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Getting Started on Writing Personal Statements

Getting Started on Writing Personal Statements

This handout is a starting point, a guide, and a reminder that there is no one-size-fits all statement. You are the only essential ingredient. With that, here are some areas for consideration when writing a personal statement.

Read and answer the questions. What is the prompt really asking you to do? The school/scholarship chose those questions for specific reasons. Consider what those might be and how you and your experiences reflect the essential qualities they are seeking. Even if you are applying for multiple schools, it is important not to write one generic statement and then simply adjust it for the different applications. It is easy for readers to tell when a statement is generic and the writer didn’t take the time to thoughtfully answer the questions being asked.

Pretend to be your audience. Imagine what it is like to sit on a committee of people who read hundreds, maybe thousands of personal statements. What are you tired of reading? What would really grab your attention? This is not a suggestion that you need to lie and just write what you think your readers want. Absolutely not. This is about finding an angle and figuring out how you and your experiences can be expressed in a way that is not repetitious of what everyone else has already written.

Research the specific school or scholarship for which you are applying. What are their values? Do they have a mission statement? What do they hope to get out of admitting you to their school or accepting you for their scholarship? Knowing the answers to these and any other questions about the school can help you add a personal touch to your statement. Let’s say the school or scholarship particularly values community service. In that case, make sure to include and emphasize your own commitment to service in your statement. If you don’t have specific community service hours, look for it in other areas of your life. How else do you better your community and give back? It’s important here to recognize that you are still answering the questions specifically asked of you. Researching the school or scholarship is a tool that allows you to include and emphasize certain parts about yourself that align with what the readers are looking for within the body of your answers to their specific questions.

Always be asking yourself: why you? Why should the readers choose you? What makes you the best candidate? What do you have that sets you apart? Make sure your readers know why you are an excellent candidate. This is not the kind of writing where you should hedge commentary about yourself (i.e. I’m kind of/sort of/sometimes…). 

Tell a story. Show your readers who you are instead of listing things about yourself (I’m intelligent, determined, and detail-oriented). One of the best ways to do this is by telling a story. However, don’t just tell any story that is interesting to hook the reader. Make sure you can relate the story to the question being asked and the parts of yourself you want to emphasize.

Pick the details you include in the story. Make every detail matter. Don’t include extraneous details, especially if you’re limited to a specific word count. There is a difference between including extraneous details and setting the scene. You can include details that make the story more vivid, but if you go off on tangents that aren’t specifically related to the point you’re trying to make, it can make your writing seem sloppy.

Tie the details together. This is when you get to do the telling. What is the point the story is trying to make? Consider this: a candidate named Jack could write a really nice story about a time he walked an elderly person across the street, but that story means very little if Jack doesn’t also write at least a sentence or two on what that event meant to him, how it influenced his decision to apply to this school/scholarship, how it changed him, etc. A problem you can run into with explanation is presenting the event in the story as though it were an epiphany. Most schools are not interested in your epiphany (And from that moment I knew I had to become a…). Schools/scholarships are interested in your thoughtful decision-making. They are impressed with someone who demonstrates a long-standing commitment to the field/interest/skill/etc.

What if you’re not interesting? Many applicants wonder how they can write a story if they don’t feel like they are interesting. It’s important to know that many people don’t have an amazing story of overcoming adversity and succeeding against all odds. You don’t have to write that story to have a great personal statement. Regardless of your experiences, you’ve gotten to the point where you are applying for this school/scholarship. That alone is a success. How have you accomplished all that you’ve already accomplished?

Know what you’re selling. Are you being yourself? A personal statement is more than a list of your accomplishments or a summary of your skills. It is a sample of your writing and a reflection of how you synthesize your experiences. Readers are less interested in what you’ve done and more interested in how you think. Writers sometimes get intimidated by this and try to impress readers by changing their writing style or by using words they don’t understand. These not only come across as insincere, but are also two examples of how writers can sometimes get distracted from the real purpose of a personal statement, which is to demonstrate the ability to candidly and succinctly convey how one understands his or her experiences.

Have someone else read your statement and leave time to edit! Ask if, after reading your statement, the reader would want to admit you/give you the scholarship. Why or why not? Does the reader think you sound like every other person applying? Did you talk yourself up enough? Do you sound confident? When you get your reader’s feedback, take the time to make the adjustments you see fit.
Jacqueline T
Experienced Writing and English Tutor
University of California--Santa Cruz
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