesn't, add details so that the experience you describe will be vivid to a reader who doesn't know you.

1. What were the key moments and details of the event?

2. What did I learn from this event?

3. What aspect of this event stays with me most?


Decide on a theme for your essay. Taking the experience you wrote about in Step Two, answer the following questions:

•What does this event reveal about me?

•What makes it special or significant?

•How does this event make me special or make me stand out?

• What truth about me is revealed through this event?

Your answers will reveal your theme.

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