How to Write a Personal Statement for College and Grad School

When you apply to a college or grad school, you will need to provide test scores and letters of recommendation. You may think these are all it takes to show the college admission folks how great a student you are.

If so, you need to think again. You can have the best grades and the greatest recommendations in the world, but if they are not accompanied by an outstanding personal statement letter, your chances of admission will not be as high as you had hoped.

You need to think about the application process from the point of view of the admission counselors looking at the hundreds of applications they receive each year. They are inundated with top-notch students who have grades as good as yours, so you need to stand out of the crowd and demonstrate why you should be selected over another student. Your personal statement is your chance to demonstrate that and give the committee a sense of who you are as a person. This allows them to determine whether you would be a good fit for their university.

How to Approach Writing a Personal Statement for a College Application

Most four-year colleges require a personal statement. Typically, it consists of 650 words and must be written in the first-person. The purpose of the personal statement is to communicate your career aspirations and how factors in your life have shaped you into the person you are.

Although it is called a personal statement, you need to treat writing the statement like an essay. It needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. The content of the statement needs to be a story about you. Write a statement about your personal development in a certain area—usually the area you want to study—and show that you have self-awareness concerning it.

Colleges invest in people, so the more you can show you are an actual human being, rather than just another run-of-the-mill faceless statement, the better. Write about your failings as well as your successes but show how you have learned from your mistakes and how this has made you grow. The more the admission counselors get to know you, the higher your chances of acceptance are.

The theme you actually write about is usually up to you, although sometimes colleges will give prompts.  Just make sure you write about something of interest or something that will actually move the reader. The personal statement is your chance to show off your personality and demonstrate why you would be a good fit for the college and your field of study.

How to Write a Personal Statement Letter for a College Application

The usual rules of writing a good essay apply to writing your personal statement, so you will probably already be aware of the “show rather than tell” rule. An example of telling is: “I was in the hospital for three weeks after being knocked down by a car.” This purely tells the reader the facts. An example of showing is:

“After being unexpectedly knocked down by a speeding silver Audi when I was crossing a backroad at night, for a brief moment I thought I was going to die. After three weeks in the hospital, my physical injuries were almost completely better, but it took a few more months for me to come to terms with what happened and rebuild my confidence in order to live life to the fullest again.”

Additionally, make sure you:

  • Are descriptive and include small details that will bring the story to life.
  • Narrow the focus to just one subject.
  • Do not try to convey an array of topics under one theme. It is best to explore one topic in depth than to write about several areas broadly.
  • Write a strong opening paragraph to grab the reader’s attention.

Set the scene well and lead the reader into the story. Think of it as though you are writing a novel. The opening must make your reader intrigued and want to read on. The same goes for the title of your personal statement. Make it eye-catching. Remember you need to make your statement stick out amongst the other statements admission counselors will be reading. Finally, you must proof, edit and revise your personal statement. The more attentive you are and the more time you spend on it, the better it will be. Make sure you do not have any spelling or grammatical mistakes and polish it until it reads as well as the best essay you have ever written.

Writing a Personal Statement Letter for Grad School

The content of a personal statement for a grad school application is slightly different to that for an undergraduate application. Focus on your personal reasons for applying to the particular course of study. Write about how you developed interest in the field and what your main topics of interest within that field are. You must also show who you are and demonstrate your passion and aptitude within your field, so make the statement personal. You will be informed by the grad school about how long the personal statement needs to be, but it is typically a page or longer.

As with the personal statement for colleges, your grad school statement must tell a story. As well as including your motivations and interests, you explain why you have decided to apply for a grad school program. Write about both your failures and triumphs, so that the admission personnel can get a good insight of you. However, make sure your personal tales relate back to the field of study you are applying for.

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of how to approach the actual writing of your grad school personal statement, the same rules apply as for a college personal statement letter. Here is a brief reminder:

  • Have a beginning, middle and end.
  • Write in first-person.
  • Narrow the focus.
  • Show, do not tell. Use specific examples and citations.
  • Create a strong opening paragraph.
  • Come up with an enticing title.
  • Proof, edit, revise and polish until you have a personal statement that shines and stands out.
  • Have a trusted friend or mentor in your field read over your statement.

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