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Personal Statements

What is a personal statement?

A personal statement is a picture of you as a student and an illustration of your fit for a particular school or fellowship. It complements the resume, giving much more depth and character. It focuses on a few key themes related to the your biography, interests, and/or experiences. (Note: The personal statement is not to be confused with the statement of purpose, which is more future focused, explaining your plans for study and career).

Elements of a strong statement

A good statement responds directly to the prompt. It grabs the reader’s attention from the beginning, uses specific illustrations and examples, and shows rather than tells. The statement has a tight narrative structure and a logical flow. It builds the picture of an interesting, passionate person who is a perfect fit for the school or fellowship. The essay is honest, confronting any gaps, weaknesses, or deficiencies, but focusing on lessons learned and positive outcomes.  Though the writer conveys intelligence, experience, aptitude, and passion, the tone remains humble and sincere. Through the essay the writer manages to stand out from his/her peers and appear unique.

Tips for brainstorming

It can be difficult to know where to begin, especially when writing about oneself. You can start a file or notebook, beginning to list awards you have won, important milestones, struggles, and accomplishments, illustrative anecdotes, and relevant experiences.  If stuck, you can ask parents, teachers, mentors, peers, coworkers, or supervisors what should be included in an essay about your life, interests, and achievements. You can also read sample essays on the Purdue Owl website and consult the site’s section titled “Questions to ask yourself before you write.” In addition, you can consult the Colgate website which lists helpful pre-writing questions.

Personal statement structure

Open-ended structure
If the essay allows for flexibility, then the following structure is suggested: Use the opening paragraph to grab the reader’s attention with a “hook” (usually a story or experience). Then choose one or two related themes/narrative threads to weave throughout the body of the essay, going into depth and not simply restating the resume. Use the concluding paragraph to refer back to the opening hook but also to open outwards, both to demonstrate your knowledge of the institution/fellowship and to mention plans for the future.
Specific prompts
If given a prompt, you must be sure to answer all questions asked of you. Keep in mind, though, that it is not enough to simply answer one question after the next. You must still weave your responses together into a cohesive whole.

Seek Feedback

You might struggle with using the first person, writing about yourself, and striking a humble and mature tone. It might also be difficult to avoid clichés and to think of specific examples and illustrative anecdotes for the essay. Be sure to focus on these elements as well as on how to make your statement less vague, more concise, and more engaging for the reader. Ask for feedback from your advisor, instructors, or the Writing Center and count on creating several drafts.

Common Pitfalls

A weak statement relies on clichés, especially those related to helping others, saving the world, and demonstrating passion. Poorly written essays often remain vague or rehash everything listed in the resume. Sometimes they veer off topic or suffer from an overly apologetic or an arrogant tone. They can be badly structured, lacking specific examples and a particular focus. Writers therefore do not create a vivid picture of themselves or an illustration of their fit with the institution or fellowship. Often such statements blend in with other mediocre essays, failing to convince an admissions committee that the candidate stands out. Because writing personal statements can be so challenging you should plan to create several drafts of your statement. When editing, work on adding specific examples and anecdotes and ask your advisor and instructors for advice. Don't give up - keep on revising and editing and come in for a Writing Center consultation so we can help you too!


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