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How to Write a Powerful Personal Statement

Image credit: Stephanie Nieves

Higher education can provide you with the tools and experience you need to take your career to the next level. While you may have a stellar resume or an impressive transcript, what really helps you stand out from everyone else is your personal statement.

In this article, I explain the purpose of a personal statement, the two different types, and the five steps to writing a powerful personal statement. I also provide an example of one that’s earned me a college acceptance.

Colleges have a limited number of qualified students they can accept a year, so admissions officers want to know why they should accept you for a spot. A personal statement will demonstrate why you would be a great addition to their institution and what they can offer you that you won’t find anywhere else. It should tell a story about who you are, showcase your accomplishments, and complement your other application materials.

There are two types of personal statements: general personal statements and question-driven personal statements.

General personal statements give you the freedom to tell a story. You can share your passion for your field of study and add examples that highlight this passion. For example, if you’re applying to an undergraduate program in fashion design, you can tell a story about your eagerness to dress your mother up when you were younger, and how that eventually translated into finding your own style. Then you can provide examples of how you refined your fashion sense through this experimentation. General personal statements are usually required for law, medical, and undergraduate school applications.

Question-driven personal statements require you to answer questions or respond to a prompt. They may be as broad as, “Tell us about why we should accept you to the XYZ program,” or as specific as, “What contributions do you hope to make to the profession upon completion of the program?” You should answer these questions clearly and offer examples (or mini stories) that emphasize your fit for the program. Question-driven personal statements are usually required for business and graduate school applications.

There are five steps to writing a powerful personal statement. First, you’ll brainstorm your ideas so you can find the best one. Next, you’ll tell a story and provide clear examples that illustrate your main idea. Then, you’ll connect back to your “why” for both the field and the institution. Finally, you’ll edit your writing to make sure it’s in tip-top shape.

Even if you’re applying to undergrad and you don’t know what you want to major in, you can still follow these steps by demonstrating your passion for learning, instead of your passion for a specific field.

Really ask yourself, why do you want to be accepted into this program? Is it because you admire the greats who have come out of it and want to reach that level of success? Is it because you want to create a piece of art, like a film or children’s book, that the program will support? Write a bulleted list or a journal entry of what you wish to get out of this program, and choose the most compelling reason to work with.

Let’s say you’re applying for a B.A. in Fine Arts because you want to create art for social justice. Imagine that your art is displayed at a protest, where it helps emphasize and highlight the cause protestors have gathered around. Just hearing the message through a bullhorn might motivate them for a little while, but your art might be more powerful because it’ll last longer. Art can spread beyond the boundaries of an event and inspire more people to take action. This dream — that’s your why.

If you’re writing a general personal statement, what story are you going to tell? It should align with your why. Using our fine arts example, tell us about a time where you felt the feeling you’re trying to evoke as an artist. The key word here is feeling. There’s a mural of the word “HOME” and children playing in rubble in Spanish Harlem. It reminds me that happiness can be found even in places of ruin, and makes me want to find positivity in the darkest of times — there’s my story. I’d use this feeling of innocence and hope to demonstrate the power of art, and the power I’d hope to harness as a social justice artist.

If you’re writing a question-driven personal statement, answer the questions and tell a story for each of them. Here’s how you can do that:

If you’re asked to tell them about yourself, you should start with a story that highlights your passion from a younger age to establish who you’ve always been, and follow that with what your passion looks like now.

If you’re asked to tell them about a class that inspired you to pursue this field of study, you should share a class experience in which you were doing what you love and doing it well. This helps establish your expertise. Follow that with an end result or reward (a completed painting, a passing grade, etc.)

If you’re asked to explain what you wish to get out of the program, you should offer an example of what you would get out of the program, like a film, or an art exhibit, or a book, and tell them how it would contribute to the world. Will it spark change? Will it promote healing? Will it encourage a fresh new perspective? Really get to the bottom of why it’s necessary.

Showcase your experience in the field. Include any relevant classes, internships, and relationships you have learned from, and illustrate your success by including any projects you’ve passed with distinction or awards you’ve won. You should be able to correlate each of these accomplishments to your why. Say you want to encourage visual learners to take action in their communities, how did a class, or an internship, or an impactful piece of art help you do that?

You should also mention gaps in your education that this program will be able to fill. If you’re applying to the fine arts program because you want to create art for social justice, but you only have experience in creating art for pleasure, mention the tools and experience this program will give you to help you create art that delivers a message.

Remember, you’re trying to convince the admissions officer of why you deserve an acceptance, so you’ll want that to be the last thing they take from your statement. Spend some time in your conclusion connecting back to your why. You may be passionate and qualified, but so are many of the other students applying to this college. You need to stand out by highlighting why you’re necessary.

Here’s an example of a general personal statement that earned me a grad school acceptance. Notice how I told a story, offered clear examples, and connected back to my why:

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