A Personal Statement Secret Revealed (Hint: it’s not about “the story”!)

There are many reasons that writing a Personal Statement can feel like a soul sucking experience.

If you’re faced with the prospect of writing a Personal Statement, you might be wondering how you’re going to fit in who you are in a one-page essay.

How do you respond to those annoyingly vague essay prompts? After all, the Common App Essay prompts include such gems as:

 “Share your story”
“Describe a time when your beliefs were challenged”
 “Depict a time of personal growth”
 “Share a time you solved a problem”

Or, the scariest of all,

“a topic of your choice.” 

And for graduate school applications, prompts are hardly less vague with the most common one being:

“Describe why you want to attend a graduate program in _________” 


“Why do you want to become _________”?

No wonder applicants are left staring at a blank sheet of paper wondering how to even begin to portray themselves in such sweeping terms.

What stories do you recount?

What anecdotes do you use?

Should you describe an individual experience?

Something related to your family? Health?

Intellectual development?

Or another aspect of your life entirely?

If your mind is spinning reading this, don’t worry! I’m going to tell you a secret:

The point of the Personal Statement isn’t to divulge the most dramatic, life-altering story.

Instead, the goal is to unpack that story for your readers in a way that helps them better understand the impact it had on your life, what the event made you realize and then do as a result.

For example, imagine two people independent of each other were both in a serious car accident as children. One person writes about the incident as a way to explain that they want to go to medical school and become an ER physician so that they may save lives like their and their family’s lives were saved. And another applicant writes about their experience with the car accident as a motivating factor for applying to a mechanical engineering Master’s program to work in the driverless car industry in order to prevent driver error (which is what caused their family’s car accident). Same anecdote but entirely different reactions.

Notice, however, that both applicants used this potentially catastrophic moment as an opportunity to do something positive for others and themselves. 

The story you tell doesn’t need to be super dramatic. Sometimes a seemingly ordinary experience can lead to major changes in our lives!

Let’s imagine a more mundane experience: taking a class. In this particular class of 25 students, there are two in particular I’d like us to focus in on: student A and student B.

Student A is placed into this class accidentally, so they show up thinking they’ll be transferring to the “right” class the next day. To their surprise, however, the student falls in love with the intricacies of the subject. Student A asks not to be transferred out and after completing the course takes another class in this field, and then another, ultimately deciding to double major and pursue an entirely different career track. Not only is that an interesting story, but it demonstrates student A’s flexibility and intellectual curiosity, without student A ever having to describe themselves in those terms. Student A could convey this story in two sentences and then help their readers understand what they realized about themselves as a result of this experience.

In that same class, Student B has a very different experience. This student struggles and considers dropping the course, but decides against it. They work their butt off, go to tutoring and ask the teacher questions after class. Student B ultimately winds up with a grade that they would otherwise not be too proud of, BUT the student is proud because they learned something vital about themselves beyond the subject matter.

Student B can unpack this story for their readers by sharing with them that she learned the importance of pushing herself to persevere through a challenge. They learned to not give up even if the task is difficult to accomplish. Student B realized that that they have been holding themselves back by playing it safe and became excited to explore other difficult topics in future classes because they were no longer afraid of being stretched intellectually.

Student B’s story and the way they chronicle what it made them realize and do will show off their growth mindset, a trait that will serve them well no matter what field they pursue.

Of the 25 students in the class, there are 25 different experiences, 25 different stories. But remember that your readers care much less about the story—the class you took—than they do about hearing what that experience taught you about yourself.  

Whatever story you wind up telling, don’t focus on it for too long. Distill it down to its very essence. For example, in the “car accident” anecdote, the color of the car, the weather, or what anyone was wearing probably doesn’t matter.

In the case of the “class” anecdote, the name of the teacher, the size of the classroom, or the time of day you met most likely also isn’t important. Depicting those details might make your story more vivid, but it won’t help your readers understand your motivation for attending college or how this experience has prepared you for the undertaking of graduate school.

For your readers, what matters most is the reaction to the motivating moment, not the motivating moment itself.

Share what you learned as a result of that event/situation because what truly separates us aren’t the things that happen to us, but how we react to them.

It might take a bit of time to get to these insights, so be patient with yourself and continue to brainstorm throughout the entire writing process.

Have you written a Personal Statement lately, or are you working on one now? What challenges did you come across? Post a question in the comments and I’ll answer it!

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