Phase I of Writing Your Personal Statement: 36 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Begin
In less than 650 words, you have to persuade a stranger to care about you and your application. That’s why the Common App personal statement is one of the most discussed aspects of the college application. Think about how much time you spend on homework, standardized testing, and extracurriculars. This single essay will influence admissions officers as much as these other factors. You could be the perfect applicant, but if your reader doesn’t get to know you and CARE about YOU, you won’t be admitted.
There is no formula for creating the perfect personal statement. The best personal statement topic for your friend might not work well as a topic for you. The topic that might inspire your friend to show his most unique thoughts, the challenges he’s overcome, and the maturity he has gained, might not help you reveal what’s most interesting and compelling about you.
So, how can you write the best possible personal statement for you and your application? Here are the first steps in the process.
1. Start early!
The worst thing you can do is rush the creation of your personal statement. The next two steps below might take weeks…and these occur before you even have a good first draft and can start multiple rounds of edits. You should edit your personal statement multiple times. You should get feedback from as many family members, friends, and teachers as you can.
But, before you get to this stage, you need to choose the perfect topic (and the best Common App essay prompt) for you.
So, when is the right time to start the process of writing your personal statement? You should start brainstorming for your personal statement as early as the spring of your junior year and as late as the summer between junior and senior year.
Why shouldn’t I start earlier? A successful personal statement relies on having a strong and mature sense of yourself. It can also rely on your understanding of what you’d like to do in college, what type of college community you’d like to be a part of, and why you care about your education. Starting too soon might mean you need to start over (see step 3) after you really do some soul-searching about college.
There is a lot of thinking and planning that happens before you start writing, so that’s why you should start early. You will complete your best work when you’re not up against a deadline and you’ll be able to start over (again, see step 3) if this is in your best interests.
If you complete this stage of the process with care and attention, you won’t be faced with Step 3. This step in the process helps you pinpoint that perfect topic for you… which won’t be the same perfect topic for someone else.
To start the process of writing your personal statement, ask yourself the series of 36 questions below. These will help generate topics that will be important and meaningful to you. Keep a written list of possible topics you could choose.
- What’s your main academic area of interest?
- Why does this matter to you?
- When did this interest first start to matter to you? Was there a specific event that sparked your interest?
- How did your interest evolve over time?
- Did you ever face a really big challenge in continuing to learn about or study this topic?
- Was this challenge the result of your gender, race, or religion?
- Was this challenge the result of your family’s socio-economic background or the result of the culture of the place you lived?
- Would you still pursue this academic interest if you earned a very small income with your future job in this area?
- What’s an extracurricular activity you do that’s incredibly rare?
- What’s an extracurricular activity that has shaped your personality and character?
- Why does this activity matter so much to you?
- When did this activity first start to matter to you? Was there a specific event that sparked your interest?
- How did your interest in and commitment to this activity evolve over time?
- Have you done something with this activity that no one else you know has done?
- Did you ever face a really big challenge in continuing to pursue this activity?
- Was this challenge the result of your gender, race, or religion?
- Was this challenge the result of your family’s socio-economic background?
- Was this challenge the result of the culture of the place you lived?
- Is there something you’ve done or experienced that changed you forever in a positive way?
- How did this event make you more mature, compassionate, self-aware, determined, or strong?
- Is there a day from your life that you reflect on often? Why is this day so memorable to you?
- Are you similar to or different from your parents / siblings? What made you this way?
- When did you feel like you didn’t fit in with a group of people? What made you different than others?
- Is there something (non-academic / extracurricular) that you devote A LOT of time to? Why do you do this?
- What have you done that didn’t earn you praise, attention, or success?
- What makes you feel like your life is meaningful and important to you?
- What is one thing that you would never change about yourself or your life experiences?
Once you’ve created your list of topics, you’ll need to start narrowing them down. For each topic, ask yourself:
- Is this a topic I care about?
- Is this a topic that I’ve cared about for more than 1-2 years?
- Is this a topic I think shows something about my character and personality?
- Is this a topic that shows something impressive and / or unique about my achievements or activities?
- Is this topic memorable to me? Do I think about this fairly often in my life?
- Am I the only student in my high school class who would write about this topic?
- Does this topic show only positive things about my character, maturity, and perspective on life?
- Would I be interested in reading about this topic if someone else wrote about it?
- Could I write 10 pages about this topic (far more than you’ll need to write, of course)?
If the answer to most or all these questions is “yes!” you’ve probably landed on an ideal topic for you! And get started with writing your personal statement!
3. Start over?
Have you already written your 650 words? Ask yourself: is this best possible story I could tell about myself to admissions officers? What does this story show about me? Is there anything that’s negative in this essay? Is there anything that would make me appear privileged, immature, irresponsible, unfriendly, boring, or unmotivated?
One of the best skills you can develop while writing your personal statement is not to be too attached to your writing. Good editors make BIG changes. And sometimes “big change” means starting over from scratch.
I’ll share my story as a cautionary tale. After careful planning, I wrote the first draft of my personal statement during the summer before my senior year of high school. I was really proud of it. I’d developed a (I thought) complicated and literary metaphor throughout the personal statement. I printed it off. I gave it to my dad to read. He read it through once and said, “you should start over from scratch.”
I was shocked and horrified. What about the more than 5 hours I’d spent planning and writing this essay? My dad pointed out to me the ways in which my personal statement didn’t show the most impressive things about me. It was fine. But it wasn’t unique. It wasn’t personal.
Writing your personal statement is a very strategic part of your college application. There are many “bad” topics you should avoid, there are many “good” topics you could choose, but there are a few that are “outstanding” because they bring a new, personal, thoughtful, and insightful angle to your application and your personal story. This is the personal statement you want to write! Your personal statement needs to engage your readers in less than 650 words in a way that convinces them to believe in you. Your admissions officer will need to advocate for you in order for you to be admitted. You want this person on your side.
Ask your family, friends, and teachers to read your personal statement or consider the topic you’ve selected. Do they feel like this piece of writing or this topic shows the person they know and love? Could this topic make a stranger care about you in the way that your family, friends, teachers care about and support you? This is your personal statement topic selection goal!
Writing the Personal Statement
This handout provides information about writing personal statements for academic and other positions.
Contributors:Jo Doran, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-03-07 02:18:40
The personal statement, your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process, generally falls into one of two categories:
1. The general, comprehensive personal statement:
This allows you maximum freedom in terms of what you write and is the type of statement often prepared for standard medical or law school application forms.
2. The response to very specific questions:
Often, business and graduate school applications ask specific questions, and your statement should respond specifically to the question being asked. Some business school applications favor multiple essays, typically asking for responses to three or more questions.
Questions to ask yourself before you write:
- What's special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?
- What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
- When did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
- How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
- If you have worked a lot during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed to your growth?
- What are your career goals?
- Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
- Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
- What personal characteristics (for example, integrity, compassion, and/or persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
- What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
- Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school—and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?
- What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?
Answer the questions that are asked
- If you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar.
- Don't be tempted to use the same statement for all applications. It is important to answer each question being asked, and if slightly different answers are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.
Tell a story
- Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. One of the worst things you can do is to bore the admissions committee. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you'll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.
- Don't, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer, or whatever should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.
Find an angle
- If you're like most people, your life story lacks drama, so figuring out a way to make it interesting becomes the big challenge. Finding an angle or a "hook" is vital.
Concentrate on your opening paragraph
- The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader's attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.
Tell what you know
- The middle section of your essay might detail your interest and experience in your particular field, as well as some of your knowledge of the field. Too many people graduate with little or no knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the profession or field they hope to enter. Be as specific as you can in relating what you know about the field and use the language professionals use in conveying this information. Refer to experiences (work, research, etc.), classes, conversations with people in the field, books you've read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of specific information about the career you want and why you're suited to it. Since you will have to select what you include in your statement, the choices you make are often an indication of your judgment.
Don't include some subjects
- There are certain things best left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally not a good idea. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (for example, controversial religious or political issues).
Do some research, if needed
- If a school wants to know why you're applying to it rather than another school, do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.
Write well and correctly
- Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good written skills and command of correct use of language are important to them as they read these statements. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.
- A medical school applicant who writes that he is good at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away from often-repeated or tired statements.
For more information on writing a personal statement, see the personal statement vidcast.