Admission Process
How to start
10 min

Personal statement 101

Finally, you have chosen the school to apply to. Now it is time to prepare documents for submission, but suddenly, among familiar requirements, you see a mysterious “personal statement”, a free-form motivation essay. What is it, and how to write it?

StudyFree Mentor Darya Gorbunova wrote a successful essay and got accepted into her dream university. Now she is ready to answer your questions and provide some insight

What is a personal statement?

Personal statement is a motivation essay that is required by colleges and universities using Common App. 

Common App is a multi-purpose platform where prospective students file application with the schools of their choice. Over 900 colleges and universities in all 50 US states (and DC, too), as well as Canada, China, Japan, and many European countries use the Common App Portal. 

Personal statement is a free-form essay 250 to 650 words long. Its purpose is to demonstrate interest in the chosen program, to display individual traits of the prospective student, and to impress the admissions office. Quite a task for such a short text, isn't it?  

Why personal statement is so important?

First of all, this is a chance to demonstrate your interests, experience, pursuits, and fortes. Besides, personal statement is the only “window” through which the admissions office is able to see the character, personal traits, and values defining the applicant. This essay “livens up” the standard profile and academic achievements list, tying the whole application together. Its modest size notwithstanding, a well-thought-out essay may score you some extra points that may ultimately decide your fate.

What to focus on?

A killer personal statement is a perfect balance of well-drafted essay structure, student’s personality, and creative approach. It is better to base essays on the lessons you learned from your experience, and not on the experience itself, so as to demonstrate your ability to overcome difficulties and learn through mistakes. I recommend against emphasizing your expertise and claiming superior knowledge of the study area. Demonstrate that you still have a lot to learn.

It pays to draft the essay in a word processor, check it for grammar and spelling errors, tweak the stylistics, even give it to somebody for reviewing. And only then, enter the essay test into a respective field in the application form in Common App. 

OK, but what should I write about? 

Anything you want. There are no strict rules to comply with, no particular style to adhere to, no standard questions to answer. It is solely up to you to decide what your Times New Roman single-spaced one page will tell about. On the one hand, this is a perfect chance to turn up your imagination and creative streak. On the other - there’s always a risk that you will get entangled in your own thoughts and fail the task altogether. 

A good essay should read like a short story. You verily are a whole collection of breathtaking true stories and ideas worthy of being committed to paper, but you will have to choose one, and only one, to be your personal statement. 

If you read through your personal statement and understand that anyone could write the same - this story is not truly yours. But if your friends could guess at a glance who is the author  — congratulations, you hit the bull’s eye! 

What structure should I use? 

 Your essay should be consistent and easy to read so that an admission board member would get its main idea and message at the first reading. There is a lot of ways to present your text, ranging from the classic “Introduction — main body — conclusion” scheme to convoluted storytelling techniques. Here are my  three favorite tactics:

  • narrative (using cause and effect link to proceed from one story milestone to the other);
  • montage (mixing and ranging life events, related to a common idea, in a certain well-thought order);
  • blending these two methods and improvising. 

What if it gets too extravagant? 

Can you imagine how many essays an admission board member has to read? Dozens of talented contenders compete in erudition, motivation, and wit, but only a few will get the cherished acceptance letter. An essay is a perfect way to tell in your own words, why it is you who is worthy of being admitted to the program of your choice. 

“Personal” in “personal statement” means exactly that: it is a way for you to relate your own unique experience, values, dreams, and aspirations. A truly genuine and sincere story will definitely stand out against a background of bleak and impersonal letters. 

I have too few/too many ideas. How to gain inspiration / concentrate?

If nothing crosses your mind yet, it’s time to turn to a specialized brainstorming workout

“Essence Objects” Exercise

For this exercise, you will need 15 minutes, a quiet place, and full concentration. Imagine a box full of various objects. Each of them is not just an object: it is an embodiment of your traits, character, habits, convictions, and personal history. Make up a list of 20 objects that you would put in your box. Then write down your ruminations on your bond with these objects. 

If you find it hard to think of some objects, here are some questions to boost your creativity:

  1. What could you teach someone?
  2. Name three most important things in your room.
  3. When was the moment that you left your childhood behind you?
  4. What objects reminds you of something you dislike?
  5. What objects reminds you of a family tradition or ritual?
  6. What object represents a secret, or something only a few people know about you?
  7. What object represents one of the persons who raised you?

“Rank Your Priorities” Exercise 

Take a pen and a sheet of paper, and write down a list of ten qualities you value most in yourself and in others. Then strike out half of them. Then another two. And two more. Only one quality remains, which would be the main topic of your draft personal statement. 

Personal experience of our mentor Darya Gorbunova 

It took me about three months to write my personal statement without much haste. I started early to have time for “finishing touches”: I was really committed to writing a truly perfect essay. 

During the first month, I gathered information, read the essays of students who got admitted to top schools and made dozens of brainstorming exercises. 

The second month was dedicated to the essay itself. Nearly every evening, I sat down with a laptop and started working using the method of spontaneous writing - meaning that you jot down everything that comes to your mind, disregarding logic or grammar, and edit your text only after it is written in full. 

I described how my life in a small conservative village tempered me and taught me to fight for things that I value. The topic turned out to be so important to me, that the first draft essay was a thousand words long. It took me three weeks to whittle it down. The remaining time I spent checking the essay for errors, adding “fancy” literary devices, and asking my English-speaking friends to review it.