How to Write a Personal Statement

Written by Coursera • Updated on

A personal statement can be a key part of your college application, and you can really make yours shine by following a few tips.

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When applying to a college or university, it's likely you'll be required to include a personal statement with your application materials. A personal statement is an essay that gives you the chance to share something about who you are and why you’d like to study at this particular university—details the selection committee won’t find in your resume or transcript. 

The information you provide in your personal statement can set you apart from other candidates. Learn more about this essay and how to use it to communicate your value to your top schools. 

Why is a personal statement important?

A personal statement is an important part of your college application package, as it: 

  • Offers colleges and universities a chance to see why you're interested in a particular field of study and what you hope to accomplish after you graduate 

  • Provides an opportunity for you to talk about past employment, volunteer experiences, or skills you have that complement your studies 

  • Allows colleges to evaluate your writing skills 

  • Permits you to share things that wouldn't be on your resume, such as personal stories, motivations, and values

  • Brings life to a college application package otherwise filled with facts and figures 

For help in crafting your personal statement, take advantage of these tips. 

Create a solid hook.

To capture the attention of a selection committee, start your personal statement with a solid hook. A hook is a sentence or two at the beginning of your personal statement that compels the reader to continue reading. No matter the hook you use, it should always relate to the general topic of your essay. To create a captivating hook, try one of these methods:

  • Ask a question. 

  • Provide an interesting statistic. 

  • Insert a quote from a well-known person.

  • Challenge the reader with a common misconception. 

  • Use an anecdote, which is a short story that can be true or imaginary. 

Credibility is crucial when writing a personal statement as part of your college application process. If you choose a statistic, quote, or misconception for your hook, make sure it comes from a reliable source.

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Follow a narrative.

The best personal statements typically follow a narrative. A narrative essay is one that tells a story, which makes it more distinct. Like all stories, yours should follow a theme and have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This type of format helps keep your thoughts organized and improves the flow of your essay. Common themes to consider for your personal statement include:

  • Special role models from your past

  • Life-altering events you've experienced

  • Unusual challenges you've faced

  • Accomplishments you're especially proud of

  • Service to others and why you enjoy it

  • What you've learned from traveling to a particular place

  • Unique ways you stand out from other candidates

You want to be certain that the closing paragraph of your narrative leaves one last favorable impression. Wrap up your story by rephrasing the main point from your opening paragraph and remind the selection committee of your desire to pursue your studies at their particular school. Then, make one final appeal to be considered for admission. 

Be specific.  

Selection committees read thousands of personal statements every year, which is why being specific on yours is important. Back up your statements with examples, and avoid vague assertions like, "I'm interested in your school counseling program because I care about children." Instead, point out experiences you've had with children that emphasize how much you care. For instance, you might mention your summer job as a day camp counselor or your volunteer experience mentoring younger children.

If you've been inspired by a professor at the college you're applying to, give their name and specify a particular class you're looking forward to taking.

Don't forget to include detail and vibrancy to keep your statement interesting. The use of detail shows how your unique voice and experiences can add value to the college or university you're applying to. 

Stay on topic.

It's natural to want to impress the members of the selection committee that will read your personal statement. The best way to do this is to lead your readers through a cohesive, informative, and descriptive essay.

If you feel you might be going astray, check to make sure each paragraph in the body of your essay supports your introduction. Here are a few more strategies that can help keep you on track:

  • Know what you want to say and do research if needed. 

  • Create an outline listing the key points you want to share.

  • Read your outline aloud to confirm it makes logical sense before proceeding. 

  • Read your essay aloud while you're writing to confirm you're staying on topic.

  • Ask a trusted friend or family member to read your essay and make suggestions.

Be true to your own voice

Because of the importance of your personal statement, you could be tempted to be very formal with structure and language. However, it's better to use a more relaxed tone than you would for a classroom writing assignment. 

You’ll want selection committee members to get to know you, and writing in your own voice will help accomplish this. To ensure your tone isn't too relaxed, write your statement as if you were speaking to an older relative or trusted teacher. This way, you'll come across as respectful, confident, and honest. 

Tips for an effective personal statement

Now that you've learned a little about personal statements and how to craft them, here are a few more tips you can follow to strengthen your essay: 

  • Customize your statement for each college or university. It's unnecessary to rewrite your essay entirely, but tailor it to each school as you submit your application.

  • Watch out for cliches like "making a difference," "broadening my horizons," or "the best thing that ever happened to me." 

  • Keep your essay focused by highlighting just one or two events or experiences that made a significant impact in your life. 

  • Make sure that any personal stories have a positive outcome.

  • Highlight topics that aren't overly sensitive. Examples of sensitive topics include political beliefs and religious affiliation. 

  • Describe non-monetary reasons you're leaning toward a particular field of study.

Polish your writing skills

A stellar personal statement starts with stellar writing skills. Enhance your writing ability with a writing course from a top university, like Good with Words: Writing and Editing from the University of Michigan or Writing a Personal Essay from Wesleyan University. Get started for free to level up your writing.

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