While personal statements are relatively common, it’s actually a term that’s hard to define. Obviously, you can’t describe everything about yourself in 750 words. So you might ask, what is a personal statement meant to cover? To some degree, the answer is “Whatever you want!” (although there is one exception: you have to answer the question).
Dealing with this ambiguity can be anxiety-inducing, especially if you’re not exactly sure who you are or where your career is going yet, but it’s also a huge opportunity. It’s a chance to make an argument for your candidacy and showcase your strengths.
In short, a personal statement is a written statement that conveys one or two main ideas about you as a candidate, and aims to convince the admissions committee that you are worth accepting. That said, the most intuitive way to explain personal statements is to compare them with essays.
Why Schools Use Personal Statements
A personal statement is an opportunity for the school to get to know you on your own terms. It allows the admissions committee to see what’s important to you, what you think you have to offer, and how you present yourself. A personal statement is well… personal. It’s unique to you and schools use it to get to know you better.
Generally, a personal statement will:
- Focus on the individual
- Include a broad prompt, if any
- Allow for greater freedom of expression
Why Schools Use Essays
Schools that already require a personal statement might ask for additional essays for several reasons. First and most simply, they add additional writing to your application. More writing provides the admission committee with more information about how you fit their basic criteria: Are you intelligent and engaged? Are you a good communicator? Will you be able to succeed? What will you contribute? Additionally, more writing generally allows candidates to convey a more well-rounded and accurate representation of themselves.
Second, essays provide different information about applicants than personal statements do. Essays tend to be less focused on the individual and usually act as a mode of comparison between candidates. If every applicant answers the same prompt, a school can directly compare their answers. If the school is looking for specific traits, such as creativity or collaboration, they will look for evidence of those traits in each candidate’s essay.
In fact, schools sometimes signal what they’re looking for in the prompt itself. For example, “Tell us about a time when you used empathy to solve a problem.” While it may feel like the school is just giving you the answer they want to hear, you should remember that schools want you to know what they’re looking for. Schools are not trying to trick you into doing a bad job and getting rejected. They only want to suss out candidates who are authentically a good fit.
In addition to easily comparing individuals and illuminating specific traits, essays have other advantages. When all candidates answer the same prompt, schools can sometimes sort them into groups of “this kind of person” and “that kind of person.” This is helpful when a school is looking for one kind over another, or when they’re looking to compose a class of many different perspectives. In the first case, they’re looking to admit candidates with similar responses, in the second, they’re often looking for candidates with very different responses.
Generally, an essay will:
- Focus on comparison
- Include a narrow prompt
- Offer more guidance
When You'll Write a Personal Statement
Personal statements and essays accomplish fundamentally different goals. This explains a lot of the variance in how they’re employed across different programs. For example, the personal statement is standard for law school and for non-technical graduate degrees. In contrast, most MBA programs use essays.
However, keep in mind that this is not an either/or situation. A business school or a technical degree program may require a personal statement, and some law schools or arts and humanities programs may ask for supplemental essays. Check the specific programs you’re applying to and see what written statements they require.
Beware: Sometimes personal statements masquerade as essays. For example, an essay with the prompt “Tell us about yourself” may be called an essay, but it is in essence a personal statement. Generally, you can identify personal statements in disguise based on how broad the prompt is.
How to Write a Personal Statement
As with an essay, the content you include in a personal statement will depend on what is covered in the rest of your application. The goal is to fill the gaps and complement your other application assets. The writing and editing process should also be largely the same (you can follow these guidelines). However, there are some strategies that will help you with your personal statements in particular:
First, brainstorm. Begin by writing three lists:
- What words do you use to describe yourself?
- What are five things that your best friend would say about you (your accomplishments, quirks, positive traits, hobbies, stories, and experiences)?
- What do you add to any group or community?
This is not meant to be a one-time activity. You can refer back to these lists throughout the writing process to clarify, expand upon, or change your ideas.
Second, tailor. If there is no indication in the prompt or the rest of the application about what a school is looking for, do some research to find out. Look through their website and promotional materials and see what they emphasize or advertise about themselves. These are typically the same traits they are looking for in potential students.
Third, outline. Once you have a solid idea, you need to outline your ideas to keep your personal statement on track. Learn how to do that here.
How Do You Know When You’ve Written a Great Personal Statement?
Like a great essay, a great personal statement will answer the question at hand (if there is one) and highlight your best traits. In addition, these are some things you'll find when you’ve done a phenomenal job with your personal statement:
- It sounds like you. A great personal statement will be written in your own voice, so that a friend or family member who read it would recognize it as yours.
- It feels meaningful to you. If you’ve written about something you’re passionate about, that excitement comes through in your statement.
- It shows, rather than tells. A great personal statement uses specific examples and strong imagery to provide evidence of your strengths, rather than jumping straight to conclusions.
- It answers the question, “So what?” The admissions rep reading your personal statement should be able to easily recognize what’s important about it, and the point it’s trying to make. A feel good story on its own will not make a good personal statement. There needs to be a foundation of purpose underneath your brilliant storytelling.
For more advice on how to write a great personal statement, go here.
A Note About Authenticity
If you’ve been on Admit.me for long, you’ve heard this line a thousand times: you must be unique and authentic. Most people know that they need to be different to stand out. But most people don’t know how to execute on that vision. Inept advice on how to write a so-called “unique” essay litters the internet. But most of that advice is wrong. You’ve probably heard that you shouldn’t write about how your grandma inspired you or how you motivated your sports team through a tough loss. These are “cliche” topics.
But the truth is, there are only so many life experiences out there. Tens of thousands of graduate school essays and personal statements are written each year; your topic is unlikely to be unique. But the way you tell your story definitely can be. The complexity, vividness, and emotional power of your writing can make your personal statement rise above. Compelling is everything. Dig deep and convey the main idea of your personal statement with real honesty and self-awareness for a winning personal statement.