Writing the Personal Statement

Visit the Top Scholarships Office for individual help getting started, revising, and editing your personal statement.

As much as we might wish there were, there is no formula for writing a personal statement.  They’re as different as the individual people writing them and the situations that call for them.  They require you to look at your own experience and at the opportunity you’re applying for with a critical eye, which is often quite difficult when you are the subject of the essay.  I can offer you some things to think about, some strategies to try, and some things to avoid, but in the end, the personal statement is all about you and your own judgment.

What is a personal statement?

  • It’s a short essay, usually somewhere between 500 and 1,500 words, that gives the reader a sense of who you are and what’s important to you.
  • It’s your introduction to the selection committee.  It is often the only place you have to show the committee your motivation, interests, unique perspective, priorities, or character.
  • As its name implies, it’s a statement only you can write.  It usually responds to some kind of prompt, though the prompts are often intentionally vague.
  • Despite its name, it’s not an invitation to share personal details of your life, rather it’s more an intellectual autobiography.
  • If there is a prompt, the personal statement addresses it directly and explicitly.
  • Every personal statement should be tailored to the specific goals of the opportunity for which you’re applying.
  • It’s a narrative account of some element of your story as it pertains to the situation you’re writing for (scholarship application, graduate admissions essay, etc.)—a sort of window into your intellectual journey. You won’t have time for your whole life story; you must be selective.
  • You want to show, rather than tell, your story.  Use concrete examples as evidence for your claims.
  • Typically, it’s one piece of a larger application.  It doesn’t have to do ALL the work of the application.  It can often fill in gaps or flesh out ideas, accomplishments, or character traits that don’t get adequately covered elsewhere.
  • It’s hard to write about yourself; leave yourself plenty of time for brainstorming, drafting, revising, and polishing.

What’s the purpose of a personal statement?

  • A personal statement invites your reader to learn about you.  Its goal is to capture the attention of the individual or committee reading it and to inspire them to want to meet you and/or invest in you.
  • It helps to establish your fit with the goals of the scholarship, and helps you to demonstrate what you can contribute to and gain from the experience.
  • The personal statement helps distinguish you from the crowd.
  • Rather than a plea for funding, you will show why you are worthy of the investment the scholarship represents or the coveted spot in the graduate or professional program.
  • The personal statement gives someone who doesn’t know anything about you a picture of who you are and what makes you tick.

Who reads them?

  • You may have experts in your field on your reading panel, or people who are familiar with your general field, or people who are well-educated, but not intimately familiar with your field. Unless there’s a list published, it’s hard to know who will be reading.
  • Since you don’t always know exactly who will be in your reading audience, it’s best to write in lay terms rather than in the jargon of your discipline.
  • Whoever reads them will likely be reading dozens of other essays as well.  What makes you stand out?

Tips for getting started:

  • Spend some time brainstorming about your experiences.  Think about what motivated you to begin this path or journey.
  • Some brainstorming questions that might help get you going:
    • What do you enjoy doing?
    • What events or experiences or people have shaped you?
    • What experiences do you most enjoy talking about?
    • What ideas, theories, classes, books, research, movements have had a strong effect on you?
    • How are you a product of your culture/generation? In what ways are you different?
    • What mistakes have you made that taught you something about yourself?
    • Which life decision makes you most proud of yourself?
    • How did you first become interested in your field?
    • In what ways have you changed since coming to college?
    • What person has most influenced you and in what ways?
    • What is your biggest contribution so far?
    • How has your hometown influenced your values or sense of self?
    • What obstacles have you overcome to get where you are?
    • When are you happiest?
    • Make a timeline of your own life.  What are the two or three key events?
    • Often it helps to “think backwards.” What is your long-term goal? Career aspiration? What next steps do you see for yourself? What have you done and what do you plan to do to prepare for that end?
    • If you have leadership, community service, or other applied learning experiences, think about what you’ve learned from those or what they might demonstrate about you.
    • What keeps you excited about your field or your research or your career goal?
    • You might ask friends, mentors, family what makes you unique.  It’s sometimes hard to see this for yourself.
    • Ask yourself what five things would you want a committee to know about you.  Make sure those things are addressed somewhere in your application, and that you address at least one or two in your statement.
    • Think about the “thesis” of your personal essay—what is your implicit or even explicit argument?  How does each paragraph contribute to that argument?

DO:

  • Write from a place of genuine curiosity, using your own voice.  Don’t try to write or be who you think “they” want to see.
  • Pay attention to any prompt or any explicit instructions about font size, word limits, formatting, and the like.
  • Talk about your accomplishments.  Be confident, honest, and straightforward about your strengths.
  • Use your resources.  Make an appointment with the Writing Center, call on your faculty mentors, make an appointment with the Top Scholarships office, ask your friends and family to read drafts and brainstorm with you.
  • Use a conversational, rather than overly formal or flowery tone.
  • Be selective; go for depth rather than breadth.
  • Think about the application as a whole. How does the whole tell a cohesive story about you?  Where is the best place to highlight different experiences?
  • Show rather than tell; be specific.
  • Demonstrate that you are a person who will give something back to your communities, your field, the world.
  • Plan to revise.
  • Polish, polish, polish.  The final draft must be error free.

DON’T:

  • Spend a lot of time on ancient history (childhood or high school).  Show who you are as an adult.
  • Write a chronological account of your life or a laundry list of your accomplishments.  Your resume will do this.
  • Use clichés.
  • Reveal overly personal details about yourself or your family.
  • Bring up issues in your essay that you would not want to discuss in an interview.
  • Tell a “sob story” with the goal of eliciting pity.
  • Make a plea for money. Show instead that you’d be a worthy investment.

Whatever the outcome of the application for which you wrote the statement, consider this a prime opportunity to learn about yourself.  Writing the personal statement helps you articulate the connections between your experiences and your goals, to think carefully about what’s important to you, and to sort through and highlight your accomplishments. These skills can help you with many other writing tasks, like writing a cover letter for a job, making an application to graduate school, or preparing for other scholarship applications.  It’s well worth your time and effort!

Some good resources:

www.e-education.psu.edu/writingpersonalstatementsonline/ Check out the section on nationally competitive scholarships.

The “guidance for candidates” section of the Truman website: www.truman.gov.

The CU Writing Center: www.colorado.edu/ArtsSciences/PWR/writingcenter.html