How to Write a Personal Statement for College

Student writing
October 14, 2022
What is a Personal Statement?Why Do Colleges Ask for a Personal Statement? What Should a Personal Statement for College Include?How to Write a Personal Statement for CollegePersonal Statement For College Examples FAQs: How to Write a Personal Statement for College


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/4/22

Are you struggling to write your college personal statement? Well, you’re in luck! Read on for our complete guide on how to write a strong personal statement for college.

Writing a personal statement can feel like a daunting task. Most students have difficulty framing themselves the “right” way–and we get it! It’s not always easy to talk about yourself. With that said, how do you write a compelling personal statement?

In this guide, we’ll go over how to write the perfect personal statement, from what colleges look for in the essay to successful examples. If you still have questions by the end, you can always set up a free consultation with one of our admissions experts to kickstart your college application. 

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What is a Personal Statement?

A personal statement is a college admissions essay. It allows students the opportunity to share information about themselves that goes beyond what admissions committees have already seen in other application materials (transcripts, resume, etc.)

This is your chance to show colleges your personality, your strengths, and what matters most to you. Generally speaking, there are two types of personal statements:

A general personal statement is an open-ended essay with very few constraints, sometimes with no prompt or word count. While this type of personal statement allows you to write about whatever you want, it should still tell admissions committees about you. General or open-ended personal statements are common in medical or law school applications.

A response personal statement is an essay answering a specific question. These questions will guide your writing but are usually geared towards getting to know who you are. For example, you may be asked “What matters most to you, and why?” or “How have your life experiences led you to your current interests or goals?” 

Even if there is no prompt, these are the sort of questions you should answer in your personal statement. Think about a story, a moment, or a lifestyle change that has shaped who you are today and makes you passionate about your current educational goals and future career goals.

Why Do Colleges Ask for a Personal Statement?

Colleges ask for personal statements and essays to get to know the person behind the numbers. By the time the admissions committee reads your essay, they’ll already know your grades, achievements, awards, and other qualifications. Essays humanize candidates, allowing you to express yourself and your passion. 

Your personal statement can give you a competitive edge against other candidates if it does a good job of standing out and is authentic. When brainstorming topics for your personal statement, you should think about unique experiences you’ve had that have shaped who you are. Avoid clichés like famous quotes; this is the time to give your unique perspective.

What Should a Personal Statement for College Include?

Before getting started, it’s essential to make sure you include all the necessary information you want admissions committees to know. Your personal statement should answer the following questions:

You can answer these questions before you start writing your essay and try to find links to connect them.

How to Write a Personal Statement for College

Here is a step-by-step breakdown on how to write a personal statement for college as recommended by our experts

Step 1: Brainstorm 

Before you start writing, it’s essential to brainstorm your ideas. Consider the questions in the above section. What makes you unique? What challenges have you overcome that have made you who you are? Make sure to answer each question in the initial brainstorming process.

If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, you can ask a family member or a friend who knows you well what they think makes you unique. This can help you gather some ideas to craft your story. 

Take plenty of time on this step and write down lots of ideas - even silly ones! You may be surprised by what comes to mind when you allow yourself a few days to write everything down. By the time you move on to the next step, you should have at least five story ideas to choose from and several pieces of information you want to include.

Make sure to keep the prompt in mind during this step. The prompt you receive may cancel out some of your ideas right away if they do not align with the question you’ve been asked to answer.

Step 2: Select Your Strongest Ideas

Take a look at your brainstorming notes. Which story from your life compels you the most? Whichever idea gets you excited to write is the one you should choose. When you go with your gut, you’ll have less trouble with the flow of your writing. 

The story you choose to write about should have an apparent climax and a compelling takeaway. What did you learn from the experience? How has it shaped your life? This is what the reader should understand by the end of your essay. 

Step 3: Write Your Introduction

When you begin writing, your introduction should immediately grab the reader's attention. There are many ways to do so–if you’re feeling lost, you can always refer to these five effective ways to start your college essay

In summary, avoid clichés and begin with a bang. Your introduction should only be one or two sentences in length before you begin telling your story.

Step 4: Tell Your Story

The story you choose to include should answer the prompt and tell the admissions committee about what makes you a unique and qualified candidate. This is the main chunk of your essay. Make sure your writing is self-reflective, concise, and straightforward.

According to Joyce P. Curll, Assistant Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard Law School, a good personal statement should be interesting and tell her who the person is. Additionally, she notes:

“The more a (personal) statement conveys how a person thinks, what he or she thinks is important, or other such insights, the better. You should think of the statement as an opportunity to round out pieces to the puzzle that makes up your application. Write about issues or problems you think about and how you have dealt with them. The more personal you can be – the more you can bring in your own background or history – the more valuable the statement can be.”
She continues, “In some of the most successful statements, applicants have reflected on who they are, what they’re all about, and why they have done what they have done, and have left the committee with one or two thoughts about them.” 

While your story should be about a unique experience or passion you’ve had, the central theme should be bigger than that. Your takeaway should be an admirable trait you’ve developed throughout the story, or something you’ve learned that has made you a better person and candidate today. 

Step 5: End on a High Note

The ending of your college essay is a crucial moment for the reader, so it’s important to spend a lot of time on this section. This is the last thing the admissions officers will read, so it should be memorable and heartwarming. This will tie in how your story has shaped you as a person and what you intend to do in the future.

Including some school-specific research here can be a good idea if there is a specific resource your school offers that will help you achieve a relevant goal. Don’t just throw in a quote or a mission statement here - only mention the school if there’s something specific about your program that you feel really passionate about. 

Step 6: Revise, Revise, Revise

Once you’ve completed the writing portion, it is crucial to revise like you’ve never revised before! There should be absolutely no spelling or grammar mistakes, famous quotes, run-on sentences, clichés, or other errors. This is a highly important piece of your college application. 

When giving your essay to a partner to revise, show them the following points and ask if they agree:

You should also ask your revision partner what they feel they’ve learned about you in the end, and ask yourself if their takeaway aligns with your original intention. Sometimes the intended message does not always come across the way it does in our heads, so this is an essential final step.

Personal Statement For College Examples 

Here are some personal statement examples for college and explanations on why they were successful.

#1. Personal Statement from UChicago

“I fell in love for the first time when I was four. That was the year my mother signed me up for piano lessons. I can still remember touching those bright, ivory keys with reverence, feeling happy and excited that soon I would be playing those tinkling, familiar melodies (which my mother played every day on our boombox) myself.
To my rather naïve surprise, however, instead of setting the score for Für Elise on the piano stand before me, my piano teacher handed me a set of Beginner’s Books. I was to read through the Book of Theory, learn to read the basic notes of the treble and bass clefs, and practice, my palm arched as though an imaginary apple were cupped between my fingers, playing one note at a time. After I had mastered the note of ‘C,’ she promised, I could move on to ‘D.’
It took a few years of theory and repetition before I was presented with my very first full-length classical piece: a sonatina by Muzio Clementi. I practiced the new piece daily, diligently following the written directives of the composer. I hit each staccato note crisply and played each crescendo and every decrescendo dutifully. I performed the piece triumphantly for my teacher and lifted my hands with a flourish as I finished. Instead of clapping, however, my teacher gave me a serious look and took both my hands in hers. ‘Music,’ she said sincerely, ‘is not just technique. It’s not just fingers or memorization. It comes from the heart.’
That was how I discovered passion.
Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn: the arcs and passages of intricate notes are lines of genius printed on paper, but ultimately, it is the musician who coaxes them to life. They are open to artistic and emotional interpretation, and even eight simple bars can inspire well over a dozen different variations. I poured my happiness and my angst into the keys, loving every minute of it. I pictured things, events, and people (some real, some entirely imagined— but all intensely personal) in my mind as I played, and the feelings and melodies flowed easily: frustration into Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, wistfulness into Chopin’s nocturnes and waltzes, and sheer joy into Schubert. Practice was no longer a chore; it was a privilege and a delight.
In high school, I began playing the piano for church services. The music director gave me a binder full of 1-2-3 sheet music, in which melodies are written as numbers instead of as notes on a music staff. To make things a bit more interesting for myself—and for the congregation—I took to experimenting, pairing the written melodies with chords and harmonies of my own creation. I rarely played a song the same way twice; the beauty of improvisation, of songwriting, is that it is as much ‘feeling’ as it is logic and theory. Different occasions and different moods yielded different results: sometimes, ‘Listen Quietly’ was clean and beautiful in its simplicity; other times, it became elaborate and nearly classical in its passages. The basic melody and musical key, however, remained the same, even as the embellishments changed. The foundation of good improvisation and songwriting is simple: understanding the musical key in which a song is played—knowing the scale, the chords, the harmonies, and how well (or unwell) they work together—is essential. Songs can be rewritten and reinterpreted as situation permits, but missteps are obvious because the fundamental laws of music and harmony do not change.
Although my formal music education ended when I entered college, the lessons I have learned over the years have remained close and relevant to my life. I have acquired a lifestyle of discipline and internalized the drive for self-improvement. I have gained an appreciation for the complexities and the subtleties of interpretation. I understand the importance of having both a sound foundation and a dedication to constant study. I understand that to possess a passion and personal interest in something, to think for myself, is just as important.”

Why this essay works: This essay is an excellent example of how to demonstrate a unique passion through a compelling story. We learn that the writer has a passion for piano and music, although it is not the main theme of the story. 

Through the writer's story, we understand their fundamental characteristics: the writer loves to learn, shows discipline, and understands the value of following through on a commitment. These skills can be applied to any aspect of life and are incredibly valuable. 

In summary, the writer demonstrates their unique characteristics and passions while also telling a compelling story that ends with what they have learned. This personal statement is a 10/10 in our books. 

#2. Personal Statement from NYU

Prompt: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

“In her cramped kitchen, Titi Nana cracked the egg in the center of the pan, the cheeriness of the bright yellow yolk contrasting the harshness of the caldero. In a flourish, she jerked the bottle of alcohol in her hand, flames erupting from the griddle. She instructed me: "Wipe it all off," gesturing to dust off my shoulders and arms into the inferno. I laughed nervously as I removed the maldad [evil] from my body, one brush at a time. I left Titi's apartment that day confused about how our family's practice of Santería [witchcraft] fit in with my outward embrace of my heritage. I felt as if the parts of my Latina identity I claimed openly -- dancing salsa to Celia Cruz or enjoying lechón y arroz con habichuelas en Navidad -- were contradicted by my skepticism towards Titi's rituals. My experience with Santería wasn't new, as proven by my mother's kitchen altar lit dimly by prayer candles and adorned with evil eyes, statues of San Miguel, and offerings to Elegua; however, I'd never before witnessed such a tangible demonstration of my family's ritualistic beliefs. Although it surrounded me, I refused to believe in the effects of Santería... so I shunned it entirely. 
Moving to a predominantly white boarding school and away from the rituals my family had passed down, I avoided addressing the distance I had wedged between myself and my background. I pushed away all things Latina as my fear of failing to honor my Puerto Rican heritage intensified. This distance only grew as my classmates jokingly commented on my inability to speak Spanish and my white-passing complexion, further tearing away bits of my Latinidad with each snide remark. 
In an effort to build myself back up, I began to practice the small bits of Santería that I comprehended: lighting candles for good luck, placing a chalice of water by my bedside to absorb all maldad, and saying my prayers to San Miguel and my guardian angels each day. To my disbelief, the comments that attacked my Latinidad, or lack thereof, faded along with the aching feeling that I had failed to represent my heritage. As I embraced the rituals that I initially renounced, I finally realized the power in Titi's practices. In all of her cleansing and prayer rituals, she was protecting me and our family, opening the doors for us to achieve our goals and overcome the negativity that once held us back. In realizing the potential of Santería, I shifted my practices to actively protecting myself and others against adversity and employed Santería as a solution for the injustice I witnessed in my community. 
Santería once served as my scapegoat; I blamed the discomfort I felt towards black magic for the imposter syndrome festering inside me. Until I embraced Santería, it only served as a reminder that I wasn't Latina enough in the eyes of my peers. Now, I understand that while intangible, ethereal, even, the magic of Santería is real; it's the strength of my belief in myself, in my culture, and in my commitment to protect others.”

Why this essay works: This personal statement essay is in response to a prompt, and the writer has done an excellent job of telling a story related to their cultural background. We get to know more about the writer and their family in this heartwarming story, even learning things we might not have known about Santeria - but that’s not the central theme.

The main theme of this essay is the lesson of self-trust, cultural pride, and self-acceptance. While we are learning about this person's unique identity, the takeaway is that this person has a newfound respect for their identity and has learned to embrace themselves– a skill that, as they mentioned, improved all areas of their life. 

#3. Personal Statement from UC Berkeley

“I was a shy thirteen-year-old who had already lived in six locations and attended five schools. Having recently moved, I was relieved when I finally began to develop a new group of friends. However, the days following September 11, 2001, were marked with change. People began to stare at me. Many conversations came to a nervous stop when I walked by. However, it wasn’t until one of my peers asked if I was a terrorist that it really hit me. Osama, my name is Osama. I went from having a unique name that served as a conversation starter to having the same name as the most wanted man in America. The stares and the comments were just the beginning. Eventually I received a death threat at school. I remember crying alone in my room, afraid to tell my parents in fear that they might not let me go to school anymore.
My experience opened my eyes up to racial and religious dynamics in the United States. I started to see how these dynamics drove people’s actions, even if some were not aware of the reasons. The more I looked at my surroundings with a critical eye, the more I realized that my classmates had not threatened me because of hate, but because of fear and ignorance. This realization was extremely empowering. I knew that mirroring their hostility would only reinforce the fear and prejudice they held. Instead, I reached out to my peers with an open mind and respect. My acceptance of others served as a powerful counter example to many negative stereotypes I had to face.With this approach, I was often able to transform fear into acceptance, and acceptance into appreciation. I chose not to hide my heritage or myself, despite the fear of judgment or violence. As a result, I developed a new sense of self-reliance and self-confidence. However, I wasn’t satisfied with the change that I had brought about in my own life. I wanted to empower others as well. My passion for equality and social justice grew because I was determined to use my skills and viewpoint to unite multiple marginalized communities and help foster understanding and appreciation for our differences and similarities alike.
The years following September 11th were a true test of character for me. I learned how to feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations. This allowed me to become a dynamic and outgoing individual. This newfound confidence fueled a passion to become a leader and help uplift multiple minority communities. During the last two summers I made this passion a reality when I took the opportunity to work with underprivileged minority students. All of the students I worked with came from difficult backgrounds and many didn’t feel as though college was an option for them. I learned these students’ goals and aspirations, as well as their obstacles and hardships. I believed in them, and I constantly told them that they would make it. I worked relentlessly to make sure my actions matched my words of encouragement. I went well above the expectations of my job and took the initiative to plan several additional workshops on topics such as public speaking, time management, and confidence building. My extra efforts helped give these students the tools they needed to succeed. One hundred percent of the twenty-one high school juniors I worked with my first summer are now freshmen at four-year universities. I feel great pride in having helped these students achieve this important goal. I know that they will be able to use these tools to continue to succeed.
Inspired by my summer experience, I jumped at the opportunity to take on the position of Diversity Outreach Ambassador for the San Francisco Bar Association Diversity Pipeline Program. In this position, I was responsible for helping organize a campus event that brought educational material and a panel of lawyers to UC Berkeley in order to empower and inform minority students about their opportunities in law school. In this position I was able to unite a diverse group of organizations, including the Black Pre-Law Association, the Latino Pre-Law Society, and the Haas Undergraduate Black Business Association. Working in this position was instrumental in solidifying my desire to attend law school. 
The lawyers who volunteered their time had a significant impact on me. I learned that they used their legal education to assist causes and organizations they felt passionate about. One of the lawyers told me that she volunteered her legal services to a Latino advocacy association. Another lawyer explained to me how he donated his legal expertise to advise minority youth on how to overcome legal difficulties. Collaborating with these lawyers gave me a better understanding of how my passion for law could interact with my interest in social justice issues.
My experiences leading minority groups taught me that I need to stand out to lead others and myself to success. I need to be proud of my culture and myself. My experiences after September 11th have taught me to defeat the difficulties in life instead of allowing them to defeat me. Now, whether I am hit with a racial slur or I encounter any obstacles in life, I no longer retreat, but I confront it fearlessly and directly. I expect law school will help give me the tools to continue to unite and work with a diverse group of people. I hope to continue to empower and lead minority communities as we strive towards legal and social equality.”

Why this essay works: Don’t be intimidated by the amount of work experience this writer mentioned in their essay. The reason it worked is the demonstration of vulnerability and the clear future goals they have expressed.

It is admirable that this student took a negative experience from their childhood and turned it into a lifelong career goal. This is an excellent example of taking something that makes you unique, even if you’ve been picked on for it, and turning it into a positive. 

The writer's story shows strength, persistence, and compassion. All of which are valuable skills in any field of study. Additionally, mentioning work experience that pertains to the writer's future goal is an excellent way to show how they turn their words into actions.

FAQs: How to Write a Personal Statement for College

Here are our answers to some of the most frequently asked questions concerning how to write a college personal statement.

1. What Should a College Personal Statement Include?

Your college personal statement should include a unique story about you and how it has shaped you into who you are today. Important lessons you’ve learned, qualities you’ve developed over time, and your future goals are all excellent things to include. 

The story should highlight your individual qualities, while the main theme should reveal itself at the end. 

2. How Do You Start a Personal Statement for College?

Your introduction should be short and enticing. Don’t spend too much time on your introduction; it’s best to start with one or two sentences max to set your story up and grab the reader’s attention immediately. 

3. How Do I Make My Personal Statement Stand Out?

Your personal statement should highlight something unique to you. Think about your life experiences, even silly ones, that meant a lot to you growing up and have shaped you into who you are today and who you want to be. 

Avoid clichés like famous quotes or general statements. Doing thorough school research can also help your essay stand out. 

4. What Should a Personal Statement Format Be?

Each school typically provides guidelines, such as a word count or page limit. Generally speaking, your personal statement should be 2-3 pages in length and can be anywhere between 500-1000 words in length. Sentences should be double spaced, Times New Roman font (or another popular, easy-to-read font), typically in 12-pt.

Final Thoughts

Your personal statement should be authentic, compelling, and give the reader an excellent idea of what makes you, you. The best personal statements include a punchy introduction, a compelling and unique story about something personal to the writer, and conclude with a lesson learned and a look toward the future.

Don’t be afraid to get personal–it’s a personal statement after all! Just make sure that you end on a high note. Remember, your conclusion is the last thing admissions officers will read, so it should be memorable and impactful. Think of the ending to your favorite movie, except the main character is you. What will the audience take away?

Good luck!

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