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how-to-write-personal-statement

How to Write a Personal Statement Step By Step

October 2020

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Article by Herman Barnes

Article by Herman Barnes

Northeastern's Human Services program graduate, Herman Barnes contributes to our blog pro bono. He sees his mission in helping students prepare for academic careers by providing them with experience and skill-based background required for successful studying and research.

Many colleges today make their specific writing supplement a compulsory part of the application and ask students targeted questions about the choice of school, major, and intellectual curiosity. Still, student’s personal statement remains one of the very important components of his or her application. Moreover, writing a personal statement is a useful skill that you will need in many situations later in life.

So, how do you write a personal statement? Each particular type of personal statement has it’s own requirements and length recommendations. However, there is one very important guideline that they all have in common. The best way to write a personal statement is to be honest. Of course, you have to focus on the things you are interested in, on your stronger sides, on achievements that you are proud of – but be authentic and true about it. 

That said, let’s break down the writing process into easy steps and make sure you know what you are doing when you click “Submit”. 

What Is a Personal Statement

A personal statement is a short essay where you write about your background and particular reasons for pursuing a degree, applying for a position, scholarship, research grant, etc. When your statement is focused primarily on your career goals, it can be called a statement of purpose or motivation letter. A personal statement is usually required:

  • As a part of your college application
  • When you apply for a scholarship
  • When you apply for a law school
  • When you apply for a medical school
  • When you apply for a place in a graduate school
  • For a research position at the university
  • For internship application
  • For job application
  • When you apply for residency in a country

As a rule, a personal statement is a part of the entire application, along with other materials that tell about who you are and prove your qualifications as a suitable candidate.

What to Include In a Personal Statement

Although personal statement focuses on you as a person, it isn’t the story of your life – just an account of your experiences, personal qualities, and areas of intellectual curiosity that are relevant to your application. 

When considering what to put in your personal statement, consider which of your interests and skills make you a good candidate for college placement, suitable grant recipient, or a prospective employee – especially qualities and experiences that might not be evident from other materials on your application. 

How Long Should a Personal Statement Be

Personal statements should not be very long. Depending on the situation, the text length is usually between 300 to 700-words. As a rule, the organization you apply to will provide the word limit in the guidelines. If there is none, better err on the side of brevity. Excessive length may take away from the power of your message. Better make your personal statement snappy and impactful.

Pay attention to the units in which the limits are given. Sometimes the number is given in words, other times – in characters. Make sure to study all the requirements, as they might also give you an idea as to what information they expect you to submit. 

What to Write In a Personal Statement

It can be difficult to decide what to write about yourself, especially if you haven’t done this before. If you don’t know what to write about in personal statement, it’s a great idea to read a couple of examples and see how successful personal statements for this particular school or similar job positions look like. 

Try to distance yourself from the situation, and look at a position you are seeking to fill, and then at yourself as a candidate for this position. Here are some things to focus on:

  • – Relevant experience you have
  • – Talents and skills that make you an asset for the school/company
  • – Your intellectual curiosity, professional and academic goals, and how this position/college placement will advance you on the path to achieving them

Of course, when it comes to college application, personal statements can be very creative, narrating stories of challenges overcome, goals achieved or happy memories created. However, always keep in mind the qualities that your target school values and make sure you demonstrate them in your essay.

Personal Statement Topics

There are no fixed topics for personal statements. As a rule, the choice is left entirely at the candidate’s discretion. However, colleges, application platforms, or funds awarding scholarships provide prompts to help and encourage applicants. Here are some examples:

  • – What achievement you are proud of the most?
  • – What motivates you?
  • – What brings you joy?
  • – What made you choose this major/college/company?
  • – Who is the most influential person in your life and why?
  • – What meaningful contribution you have done to your community, school, or family?
  • – Describe an obstacle you have overcome on the way to your goal.
  • – Tell about your experience with teamwork.
  • – Tell about the most valuable lesson you have learned in the past two years.
  • – Tell about a time when your beliefs were challenged.

How to Write a Strong Personal Statement

A strong personal statement combines three major ingredients:

  • – Clear message
  • – Authenticity
  • – Readability

Don’t forget that your personal statement is an essay. That means it should have a clear structure that works to deliver the message, make it entertaining for the reader, and give a winning impression about your personality. That is why it’s always good to make a quick outline before you start writing the full text.

Introduction

Start the introduction for personal statement by addressing your goal and telling why you became interested in the company, scholarship, or college. For a job application, a short one-sentence intro is enough. 

A college application is usually longer and more detailed, so your introduction can take up a separate paragraph. If you use your personal statement to apply to several colleges, it is wiser to focus on why you have chosen the field of study where you plan majoring in, your intellectual curiosity and other more general matters.

Main body

In the main body of your essay, you should tell about your interests and goals, relevant past experiences, and the steps you have already taken to achieve your objectives. If you are writing the personal statement as a response to the prompt, make sure the main body answers the questions asked in the prompt.

Conclusion

A conclusion is the most memorable part of your essay and the last chance to make your case. That is why you should write a conclusion for personal statement reinforcing the message from the introduction paragraph, but building upon what the reader already knows about you from the main part. 

Echoing the beginning of your statement, highlight once more your reasons to apply and your qualities as a uniquely suitable candidate, but use stronger emotions and more assertive language. This way you will leave a lasting impression and persuade the admissions officer to consider you.

Tips for Writing a Personal Statement

Clear structure and defined goals guarantee an effective personal statement. However, only your inimitable style and personality will make for a killer essay that lands you wherever you want to be. Here are some personal statement writing tips to make sure you’ve made your best shot with the application:

1. Write in your own voice

If you pride yourself on your sense of humor and are well-known among close friends as the life of any party – don’t be afraid to crack a joke. Yet if have a reserved and leveled personality, a low-key style will suit you best. First, you will feel in your element – therefore, you will be more confident. Second, you will show your personality, which is important both for colleges that strive to assemble a diverse student body and for companies that look for candidates that fit into the existing team spirit. 

2. Be authentic

This is more about the content than the tone of your personal statement. Write what you think is true, not what you think the admission officers or prospective employers want to hear. Your idea of what makes a perfect candidate might be very far from their vision. Ascribing to yourself attributes you don’t possess will only make you a disservice. You deserve to get a place in a college or a position in a company on your own merit, not under someone else’s guise.

3. Don’t count the words

Disregard the word limit when you write your first draft – it will only distract you. First drafts are inevitably wordy. Tell everything you have to tell. Then step away from your text for a day or two and let it sit. When you return to your personal statement with a fresh eye, you will be able to tackle the length. See where you can trim the excessive phrases, throw away passages that repeat themselves, or paraphrase the long sentences.

4. Ask someone to read your personal statement

Human ability to miss the obvious is remarkable. Sometimes you read the text backwards and forwards but still manage to miss an embarrassing mistake staring you right in the face. That is why even the most experienced writers have editors.  Ask someone you know to proofread your essay or turn to a personal statement writing service for professional editing.

FAQ

Can I Start My Personal Statement With A Question?

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Yes, you can. Rhetorical questions make great hook sentences, as long as they are intriguing, moving, and thought-provoking. However, you should avoid trite questions that have little impact on the reader or are irrelevant to the rest of your statement.

Should I Write My Name In The Personal Statement?

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Your personal statement is an integral part of your entire application, so you don’t have to worry about it getting lost or misattributed. The application system will automatically put your name or an anonymous unique identifier on it. If the institution you are applying to doesn’t explicitly ask you to put your name on your personal statement, there is no need to do that.

Is It OK To Use First Person In Personal Statement?

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More than OK – it is expected. That is why it is called personal! Phrases like “I devote all of my free time to astronomy”, “I’ve been studying French for the last three years”, or “My dream is to become a veterinarian and heal helpless creatures” are natural and belong in personal statements. How else could you describe your own experiences, goals, and aspirations?

Can You Use The Same Personal Statement Twice?

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Using the same personal statement as many times as you need for all college applications is the entire point behind the platforms such as Common App, Coalition Application, Universal Application, etc. The idea behind them is making the application process easier for you. You complete your application one time and submit it to all of the colleges. However, if you feel that you might need to tweak your personal statement to fit every particular application, you are free to do so.

Is It OK To Lie On Your Personal Statement?

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Lying is hardly ever OK, even in a high-stakes situation like a college application. Just tell the truth. When you are honest, you sound more compelling, because you show true feelings. Give yourself some credit and allow your authentic personality, story, sentiment, and reasons to speak for yourself. Besides, anything that matters (awards, courses taken, volunteering experience, etc.) is easy to verify.

Can I Edit My Personal Statement After Submitting?

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Once you have submitted your application to any institution, you cannot make any changes to that particular application – including your personal statement or any writing supplements. If it is critical to change something in an application after it was submitted, you can only contact the college’s submission office for that.
However, if you are using Common App to apply to multiple colleges, you can edit your personal statement in the “Writing” section and the next submission to another college will be using an updated version of your statement.

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