How to Write a Personal Statement for College: A Step by Step Guide

By Jennie Flaming

A person's hands on a laptop keyboard writing their personal statement for college

Why do you need a personal statement anyway?

Some 4-year colleges and universities require or recommend a personal statement. In general, the more selective a  or university, the more likely it is to require a personal statement.

You also need to submit a personal statement for many scholarship applications and gap year programs. 

The good news is that once you have a personal statement written, you can use it over and over! You may need to make some changes to it, but you don’t need to start from scratch every time. Some colleges and universities require more than one essay, but usually only one long one (500 words). Often, you even get a choice to submit any writing example!

The purpose of a personal statement is for a college, university, scholarship or another program to get to know more about who you are beyond your grades, test scores, and activities. They want to hear your STORY. What gets you going? Who are you? This is a different kind of writing than what students typically do for school or even for fun.

Often students are intimidated by writing the personal statement but I want to encourage you that YOU CAN DO THIS and it’s well worth the effort. I’ll break down the steps for you to help you get this done, and even have fun in the process. I have helped thousands of students complete their personal statement in the last fifteen years and I can help you too!

Before we get to the steps there are five important things NOT to do in your personal statement:

  1. Write about things that the reader can learn elsewhere in your application (like talking about the activities you are involved with or the classes you’ve taken)
  2. Write about something other than yourself (especially watch out for prompts that are about your “hero” because it’s very easy to write about them, not you.)
  3. Write about sports
  4. Write about trips
  5. Do NOT write your personal statement directly into an admissions application. Do it in Google docs or Word or somewhere else and then copy and paste into the application.

Before you tell me “but I have an AMAZING sports story” I want to share that the many, many admissions counselors I have worked with have said without exception that it is basically impossible to write a unique story about yourself that stands out on one of these topics. DON’T DO IT. It’s not because the story about sports or a trip is unimportant or that your experience didn’t shape who you are. It’s because admissions counselors report that it’s a very common story that a lot of people tell, and it’s hard to stand out. They also read about it a LOT. Find something else to write about! 

Here are 9 steps to follow to write your personal statement without pain and suffering! Better yet, you’ll know that you have an amazing personal statement that helps the reader get to know who you are

Step 1: Brainstorming ideas for your personal statement

I highly recommend doing this BEFORE you look at the prompts offered by colleges, universities, or programs you’re considering applying to. Too late? No biggie. Try to put them out of your mind and instead think about things that are really important to who you are and if they would make for a story that’s interesting to you to write.

Try brainstorming several ideas and writing a few sentences about each. When you look back at your list, look for the one that grabs your attention and feels the most fun and interesting to you to write about. Try a few of these quick brainstorming activities to develop your list of ideas. You don’t need to do them all, just the ones that seem interesting. Try to write something for 3-5 of the prompts.

  1. Ask a friend or family member if they were to share one story about you in the last two years that makes them think of you, what would it be?
  2. Look through your phone photos from the last year (the time frame doesn’t matter, you can make it longer or shorter). What photo jumps out to you as being an important snapshot of who you are? Why? 
  3. Find an object in your home that’s important to you. The thing you would grab first if you had to leave quickly and could never come back. What is it? Why does it matter?
  4. When was a time when everything changed for you (remember, no sports or trips)? What happened? How did it change you?
  5. What is the most difficult challenge you have dealt with so far (remember, no sports or trips)? How did you face it? How did it turn out?
  6. Think of an important place for you. Be very specific (the stepstool in my grandmothers kitchen, the bench at my neighborhood park). How does it make you feel?
  7. I’ll never forget the time…
  8. The best word I can use to describe myself is…
  9. The word my (family member, friend, coworker) would use to describe me is… (ask them!)
  10. One thing I do that no one else does is…
  11. One thing I don’t do that everyone else does is…
  12. One thing that surprises people about me is…

Step 2: Start Drafting your Personal Statement

From your brainstorming list, choose a few ideas that are the most interesting and exciting to you. Write a little more, maybe a paragraph. Ask someone to read them and tell you which they think is the most interesting. Consider their opinion, but ultimately it’s your writing so write what’s going to bring you the most joy!

Now you’re ready to write your first draft. Don’t worry too much about how it flows together, just get your thoughts down on paper. You can even write it initially as bullet points or a list of ideas if that helps you get going.  

Step 3: Take a look at the prompts for colleges, universities, or programs you are applying to (Yes, this is step 3, NOT STEP 1!)

Now you’re ready to take a look at the prompts that you’re given. I guarantee you that what you’ve written will fit. Spend a bit of time thinking about any changes you need to make and how to pull it together.

If you’re working on your personal statement before you know for sure where you’re going to apply, you can start by reviewing the personal statement prompts for the Common App.

Some colleges or universities require additional supplemental writing, which is usually a bit shorter than the first personal statement. Make note of any additional writing you’ll need to do next. You can use the same process for the shorter supplemental writing or essays too!

STEP 4: Write the First Sentence

You want the first sentence to be the best one of your personal statement. A key to this is to provide some vivid and specific details right at the beginning to draw the reader in. Take one of your examples from the brainstorming exercise and add more details.

If you get stuck, ask yourself

  • What did it look like?
  • What did it feel like?
  • What did it smell like?
  • What did it sound like?

Don’t be afraid to experiment and have fun! If something doesn’t fit, you don’t need to keep it. Asking yourself these questions can help unlock some interesting details you didn’t think of initially.

If you get really stuck here you can always come back and do this after the rest of the draft. NO RULES!

STEP 5: Write a Complete Draft

Build on what you already did, but now get it to a point where someone else can read it (It won’t be perfect and doesn’t need to be! Just readable for someone else). 

Check your word count (in Google docs, go to TOOLS>WORD COUNT). Generally, a personal statement is about 500 words. If you go over, often the end gets cut off, so it’s important to not exceed the word limit. If you’re a bit under, that’s not a big deal. 

If you’re close to the word limit  for now (let’s say within 100 words) then move on to the next step. Add more details to make it longer or take away a section that is less relevant to make it shorter. 

If you need to make it LONGER, try thinking of more specific, vivid details to show the reader what you’re talking about. Help them be in that moment with you!

If you need to make it SHORTER, look for details or thoughts that can be removed without effecting the story. Look for places where you brought in a new idea and take that out.

If you get stuck on making it longer or shorter, this is a great place to ask for help. See more details in the next step.

STEP 6: Ask someone else to read it and give you feedback

At this point, it’s really helpful to have someone read your personal statement and give you feedback. It’s particularly helpful if the person reading it knows about what you’re doing and understands the purpose of the essay. An ideal person would be a teacher that you have a relationship with or your school counselor.

If you don’t feel comfortable asking someone at school, you can ask anyone you know for feedback. It’s helpful to let them know what kind of feedback you need. For example, “would you read my personal statement and tell me if you think this essay gives a good sense of me as a person? 

People will often go straight to copy editing (fixing spelling, grammar, and punctuation) and while you do want to do that eventually, at this point what you need is feedback on your overall ideas and story and if it accomplishes your goal, which is to help the reader get to know you better.

If you need to make it longer or shorter, ask the person who is reading it to give you feedback on things they think you could take out or places you could add more compelling details.

STEP 7: Revise Your Draft

Take the feedback you’ve received and work it into your final draft. Consider each piece of feedback you receive and decide what to work into your personal statement.

You might receive feedback that is conflicting and that’s totally OK. A personal statement is subjective and people will have different opinions. You’ll be the one to decide what goes into the final version.

STEP 8: Final Copy Editing (Spelling, Grammar, Punctuation)

Leave your personal statement at least overnight and then read it again. Make any changes you want to after setting it aside overnight. 

Spell check your personal statement. Spelling errors are the most important ones to avoid, and easy to fix with a spell checker!

If possible, ask another person to read it, and this time ask them to do the copy editing to make sure your personal statement is as strong as possible.

STEP 9: Submit your personal statement! 

You’re here! You’ve done it! Copy your personal statement from wherever you wrote it into the applications you’re working on. Save it to use and adapt for other essays later.