A personal statement is a short essay – usually no more than two pages double-spaced – that tells the reader a story about you. This story can be about anything that is meaningful to you. Perhaps you played sports your entire life, and it’s impacted you both personally and professionally in ways that the average person wouldn’t understand. Perhaps you love watching movies and know a lot about the Star Wars universe and started a podcast about that. Perhaps your parents immigrated here from a different country and your upbringing was vastly different than that of your peers. The point here is that we all have a unique story to tell – the hard part is just figuring out how to frame it into a cohesive story that makes a powerful point.
Here’s a quick and easy four-step guide that explains the framework for writing a personal statement. You can also use this framework for preparing a diversity statement.
Step 1 – Figure out what you want to write about
This is probably the hardest part of the process. While we all have a number of unique life experiences, some of these experiences likely don’t overlap (e.g., you were a superstar in sports growing up and have a unique interests in bonsai trees). You need to sift through your experiences, list them out, and try to find common threads.
A good way to start is to sit down for at least 30 minutes and brainstorm. Here are a few questions that can help you get started:
- What unique skills do I have and how did I acquire them?
- What experiences have I had that not many people can relate to and why did I go through them?
- What makes me, me? And why?
- What motivates me and why?
- What dreams do I have and why?
- What are some challenges that I have overcome and how did I overcome them?
- Who am I?
- If money were no object, what would I do and why?
- Why do I want to pursue higher education?
- What mistakes have I made and what have I learned from them?
Once you have some good content from the above questions, really think about some concrete examples that relate to your answers and jot them down. Focus on the few examples that mean the most to you and have the most depth.
After you’ve jotted down a few concrete examples, begin to think about the underlying themes that connect your experiences together. To use the above example, playing sports can teach you discipline, teamwork, and analysis. Starting a podcast can teach you to be resilient in the face of failure, troubleshooting skills, and creativity. Growing up with parents who immigrated to the U.S. can teach you to adapt to your surroundings, to bridge the gap between two cultures, and provide unique insight into the human experience.
The point here is that you want to have concrete examples from your life experiences and tell a story that makes powerful thematic points that the reader will appreciate. It is much easier to do this by crafting a narrowly tailored story as compared to a broader story.
Remember this part is the hardest and will take some time to flesh out the underlying threads and examples.
Step 2 – Prepare an outline
Once you have a general idea on the experiences and examples from your life that could be good content for your personal statement, you can prepare a short outline to organize your thoughts. Our potential student could prepare an outline like the below based on the above examples:
- Grab attention with a statement (maybe try to make the point of what do an immigrant student, a Star Wars podcaster, and pickle ball enthusiast have in common)
- Explain a little more
- Underlying thematic points (don’t necessarily need to explicitly say this in intro, but these can be the points I make throughout my essay)
- Unique life experiences allow me to see the world differently
- An underlying point to make generally is that I have a ton of different experiences and interests that have impacted how I see the world and my approach towards life – e.g., I understand that things that might seem simple and unrelated are often more complex and related than we think or sometimes it’s important to do things that are meaningful to you regardless of circumstances
- Tell a story about when I was in the soccer semi-finals and discuss training, pressure, etc. and what I learned
- Talk about when I started a podcast and had no listeners and just had to keep making episodes, what eventually happened, visualization of success, etc.
- Ability to adapt
- Discuss how growing up was very difficult since my culture was very different from my peers’ and give specific examples, what it taught me, and how I’ve grown, etc.
- Unique life experiences allow me to see the world differently
You could then build out this outline style for all of your body paragraphs and conclusion to discuss the specific examples and the points you want to make within each paragraph.
Step 3 – Begin writing
After you prepare your outline, you should start writing. You don’t need to make every sentence perfect at this stage, but you should write in your own voice/style and begin trying to tell a story that matches your outline. At this stage, it is better to overwrite than underwrite. You can always cut later. Again, the focus should be to craft a narrowly tailored story that makes a few key points about yourself and does so in a powerful way.
As you write, your ideas may change, and certain narratives may need to shift. The point here is to try your best to have the rough story written. Even if you get stuck, just keep writing…
Step 4 – Revise, revise, revise
After you have a rough draft, you can then start tweaking some elements to improve the story. A few of the common revisions we see are listed below in no particular order:
- Stylistic revisions to improve the power of certain sentences
- Grammatical revisions
- Rearranging certain paragraphs or points for better effect
- Rewriting entire paragraphs/rethinking entire thematic elements to make the story more cohesive and powerful
- Adding more details that you may not have remembered on the first draft
- Enhancing certain elements to make the story better (e.g., linking ideas in the introduction and conclusion, creating better transitions between points, making paragraphs more concise and cohesive, etc.)
- Cutting unnecessary filler sentences/words to shorten the essay to two pages and/or make the paragraphs more cohesive
- Cutting ideas/paragraphs/sentences that don’t quite fit into with the broader story as initially thought
- Adding new examples/stories from your life that connect with the story more than prior examples
- Revising certain sentences that are awkward/don’t make sense
- Reframing the main thematic points to better align with experiences
- Narrowing the story to make it more focused and powerful and removing anything that strays too far away from that focus
Writing a personal statement takes time, and you shouldn’t rush it. As you write, ideas may change, and certain things may become clearer to you than when you were first starting.
Step 1 – Brainstorming: This step should probably take you a minimum of 30 minutes. However, you should probably spend a few hours really thinking about what you want to write about.
Step 2 – Outline: This step will likely take several hours over the course of a couple of days. You don’t just want to prepare an outline in one sitting. You should dedicate a little bit of time each day, so you have time to reflect.
Step 3 – Rough Draft: This step will likely take the longest amount of time and take several hours over the course of a couple/few weeks. Again, you should dedicate a little bit of time each day, so you have time to reflect.
Step 4 – Revise: This step will likely take several hours. A good rule of thumb is that you should go through 3-6 revisions to craft an excellent personal statement. After each revision, you will spend less time editing.
Of course, these timelines are just suggestions. It is not unheard of for students to spend over 100 hours on their personal statement. Perhaps during the brainstorming stage, you get stuck and can’t think of anything. Perhaps actually putting pen to paper and expressing your thoughts takes longer than expected. Without any assistance, you should probably budget between 2-4 months to prepare an outstanding personal statement.