The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a Strong Personal Statement

Let’s face it, writing a Personal Statement is difficult, but it doesn’t have to be just another hoop you jump through as part of an application.

Believe it or not, framing your narrative for a Personal Statement can actually be a rewarding experience during which you discover something about yourself, your motivations, and your goals.

I work with hundreds of applicants every year and find myself repeating a few universal truths about the Personal Statement genre that I’d like to share with you here with a few “do’s” and “don’ts” that would be useful to keep in mind at any stage of the writing process.

. . .

Don’t try to encapsulate all that you are as a human being into your Personal Statement.

The most common gripe I hear about writing a Personal Statement essay tends to be about its length (most Personal Statements shouldn’t exceed one page). Of course if you are attempting to be comprehensive about who you are as a human being having only one page to do so seems like a cruel ask. So don’t even try!

For one, that’s impossible.

For two, it’s not necessary. I mean, who wants to read all that? You don’t need to show all that you are (an impossible task anyway!), but you do need to find a particular lens through which to represent yourself—a version of yourself that is true yet appropriate for your application.

Think about it this way: you can write an entirely genuine Personal Statement for one opportunity and another very different Personal Statement for another opportunity that is just as genuine as the first. As Walt Whitman wrote, we are complicated beings, full of multitudes and contradictions and that’s okay.

. . .

Do put your reader first.

Let’s just take a moment and think about your audience, something we should do whenever we communicate.

Who are your readers?

What do they want?

What do they already know and what do they still need/want to know?

If you’re not sure the answers to these questions, here’s the reality: Your readers are tired and weary of BS. They read a million (only a slight exaggeration) of Personal Statements a day, so they are likely to skim your essay unless you grab them with an interesting narrative.

What do your readers want to see then?

They want to see that your personality (your character) is one that will help make you successful and a positive influence on others within the environment you’re applying to participate in.

So help your readers see how your past experiences have prepared you for this opportunity. Remember that it’s not just about “the story” you tell but how you unpack it for your readers. (Click here for more info about how to tell your story).

Be real, be you, but also think strategically about what your readers are trying to understand about you. Help them see you in the way that you are, while thinking strategically in terms of what your readers are looking for in a successful applicant. 

. . .

Don’t think of a “Personal Statement” as either entirely “personal” or a “statement.”

The Personal Statement should not be too personal.

Here’s the simple truth: oversharing can make your readers think that you’re not great at gauging social norms and expectations.

So by all means, be open and vulnerable when it comes to sharing relevant information, but ask yourself this: is the experience I am writing about helping my readers understand my personal motivation for pursuing the opportunity for which I am applying? If the answer is “no,” reconsider including it.

Also, the Personal “Statement” isn’t really a “statement” either, since the word “statement” implies a finality that can feel daunting.

Your readers don’t expect you to be a “finished product” and don’t want you to present yourself as such. They understand that you’re not done growing, and they want to see that you also recognize the importance of growth by demonstrating that you approach life with a growth mindset yourself.

. . .

Do show how you will create ROI (return on investment).

Whatever opportunity you’re applying for, you are essentially asking that institution (college, grad school, award foundation, etc.) to make an investment in you.

Your application is basically saying “please pick me! Spend your time, money, energy on me because I’m worth it.”

But how do you demonstrate this “worth” in a way that your readers will believe you? Focus on the worthwhile contributions you plan to make!

Actually, in this way, a Personal Statement and cover letter have a lot in common. You wouldn’t write “this would be a great stepping stone to the next opportunity” or “this will be a great job because it pays so much more than my previous jobs” in a cover letter. Even if this is true, you would focus on what you will give rather than get.

 Think of the famous John F. Kennedy inauguration speech, “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

Approach your application in the same way.

Ask not what this opportunity can do for you but what you can do for this opportunity now and in the future.  

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!

4 thoughts on “The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a Strong Personal Statement

  1. Meline

    Thank you for sharing this, Anna! I remember struggling with my desire to share personal information as well as emphasizing that I had a growth mindset when I was applying to grad school last year. It’s one thing to know you have it, but to convey it through your statement is a tough task.

  2. This post is so helpful. It’s hard at the personal narrative stage to understand what this essay will look like to those on the other side. The tips you give here make that a lot clearer and make the whole task less daunting.

Leave a Reply