College Apps: What You Need to Know About Personal Statements

Personal statements for college applications are essays that students write to describe something personal about themselves
College Apps: What You Need to Know About Personal Statements

Personal statements for college applications are essays that students write to describe something personal about themselves. It's a statement that offers a deeper look into the person behind the statistics of course grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and employment history, to name a handful.

When you have a clear understanding of why these essays are needed, you'll be able to identify which areas of writing you'll need to work on to create a great personal statement. Throughout this post, we will be sharing tips to create better statements. We'll also provide other resources that you can reference for further details. If writing has never been your strength, don't worry. With quality resources and time used wisely, you'll be able to get the job done.

How is a personal statement different from a statement of purpose?

As stated above, a personal statement is intended to glean additional details about an applicant that are personal and not as easy to quantify as grades, test scores, and employment history. Statements of purpose, on the other hand, provide insight into why an applicant is applying for a particular college. What led the student to complete the application, and what are his or her reasons for pursuing this particular school? Put together, a personal statement and a statement of purpose provide college admissions officers with information on who the applicant is, and why and what he or she is hoping to achieve or experience. Click here if you want to know more about statements of purpose.

What are personal statements used for?

College admissions teams typically aim to learn about applicants' interests, personalities, and preferences, to name a few, through the personal statement component. When 50, hundreds, or even thousands of people apply for the chance to attend a university, recruiters end up with countless test scores and grade point averages that are comparable and competitive with each other. Having a personal statement adds another layer to the application that helps to differentiate between eligible candidates. Whether you need to write a personal statement for law school or medical school, graduate school or an undergraduate program at a top college, a personal statement's purpose remains the same--to provide additional details about the person applying beyond demographic, contact, statistical, and other easily measured information.

Example topics that are often used for personal statement questions and prompts include (but are not limited to):

  • Your background such as your childhood upbringing, your family values, your culture

  • Experiences that were challenging and unsuccessful

  • Experiences that resulted in success

  • Personal beliefs, values, and ethics

  • Strategies you've used to solve problems

  • Interests and preferences

  • Dreams, goals, and current pursuits

How long do personal statements need to be?

Some personal statements for college applications are over 1000 words, whereas others are limited to 50. Be sure to read the application instructions carefully to make sure you write your response as requested. If your statement is too long, admissions officers may disqualify your application altogether. They may perceive this failure to stay within the word or character limit as being the result of your lack of attention to detail, disregard for or inability to follow directions, or difficulty with being concise in your communication skills. In other words, by staying within the word count limit, you are showing some of the essential qualities reviewers are looking for in the students they select. Regardless of length, remember to develop your response in a manner that directly answers the prompt or question. All supporting details should also focus on and point to what's being asked. If the word limit is high, you have more flexibility to elaborate on the details. But, if the limit is low, you'll need to craft your phrases carefully so you do not waste any word space on content that veers from the topic. Piecing words together to create powerful phrases and sentences does not need to be difficult. With strategically formulated questions, you can easily uncover not just many potential essay topics to write about, but well-crafted statements that leave lasting impressions as well. We've used our strategy with students who've applied for colleges, jobs, and scholarships; and without fail, their personal style, voice, and message came through on paper. Yes, it IS possible! They did it, and so can you!

How specific should I be in my response to a personal statement prompt or question?

To set yourself up for the best chance of being selected, you should be clear and specific in your response. If the word or character limit is high, and you have flexibility to describe what you choose to share in detail, aim to be comprehensive while maintaining your focus on the question. If, on the other hand, the word or character limit is minimal, you'll need to choose words that get to the point and that carry a lot of meaning. Do your best to avoid writing general responses and aim to reflect as much specific uniqueness you bring to the table in as few words as possible. Using personal anecdotes to tell your story is a quick way to draw your reviewers into your writing because this approach carries emotions and experiences that others can relate to. Creating this type of emotional or experiential connection can be extremely powerful in presenting and leaving lasting impressions. If you choose to take this route, include time in your schedule to review your ideas with someone familiar with writing personal statements. You'll want to make sure to present your personal anecdotes in ways that support and provide evidence of your learning and growth, positive attitude, and meaningful insights, to name a few. We've provided feedback on essays that were entertaining to read, but in the end, left negative impressions of choices, behaviors, and personalities. This is definitely not the message you want to send. With strategic questioning and prompting, these applicants were able to successfully restructure their approach to better express the points they were trying to make. Their original anecdotes made it into the personal statements for these applications, but they all left tremendously better impressions!

Here is an example from our "College Application Essays: Finding the Right Words" post of a negative impression that was changed to create a more positive outcome: Original sentence: "Everyone on the team was confused. I made a decision and said that this is what we should do." Rephrased sentence: "I had a feeling that everyone on the team, myself included, was confused. I weighed the options and offered the best advice that I felt was right." You may get the feeling that the first sentence comes across as bold and decisive, but unfortunately, it may reflect arrogance to some readers. The second sentence shows that the writer of the essay weighs options and offers advice rather than simply tell others what to do. A reviewer will get the impression that this individual takes the time to evaluate a difficult situation and then offer the best advice that is available to them.

Two key goals to aim for when writing responses to personal statement prompts and questions:

  1. Be you: Be confident in the ideas, thoughts, insights, and experiences you choose to include. Believe in yourself and write from your heart. Don't try to be someone else. If you're interested enough to apply for an opportunity, that tells you that you need to show up--front and center--for each step of the application process. By choosing to be yourself on paper, you'll have a better chance of being selected for an interview (if this is part of the process), and an even better chance of being chosen altogether. Believe in yourself and just be you!

  2. Be true: Stay honest throughout your response. It may be tempting to embellish experiences or results of prior endeavors to appear more favorable to college admissions teams; but, falseness can be identified clearly and quickly by those who are trained and practiced in reviewing applications.

Also, don't be afraid to mention failures--they are part of being human and are necessary for learning and growth. If you think about it, history books are filled with details of failures throughout time, and not just in our country, but other countries near and far! If you choose to mention a failure or difficult time in your life, do so proudly and include how the experience brought out your courage and strength to seek opportunities to better yourself and others in your community. Be true to yourself and stay honest in your response because we all face hardships and we can all come out with positive gains, if we choose.

Why would colleges be looking for this type of personal information about applicants?

When space is limited and applications are many, college admissions officers are aiming to select those whom they feel not only deserve to be selected based on what they have achieved thus far in life, but they also want to work with and serve those who will bring value to their school and programs. Some may be looking to add more diversity to their community, whether it be diversity of culture, interests, beliefs, skills and abilities, knowledge, etc. Expansion of reach and learning comes with different qualities, whereas too much commonality can bring limitations. To keep experiences fresh and new, schools search for uniqueness amongst hundreds, sometimes thousands, of candidates. The personal statement component of applications can offer these types of insights which can be tremendously helpful when going through the selection process.


Personal statements for college applications provide students with the valuable opportunity to raise the curtain of their public identities so admissions officers are able to see a close-up view of who they are behind the scenes. Topics used for essay prompts and questions may pertain to interests, beliefs, experiences, and other topics that tap into the personal side of what makes each of us who we are as individuals. Length of responses may vary, so paying close attention to the instructions and word or character limits, if any, are crucial; and, remaining focused on what's being asked for, while being clear and specific, are essential. Using words strategically to craft powerful phrases can reveal the uniqueness and qualities you offer, thereby enhancing your chances of being selected by the college of your dreams. Why? Because so much value is often discovered or created when we have uniquely different people, items, ideas, etc., within reach.

A final word…

If you're feeling discouraged because writing has never been your strength, just know that you're not alone; and, you don't need to throw in the towel and walk away just yet. Leave the door to your dream college open for now and take some time to think about how much this really means to you. How would your life change as a result of choosing to give yourself a shot at this worthwhile opportunity? Would you rather give yourself a chance to be considered, or would you prefer to pass on it and wonder years from now the very common question, What if? Before we close this post, picture this: Being selected will leave you with sweet memories and new experiences. Not being selected may sting for a while, but it will pass and you'll have the courage to try for the next opportunity that piques your interest. But, not giving yourself a chance could potentially affect your self-confidence, leave you with regret, and guarantee no possibility at having the opportunity. When you think about it, what do you have to lose by writing your personal statement to complete your college application? If you're ready to face this writing challenge, tap in to the many resources that are available to you, including contacting us here with any questions you may have. Click on the link below and we'll get back to you as soon as possible.