How to Write a Personal Statement for College (Examples)

A little inspo to get you started.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

How to write a personal statement for college

Going to college is undoubtedly exciting: you meet new people, gain new knowledge, and discover new things about yourself in the process. Applying to go to college, on the other hand, is far less exciting: you’ve got to do your research, decide on a course, pick a college, prepare and gather all your documents and transcripts, and submit them all within the deadline.

Even with application tools like the Common App, which are designed to simplify the college application process, it can be easy to lose your cool when applying to university — especially if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t particularly enjoy writing.

In this article, we’re going to talk about writing your personal statement specifically, providing tips and advice on producing an impactful piece that sets you apart!

What is a personal statement?

Personal statement essays (which are also referred to as college essays) are typically two- to three-page documents — double-spaced — in which students outline why they think they are a good fit for the program they’ve selected, but also for the university itself.

What makes a good personal statement?

You should take care so that your personal statement doesn’t end up reading like a grocery store list! While you should convey the reasons why you’ve chosen your degree, it’s important to do so in an engaging way, paying attention to intrigue and flow.

To achieve this, you’ll need the following “ingredients”:

  • Originality. The admissions committee is interested in getting to know you — so, allow your personality to shine through.
  • Honesty. Don’t write the things you think they want to see; instead, write what resonates with you.
  • Specifity. Avoid generalizations, and get into detail.
  • A clear structure. Otherwise, the reader won’t be able to follow your train of thought.
  • Good editing. The more you polish your work, the better.

Types of topics to write about

Like we said, you don’t want your personal statement to take the shape of a monotonous compilation of “I” statements. (“I chose this degree because…”, “I believe I’m a good fit since…”, and so on.)

The more creative you get with your storytelling, the more you’ll stand out. Some ideas to explore include:

  • A cause you’re passionate about or something you really love.
  • Someone you admire or who has made a big impact in your life.
  • Your personal journey, different identities you’ve taken on over the years.
  • A big challenge you overcame and what you learned from it.
  • An accomplishment or attribute you’re proud of — your “superpower”.

No matter what central topic you decide on, make sure it allows you to branch out and present different sides to you. You need to paint a clear picture of what makes you, well, you!

How to write a personal statement

When it’s time to write your personal statement, use the following five points as a sort of checklist to make sure you end up with an impactful piece.

Step 1: Decide on your topic

The very first step in writing any essay is to be clear about your topic. Though some universities will give you a specific prompt to respond to, this won’t always be the case; and although it can be good to have the freedom to choose for yourself, an open topic can lead you straight into decision paralysis.

A good way to counter this is to allocate enough time to brainstorming, looking at ideas online, and bearing in mind that inspiration can come from just about anywhere!

Ethan Sawyer, known on YouTube as the College Essay Guy, writes the following in a blog post: “Know that the best ideas for your essay […] often come when you least expect them. That’s why it’s a good practice to keep a reliable collection system with you at all times.”

Step 2: Identify the key points you want to share

Once you’ve decided on your approach, you have to consider what information about yourself you can “slot in” under your title without straying off topic or oversaturating your essay. Think about:

  • Your core values. What’s going to fuel and inform your efforts at university — is it your passion for innovation, fairness, creativity or something else?
  • Your personality traits. What characteristics or strengths make you a good fit for the course — your problem-solving ability, curiosity, resourcefulness…?
  • Your “aha!” moment. How you discovered your calling, overcame a challenge, or arrived at your current vision for your future.

Step 3: Create a structure for your essay

Your essay comprises three main parts: the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. As the introduction comes first, it needs to be attention-grabbing and engaging — but it doesn’t mean you have to write it first, too.

First drafts are hardly ever amazing. And, because it’s easy to get stuck at the introduction, we suggest starting with a list of bullet points, roughly noting down what bit of information belongs where, rather than attempting to write full, flawless sentences from the get-go.

The clearer you are about what each paragraph is going to contain, the easier your personal statement will be to tackle. Plus, when you start with bullet points, you can easily rearrange the information and arrive at a more playful or suspenseful order.

Step 4: Write and proofread your statement

Once you’re clear about the contents of each paragraph, it’s time to have a go at writing. If you find yourself staring at a blank page, unable to get started, we suggest you go back to rereading other examples or making use of a generative AI tool, such as ChatGPT, to generate a sentence or two — but not the entire statement.

Tools like ChatGPT do not have a personality, let alone your personality, and they’re not able to produce original content, either. These two things are absolutely vital to creating a standout college essay, so use AI tools sparingly, just enough to get your own creativity flowing.

Reading your essay a couple of times over is crucial in ensuring that you’ve done the very best you’re capable of — but take a break, let your mind rest, and then come back to the essay. Try to view it through a fresh pair of eyes!

Step 5: Have someone else read through it

When you’re done with your first round of proofreading and editing, ask a family member, such as an older sibling who’s gone through the college admissions process before, to take a look.

Even if the reader isn’t familiar with personal statements or the field you eventually want to work in, they can still tell you if your sentences and structure make sense and drive your point across — or if there’s a rogue spelling error you missed.

Personal statement examples

We’ve put together the following two samples to give you some inspiration before you go off to write yours!

FAQs about personal statements

Some additional clarifications, in case you need them.

Q: How long should a personal statement be?

Some universities might specify what length they require, so make sure you read their instructions carefully. If there is no defined word count, you can aim for 500–650 words, although the Common App allows statements that are as short as 250 words.

Q: Can I use the same personal statement for each program I apply to?

Some programs provide a prompt for you to respond to, while others don’t. Even if two or more universities provide a similar question, though, you’ll still want to tailor your essay and make adjustments for each institution.

Q: Should I talk about my qualifications?

The admissions officer will receive your high school transcript along with your letters of recommendation, so they’ll know about your qualifications. Although it’s fine to repeat some of the information, focus on sharing things that describe who you are — not just in terms of test scores and achievements.

Final thoughts

Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate degree or a graduate program, you’re going to need to write a statement of purpose. That’s right, unfortunately; not even graduate school applicants are safe from the dreaded personal statement!

After all, a strong personal statement answers the question of who you are or who you aspire to be; it gives admissions officers and faculty members an idea of what your career goals are and why you’ve selected the path that you’re on.

Can you think of any more advice that might be helpful to fellow university applicants? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Originally published on July 10, 2017.