Writing Your Personal Statement: A Crash Course
A personal statement is the primary essay that prospective college students send to all colleges and universities to which they’re applying. There are two main ways to send a personal statement, through the Coalition Application or the Common Application. It’s approximately 650 words detailing who you are, how you’ve changed and/or who you want to become.
What do I write about?
Oftentimes, people feel like they either need some dramatic pity story or an insane accomplishment for their Common App essay. But this isn’t true!
Your essay is less about what you achieved and more about your personality and things that you can’t put on your resume. It’s about who you are as a person.
Sometimes, a life story or an accomplishment can illustrate your personality, but not always. And you certainly don’t need one of the two in order to show who you are. There are so many different ways you can go, so as long as you talk with passion and show intellectual vitality, you really can make any topic work.
In fact, in my experience, incredibly niche and personal topics make the most interesting essays.
Which prompt is the right prompt?
One big mistake that people make is that they care too much about which prompt they choose on the Common App. Realistically, it doesn’t matter at all which prompt you select. Colleges have zero preference for one prompt over another. The prompts are just points to bounce off of, but as you will note, one of the choices is to pick your own prompt.
When you spend too much time thinking about what prompt to pick, you spend too much time thinking about what colleges want to see. But this isn’t about what this unseen “other” wants to read about—it’s about who you are and what you can bring to the table.
I would actually recommend writing a Common App essay without picking a prompt. Usually at the end, you will find that your essay naturally falls into one of them. And if it doesn’t, then that’s totally fine! Just pick the option of creating your own prompt.
Do all schools need a personal statement?
Some schools require students to apply through a separate application portal, other than the Common App or Coalition App. These schools may have varied prompts with different word counts as well.
For example, MIT often asks four shorter questions, approximately 250 words each, but your personal statement can be modified to fit one of these shorter questions. The Georgetown University application and University of California application system for schools like UC Berkeley, UCLA and UCSB have modified questions as well.
How much time do I need to spend on a personal statement?
For a two-page essay, the drafting process for your personal statement may take many months of work and hundreds of pages of ideas.
For context, I had 20 versions (no joke) for my Common App essay saved when I was applying last year. Brainstorming began June after junior year and final edits wrapped up in early November of my senior year.
A recommended timeline is brainstorming in May or June after your junior year, pre-writing in July and August, drafting in September and October, and constant revising and editing until December.
Just keep in mind that early applications require a personal statement as well, which is often due in early November.
Who should help me edit or revise my essay?
Sometimes students will refuse to show their essays to anyone. Other times, students will want to incorporate everyone’s little suggestion into their essays. The key to finding others to edit your essays is balance. It’s important to have a secondary opinion to make sure your message is coming through. On the other hand, it’s impossible to tailor your essay to fit everyone’s nuanced suggestion because you may lose your own voice in the midst of all the editing.
I recommend having three main editors.
- The first editor answers all of your questions during the process of drafting. This person can be a parent, a teacher, a college consultant, a sibling or a recently graduated senior. They will be the ones you go to for advice on the minute details and decisions.
- The second editor is there for the final rounds of drafts. In addition to edits like grammar and syntax, ask your editor to come up with three words or phrases to describe the person being conveyed in the essay. The second editor should be someone who knows you personally and has the ability to compare the “you” presented in the essay with the “you” in real life. This second editor can be your best friend, a sibling, a relative or a parent.
- The third editor is there for the final round of drafts and should be a person you don’t know very well such as a new English teacher. Ask your third editor to come with three words to describe the person being conveyed as well. Hopefully, the phrases from the second and third editor should match. If they do, then your essay is successful in having a focused main idea and description of you as a person.
Any final tips?
- Use strong sensory language. As with any writing, good descriptions can transport the reader to any world—including your own. Create an immersive experience by taking full advantage of the writing skills that you have developed. Build an entire picture for the reader.
- Explore different topics. Your first topic doesn’t have to be the one that you stick with. Allow yourself to try different things and experiment. Oftentimes we think that because we spent so much time editing one essay, that essay has to be the one that we send out. But this isn’t true! I want to emphasize creativity. Don’t be afraid to take risks in your writing—colleges really like this! Experiment with structure and metaphors. It has the possibility of making your essay memorable and unique. The last thing you want is for an admissions officer to be unable to distinguish your essay from the other 100 essays that they have read.
- Be vulnerable. Tell a story that is deeply personal to you. Tell a story about a mistake or something that you might be embarrassed to talk about normally. Things like these humanize you, and the way you handle things like mistakes can say a lot about you as a person.
- Find more tips in Niche’s guide for acing the college essay.
More Articles By Niche
How to Care for your Mental Health While Still Succeeding in School
When I was in high school, I had this misconception that maintaining my academic excellence and keeping good mental health were mutually exclusive.
5 Best Ways to Pay for College
You’re in high school gearing up for college, and the cost of tuition is still rising. Though this may feel like a doomsday scenario, there are plenty of ways you can tackle the cost of college without breaking the bank.
Try Before You Fail: Simple Methods to Reduce Your Test Anxiety
The one common denominator, though, is the need to tackle the problem head-on and not rely on any one “magic bullet” to get rid of your fear.