how to write a personal essay for a college application

  • SUGGESTED TOPICS
  • The Magazine
  • Newsletters
  • Managing Yourself
  • Managing Teams
  • Work-life Balance
  • The Big Idea
  • Data & Visuals
  • Reading Lists
  • Case Selections
  • HBR Learning
  • Topic Feeds
  • Account Settings
  • Email Preferences

How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

how to write a personal essay for a college application

What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?

How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.

  • Start early.  Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
  • Keep the focus narrow.  Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
  • Be yourself.  Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
  • Be creative.  “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
  • Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.

Ascend logo

Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here .

We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.

  • AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business,  All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including  Pine Row Press ,  Months to Years,  and  Atlanta Review .

Partner Center

  • Online Degree Explore Bachelor’s & Master’s degrees
  • MasterTrack™ Earn credit towards a Master’s degree
  • University Certificates Advance your career with graduate-level learning
  • Top Courses
  • Join for Free

How to Write a Personal Statement

A personal statement can be a key part of your college application, and you can really make yours shine by following a few tips.

[Featured Image] A lady with pink hair is holding a piece of paper with a laptop on her lap.

When you're applying to college—either to an undergraduate or graduate program—you may be asked to submit a personal statement. It's an essay that gives you the chance to share more about who you are and why you'd like to attend the university you're applying to.  

The information you provide in your personal statement can help build on your other application materials, like your transcripts and letters of recommendation, and build a more cohesive picture to help the admissions committee understand your goals.

In this article, we'll go over more about personal statements, including why they're important, what to include in one, and tips for strengthening yours.

What is a personal statement?

A personal statement—sometimes known as a college essay —is a brief written essay you submit with other materials when applying to college or university. Personal statements tend to be most common for undergraduate applications, and they're a great opportunity for an admissions committee to hear your voice directly.

Many colleges and universities in the US, especially those using Common App , provide prompts for you to use. For example, "Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea" or "Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time" [ 1 ]. If the school you're interested in attending doesn't require prompts, you will likely want to craft a response that touches on your story, your values, and your goals if possible.

In grad school, personal statements are sometimes known as letters of intent , and go into more detail about your academic and professional background, while expressing interest in attending the particular program you're applying to.

Why is a personal statement important?

Personal statements are important for a number of reasons. Whereas other materials you submit in an application can address your academic abilities (like your transcripts) or how you perform as a student (like your letters of recommendation), a personal statement is a chance to do exactly that: get more personal.

Personal statements typically:

Permit you to share things that don't fit on your resume, such as personal stories, motivations, and values

Offer schools a chance to see why you're interested in a particular field of study and what you hope to accomplish after you graduate 

Provide an opportunity for you to talk about past employment, volunteer experiences, or skills you have that complement your studies 

Allow colleges to evaluate your writing skills 

Bring life to a college application package otherwise filled with facts and figures 

Coursera Plus

Build job-ready skills with a Coursera Plus subscription

  • Get access to 7,000+ learning programs from world-class universities and companies, including Google, Yale, Salesforce, and more
  • Try different courses and find your best fit at no additional cost
  • Earn certificates for learning programs you complete
  • A subscription price of $59/month, cancel anytime

How to write a personal statement.

As we mentioned earlier, you may have to respond to a prompt when drafting your personal statement—or a college or university may invite you to respond however you'd like. In either case, use the steps below to begin building your response.

Create a solid hook .

To capture the attention of an admissions committee member, start your personal statement with a hook that relates to the topic of your essay. A hook tends to be a colorful sentence or two at the very beginning that compels the reader to continue reading.

To create a captivating hook, try one of these methods:

Pose a rhetorical question. 

Provide an interesting statistic. 

Insert a quote from a well-known person.

Challenge the reader with a common misconception. 

Use an anecdote, which is a short story that can be true or imaginary. 

Credibility is crucial when writing a personal statement as part of your college application process. If you choose a statistic, quote, or misconception for your hook, make sure it comes from a reliable source.

Follow a narrative.

The best personal statements typically read like a story: they have a common theme, as well as a beginning, middle, and end. This type of format also helps keep your thoughts organized and improves the flow of your essay.

Common themes to consider for your personal statement include:

Special role models from your past

Life-altering events you've experienced

Unusual challenges you've faced

Accomplishments you're especially proud of

Service to others and why you enjoy it

What you've learned from traveling to a particular place

Unique ways you stand out from other candidates

Be specific.

Admissions committees read thousands of personal statements every year, which is why being specific on yours is important. Back up your statements with examples or anecdotes.

For instance, avoid vague assertions like, "I'm interested in your school counseling program because I care about children." Instead, point out experiences you've had with children that emphasize how much you care. For instance, you might mention your summer job as a day camp counselor or your volunteer experience mentoring younger children.

Don't forget to include detail and vibrancy to keep your statement interesting. The use of detail shows how your unique voice and experiences can add value to the college or university you're applying to.

Stay on topic.

It's natural to want to impress the members of the admissions committee who will read your personal statement. The best way to do this is to lead your readers through a cohesive, informative, and descriptive essay.

If you feel you might be going astray, ensure each paragraph in your essay's body supports your introduction. Here are a few more strategies that can help keep you on track:

Know what you want to say and do research if needed. 

Create an outline listing the key points you want to share.

Read your outline aloud to confirm it makes logical sense before proceeding. 

Read your essay aloud while you're writing to confirm you're staying on topic.

Ask a trusted friend or family member to read your essay and make suggestions.

Be true to your own voice.

Because of the importance of your personal statement, you could be tempted to be very formal with structure and language. However, using a more relaxed tone is better than you would for a classroom writing assignment. 

Remember: admissions committees really want to hear from you . Writing in your own voice will help accomplish this. To ensure your tone isn't too relaxed, write your statement as if you were speaking to an older relative or trusted teacher. This way, you'll come across as respectful, confident, and honest.

Tips for drafting an effective personal statement.

Now that you've learned a little about personal statements and how to craft them, here are a few more tips you can follow to strengthen your essay:

1. Customize your statement.

You don't have to completely rewrite your personal statement every time you apply to a new college, but you want to make sure you tailor it as much as possible. For instance, if you talk about wanting to take a certain class or study a certain subject, make sure you adjust any specifics for each application.

2. Avoid cliches.

Admissions committees are ultimately looking for students who will fit the school, and who the school can help guide toward their larger goals. In that case, cliches can get in the way of a reviewer understanding what it is you want from a college education. Watch out for cliches like "making a difference," "broadening my horizons," or "the best thing that ever happened to me."

3. Stay focused.

Try to avoid getting off-track or including tangents in your personal statement. Stay focused by writing a first draft and then re-reading what you've written. Does every paragraph flow from one point to the next? Are the ideas you're presenting cohesive?

4. Stick to topics that aren't controversial.

It's best not to discuss political beliefs or inappropriate topics in your essay. These can be controversial; ideally, you want to share something goals- or values-driven with an admissions committee.

Polish your writing skills on Coursera.

A stellar personal statement starts with stellar writing skills. Enhance your writing ability with a writing course from a top university, like Good with Words: Writing and Editing from the University of Michigan or Writing a Personal Essay from Wesleyan University. Get started for free to level up your writing.

Article sources

1. Common App. " 2022-2023 Common App Essay Prompts , https://www.commonapp.org/blog/2022-2023-common-app-essay-prompts." Accessed January 9, 2024.

Keep reading

Coursera staff.

Editorial Team

Coursera’s editorial team is comprised of highly experienced professional editors, writers, and fact...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

How to Write a College Application Essay

Find the right college for you..

Your essay reveals something important about you that your grades and test scores can't─your personality. It can give admissions officers a sense of who you are and showcase your writing ability. Here are some things that admissions officers look for in a personal essay for college.

1. Open Strong.

Knowing how to start a college essay can create a strong opening paragraph that immediately captures the reader’s interest. You want to make the admissions officer reading your essay curious about what you say next.

2. Show You Can Write.

Colleges want to see that you have a command of the basics of good writing, which is a key component of success in college.

3. Answer the Prompt.

Admissions officers also want to see that the student can give a direct answer while sticking to a comprehensive narrative. When writing college essays, consider the point you want to make and develop a fleshed-out response that fits the prompt. Avoid force-fitting prewritten pieces. Approach every personal essay prompt as if it's your first.

4. Stick to Your Style.

Writing college essays isn't about using flowery or verbose prose. Avoid leaning too heavily on the thesaurus to sound impressive. Choose a natural writing style that’s appropriate for the subject matter.

Also, avoid stressing about trying to write what you think colleges want to see. Learning how to draft a good essay for college is about showcasing who you are. Stay true to your voice. Keep in mind that authenticity is more important than anything else.

5. Proofread.

Correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling are essential. Proofread several times after you've finished. Then ask a teacher, parent, or college English major to give it a quick read as well.

6. Keep Track of Length.

Finally, admissions officers value succinctness. Remember to pay attention to the recommended essay length or word count.

Bonus Tips and College Essay Writing Help

For more on how to write a college essay, check out these Tips for Writing Your College Admissions Essay .

What is the college application essay?

A personal essay for college applications is an opportunity for admission admissions panels to get more insight into who you are and what you have to offer. It's often the most personal component of the application, going beyond grades and standardized test scores. Essays usually have open-ended prompts, allowing you to flex your writing skills and make a personal statement.

Does my college application essay really matter?

Learning how to write a successful essay for college is crucial. This essay's exact weight on your chances of acceptance varies from one school to the next. But it's an element of your application that all admissions teams consider. Your essay could be the thing that gets you off a waiting list or gives you a competitive edge over other applicants.

What are colleges looking for in my application essay?

Knowing what to include in a college essay is half the battle. Admissions teams look for many things, but the most influential are authenticity, writing ability, character details, and positive traits. The purpose of the essay is to shed light on your background and gain perspective on your real-world experiences.

When should I start writing my college essay?

Because you'll want to tailor each application to each school, expect to write multiple personal essays. Advisers typically recommend starting these pieces during the summer before your senior year of high school. This will give you ample time to concentrate on writing a college essay before you're hit with schoolwork.

What can I do to write an effective college essay if I'm not a strong writer?

Good writing skills matter, but the best college essay is about the quality of your response. Authentic stories in a natural voice have impact. The story you want to tell about yourself will work better for you if it’s told in language that’s not overly sophisticated. Work with a writing coach for help with the academic aspects. Make responding with substance a priority.

How can I write my college essay if I have no monumental experiences?

You don't need life-changing moments to impress an admissions panel. Think about your personal experiences. Describe moments that left a lasting impact. The important thing is to have a fleshed-out narrative that provides insight into your life and way of thinking. Some of the best essays revolve around meaningful moments rather than flashy ones.

How should I start brainstorming topics for my college essay?

Most colleges provide open-ended prompts. Using the topic as inspiration, think about critical milestones or essential lessons you learned during your academic career. Tell stories about real-life experiences that have shaped the person you are. Write them down to brainstorm ideas. Choose stories that highlight your best traits.

What is a good list of essay topics to start with? What essay topics should I avoid?

Good topics when writing college essays include personal achievements, meaningful lessons, life-changing challenges, and situations that fostered personal growth. It's best to avoid anything too intimate or controversial. You want to open up, but it's not a good idea to go overboard or alienate members of the admissions panel.

What format should I use for my college essay?

Read the prompt and essay instructions thoroughly to learn how to start off a college essay. Some colleges provide guidance about formatting. If not, the best course of action is to stick with a college standard like the MLA format.

How long should my essay be?

The average length of a personal essay for college is 400─600 words. Always read the prompt. Follow the instructions provided in the application.

Who should I ask to review my college essay?

Turn to your school counselor for review. They understand what college admissions panels are looking for, and they can provide valuable insight into your piece's quality. You can also reach out to English teachers and other educators for proofreading.

Related Articles

Have a language expert improve your writing

Check your paper for plagiarism in 10 minutes, generate your apa citations for free.

  • Knowledge Base
  • College essay

How to Write About Yourself in a College Essay | Examples

Published on September 21, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on May 31, 2023.

An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability. Your essay shouldn’t just be a resume of your experiences; colleges are looking for a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.

To write about your achievements and qualities without sounding arrogant, use specific stories to illustrate them. You can also write about challenges you’ve faced or mistakes you’ve made to show vulnerability and personal growth.

Table of contents

Start with self-reflection, how to write about challenges and mistakes, how to write about your achievements and qualities, how to write about a cliché experience, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

Before you start writing, spend some time reflecting to identify your values and qualities. You should do a comprehensive brainstorming session, but here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What are three words your friends or family would use to describe you, and why would they choose them?
  • Whom do you admire most and why?
  • What are the top five things you are thankful for?
  • What has inspired your hobbies or future goals?
  • What are you most proud of? Ashamed of?

As you self-reflect, consider how your values and goals reflect your prospective university’s program and culture, and brainstorm stories that demonstrate the fit between the two.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

Writing about difficult experiences can be an effective way to show authenticity and create an emotional connection to the reader, but choose carefully which details to share, and aim to demonstrate how the experience helped you learn and grow.

Be vulnerable

It’s not necessary to have a tragic story or a huge confession. But you should openly share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences to evoke an emotional response from the reader. Even a cliché or mundane topic can be made interesting with honest reflection. This honesty is a preface to self-reflection and insight in the essay’s conclusion.

Don’t overshare

With difficult topics, you shouldn’t focus too much on negative aspects. Instead, use your challenging circumstances as a brief introduction to how you responded positively.

Share what you have learned

It’s okay to include your failure or mistakes in your essay if you include a lesson learned. After telling a descriptive, honest story, you should explain what you learned and how you applied it to your life.

While it’s good to sell your strengths, you also don’t want to come across as arrogant. Instead of just stating your extracurricular activities, achievements, or personal qualities, aim to discreetly incorporate them into your story.

Brag indirectly

Mention your extracurricular activities or awards in passing, not outright, to avoid sounding like you’re bragging from a resume.

Use stories to prove your qualities

Even if you don’t have any impressive academic achievements or extracurriculars, you can still demonstrate your academic or personal character. But you should use personal examples to provide proof. In other words, show evidence of your character instead of just telling.

Many high school students write about common topics such as sports, volunteer work, or their family. Your essay topic doesn’t have to be groundbreaking, but do try to include unexpected personal details and your authentic voice to make your essay stand out .

To find an original angle, try these techniques:

  • Focus on a specific moment, and describe the scene using your five senses.
  • Mention objects that have special significance to you.
  • Instead of following a common story arc, include a surprising twist or insight.

Your unique voice can shed new perspective on a common human experience while also revealing your personality. When read out loud, the essay should sound like you are talking.

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

  • How to end an email
  • Ms, mrs, miss
  • How to start an email
  • I hope this email finds you well
  • Hope you are doing well

 Parts of speech

  • Personal pronouns
  • Conjunctions

First, spend time reflecting on your core values and character . You can start with these questions:

However, you should do a comprehensive brainstorming session to fully understand your values. Also consider how your values and goals match your prospective university’s program and culture. Then, brainstorm stories that illustrate the fit between the two.

When writing about yourself , including difficult experiences or failures can be a great way to show vulnerability and authenticity, but be careful not to overshare, and focus on showing how you matured from the experience.

Through specific stories, you can weave your achievements and qualities into your essay so that it doesn’t seem like you’re bragging from a resume.

Include specific, personal details and use your authentic voice to shed a new perspective on a common human experience.

Cite this Scribbr article

If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the “Cite this Scribbr article” button to automatically add the citation to our free Citation Generator.

Courault, K. (2023, May 31). How to Write About Yourself in a College Essay | Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved March 25, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/college-essay/write-about-yourself/

Is this article helpful?

Kirsten Courault

Kirsten Courault

Other students also liked, style and tone tips for your college essay | examples, what do colleges look for in an essay | examples & tips, how to make your college essay stand out | tips & examples, unlimited academic ai-proofreading.

✔ Document error-free in 5minutes ✔ Unlimited document corrections ✔ Specialized in correcting academic texts

The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Application Essays

What this handout is about.

This handout will help you write and revise the personal statement required by many graduate programs, internships, and special academic programs.

Before you start writing

Because the application essay can have a critical effect upon your progress toward a career, you should spend significantly more time, thought, and effort on it than its typically brief length would suggest. It should reflect how you arrived at your professional goals, why the program is ideal for you, and what you bring to the program. Don’t make this a deadline task—now’s the time to write, read, rewrite, give to a reader, revise again, and on until the essay is clear, concise, and compelling. At the same time, don’t be afraid. You know most of the things you need to say already.

Read the instructions carefully. One of the basic tasks of the application essay is to follow the directions. If you don’t do what they ask, the reader may wonder if you will be able to follow directions in their program. Make sure you follow page and word limits exactly—err on the side of shortness, not length. The essay may take two forms:

  • A one-page essay answering a general question
  • Several short answers to more specific questions

Do some research before you start writing. Think about…

  • The field. Why do you want to be a _____? No, really. Think about why you and you particularly want to enter that field. What are the benefits and what are the shortcomings? When did you become interested in the field and why? What path in that career interests you right now? Brainstorm and write these ideas out.
  • The program. Why is this the program you want to be admitted to? What is special about the faculty, the courses offered, the placement record, the facilities you might be using? If you can’t think of anything particular, read the brochures they offer, go to events, or meet with a faculty member or student in the program. A word about honesty here—you may have a reason for choosing a program that wouldn’t necessarily sway your reader; for example, you want to live near the beach, or the program is the most prestigious and would look better on your resume. You don’t want to be completely straightforward in these cases and appear superficial, but skirting around them or lying can look even worse. Turn these aspects into positives. For example, you may want to go to a program in a particular location because it is a place that you know very well and have ties to, or because there is a need in your field there. Again, doing research on the program may reveal ways to legitimate even your most superficial and selfish reasons for applying.
  • Yourself. What details or anecdotes would help your reader understand you? What makes you special? Is there something about your family, your education, your work/life experience, or your values that has shaped you and brought you to this career field? What motivates or interests you? Do you have special skills, like leadership, management, research, or communication? Why would the members of the program want to choose you over other applicants? Be honest with yourself and write down your ideas. If you are having trouble, ask a friend or relative to make a list of your strengths or unique qualities that you plan to read on your own (and not argue about immediately). Ask them to give you examples to back up their impressions (For example, if they say you are “caring,” ask them to describe an incident they remember in which they perceived you as caring).

Now, write a draft

This is a hard essay to write. It’s probably much more personal than any of the papers you have written for class because it’s about you, not World War II or planaria. You may want to start by just getting something—anything—on paper. Try freewriting. Think about the questions we asked above and the prompt for the essay, and then write for 15 or 30 minutes without stopping. What do you want your audience to know after reading your essay? What do you want them to feel? Don’t worry about grammar, punctuation, organization, or anything else. Just get out the ideas you have. For help getting started, see our handout on brainstorming .

Now, look at what you’ve written. Find the most relevant, memorable, concrete statements and focus in on them. Eliminate any generalizations or platitudes (“I’m a people person”, “Doctors save lives”, or “Mr. Calleson’s classes changed my life”), or anything that could be cut and pasted into anyone else’s application. Find what is specific to you about the ideas that generated those platitudes and express them more directly. Eliminate irrelevant issues (“I was a track star in high school, so I think I’ll make a good veterinarian.”) or issues that might be controversial for your reader (“My faith is the one true faith, and only nurses with that faith are worthwhile,” or “Lawyers who only care about money are evil.”).

Often, writers start out with generalizations as a way to get to the really meaningful statements, and that’s OK. Just make sure that you replace the generalizations with examples as you revise. A hint: you may find yourself writing a good, specific sentence right after a general, meaningless one. If you spot that, try to use the second sentence and delete the first.

Applications that have several short-answer essays require even more detail. Get straight to the point in every case, and address what they’ve asked you to address.

Now that you’ve generated some ideas, get a little bit pickier. It’s time to remember one of the most significant aspects of the application essay: your audience. Your readers may have thousands of essays to read, many or most of which will come from qualified applicants. This essay may be your best opportunity to communicate with the decision makers in the application process, and you don’t want to bore them, offend them, or make them feel you are wasting their time.

With this in mind:

  • Do assure your audience that you understand and look forward to the challenges of the program and the field, not just the benefits.
  • Do assure your audience that you understand exactly the nature of the work in the field and that you are prepared for it, psychologically and morally as well as educationally.
  • Do assure your audience that you care about them and their time by writing a clear, organized, and concise essay.
  • Do address any information about yourself and your application that needs to be explained (for example, weak grades or unusual coursework for your program). Include that information in your essay, and be straightforward about it. Your audience will be more impressed with your having learned from setbacks or having a unique approach than your failure to address those issues.
  • Don’t waste space with information you have provided in the rest of the application. Every sentence should be effective and directly related to the rest of the essay. Don’t ramble or use fifteen words to express something you could say in eight.
  • Don’t overstate your case for what you want to do, being so specific about your future goals that you come off as presumptuous or naïve (“I want to become a dentist so that I can train in wisdom tooth extraction, because I intend to focus my life’s work on taking 13 rather than 15 minutes per tooth.”). Your goals may change–show that such a change won’t devastate you.
  • And, one more time, don’t write in cliches and platitudes. Every doctor wants to help save lives, every lawyer wants to work for justice—your reader has read these general cliches a million times.

Imagine the worst-case scenario (which may never come true—we’re talking hypothetically): the person who reads your essay has been in the field for decades. She is on the application committee because she has to be, and she’s read 48 essays so far that morning. You are number 49, and your reader is tired, bored, and thinking about lunch. How are you going to catch and keep her attention?

Assure your audience that you are capable academically, willing to stick to the program’s demands, and interesting to have around. For more tips, see our handout on audience .

Voice and style

The voice you use and the style in which you write can intrigue your audience. The voice you use in your essay should be yours. Remember when your high school English teacher said “never say ‘I’”? Here’s your chance to use all those “I”s you’ve been saving up. The narrative should reflect your perspective, experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Focusing on events or ideas may give your audience an indirect idea of how these things became important in forming your outlook, but many others have had equally compelling experiences. By simply talking about those events in your own voice, you put the emphasis on you rather than the event or idea. Look at this anecdote:

During the night shift at Wirth Memorial Hospital, a man walked into the Emergency Room wearing a monkey costume and holding his head. He seemed confused and was moaning in pain. One of the nurses ascertained that he had been swinging from tree branches in a local park and had hit his head when he fell out of a tree. This tragic tale signified the moment at which I realized psychiatry was the only career path I could take.

An interesting tale, yes, but what does it tell you about the narrator? The following example takes the same anecdote and recasts it to make the narrator more of a presence in the story:

I was working in the Emergency Room at Wirth Memorial Hospital one night when a man walked in wearing a monkey costume and holding his head. I could tell he was confused and in pain. After a nurse asked him a few questions, I listened in surprise as he explained that he had been a monkey all of his life and knew that it was time to live with his brothers in the trees. Like many other patients I would see that year, this man suffered from an illness that only a combination of psychological and medical care would effectively treat. I realized then that I wanted to be able to help people by using that particular combination of skills only a psychiatrist develops.

The voice you use should be approachable as well as intelligent. This essay is not the place to stun your reader with ten prepositional phrases (“the goal of my study of the field of law in the winter of my discontent can best be understood by the gathering of more information about my youth”) and thirty nouns (“the research and study of the motivation behind my insights into the field of dentistry contains many pitfalls and disappointments but even more joy and enlightenment”) per sentence. (Note: If you are having trouble forming clear sentences without all the prepositions and nouns, take a look at our handout on style .)

You may want to create an impression of expertise in the field by using specialized or technical language. But beware of this unless you really know what you are doing—a mistake will look twice as ignorant as not knowing the terms in the first place. Your audience may be smart, but you don’t want to make them turn to a dictionary or fall asleep between the first word and the period of your first sentence. Keep in mind that this is a personal statement. Would you think you were learning a lot about a person whose personal statement sounded like a journal article? Would you want to spend hours in a lab or on a committee with someone who shuns plain language?

Of course, you don’t want to be chatty to the point of making them think you only speak slang, either. Your audience may not know what “I kicked that lame-o to the curb for dissing my research project” means. Keep it casual enough to be easy to follow, but formal enough to be respectful of the audience’s intelligence.

Just use an honest voice and represent yourself as naturally as possible. It may help to think of the essay as a sort of face-to-face interview, only the interviewer isn’t actually present.

Too much style

A well-written, dramatic essay is much more memorable than one that fails to make an emotional impact on the reader. Good anecdotes and personal insights can really attract an audience’s attention. BUT be careful not to let your drama turn into melodrama. You want your reader to see your choices motivated by passion and drive, not hyperbole and a lack of reality. Don’t invent drama where there isn’t any, and don’t let the drama take over. Getting someone else to read your drafts can help you figure out when you’ve gone too far.

Taking risks

Many guides to writing application essays encourage you to take a risk, either by saying something off-beat or daring or by using a unique writing style. When done well, this strategy can work—your goal is to stand out from the rest of the applicants and taking a risk with your essay will help you do that. An essay that impresses your reader with your ability to think and express yourself in original ways and shows you really care about what you are saying is better than one that shows hesitancy, lack of imagination, or lack of interest.

But be warned: this strategy is a risk. If you don’t carefully consider what you are saying and how you are saying it, you may offend your readers or leave them with a bad impression of you as flaky, immature, or careless. Do not alienate your readers.

Some writers take risks by using irony (your suffering at the hands of a barbaric dentist led you to want to become a gentle one), beginning with a personal failure (that eventually leads to the writer’s overcoming it), or showing great imagination (one famous successful example involved a student who answered a prompt about past formative experiences by beginning with a basic answer—”I have volunteered at homeless shelters”—that evolved into a ridiculous one—”I have sealed the hole in the ozone layer with plastic wrap”). One student applying to an art program described the person he did not want to be, contrasting it with the person he thought he was and would develop into if accepted. Another person wrote an essay about her grandmother without directly linking her narrative to the fact that she was applying for medical school. Her essay was risky because it called on the reader to infer things about the student’s character and abilities from the story.

Assess your credentials and your likelihood of getting into the program before you choose to take a risk. If you have little chance of getting in, try something daring. If you are almost certainly guaranteed a spot, you have more flexibility. In any case, make sure that you answer the essay question in some identifiable way.

After you’ve written a draft

Get several people to read it and write their comments down. It is worthwhile to seek out someone in the field, perhaps a professor who has read such essays before. Give it to a friend, your mom, or a neighbor. The key is to get more than one point of view, and then compare these with your own. Remember, you are the one best equipped to judge how accurately you are representing yourself. For tips on putting this advice to good use, see our handout on getting feedback .

After you’ve received feedback, revise the essay. Put it away. Get it out and revise it again (you can see why we said to start right away—this process may take time). Get someone to read it again. Revise it again.

When you think it is totally finished, you are ready to proofread and format the essay. Check every sentence and punctuation mark. You cannot afford a careless error in this essay. (If you are not comfortable with your proofreading skills, check out our handout on editing and proofreading ).

If you find that your essay is too long, do not reformat it extensively to make it fit. Making readers deal with a nine-point font and quarter-inch margins will only irritate them. Figure out what material you can cut and cut it. For strategies for meeting word limits, see our handout on writing concisely .

Finally, proofread it again. We’re not kidding.

Other resources

Don’t be afraid to talk to professors or professionals in the field. Many of them would be flattered that you asked their advice, and they will have useful suggestions that others might not have. Also keep in mind that many colleges and professional programs offer websites addressing the personal statement. You can find them either through the website of the school to which you are applying or by searching under “personal statement” or “application essays” using a search engine.

If your schedule and ours permit, we invite you to come to the Writing Center. Be aware that during busy times in the semester, we limit students to a total of two visits to discuss application essays and personal statements (two visits per student, not per essay); we do this so that students working on papers for courses will have a better chance of being seen. Make an appointment or submit your essay to our online writing center (note that we cannot guarantee that an online tutor will help you in time).

For information on other aspects of the application process, you can consult the resources at University Career Services .

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Asher, Donald. 2012. Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice , 4th ed. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Curry, Boykin, Emily Angel Baer, and Brian Kasbar. 2003. Essays That Worked for College Applications: 50 Essays That Helped Students Get Into the Nation’s Top Colleges . New York: Ballantine Books.

Stelzer, Richard. 2002. How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School , 3rd ed. Lawrenceville, NJ: Thomson Peterson.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Make a Gift

  • Search All Scholarships
  • Exclusive Scholarships
  • Easy Scholarships to Apply For
  • No Essay Scholarships
  • Scholarships for HS Juniors
  • Scholarships for HS Seniors
  • Scholarships for College Students
  • Scholarships for Grad Students
  • Scholarships for Women
  • Scholarships for Black Students
  • Scholarships
  • Student Loans
  • College Admissions
  • Financial Aid
  • Scholarship Winners
  • Scholarship Providers

how to write a personal essay for a college application

Apply to vetted scholarship programs in one click

Student-centric advice and objective recommendations.

Higher education has never been more confusing or expensive. Our goal is to help you navigate the very big decisions related to higher ed with objective information and expert advice. Each piece of content on the site is original, based on extensive research, and reviewed by multiple editors, including a subject matter expert. This ensures that all of our content is up-to-date, useful, accurate, and thorough.

Our reviews and recommendations are based on extensive research, testing, and feedback. We may receive commission from links on our website, but that doesn’t affect our editors’ opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when posted. You can find a complete list of our partners here .

How to Write an Amazing Personal Statement (Includes Examples!)

how to write a personal essay for a college application

Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

Learn about our editorial policies

Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

how to write a personal essay for a college application

Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

how to write a personal essay for a college application

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

How to Write an Amazing Personal Statement (Includes Examples!)

The personal statement. It’s one of the most important parts of the entire college application process. This essay is the perfect opportunity to show admissions officers who you are and what makes you stand out from the crowd. But writing a good personal statement isn’t exactly easy. That’s why we’ve put together the ultimate guide on how to nail your personal statement, complete with example essays . Each essay was reviewed and commented upon by admissions expert Bill Jack. Let’s dive in!

Related: How to write an essay about yourself  

What is a personal statement? 

A personal statement is a special type of essay that’s required when you’re applying to colleges and scholarship programs. In this essay, you’re expected to share something about who you are and what you bring to the table. Think of it as a chance to reveal a side of yourself not found in the rest of your application. Personal statements are typically around 400 – 600 words in length. 

What can I write about? 

Pretty much anything, as long as it’s about you . While this is liberating in the sense that your writing options are nearly unlimited, it’s also overwhelming for the same reason. The good news is that you’ll probably be responding to a specific prompt. Chances are you’re applying to a school that uses the Common App , which means you’ll have seven prompts to choose from . Reviewing these prompts can help generate some ideas, but so can asking yourself meaningful questions. 

Below you’ll find a list of questions to ask yourself during the brainstorming process. For each of the following questions, spend a few minutes jotting down whatever comes to mind. 

  • What experiences have shaped who you are? 
  • What’s special or unique about you or your life story? 
  • Who or what has inspired you the most? 
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of? 
  • What are your goals for the future? How have you arrived at those goals? 
  • If your life was a movie, what would be the most interesting scene? 
  • What have been some of the biggest challenges in your life? How did you respond and what did you learn? 

The purpose of these questions is to prompt you to think about your life at a deeper level. Hopefully by reflecting on them, you’ll find an essay topic that is impactful and meaningful. In the next section, we’ll offer some advice on actually writing your essay. 

Also see:  How to write a 500 word essay

How do I write my personal statement? 

Once you’ve found a topic, it’s time to start writing! Every personal statement is different, so there’s not really one formula that works for every student. That being said, the following tips should get you started in the right direction:  

1. Freewrite, then rewrite 

The blank page tends to get more intimidating the longer you stare at it, so it’s best to go ahead and jump right in! Don’t worry about making the first draft absolutely perfect. Instead, just get your ideas on the page and don’t spend too much time thinking about the finer details. Think of this initial writing session as a “brain dump”. Take 15-30 minutes to quickly empty all your thoughts onto the page without worrying about things like grammar, spelling, or sentence structure. You can even use bullet points if that helps. Once you have your ideas on the page, then you can go back and shape them exactly how you want. 

2. Establish your theme 

Now that you’ve got some basic ideas down on the page, it’s time to lock in on a theme. Your theme is a specific angle that reflects the central message of your essay. It can be summarized in a sentence or even a word. For example, let’s say you’re writing about how you had to establish a whole new group of friends when you moved to a new city. The theme for this type of essay would probably be something like “adaptation”. Having a theme will help you stay focused throughout your essay. Since you only have a limited number of words, you can’t afford to go off on tangents that don’t relate to your theme. 

3. Tell a story

A lot of great essays rely on a specific scene or story. Find the personal anecdote relevant to your theme and transfer it to the page. The best way to do this is by using descriptive language. Consult the five senses as you’re setting the scene. What did you see, hear, taste, touch, or smell? How were you feeling emotionally? Using descriptive language can really help your essay come to life. According to UPchieve , a nonprofit that supports low income students, focusing on a particular moment as a “ revised version of a memoir ” is one way to keep readers engaged. 

Related: College essay primer: show, don’t tell  

4. Focus on your opening paragraph

Your opening paragraph should grab your reader’s attention and set the tone for the rest of your essay. In most cases, this is the best place to include your anecdote (if you have one). By leading with your personal story, you can hook your audience from the get-go. After telling your story, you can explain why it’s important to who you are. 

Related:  How to start a scholarship essay (with examples)

5. Use an authentic voice 

Your personal statement reflects who you are, so you should use a tone that represents you. That means you shouldn’t try to sound like someone else, and you shouldn’t use fancy words just to show off. This isn’t an academic paper, so you don’t have to adopt a super formal tone. Instead, write in a way that allows room for your personality to breathe. 

6. Edit, edit, edit…

Once you’re done writing, give yourself some time away from the essay. Try to allow a few days to pass before looking at the essay again with fresh eyes. This way, you’re more likely to pick up on spelling and grammatical errors. You may even get some new ideas and rethink the way you wrote some things. Once you’re satisfied, let someone else edit your essay. We recommend asking a teacher, parent, or sibling for their thoughts before submitting. 

Examples of personal statements 

Sometimes viewing someone else’s work is the best way to generate inspiration and get the creative juices flowing. The following essays are written in response to four different Common App prompts: 

Prompt 1: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

When I was eight years old, I wanted a GameCube very badly. For weeks I hounded my dad to buy me one and finally he agreed. But there was a catch. He’d only get me a GameCube if I promised to start reading. Every day I played video games, I would have to pick up a book and read for at least one hour. At that point in my life, reading was just something I had to suffer through for school assignments. To read for pleasure seemed ludicrous. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly thrilled about this proposed agreement. But I figured anything was worth it to get my hands on that shiny new video game console, so I bit the bullet and shook my dad’s hand. Little did I know that I had just made a life-changing deal. 

At first, the required hour of reading was a chore — something I had to do so I could play Mario Kart. But it quickly turned into something more than that. To my complete and utter surprise, I discovered that I actually enjoyed reading. One hour turned into two, two turned into three, and after a while I was spending more time reading than I was playing video games. I found myself captivated by the written word, and I read everything I could get my hands on. Lord of the Rings , Percy Jackson , Goosebumps — you name it. I was falling in love with literature, while my GameCube was accumulating dust in the TV stand. 

Soon enough, reading led to writing. I was beginning to come up with my own stories, so I put pen to paper and let my imagination run wild. It started out small. My first effort was a rudimentary picture book about a friendly raccoon who went to the moon. But things progressed. My stories became more intricate, my characters more complex. I wrote a series of science fiction novellas. I tried my hand at poetry. I was amazed at the worlds I could create with the tip of my pen. I had dreams of becoming an author. 

Then somewhere along the way my family got a subscription to Netflix, and that completely changed the way I thought about storytelling. My nose had been buried in books up until then, so I hadn’t really seen a lot of movies. That quickly changed. It seemed like every other day a pair of new DVDs would arrive in the mail (this was the early days of Netflix). Dark Knight, The Truman Show, Inception, Memento — all these great films were coming in and out of the house. And I couldn’t get enough of them. Movies brought stories to life in a way that books could not. I was head over heels for visual storytelling. 

Suddenly I wasn’t writing novels and short stories anymore. I was writing scripts for movies. Now I wanted to transfer my ideas to the big screen, rather than the pages of a book. But I was still doing the same thing I had always done. I was writing, just in a different format. To help with this process, I read the screenplays of my favorite films and paid attention to the way they were crafted. I kept watching more and more movies. And I hadn’t forgotten about my first love, either. I still cherished books and looked to them for inspiration. By the end of my junior year of high school, I had completed two scripts for short films. 

So why am I telling you all this? Because I want to turn my love of storytelling into a career. I’m not totally sure how to do that yet, but I know I have options. Whether it’s film production, creative writing, or even journalism, I want to find a major that suits my ambitions. Writing has taken me a long way, and I know it can take me even further. As I step into this next chapter of my life, I couldn’t be more excited to see how my craft develops. In the meantime, I should probably get rid of that dusty old GameCube. 

Feedback from admissions professional Bill Jack

Essays don’t always have to reveal details about the student’s intended career path, but one thing I like about this essay is that it gives the reader a sense of the why. Why do they want to pursue storytelling. It also shows the reader that they are open to how they pursue their interest. Being open to exploration is such a vital part of college, so it’s also showing the reader that they likely will be open to new things in college. And, it’s always fun to learn a little bit more about the student’s family, especially if the reader can learn about how the students interacts with their family. 

Prompt 2: “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

I remember my first impression of Irvine: weird. It was foggy, stock-full of greenery and eucalyptus trees, and reminded me of my 5th grade trip to a “science camp” which was located in the San Bernardino mountains. Besides Irvine, that was one of the few places in Southern California where you’d find so many non-palm trees. 

Of course, perhaps my initial impression of Irvine was biased, motivated by a desire to stay in my hometown and a fear of the unknown. While that was true to an extent, Irvine was certainly still a little peculiar. The city itself was based on a “master plan” of sorts, with the location of each of its schools, parks, shops, and arguably its trees having been logically “picked” before the foundation was poured. Even the homes all looked roughly the same, with their beige, stucco walls almost serving as a hallmark of the city itself.

Thus, this perfectly structured, perfectly safe city seemed like a paradise of sorts to many outsiders, my parents included. I was a little more hesitant to welcome this. As I saw it, this was a phony city – believing that its uniformity stood for a lack of personality. My hometown, although not as flawlessly safe nor clean as Irvine, was where most of my dearest memories had occurred. From the many sleepovers at Cindie’s house, to trying to avoid my school’s own version of the “infamous” cheese touch, to the many laughs shared with friends and family, I shed a tear at the prospect of leaving my home.

Moving into the foreign city, remnants of the hostility I held towards Irvine remained. Still dwelling in my memories of the past, I was initially unable to see Irvine as a “home.” So, as I walked into my first-ever Irvine class, being greeted by many kind, yet unfamiliar faces around me, I was unable to recognize that some of those new faces would later become some of my dearest friends. Such negative feelings about the city were further reinforced by newer, harder classes, and more complicated homework. Sitting in the discomfort of this unfamiliar environment, it started to seem that “change” was something not only inevitable, but insurmountable.

As the years went on, however, this idea seemed to fade. I got used to my classes and bike racing through Irvine neighborhoods with my friends, watching the trees that once seemed just a “weird” green blob soon transform into one of my favorite parts of the city. While I kept my old, beloved memories stored, I made space for new ones. From carefully making our way over the narrow creek path next to our school, to the laughs we shared during chemistry class, my new memories made with friends seemed to transform a city I once disliked into one I would miss. 

Through this transformation, I have come to recognize that change, although sometimes intimidating at first, can open the door to great times and meaningful connections. Although Irvine may have once seemed like a strange, “phony” place that I couldn’t wait to be rid of, the memories and laughs I had grown to share there were very real. As I move onto this next part of my life, I hope I can use this knowledge that I have gained from my time in Irvine to make the most of what’s to come. Even if the change may be frightening at first, I have learned to embrace what’s on the other side, whether green or not.

One huge plus to writing an essay that focuses on a place is that you might have it read by someone who has been there. Yet, what’s really helpful about this essay is that even if someone hasn’t been there, a picture is painted about what the place is like.  Admission officers have the hard task of really understanding what the student sees, so the use of adjectives and imagery can really help.  It’s also really clever to see that the green that’s mentioned at the beginning is mentioned at the end.  It’s a nice way to bookend the essay and tie it all together.

Prompt 6: “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”

I like getting lost. Not literally, of course, but figuratively. Whether it be in the story of a love song by Taylor Swift, or in the memories brought back by listening to my favorite childhood video game’s background music, I’ve always appreciated music’s ability to transport me to another place, another time, another feeling. 

Alas, I cannot sing, nor have I practiced an instrument since my middle school piano class days. So, perhaps Kurt Vonnegut was right. As he puts it, “Virtually every writer I know would rather be a musician.” While I cannot speak for others, I have certainly not debunked his theory. Writing allows many, including myself, to attempt to mimic the transformative power of music – even if our singing voices aren’t exactly “pleasant.” Just as you can get lost in music, you can do so in a story. Whether it is in George Orwell’s totalitarian Oceania, or Little Women’s Orchard House, the stories outlined in novels can provide an amazing look into the lives and worlds of others, and an escape from the worries and problems of those in your own.

While I am certainly not claiming to have the storytelling abilities of the Orwells or Alcotts before me, I’ve had fun trying to recreate such transformative feelings for others. When I was nine, I attempted to write a story about a little girl who had gotten lost in the woods, only managing to get a couple pages through. As I got older, whenever I was assigned a creative writing assignment in school, I wrote about the same pig, Phil. He was always angry: in my 8th grade science class, Phil was mad at some humans who had harbored his friend captive, and in my 9th grade English class, at a couple who robbed him. 

Thus, when I heard about a writing club being opened at my school in 11th grade, I knew I had to join. I wanted to discern whether writing was just a hobby I picked up now and then, or a true passion. If it was a passion, I wanted to learn as much as possible about how I could improve. Although my high school’s writing club certainly wasn’t going to transform me into Shakespeare, I knew I could learn a lot from it – and I did. The club challenged me to do many things, from writing on the spot, to writing poetry, to even writing about myself, something that’s hopefully coming in handy right now. 

From then on, I started to expand into different types of writing, storing short ideas, skits, and more in appropriately-labeled Google Drive folders. At around the same time, I became interested in classic literature, which largely stemmed from a project in English class. We had been required to choose and read a classic on our own, then present it to the class in an interesting way. While my book was certainly interesting and unique in its own right, nearly everyone else’s novels seemed more captivating to me. So, I took it upon myself to read as many classics as I could the following summer.

One of the books I read during the summer, funnily enough, was Animal Farm, which starred angry pigs, reminiscent of Phil. I had also started going over different ideas in my head, thinking about how I could translate them into words using the new skills I learned. While the writing club helped reaffirm my interest in writing and allowed me to develop new skills, my newfound affinity for classics gave me inspiration to write. Now, I am actually considering writing as part of my future. In this endeavor, I hope that Phil, and the music I inevitably listen to as I write, will accompany me every step of the way.

Admission officers might read 70 (or more!) essays in one day. It’s not uncommon for them to start to blend together and sound similar. This essay might not make you laugh out loud. But, it might make the reader chuckle while reading it thanks to the subtle humor and levity. Being able to incorporate a little humor into your essay (if it is natural for you to do… do not force it), can really be a great way to shed additional light into who you are. Remember, the essay isn’t merely about proving that you can write, but it should also reveal a little bit about your personality.

Prompt 5: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

I learned a lot of things during the summer I worked at Tropical Smoothie. I discovered the value of hard work. I figured out how to save money. I even mastered the art of the Mango Magic smoothie (the secret is lots of sugar). But most importantly, I learned the power of perspective. And I have Deja to thank for that. 

Deja was my shift supervisor, and one of Tropical Smoothie’s best employees. She was punctual, friendly, and always willing to lend a helping hand. She knew the store from top to bottom, and could handle pretty much any situation thrown her way. She made everyone around her better. On top of all that, she was four months pregnant! I was always impressed by Deja’s work ethic, but I gained an entirely new level of respect for her one day.

It was a Friday night, and Deja and I were working the closing shift together. It was very busy, and Deja and I were the only ones on shift. We managed to get by, but we were exhausted by the end of the evening. After wiping down the counters and mopping the floors, we closed up shop and went our separate ways. I was eager to get home. 

I walked a couple blocks to where I had parked my car. Well, it wasn’t my car actually. It was my dad’s ‘98 Chevy pickup truck, and it was in rough shape. It had no heat or A/C, the leather seats were cracked beyond repair, and the driver’s side door was jammed shut. I sighed as I got in through the passenger side and scooted over to the driver’s seat. The whole reason I was working at Tropical Smoothie was to save up enough money to buy my own car. I was hoping to have something more respectable to drive during my senior year of high school. 

I cranked the old thing up and started on my way home. But soon enough, I spotted Deja walking on the side of the road. There was no sidewalk here, the light was low, and she was dangerously close to the passing cars. I pulled over and offered her a ride. She got in and explained that she was on her way home. Apparently she didn’t have a car and had been walking to work every day. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was complaining about my set of wheels, while Deja didn’t have any to begin with.

We got to talking, and she confessed that she had been having a tough time. You would never know from the way she was so cheerful at work, but Deja had a lot on her plate. She was taking care of her mother, her boyfriend had just lost his job, and she was worried about making ends meet. And of course, she was expecting a baby in five months. On top of all that, she had been walking nearly a mile to and from work every day. The whole thing was a real eye opener, and made me reconsider some things in my own life. 

For one, I didn’t mind driving my dad’s truck anymore. It was banged up, sure, but it was a lot better than nothing. My mindset had changed. I appreciated the truck now. I began to think about other things differently, too. I started making mental notes of all the things in my life I was thankful for — my family, my friends, my health. I became grateful for what I had, instead of obsessing over the things I didn’t. 

I also gained more awareness of the world outside my own little bubble. My encounter with Deja had shown me first-hand that everyone is dealing with their own problems, some worse than others. So I started paying more attention to my friends, family members, and coworkers. I started listening more and asking how I could help. I also gave Deja a ride home for the rest of the summer. 

These are all small things, of course, but I think they make a difference. I realized I’m at my best when I’m not fixated on my own life, but when I’m considerate of the lives around me. I want to keep this in mind as I continue to grow and develop as a person. I want to continue to search for ways to support the people around me. And most importantly, I want to keep things in perspective.

Too often we can be focused on our own problems that we fail to realize that everyone has their own things going on in their lives, too.  This essay showcases how it’s important to put things in perspective, a skill that certainly will prove invaluable in college… and not just in the classroom.  Another reason I like this essay is because it provides deeper insight into the student’s life.  Sure, you might have mentioned in your activities list that you have a job.  But as this essay does, you can show why you have the job in the first place, what your responsibilities are, and more.

A few last tips

We hope these essay examples gave you a bit of inspiration of what to include in your own. However, before you go, we’d like to send you off with a few (personal statement) writing tips to help you make your essays as lovely as the memories and anecdotes they’re based off of. Without further ado, here are some of our best tips for writing your personal statements:

1. Open strong

College admissions officers read many, many essays (think 50+) a day, which can sometimes cause them to start blending together and sounding alike. One way to avoid your essay from simply fading into the background is to start strong. This means opening your essay with something memorable, whether an interesting personal anecdote, a descriptive setting, or anything else that you think would catch a reader’s attention (so long as it’s not inappropriate). Not only might this help college admissions officers better remember your essay, but it will also make them curious about what the rest of your essay will entail.

2. Be authentic

Perhaps most important when it comes to writing personal statement essays is to maintain your authenticity. Ultimately, your essays should reflect your unique stories and quirks that make you who you are, and should help college admissions officers determine whether you’d truly be a good fit for their school or not. So, don’t stress trying to figure out what colleges are looking for. Be yourself, and let the colleges come to you!

3. Strong writing

This one may seem a little obvious, but strong writing will certainly appeal to colleges. Not only will it make your essay more compelling, but it may show colleges that you’re ready for college-level essay writing (that you’ll likely have to do a lot of). Just remember that good writing is not limited to grammar. Using captivating detail and descriptions are a huge part of making your essay seem more like a story than a lecture.

4. Proofread

Last but not least, remember to proofread! Make sure your essay contains no errors in grammar, punctuation, and spelling. When you’re done proofreading your essay yourself, we would also recommend that you ask a teacher, parent, or other grammatically savvy person to proofread your essay as well.

Final thoughts 

With those in hand, we hope you now have a better sense of how to write your personal statement. While your grades and test scores are important when it comes to college admissions, it’s really your essays that can “make” or “break” your application. 

Although this may make it seem like a daunting task, writing an amazing personal statement essay is all about effort. Thus, so long as you start early, follow the advice listed above, and dedicate your time and effort to it, it’s entirely possible to write an essay that perfectly encapsulates you. Good luck, and happy writing!

Also see:  Scholarships360’s free scholarships search tool

Key Takeaways

  • It may take some people longer than others to know what they want to write about, but remember that everyone, including you, has something unique to write about!
  • Personal statements should be personal, which means you should avoid being too general and really strive to show off what makes you “you”
  • Time and effort are two of the most important things you can put into your personal statement to ensure that it is the best representation of yourself
  • Don’t forget to ask people who know you to read your work before you submit; they should be able to tell you better than anyone if you are truly shining through!

Frequently asked questions about writing personal statements 

How do you write a powerful personal statement, what makes an amazing personal statement, how do you start an amazing personal statement, scholarships360 recommended.

how to write a personal essay for a college application

10 Tips for Successful College Applications

how to write a personal essay for a college application

Coalition vs. Common App: What is the difference?

how to write a personal essay for a college application

College Application Deadlines 2023-2024: What You Need to Know

Trending now.

how to write a personal essay for a college application

How to Convert Your GPA to a 4.0 Scale

how to write a personal essay for a college application

PSAT to SAT Score Conversion: Predict Your Score

how to write a personal essay for a college application

What Are Public Ivy League Schools?

3 reasons to join scholarships360.

  • Automatic entry to our $10,000 No-Essay Scholarship
  • Personalized matching to thousands of vetted scholarships
  • Quick apply for scholarships exclusive to our platform

By the way...Scholarships360 is 100% free!

PrepScholar

Choose Your Test

Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 177 college essay examples for 11 schools + expert analysis.

author image

College Admissions , College Essays

body-typewriter-writing-desk-cc0

The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.

In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article is a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!

What Excellent College Essays Have in Common

Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.

Visible Signs of Planning

Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.

Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.

Stellar Execution

A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!

A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.

body-frog-cc0

Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.

And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.

Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!

how to write a personal essay for a college application

Want to write the perfect college application essay? Get professional help from PrepScholar.

Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.

Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now :

Craft Your Perfect College Essay

Links to Full College Essay Examples

Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.

Common App Essay Samples

Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts. 

Connecticut college.

  • 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025

Hamilton College

  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007

Johns Hopkins

These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).

  • 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
  • 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
  • 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
  • 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020

Essay Examples Published by Other Websites

  • 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia

Other Sample College Essays

Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.

Babson College

  • 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020

Emory University

  • 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
  • 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out

University of Georgia

  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2023
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2022
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2021
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2020
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2019
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2018
  • 6 essays from admitted MIT students

Smith College

  • 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018

body-library-cc0-2

Books of College Essays

If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.

College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.

50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.

Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.

body-writing-notebook-student-cc0

Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked

I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.

Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)

I had never broken into a car before.

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"

"Why me?" I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.

Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.

But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.

Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

What Makes This Essay Tick?

It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!

An Opening Line That Draws You In

In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).

Great, Detailed Opening Story

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.

It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.

Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.

body_coathangers

Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight

Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."

Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.

"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.

Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice

My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.

Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."

The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.

body-oil-spill

An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future

But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.

This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?

Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.

Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.

how to write a personal essay for a college application

Want to build the best possible college application?

We can help. PrepScholar Admissions is the world's best admissions consulting service. We combine world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies . We've overseen thousands of students get into their top choice schools , from state colleges to the Ivy League.

We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit. We want to get you admitted to your dream schools .

Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in.

Get Into Your Top Choice School

Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.

Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.

I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.

In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).

I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.

A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.

It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.

Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.

One Clear Governing Metaphor

This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.

But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:

This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.

Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:

While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.

body_fixers

An Engaging, Individual Voice

This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.

Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.

I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.

Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!

For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:

Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.

Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.

Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.

Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.

In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.

The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.

body-crying-upset-cc0

Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.

Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.”  The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.

Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.

4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay

How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.

#1: Get Help From the Experts

Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings .  If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with  PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.  If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .

#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own

As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
  • Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
  • Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
  • Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?

Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.

body-gears-cogs-puzzle-cc0

#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment

All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.

Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.

#4: Start Early, Revise Often

Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.

Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!

For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .

body_next_step_drawing_blackboard

What's Next?

Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.

Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .

Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points

The recommendations in this post are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links PrepScholar may receive a commission.

author image

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

Student and Parent Forum

Our new student and parent forum, at ExpertHub.PrepScholar.com , allow you to interact with your peers and the PrepScholar staff. See how other students and parents are navigating high school, college, and the college admissions process. Ask questions; get answers.

Join the Conversation

Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!

Improve With Our Famous Guides

  • For All Students

The 5 Strategies You Must Be Using to Improve 160+ SAT Points

How to Get a Perfect 1600, by a Perfect Scorer

Series: How to Get 800 on Each SAT Section:

Score 800 on SAT Math

Score 800 on SAT Reading

Score 800 on SAT Writing

Series: How to Get to 600 on Each SAT Section:

Score 600 on SAT Math

Score 600 on SAT Reading

Score 600 on SAT Writing

Free Complete Official SAT Practice Tests

What SAT Target Score Should You Be Aiming For?

15 Strategies to Improve Your SAT Essay

The 5 Strategies You Must Be Using to Improve 4+ ACT Points

How to Get a Perfect 36 ACT, by a Perfect Scorer

Series: How to Get 36 on Each ACT Section:

36 on ACT English

36 on ACT Math

36 on ACT Reading

36 on ACT Science

Series: How to Get to 24 on Each ACT Section:

24 on ACT English

24 on ACT Math

24 on ACT Reading

24 on ACT Science

What ACT target score should you be aiming for?

ACT Vocabulary You Must Know

ACT Writing: 15 Tips to Raise Your Essay Score

How to Get Into Harvard and the Ivy League

How to Get a Perfect 4.0 GPA

How to Write an Amazing College Essay

What Exactly Are Colleges Looking For?

Is the ACT easier than the SAT? A Comprehensive Guide

Should you retake your SAT or ACT?

When should you take the SAT or ACT?

Stay Informed

how to write a personal essay for a college application

Get the latest articles and test prep tips!

Looking for Graduate School Test Prep?

Check out our top-rated graduate blogs here:

GRE Online Prep Blog

GMAT Online Prep Blog

TOEFL Online Prep Blog

Holly R. "I am absolutely overjoyed and cannot thank you enough for helping me!”

College Advisor logo

How to Start a Personal Statement

Avatar photo

One of the first hurdles students encounter when writing college essays is how to start a personal statement. As a core element of many applications, understanding how to write a personal statement is crucial. Learning how to write a personal statement that is an authentic representation of yourself can be challenging. However, mastering this skill will help you craft personal essays that make a lasting impact on admissions officers. 

Specific, actionable college essay tips can help you learn how to write a personal statement for college. If you spend time learning how to start a college essay, you’ll feel even more confident as you begin the process. So, let’s demystify just exactly how to start a personal statement. 

In this guide, How to Start a Personal Statement, we’ll cover everything you need to know about personal statements, including:

  • Personal statement meaning, goals, and expectations
  • Common personal statement formats
  • The importance of a hook and how to write one
  • Steps for how to start a personal statement
  • Tips for how to write a personal statement
  • How to approach the editing phase
  • Coming up with personal statement ideas
  • Examples of personal statements and how to use them

Remember, any writing process takes time. This applies whether you’re figuring out how to start a college essay or how to write a personal statement for college. No matter what approach you take, the key to how to write a great college essay is to start early! 

Now, let’s start with the basics: what is a personal statement?

What is a personal statement?

how to write a personal essay for a college application

Simply put, a personal statement is a type of college application essay. But, if you’re looking for answers to, “What is a personal statement?” you probably already know that. At its core, the personal statement should be the essay that most clearly reflects your application narrative . By reading your personal statement, colleges should gain a better understanding of who you are. That means having a clear sense of your strengths, values, and interests.

However, this doesn’t mean that your personal statement needs to capture your entire life story. In fact, often, your personal statement will likely center around just one particular moment or experience. Specifically, one that has defined your identity, passions, or personal growth. 

If you search for a personal statement meaning by school, you may find slightly varying definitions. However, all personal essays have the same goal. Personal essays show colleges your authentic voice while highlighting a part of yourself that isn’t captured elsewhere in your application. You’ll notice this if you read any example of a personal statement for college. 

Engaging in self-reflection

To understand the personal statement meaning in the simplest terms, think of two words: self-reflection . Identifying pivotal life moments, values, and skills are all a part of how to write a great college essay. However, the process of how to write a personal statement for college takes more than just describing an experience. Instead, it forces you to find the balance between contextualizing what happened and expressing how it impacted you.

Successful personal essays will generally do two things. One, they’ll capture the meaning of your past experiences, specifically the ways you were changed and the lessons you learned. Two, they’ll connect your past experiences to your current and future goals. For many students, college applications are the first time they’ve been asked to write about themselves. So, the process of making these personal connections may seem daunting.

Preparing for the future

Knowing exactly what is a personal statement and how to write a personal statement can also help you in other facets of life. For example, consider the overlap between the college application process and the job application process. When applying to jobs, you need to highlight pertinent skills, values, and beliefs—just like in a college application essay. You can even use the skills and principles for writing a personal statement to write a cover letter (with certain nuances, of course).

For more information on the personal statement meaning, check out the application/essay page for schools on your college list. Their advice and resources can help students understand exactly what’s expected from them in these types of essays. And, many colleges will even provide their own tips for how to write a great college essay. They might also provide an example of a personal statement for college. 

We’ve answered the question, “What is a personal statement?” So, now, let’s get into the personal statement format.

Personal statement format

how to write a personal essay for a college application

When learning how to write a personal statement, you’ll encounter some different personal statement formats. While there is no singular or “best” personal statement format, most personal essays share a few key attributes. So, understanding these key features can greatly help students learning how to write a great college essay.

Many students’ personal statements tell stories. In fact, discovering these important stories forms a key component of how to start a college essay. Much of the work that goes into discovering how to write a personal statement starts before you even begin writing. (We’ll discuss brainstorming ideas in a later section of this guide.)

Before we dive into how to start a personal statement, we need to pinpoint the starting point for your personal statements: the prompts.

Common/Coalition Application Personal Statement

In many cases, the personal statement refers to the Common App essay or Coalition Application essay. While there are some differences between the two application portals, both follow the same personal statement format. Students will choose from a selection of college essay prompts and write an essay (650 words max). Then, they will submit that essay to every school they apply to via that particular portal. In these cases, the process of how to start a college essay begins with reading through the provided prompts.

Learning how to write a personal statement for college includes learning how to choose the best prompt for you. The personal statement topic you ultimately choose is extremely important; your topic is essentially the soul of your essay. You’d be hard-pressed to find a well-written example of a personal statement for college that wasn’t based on an impactful topic. 

The Common App essay

Let’s take a closer look at how to start a college essay for the Common App. In the Common App, students have seven college essay prompts to choose from. Each of these college essay prompts allows students to share important anecdotes from their lives. Most of these college essay prompts ask specific questions, however, the seventh prompt is slightly different. Prompt #7 actually allows students to choose any topic for their essay.

10 Exceptional Common App Essay Examples

The coalition app essay.

The Coalition Application offers a similar personal statement format. Prompt #6 also asks students to submit an essay on any topic. You might think that responding to such an open-ended prompt would change your approach for how to write a great college essay. However, you can still use the college essay tips provided in this guide, no matter what prompt you decide to respond to.

The Common App and the Coalition Application are the most common personal statement formats you’ll encounter. However, some schools have their own unique personal statement format and requirements.

Coalition Essay Prompts 2023-24

Other personal statements

The method you take when figuring out how to write a personal statement will largely depend on your personal statement prompt. However, a personal statement for college isn’t always based on specific college essay prompts. You might simply be asked to share more about yourself. However, even if your personal statement format doesn’t directly ask you for a particular narrative, your essay still needs a focus. So, you should still aim to have your personal statement tell a story about some critical aspect of your identity. 

That being said, always double-check the specific personal statement format and requirements for each program you apply to. For instance, if you apply to universities in the UK, the UCAS personal statement is far different from other personal essays. Namely, these personal statements focus almost entirely on academics. 

When considering how to start a personal statement, look to admissions websites or university blogs for advice. Often, they’ll have a page dedicated to helpful college essay tips with insight into what they look for from students’ personal essays. For example, check out this blog from UChicago that provides tips on how to approach their quirky prompts. Additionally, check out this personal statement webinar in which an admissions officer shares helpful college essay tips. 

Now, let’s define an important attribute of how to start a personal statement: the hook.

How to start a personal statement: Understanding the “hook”

how to start a personal statement

It’s impossible to learn how to start a personal statement or how to write a personal statement that “wows” without a hook. A hook is an opening statement that catches the reader’s attention. It draws them in and makes them want to keep reading to see how the story unfolds. In personal essays, the hook is key to getting your reader invested in your story. 

But, if the idea of coming up with a compelling hook intimidates you, don’t panic! The hook isn’t necessarily the step you need to start with when learning how to start a college essay. That being said, it forms a crucial component of the personal statement introduction. You’ll notice that almost every successful example of personal statement for college has an engaging hook.

Let’s check out some hooks that impressed to help give you a better idea of how to start a personal statement.

College Personal Statement Examples

Example of personal statement for college: hook #1.

My life is as simple as a Rubik’s Cube: a child’s toy that can be solved in 20 moves or less IF and only if enough knowledge is gained.

In this personal statement introduction, this student intrigues the reader by comparing their life to a toy. Simply by reading this hook, we can see this student’s self-reflection as well as their creativity. And, most importantly, we’re intrigued to see the connection of how and why this person is fascinated by a Rubik’s cube. In this example, the Rubik’s cube is both unique and genuinely important to the writer. Moreover, by the end of the essay, we gain some valuable insight into how this person navigates the world. And, it all started with this hook. 

Example of Personal Statement for College: Hook #2

When I joined the high school swim team, I never expected to go to school dressed as Shrek.

After reading this hook, you’re probably left with more questions than answers. “What does having to be on the swim team have to do with dressing up as Shrek?” We don’t know yet! And, that’s the point. This surprising hook has the reader curious about the connection the writer will make. However, when figuring out how to start a personal statement, don’t go overboard with the shock factor. Keep in mind that personal essays can’t come from wild statements alone. Rather, they need to connect to a meaningful moment in the writer’s life. 

Example of Personal Statement for College: Hook #3

At six years old, most kids I know get excited to help Blue find clues or recite Elmo’s songs on Sesame Street. So you can imagine my family’s surprise when they saw me ignoring the other kids to go belt alongside my grandfather’s mariachi trio in the backyard.

Your hook doesn’t have to be just one sentence. Rather, it might be a couple of sentences or even the first paragraph, like in this example. Keep in mind that there are no definitive rules to how to start a personal statement—other than sharing important information about yourself that will stand out to admissions officers.

Students who want to master how to write a personal statement need to learn how to craft an engaging hook. This particular hook shows how the writer is different from their peers. As the reader, we can learn a lot from just these few sentences. We already know that this writer isn’t afraid to be themselves and do what they love from a young age. This college application essay gets into much deeper themes as the narrative continues. However, the most important part of the personal statement introduction—the hook—has already done its job of pulling the reader in to learn more. 

Using these examples

These are just a few successful hooks that students have used in their approach to how to start a personal statement. Each of these comes from a strong example of a personal statement for college. As you can see from each example of a personal statement for college, the best personal statement topics are unique. However, even the most quirky hooks always lead the reader into an essay of substance.

Use each example of personal statement for college to help inspire your “how to write a personal statement” journey. When considering how to write a great college essay, analyzing examples of what works can help. 

Want to see how others figured out how to start a personal statement? Check out these personal statement examples as well as these Common App essay examples for inspiration.

When to write your hook

Having a hook is a crucial part of how to write a personal statement that impresses. However, coming up with your hook won’t necessarily form the first step in your process. Just as there’s no one right way of how to write a personal statement, there’s no one right way to write a hook. 

When considering how to start a personal statement, you don’t need to dive into the hook right away. You may even write a whole draft of your essay before figuring out the best hook for your personal statement introduction. 

So, if a hook doesn’t jump to your brain as you consider personal statement ideas, just start writing! Sometimes, it’s best to write a straightforward beginning (maybe even dry!) and then work your way backward. Remember, it doesn’t matter when you come up with it. Just be sure to add that sparkly hook to your personal statement before submitting your final draft.

Do all colleges require a personal statement?

how to start a personal statement

It’s more than likely that you will need to know how to write a personal statement during the college application process. However, not every college requires a personal statement—though most top schools do. 

So, before stressing about how to start a college essay, check the requirements of the schools on your college list . However, keep in mind that most of the nation’s top schools require applicants to submit a personal statement for college.

Additionally, you might want to adjust your personal statement for different programs. You’ll still submit the same personal statement for college for each school you apply to through the Common App. However, other specialized programs and applications might request a slightly different personal statement format. So, always check the admissions requirements and do your research on every school and each individual program. Your approach to how to start a college essay will depend on each program’s prompts and formats. You can also always look at an example of a personal statement for college for inspiration. 

33 Colleges Without Supplemental Essays

Do colleges care about the personal statement? 

A strong college application essay is extremely important in the admissions process. So, put simply, yes—colleges really do care about the personal statement. Understanding how to start a personal statement means understanding the weight that it carries. Of course, you shouldn’t let yourself get overwhelmed by the process. Rather, try to feel excited by the opportunity to truly show off your personality, skills, background, future goals, and more.

That being said, the extent to which your personal statement impacts your admissions decision will likely vary by school. For instance, some larger state schools may focus foremost on your grades or standardized test scores (due to the fact that they receive such a large volume of applicants and have more spaces available). While these schools will still care about your personal statement, other factors may have a more immediate impact on their admissions decisions. 

On the other hand, top universities with smaller enrollments often place a considerable amount of emphasis on the personal statement. These schools receive more qualified applicants than the places they have available. Your personal statement lets you highlight what makes you unique and how you’ll enrich their campus community. 

How to write a personal statement – Step-by-step guide

A successful personal statement for college will read as passionate and authentic. You’ll notice this in each example of personal statement for college that you read. But how exactly do you write a passionate and authentic essay?

To begin, you’ll likely brainstorm personal statement ideas and decide on your personal statement topic.  However, understanding how to write a personal statement will require more than simply knowing how to start a personal statement. And remember, you can always check out an example of a personal essay for college if you’re feeling stuck. 

How to write a personal statement isn’t a strict process—as seen in this personal statement webinar about rethinking your essay . However, you should follow certain key steps as you craft your essays. Following each step, and allotting yourself sufficient time to do so, will make the writing process all the better. (Tips about staying on track are just as important as the best college essay tips about writing!)

Next, we’ll walk you through the step-by-step process of how to write a personal statement. This includes brainstorming personal statement ideas, exploring personal statement topics, and reviewing and submitting your personal essays.

Ready to learn just how to write a personal statement? Let’s get started!

How to start a personal statement – First steps

how to start a personal statement

Now, let’s dive into how to start a personal statement. The first steps to how to start a personal statement can be broken down into two parts:

During these steps, you’ll generate personal statement ideas and select your personal statement topics. Without a strong topic, you’ll struggle to write a genuine essay. So, let’s talk about how to generate an essay topic that highlights your passion. 

Step 1: Brainstorm

How to start a personal statement begins with brainstorming a list of ideas. Each stellar example of a personal statement for college likely came from a brainstorming session. But, why is brainstorming so important? 

While some personal statement requirements won’t provide specific prompts for applicants, many will, including the Common App essay. So, you should make sure to choose a great topic that directly answers the prompt. 

Let’s check out some brainstorming exercises that can help you get the great ideas flowing. 

The best way to choose a great topic for a personal statement for college is through your passions. If you’re stuck when it comes to pinpointing your passions, try answering this question: If you were going to host a TED talk, what would it be and why? We all know that TED talks are addicting—that’s because they’re engaging. And they’re engaging because the hosts are talking about their passions. 

So, think about something you would be excited to spend 30-40 minutes discussing in front of an audience. What would you say about it? You might find using voice notes and recording yourself is easier than writing out your ideas. For some students, talking about something may feel easier than immediately putting pen to paper. 

If a TED talk doesn’t get your creative juices flowing, try a classic essay brainstorming method: mind maps. You’ve likely done mind maps in your high school English class. But for those who haven’t, let’s break down the process. 

First, take the prompt for your essay. For instance, maybe it asks about a challenge you’ve faced. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write the prompt on a sheet of paper. Then, next to the prompt, start writing every experience you’ve had that relates to the prompt. This is not the time to get into the details—just focus on potential topics. Even if you’re not sure if something is a perfect fit, include it! At this stage, all ideas are fair game. Later, you can narrow them down to find the topic that you have the most to write about. 

Defining values

Another useful brainstorming exercise for a college application essay, especially when it comes to how to start a personal statement, has to do with defining your values. Most successful personal essays center around a value that students have. Think about the values that are most important to you (loyalty, kindness, empathy, honesty, etc.). Then, create a list of 4-6 values. After that, for each of your values, come up with a list of experiences that reflect them. You can even set a timer for each value. 

Alternatively, you might work backward by coming up with a list of experiences that you find were the most impactful in your life. From these experiences, you can identify values that they instilled or that you embodied. Make sure to focus on an experience that highlights something critical about who you are as a person, student, or community member. You might also consider doing this same activity for qualities or skills depending on the essay prompt. 

Step 2: Free-write

how to start a personal statement

Once you have your topic, it’s time to flex your writing muscles. Don’t feel constrained by the word count at this stage. In fact, forget about a hook, a conclusion, and other literary details. Now is just the time to get your ideas on paper stress-free. 

Struggling with Step 2 in how to start a personal statement? You might benefit from doing a timed free write. Set a timer for 20 minutes and don’t stop writing about the topic until the time is up. Don’t stress about writing the perfect sentence or having the right flow–just keep writing on the topic at hand. You may want to do this step a couple of times if you’re still deciding on the best prompt to respond to. You won’t always find the perfect personal essay topic on the first try, and that’s okay.

However, keep in mind that some topics may read as inappropriate or cliché. If you end up choosing an overused essay topic, you may struggle to come up with a unique angle. (But that doesn’t mean these topics are entirely off-limits!) However, you should not talk about illegal or illicit behavior and never use explicit language. 

While you have free range to pick an essay topic, there are certain errors you can make. Make sure you don’t join the club of students who missed the mark with their personal essays. Learn from this personal statement webinar reviewing common mistakes that students make in their personal essays. Then, you’ll know what to avoid when deciding how to start a personal statement.

How to start a personal statement – Writing & editing

how to start a personal statement

You’ve gotten some answers to the question “what is a personal statement?” and learned how to start a personal statement. Now, it’s time to start a draft. 

For some students, figuring out how to start a college essay is the most stressful part of writing their personal essays. Indeed, you may have to write four to six drafts of your college application essay before you’ve written a personal statement for college that makes you feel proud. 

This is why our top piece of advice for how to write a great college essay is to start early. If you start early, you’ll have plenty of time to learn how to write a personal statement. You’ll also have the flexibility to write multiple drafts of your personal essays. Additionally, you’ll be able to read an example of a personal statement for college. 

Time also allows you the freedom to try out multiple personal statement topics. That way, you can find the personal statement format that makes for a powerful college application essay.

In this section, we’ll provide some college essay tips for outlining your personal statement, an important step for how to start a personal statement.

One idea for how to start a college essay is to draft an outline. An outline is simply a list of the ideas that will go into each part of your essay. You can format your outline in any way that makes sense for you. 

By outlining, you can remove some of the pressure around how to start a personal statement. Instead of putting pen to paper to write a whole essay , you just have to jot down what order you want your ideas to go in. Think of an outline as a sketch of a picture you want to draw. Once you have that sketch, drawing the rest of the picture is usually easier.

However, outlining is not for everyone. Some students find outlining stressful, limiting, or confusing. If you’d rather jump into writing your personal statement on a blank page, do so. At the end of the day, when figuring out how to start a personal statement, you should follow the writing process that works best for you.  

Drafting Your College Essay

Regardless of whether you choose to outline your ideas, here are some tips for how to start a college essay draft:

Find a beginning, middle, and end to your story.

As we’ve shared, a strong personal statement for college tells a story about who you are and demonstrates what you would bring to a college campus. 

To write a strong example of a personal statement for college, you must have a beginning, middle, and end. By this, we mean that your essay should introduce and build upon ideas until they lead to some kind of resolution usually related to your personal growth. Think about your favorite book or movie – how did the story develop and resolve itself? Make sure your personal essays do the same.

Develop your hook.

The key to how to start a personal statement is with a hook. As we shared above, a hook is an engaging personal statement introduction that catches the reader’s attention. In your outline, consider adding some ideas for potential hooks. 

A hook can include, but is not limited to, any of the following types of opening sentences:

  • A piece of dialogue (i.e. “Do you remember the summer we went to Turkey?” said my mother.)
  • A description of a scene (i.e., The Alaskan lake was warm that summer, the sun gleaming off its gentle ripples.)
  • A thought-provoking question (i.e., What makes a house feel like a home?)
  • A relevant and powerful quote (i.e., When Steve Jobs said “You can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking back,” he gave words to a struggle I have long faced.) 
  • An unexpected thought (i.e., I am the fourth of eleven children in my family and the first one to dream of going to college.)

Each of the above personal statement introductions is unique and original. Additionally, all of these hooks make the reader wonder what else is coming in the essay. Indeed, each of these hooks is a great idea for how to start a college essay. 

When thinking about how to start a college essay, avoid using cliché or generic personal statement introductions. In general, don’t directly answer college essay prompts like “A challenge I have faced is…”. These types of personal statement introductions are so common that they tend to lose the reader’s attention quickly.

Jot down details.

After identifying a hook, begin telling your story. In your outline, include any details that make your story unique. While some students assume that personal statement topics must be very rare or ground-breaking, in most cases the details are what set essays apart. 

What do you remember that can help the reader experience your story vividly? How can you evoke their senses or emotions in a way that makes them feel and remember your story? Keeping these questions in mind will unlock many tools for how to write a great college essay.

Identify reflections.

Stories are powerful not only for how they make us feel but for what they teach us. When you jot down your outline, consider what reflections or lessons you have to share. Why does your story matter? What does it demonstrate about who you are? 

Your essay should be descriptive and show us what you were experiencing. However, you can also include a few lines that tell the reader what you want them to take away. Usually, these reflections come towards the end of the essay, but they can also be sprinkled throughout. 

How to Write a Personal Statement – Polish and Revise 

how to start a personal statement

Now that you’ve learned how to start a personal statement, let’s discuss what some consider to be the most critical part of writing an essay – revising. Polishing and revising an essay are the keys for how to write a great college essay. When you look at an example of a personal statement for college, remember that the student probably spent many hours revising that essay.

When revising your personal essays, avoid getting frustrated by how long the process takes. The key for how to write a personal statement without getting too overwhelmed is to be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Just like living your story takes time, energy, and resilience, so does writing your story in a college application essay. Rather than getting frustrated, celebrate how much you have learned about how to start a college essay.

In the next section, we’ll dive deeper into college essay tips for revising your personal essays. 

Step 4: Revise

how to write a personal essay for a college application

If you’re wondering how to write a personal statement for college, you’re probably also wondering how to revise one. Revision is the process during which you review what you have written for errors and to check whether the ideas make sense. You might also revise to find ways to shorten your essay if it is too long or expand on ideas that you didn’t fully flesh out. 

Here are some college essay tips for revision:

College Essay Revision Tips

1. take breaks.

After you write your first draft, step away from it for at least 24 hours. When we spend a long time working on a piece of writing, sometimes our brains find it hard to focus. Stepping away will give you time to let your brain rest and return to it with fresh eyes.

We also recommend taking breaks whenever you feel stuck, a condition sometimes called writer’s block. While you might feel that pushing through is the best option, stepping away for a glass of water or a stretch can rejuvenate your body and give new energy to your mind as well. Taking care of yourself is actually one of the keys for how to write a personal statement that represents your best work. 

2. Make a revision checklist

Create a list of items to look for as you revise. That way, you won’t miss anything. Here are some ideas for what how to start a personal statement revision checklist:

  • Structure/flow – Does the structure of my essay support its meaning? A structure can refer to the length of paragraphs, the order of ideas, or the format. Maybe your essay has a lot of dialogue, but now you have realized the dialogue is distracting. 
  • Repetitive language – Do you use the same words or phrases over and over again? While you may have fallen into repetition when figuring out how to start a personal statement, try varying vocabulary or rephrasing sentence structure to keep the reader interested.
  • Spelling/grammar/syntax – Run your essay through an app like Grammarly and always use spell check. Look for ways to remove unnecessary words or shorten sentences. Generally, the fewer words you use to express an idea, the easier it will be for the reader to understand.
  • Narrative voice – This refers to the voice you use to tell your story. Is it very informal? Do you sound like you are texting with friends? One of the keys for how to write a personal statement is to use your own voice while still remembering that you are speaking to a college admissions officer. As experts in how to write a great college essay know, avoid slang and spell out contractions for added formality.

3. Read your essay aloud

Reading your essay out loud can help you find mistakes. Even more importantly, it can also help you feel if the essay captures your voice. When you read it out loud, does your essay sound like you? Are there words in your essay that you would never use in real life? These questions can help you determine if you need to adjust the narrative voice of your essay. After all, admissions officers want to hear what you sound like, not a parent or friend.

4. Get help

Whether you’re stuck on how to write a personal statement or not, it’s always a good idea to get another set of eyes on your essay. Just be careful who you select. Make sure you are asking someone who knows how to write a personal statement and can give you the right kind of feedback. 

Also, consider asking both someone who knows you well and someone who does not know you well. The person who knows you well, like a teacher, parent, counselor, or college advisor (like our team of experts at CollegeAdvisor) can make sure your voice comes across. A person who does not know you well can provide input from an outsider’s perspective. Ultimately, when you submit your college essay, you will be sending it to someone who has never met you. As such, it should make sense to people who don’t know you as well.

5. Don’t be afraid to start over

Sometimes, during the revision process, you may realize that your topic doesn’t work for you. Perhaps you realize that you were so worried about how to start a personal statement that you chose a topic you thought others wanted to read instead of one that really resonates with you. Or, maybe you just thought of a new idea for how to start a personal statement that you like a lot better. It is totally normal to redraft entire paragraphs or simply throw out the essay and start over . Even though it may seem like you have wasted time, you were learning throughout the entire process about how to write a personal statement. 

Starting over might be the best approach for you and allow you to write an essay that feels more authentic . However, do not simply start over because you are being hyper-critical of yourself. Focus as much on what you like about your essay as the parts that you do not. Do not let perfectionism cause you to throw away a perfectly good essay.

On average, students learning how to write a great college essay need to write four to six drafts until they are ready to submit. However, if you have done your research on how to write a personal statement, it may take you less. After six drafts, ask yourself if you really need to keep working on the essay, or if you are letting perfectionism get the best of you. Remember, no essay is perfect. As long as your personal statement reflects your true voice and shares a compelling story about how you became who you are, you’re likely ready to submit it.

In the next section, we will dive deeper into the final steps for how to write a great college essay that you should take before hitting submit.

Step 5: Final Review & Submit

how to start a personal statement

Congratulations! You’re almost ready to submit your personal statement for college. You’ve learned how to write a personal statement, brainstormed and drafted one, and revised it. Before you hit submit, here is a final checklist of questions to ask yourself: 

1. Did I answer the prompt fully?

Just like you plug your answer back into a math equation to see if it works, plug your essay back into the prompt. Make sure each part of the question is being answered.

2. Did I meet the word or character count?

While it is okay to be a bit under the word count, as long as you answer the question fully, going over the word count will usually mean you cannot submit your essay. 

3. Does my essay paste neatly into the application?

Before pasting your essay into the online application, we recommend pasting your essay into a Word document or Google document. Make sure to remove any formatting like bolding, italics, or comments. Left-align your essay so that it is easy to read. And, double check that spacing between sentences and paragraphs is uniform. 

While these might seem like small details, they all add to the impression you make upon admissions officers about how prepared you might be to attend their school.  Take advantage of the option to download the PDF summary of your application, if it exists, to ensure everything looks neat before you submit it.

If you can answer all these questions with a yes, you’re probably ready to submit your essay. Now, you can teach others how to write a personal statement, too. 

How to start a personal statement

At this point, you have reviewed all the steps for how to write a personal statement for college. We’d like to remind you of some important parts of this process that will help ease any stress related to writing your college essays.

First, try brainstorming first. Writing a college essay is a lot different than most academic writing you’ll have done, and it’s natural to face some writer’s block. By taking advantage of brainstorming exercises, you can get used to the idea of writing about yourself in a low-pressure environment. Some students want to skip brainstorming because they find this step unnecessary or a waste of time. 

In fact, brainstorming can help you write your essay faster because your personal statement ideas will already be on paper. Brainstorming can also help you avoid writing an essay and then realizing you do not like your topic, leading to you having to write a whole new draft.

Another key point in how to start a personal statement is to write a good “hook.” However, this doesn’t need to be the first thing that you write as you begin the drafting process. Just like writing a title sometimes is easier after you have written a paper, it can be easier to find your hook after you have fleshed out other parts of your essay.

Starting early

Regardless of what approach you take, remember that the most important piece of advice for how to start a personal statement is to start early. If you begin the process early, you’ll have time to learn about personal statement format and personal statement meaning, brainstorm essay ideas, watch personal statement webinars, and review sample essays. All of these steps will help you learn how to write a personal statement that is strong and clear.

Below, we’ll help you learn more about how to start a personal statement by providing brainstorming exercises to come up with personal statement ideas.

Generating personal statement ideas

how to start a personal statement

The first question many students ask when learning how to start a personal statement is how to come up with personal statement ideas. As we have mentioned, brainstorming forms a key part of this process.

Importantly, there are many ways to brainstorm. So, even if you think you do not like to brainstorm, consider revising these brainstorming methods. One of them might open up ideas for how to start your personal statement that you had never considered.

One important note is that you do not have to use college essay prompts as the starting point for your brainstorming process. While they can certainly jog your thinking, sometimes they can also limit your creativity. Since most of the Common App and Coalition App prompts are open-ended, you can usually turn most ideas into a great response to college essay prompts.

Keep reading for activities that can help you brainstorm your personal statement for college. 

Here are some ideas for brainstorming personal statement topics:

Brainstorming Activities

1. make a timeline of important life events.

Students who ask “what is a personal statement?” are often concerned that they have to tell their entire life story in 650 words. While this is not true, your personal statement should highlight key life events. A life event can include a big change, an accomplishment, or a time of deep personal growth. 

For this activity, consider making a timeline of important life events. Do so without judgment or filtering. No event is too small to include. After you have completed your timeline, consider if any event is one that you want to share in your college application essay. One of these events might be a great hook for your personal statement introduction and give you ideas for how to start a personal statement.

2. Make lists

Lists are an excellent way to brainstorm personal statement topics. Try making lists of accomplishments, challenges you have faced, people who have taught you important life lessons, values, fears, hobbies, or mistakes you have made. Remember that it is perfectly fine to talk about times when you feel you failed or made mistakes if you can show how you learned and grew from the experience.

3. Ask trusted people for ideas

Brainstorming does not have to happen alone. Ask friends, family, mentors, teachers, classmates, or others who know you well to tell you what your most important character traits are. You’d be surprised what people will share. Perhaps one of your friends sees you as adventurous because you like to take new routes to school every day, and you had never considered that to be a noteworthy trait of yours. This feedback could be the inspiration you need for how to start a personal statement.

4. Free-write

Rather than trying to find an idea, allow yourself the freedom to free-write. Set a timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping. Write a response to any of the following questions :

  • What matters to you?
  • What do you want others to know about you?
  • What is the hardest thing you have ever gone through? How did you get through it?
  • What brings you joy?
  • How have you grown or changed in the past few years?

If you feel at a loss for words, write “I don’t know” over and over until a new idea pops into your head. The idea is to allow your brain to flow without restriction or pressure. Do not judge what you write, just allow it to be. When you have completed your free-write, look through what you wrote looking for meaningful stories or learnings you might want to share.

Undoubtedly, these are just a few ideas for how to start a personal statement and find a good personal statement introduction. If none of these work, do not despair. Instead, try a different route for coming up with personal statement topics. For instance, you may try reading an example of a personal statement for college or checking out this personal statement webinar. 

In the next section, we’ll discuss how to use sample essays when figuring out how to write a personal statement.

Using personal statement examples

how to start a personal statement

When looking for answers to questions like “What is a personal statement?” or “How to start a personal statement?” college application essay examples can be very helpful. In this section, we’ll look at how to write a personal statement for college and identify college essay tips with the help of sample essays .

Sample Personal Essays

In this article , we review ten essays that provide ideas for how to start a personal statement. Whether writing about books or gymnastics, each example of a personal statement for college highlights a unique important aspect of a student’s life. In addition, each student provides meaningful insights into how their thinking developed over time.

How to Write a Personal Statement: 5 Personal Statement Examples

Check out this resource to see five excellent responses to the Common App college essay prompts. Note how each essay has a unique hook that captures the reader’s attention.

College Essay Examples: 10 Best Examples of College Essays and Why They Worked

Wondering how a personal statement format impacts the essay’s meaning? This essay compilation answers that question and much more, providing college essay tips based on what worked in these personal essays.

How to Analyze an Example of a Personal Statement for College

If you’re looking for ideas on how to start a personal statement, then reading sample essays is an excellent idea. However, be careful not to copy others’ work. In this section, we’ll discuss how to use these samples when you develop your own personal statement meaning and personal statement format.

First, be authentic. While it is important to find inspiration in others’ work, copying topics or phrases is dangerous. At best, it will come across as disingenuous to admissions officers, who read thousands of essays. At worst, it can get you into serious trouble. 

Instead, use these samples to learn about how to write a personal statement. As you read them, ask yourself questions such as:

  • Why did the writer choose this topic?
  • How does the first sentence of the essay engage the reader?
  • What structure does the personal statement use?
  • How does this personal statement format add to the essay’s intrigue?
  • What does this essay teach us about the writer?
  • In what ways might this essay be an expression of the writer’s personal brand ?

Take notes as you read each example of a personal statement for college. In your notes, identify general thoughts regarding the questions “What is a personal statement?” and “How to start a college essay?” If you can answer these questions fully after reading sample essays, you’re on your way to acing your college essay.

How to Start a Personal Statement: Final Thoughts

With this article, we answered the question: “What is a personal statement?” By breaking the personal statement meaning, we found tips for approaching many kinds of college essay prompts. We also identified why personal statement meaning is important to colleges and how to write a great college essay that will help your application shine.

Even skilled writers struggle with how to write a personal statement. Personal essays are difficult not only because they require a certain level of vulnerability , but also because the personal statement format is not something we use often in our day-to-day lives. For that reason, it is difficult to know how to start a college essay.

Throughout this guide, we provided resources like personal statement webinars and sample essays. We also highlighted how to use an example of a personal statement for college in your own process. Within these samples, you’ll find lots of ideas for how to start a personal statement.

Whenever you feel overwhelmed by thinking about how to start a personal statement, remember that you are not alone. Our team can provide you with additional insights and individualized coaching about how to write a personal statement for college. With support, you will be able to express who you are and ace your personal statement. Good luck!

how to start a personal statement

This article was written by Sarah Kaminski and senior advisor, Courtney Ng . Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.

Personalized and effective college advising for high school students.

  • Advisor Application
  • Popular Colleges
  • Privacy Policy and Cookie Notice
  • Student Login
  • California Privacy Notice
  • Terms and Conditions
  • Your Privacy Choices

By using the College Advisor site and/or working with College Advisor, you agree to our updated Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy , including an arbitration clause that covers any disputes relating to our policies and your use of our products and services.

Town and Country

Town and Country

The Best Books About College Admissions

Posted: August 3, 2023 | Last updated: August 3, 2023

<p>Lists and rankings, <a href="https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/money-and-power/a40680132/college-ranking-scandal-columbia-university-news/">despite all of the recent controversy</a>, may still prove popular and indispensable tools for narrowing down the best schools for prospective college students and their parents. But selecting where to apply is just the tip of the iceberg. Next comes the Herculean task of navigating <a href="https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/a42023697/ivy-college-application-essay-advice/">the admissions process</a> and actually getting into that dream school. What kind of essay will give you an edge? What do admissions officers really look for? How do bad apples like the Rick Singers and Lori Loughlins of the world affect everyone else? And, everyone's favorite: <a href="https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/money-and-power/g40985990/most-expensive-colleges-in-the-us/">How do you pay for it</a>? </p><p>Fortunately there are a number of excellent books out there to help guide the way. Some provide insightful dives into the big business of getting into college while others offer useful advice, not only for surviving it all, but for ultimately finding the best match. Below, eight books about college admissions worth reading before you begin the application process.</p>

Lists and rankings, despite all of the recent controversy , may still prove popular and indispensable tools for narrowing down the best schools for prospective college students and their parents. But selecting where to apply is just the tip of the iceberg. Next comes the Herculean task of navigating the admissions process and actually getting into that dream school. What kind of essay will give you an edge? What do admissions officers really look for? How do bad apples like the Rick Singers and Lori Loughlins of the world affect everyone else? And, everyone's favorite: How do you pay for it ?

Fortunately there are a number of excellent books out there to help guide the way. Some provide insightful dives into the big business of getting into college while others offer useful advice, not only for surviving it all, but for ultimately finding the best match. Below, eight books about college admissions worth reading before you begin the application process.

<p><strong>$8.99</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/0062123998?tag=syndication-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10067.g.43979616%5Bsrc%7Cmsn-us">Shop Now</a></p><p>Harry Bauld was working part time in the admissions office of Columbia University and teaching English at Horace Mann, a New York City private school, when he wrote the first edition of <em>On Writing the College Application Essay</em>. It has since been revised several times and remains the gold standard of advice on how to craft an original and compelling personal essay.</p>

1) On Writing the College Application Essay: The Key to Acceptance at the College of Your Choice

Harry Bauld was working part time in the admissions office of Columbia University and teaching English at Horace Mann, a New York City private school, when he wrote the first edition of On Writing the College Application Essay . It has since been revised several times and remains the gold standard of advice on how to craft an original and compelling personal essay.

<p><strong>$10.91</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/006286730X?tag=syndication-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10067.g.43979616%5Bsrc%7Cmsn-us">Shop Now</a></p><p>An essential guide for any family about to navigate the complex process of paying for college. Ron Lieber, a personal finance columnist at the <em>New York Times</em>, offers practical advice on saving for education, applying for need-based assistance, negotiating for merit aid, and much more. He also provides rare and valuable insight into the cost and value of education at a wide variety of schools. </p>

2) The Price You Pay for College: An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision Your Family Will Ever Make

An essential guide for any family about to navigate the complex process of paying for college. Ron Lieber, a personal finance columnist at the New York Times , offers practical advice on saving for education, applying for need-based assistance, negotiating for merit aid, and much more. He also provides rare and valuable insight into the cost and value of education at a wide variety of schools.

<p><strong>$25.99</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1421443058?tag=syndication-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10067.g.43979616%5Bsrc%7Cmsn-us">Shop Now</a></p><p>College ranking lists have become an unavoidable and increasingly <a href="https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/money-and-power/a40680132/college-ranking-scandal-columbia-university-news/">controversial</a> part of the admissions process. Colin Diver, who is the former president of Reed College as well as the former dean of University of Pennsylvania Law School, chronicles the rise in popularity of the lists and how they have affected students' choices, the admissions process, and the way colleges and universities do business. <em>Breaking Ranks, </em>however, is more than just an exposé: Diver also offers advice on how families can choose schools that are the best match for their aspiring student. </p>

3) Breaking Ranks: How the Rankings Industry Rules Higher Education and What to Do about It

College ranking lists have become an unavoidable and increasingly controversial part of the admissions process. Colin Diver, who is the former president of Reed College as well as the former dean of University of Pennsylvania Law School, chronicles the rise in popularity of the lists and how they have affected students' choices, the admissions process, and the way colleges and universities do business. Breaking Ranks, however, is more than just an exposé: Diver also offers advice on how families can choose schools that are the best match for their aspiring student.

<p><strong>$10.29</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1455532681?tag=syndication-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10067.g.43979616%5Bsrc%7Cmsn-us">Shop Now</a></p><p>Frank Bruni wrote <em>Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be</em> in 2015, long before the Varsity Blues scandal broke and the backlash against college rankings made the news. His examination of the lengths to which families will go to get into a top school and the many ways colleges weigh the scales in their own favor was prescient and, unfortunately, just as relevant today as when it was first published. But the most important lesson from the book is Bruni's sane and comforting description of how students find success, no matter where they end up at school.</p>

4) Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania

Frank Bruni wrote Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be in 2015, long before the Varsity Blues scandal broke and the backlash against college rankings made the news. His examination of the lengths to which families will go to get into a top school and the many ways colleges weigh the scales in their own favor was prescient and, unfortunately, just as relevant today as when it was first published. But the most important lesson from the book is Bruni's sane and comforting description of how students find success, no matter where they end up at school.

<p><strong>$18.00</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1400097975?tag=syndication-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10067.g.43979616%5Bsrc%7Cmsn-us">Shop Now</a></p><p>When Daniel Golden wrote <em>The Price of Admission</em>, his 2006 exposé on the ways wealthy families game college admissions, he intended the book to be a work of investigative journalism. In 2019, after the Varsity Blues scandal broke, he <a href="https://www.propublica.org/article/college-admission-bribe-rich-parents-ivy-league-how-to">lamented</a> that many had read it instead as "a 'how-to' guide." Nearly two decades after its first printing, Golden's book lays bare persistent flaws in a system that purports to reward academic merit. </p>

5) The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates

When Daniel Golden wrote The Price of Admission , his 2006 exposé on the ways wealthy families game college admissions, he intended the book to be a work of investigative journalism. In 2019, after the Varsity Blues scandal broke, he lamented that many had read it instead as "a 'how-to' guide." Nearly two decades after its first printing, Golden's book lays bare persistent flaws in a system that purports to reward academic merit.

<p><strong>$18.39</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1982116293?tag=syndication-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10067.g.43979616%5Bsrc%7Cmsn-us">Shop Now</a></p><p>Jeffrey Selingo, a journalist and former editor of <em>The Chronicle of Higher Education</em>, offers a behind-the-scenes look at how colleges and universities decide to whom they offer admission. The book offers plenty of guidance on how and when families should apply, while also providing background and context on some of the more pressing admissions-related questions, such as what acceptance rates really mean and how schools court top academic performers. </p>

6) Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions

Jeffrey Selingo, a journalist and former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education , offers a behind-the-scenes look at how colleges and universities decide to whom they offer admission. The book offers plenty of guidance on how and when families should apply, while also providing background and context on some of the more pressing admissions-related questions, such as what acceptance rates really mean and how schools court top academic performers.

<p><strong>$13.57</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1538717093?tag=syndication-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10067.g.43979616%5Bsrc%7Cmsn-us">Shop Now</a></p><p>Nicole LaPorte's 2021 book provides both a riveting account of how college advisor Rick Singer created "side doors" into top colleges for his privileged clients as well as a nuanced portrait of the cultural and systemic forces that encourage members of wealthy communities to turn the college application process into a no-limits arms race. LaPorte, who <a href="https://www.townandcountrymag.com/author/255453/nicole-laporte/">writes frequently about education</a> for <em>Town & Country</em>, spoke to hundreds of sources, including high school parents and administrators, and their accounts offer a map of pitfalls for families to avoid when beginning their own college search.</p>

7) Guilty Admissions: The Bribes, Favors, and Phonies behind the College Cheating Scandal

Nicole LaPorte's 2021 book provides both a riveting account of how college advisor Rick Singer created "side doors" into top colleges for his privileged clients as well as a nuanced portrait of the cultural and systemic forces that encourage members of wealthy communities to turn the college application process into a no-limits arms race. LaPorte, who writes frequently about education for Town & Country , spoke to hundreds of sources, including high school parents and administrators, and their accounts offer a map of pitfalls for families to avoid when beginning their own college search.

<p><strong>$16.93</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/1984878344?tag=syndication-20&ascsubtag=%5Bartid%7C10067.g.43979616%5Bsrc%7Cmsn-us">Shop Now</a></p><p>Long missing in the pantheon of how-to-apply, test-prep, and college-ranking books has been advice for parents and students on how to hash through difficult topics <em>before</em> applying to college. <em>The College Conversation</em>, written by a former education reporter at the <em>New York Times </em>and a former University of Pennsylvania admissions dean, offers timelines for when to discuss finances, aspirations, proclivity, and, gulp, post-collegiate careers. </p>

8) The College Conversation: A Practical Companion for Parents to Guide Their Children Along the Path to Higher Education

Long missing in the pantheon of how-to-apply, test-prep, and college-ranking books has been advice for parents and students on how to hash through difficult topics before applying to college. The College Conversation , written by a former education reporter at the New York Times and a former University of Pennsylvania admissions dean, offers timelines for when to discuss finances, aspirations, proclivity, and, gulp, post-collegiate careers.

More for You

subway table with sandwiches

12 Ordering Mistakes You're Making At Subway, According To Employees

A Federal Judge Made a Rare TV Appearance to Condemn Trump's Comments About Judge Juan Merchan

A Federal Judge Made a Rare TV Appearance to Condemn Trump's Comments About Judge Juan Merchan

Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent in 2019

Nate Berkus And Jeremiah Brent's Simple Tip For Making Any Home Smell Amazing

Our anointed king: Richard II, by an unknown artist (c 1590-1610)

The bloody dynasty that built the English state

I worked for Beyoncé for a year. She wasn't a diva and wasn't passive — it was a master class in executing a creative vision

I worked for Beyoncé for a year. She wasn't a diva and wasn't passive — it was a master class in executing a creative vision

Don Adams and Barbara Feldon played the spy roles, working for CONTROL, a deep state counterintelligence agency within the United States government.

A Look Back at the Original 'Get Smart' Cast- Plus, Fun Facts About the 1960s Sitcom!

gettyimages-583741076-170667a.jpg

McDonald’s brings beloved breakfast sandwich back to select locations

Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor Staying on Supreme Court Poses 'Risk,' Law Professor Warns

The Most Expensive Dog Breeds Money Can Buy in 2024

The Most Expensive Dog Breeds Money Can Buy in 2024

Kansas

8 Used Cars That Have Been Recalled To Stay Away From

This couple's DIY 'Skoolie' bus conversion took 4 years and cost $20,000. See inside their 'mid-century' dream home.

This couple's DIY 'Skoolie' bus conversion took 4 years and cost $20,000. See inside their 'mid-century' dream home.

The 43 Best Shows to Stream on Netflix Right Now

The 43 Best Shows to Stream on Netflix Right Now

Worst Western film from the year you were born

The worst Western movie released every year since 1930

18 Things the Police Cannot Do if You Are Arrested

18 Things the Police Cannot Do if You Are Arrested

Florence Pugh Transforms Into Cammy in Street Fighter Reboot Artwork

Florence Pugh Transforms Into Cammy in Street Fighter Reboot Artwork

“People say Kawhi won the championship for us… I never believed” - Raptors superfan blasts Kawhi Leonard after 2019 NBA title win

“People say Kawhi won the championship for us… I never believed” - Raptors superfan blasts Kawhi Leonard after 2019 NBA title win

Trump

Senator Says the Bible Doesn't Need Donald Trump's Endorsement

Here Are 6 Things White People Say That Highlight Their Privilege And OMG I Hear These Allllll The Time

Here Are 6 Things White People Say That Highlight Their Privilege And OMG I Hear These Allllll The Time

B-21 Raider American Flag

How Northrop Grumman's B-21 Raider Changes The Landscape Of Air Power

15. Vice Principals (2016)

That Guy From That Thing: Great Character Actors Everyone Recognizes

What are your chances of acceptance?

Calculate for all schools, your chance of acceptance.

Duke University

Your chancing factors

Extracurriculars.

how to write a personal essay for a college application

How to Write a Personal Statement for a Scholarship + Examples

What’s covered:, what is the purpose of the scholarship personal statement, what to include in your personal statement, personal statement example: breakdown + analysis, how to make sure your writing is effective.

Either before or after you’ve gotten into your dream school, you’ll have to figure out how to pay for it. For most students, this involves a combination of financial aid, parent contributions, self-contributions, student loans, and scholarships/grants. Because scholarships are money out of someone else’s pocket that you never have to pay back, they are a great place to start!

Scholarships come in two forms: merit-based and need-based. Need-based scholarships are also often called grants. These designations tell you whether an organization looks at your financial situation when deciding about your scholarship.

Additionally, different scholarships fall under different categories based on the mission of the organization or person providing the scholarship’s financing. These missions typically emphasize different things like academic achievement, specific career goals, community service, leadership, family background, skill in the arts, or having overcome hardship. As you select scholarships to apply for and complete your applications, you should keep these missions in mind.

No matter what type of scholarship you are applying for, you will be asked to provide the review committee with standard materials. This includes your transcript, GPA, and resume/extracurriculars, but also, importantly, your personal statement. A scholarship personal statement is a bit different from your normal college essay, so we’ve put together this guide and some examples to help you get started!

The purpose of your personal statement is to help a review committee learn more about your personality, values, goals, and what makes you special. Ultimately, like with your college essays, you are trying to humanize your profile beyond your transcript, GPA, and test scores.

College essays all have one goal in mind (which is why you can apply to multiple schools at once through applications like the Common App or Coalition App): convince admissions officers that you would be a valuable addition to the university environment. The goal of your scholarship personal statement is different and differs more from one scholarship to the next. Rather than convincing various review committees that you are a generally good candidate for extra funding for college, you need to convince each review committee that your values have historically aligned with their organization’s mission and will continue to align with their organization’s mission.

Common missions amongst those who give scholarships include:

  • Providing opportunities for students with career ambitions in a particular field
  • Helping students who have experienced unexpected hardship
  • Supporting students who show outstanding academic achievement
  • Funding the arts through investing in young artists with strong technical skill
  • Supporting the development of civic-minded community service leaders of the future
  • Providing opportunities for historically underrepresented ethnic communities 

If a specific mission like this is outlined on an organization’s website or in the promotional material for its scholarship, the purpose of your personal statement is to show how you exemplify that mission.

Some scholarships ask for your personal statement to be guided by a prompt, while others leave things open for interpretation. When you are provided a prompt, it is obvious what you must do: answer the prompt. When you are not provided a prompt, you want to write a personal statement that is essentially a small-scale autobiography where you position yourself as a good investment. In either case, you should identify a focus or theme for what you are trying to say about yourself so that your application does not get lost in the shuffle.

Prompts include questions like:

  • Why do you deserve this scholarship?
  • How have you shown your commitment to (leadership/community service/diversity) in your community?
  • When did you overcome adversity?
  • Why is attending college important to you?

If you are provided a prompt, develop a theme for your response that showcases both your values and your achievements. This will help your essay feel focused and will subsequently help the review committee to remember which candidate you were as they deliberate.

Themes include things like:

  • I deserve this community service scholarship because my compassion for intergenerational trauma has inspired me to volunteer with a local after-school program. I didn’t just sympathize. I did something about my sympathy because that’s the type of person I am. Within the program, I have identified avenues for improvement and worked alongside full-time staff to develop new strategies for increasing attendance.
  • I overcame adversity when my mother had to have a major surgery two months after giving birth to my younger brother. I was just a kid but was thrown into a situation where I had to raise another kid. It was hard, but I’m the kind of person who tries to grow from hard times and, through my experience taking care of a baby, I learned the importance of listening to body language and nonverbal cues to understand the needs of others (baby and nonbaby, alike).

Without a prompt, clarity can be harder to achieve. That said, it is of the utmost importance that you find a focus. First, think about both your goals and your values.

Types of goals include:

  • Career goals
  • Goals for personal growth
  • The type of friend you want to be
  • The change you want to make in the world

Values could include:

  • Authenticity
  • And many more!

After you write out your goals/values, write out your achievements to see what goals/values you have “proof” of your commitment to. Your essay will ultimately be an exploration of your goal/value, what you have done about your goal/value in the past, and what you aspire to in the future.

You might be tempted to reflect on areas for improvement, but scholarships care about you living out your values. It is not enough to aspire to be exemplary in leadership, community service, or your academic field. For scholarships, you have to already be exemplary.

Finally, keep in mind that the review committee likely already has a copy of your extracurricular activities and involvement. Pick one or two accomplishments, then strive for depth, not breadth as you explore them.

My interest in the field of neuroscience began at a young age.  When I was twelve years old, my sister developed a condition called Pseudotumor Cerebri following multiple concussions during a basketball game.  It took the doctors over six months to make a proper diagnosis, followed by three years of treatment before she recovered.  During this time, my love for neuroscience was sparked as I began to research her condition and, then, other neurocognitive conditions.  Later, my love of neuroscience was amplified when my mother began to suffer from brain-related health issues.  My mother had been a practicing attorney in Dallas for over twenty years.  She was a determined litigator who relentlessly tried difficult cases that changed people’s lives.  Now, she suffers from a cognitive impairment and is no longer able to practice law.  Oftentimes, she has headaches, she gets “cloudy,” her executive functioning slows down, she feels overwhelmed, and she forgets things.  My mother has gone from being the strong, confident, emotional and financial caretaker of our family to needing significant help on a daily basis. Once again, with this illness came a lot of research on my part — research that encouraged me to pursue my dreams of exploring neuroscience.

Due to my experiences with my mother and sister when I was in middle school, I knew that I wanted to make a difference in the field of neuroscience.  I also knew that, to obtain this goal, I needed to maintain superior grades in school while also pursuing opportunities outside of school to further my education.  In school, I was able to maintain superior grades to the point where I am currently valedictorian in a class of 567 students.  In addition, in school, I challenged myself by taking 16 Advanced Placement classes and 19 Honors classes.  Two of the most beneficial classes were AP Capstone Seminar and AP Capstone Research.  AP Capstone Seminar and AP Capstone Research are research-oriented classes where students are given the opportunity to pursue whatever track their research takes them down.  As a junior in AP Capstone Seminar, I researched the effects of harmful pesticide use on the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in children.  This year, as a senior in AP Capstone Research, I am learning about the effects of medical marijuana on the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis (MS).  

Outside of school, I furthered my education through taking advantage of the Duke TiP summer program. Duke TiP is a summer program run by Duke University where students who score extremely well on the SAT as middle schoolers are able to take college classes at different universities throughout the summers of their middle school and high school years.  I took advantage of this opportunity twice.  First, I went to Trinity University in San Antonio to expand my horizons and learn more about debate.  However, once I was done exploring, I decided I wanted to go into neuroscience.  This led me to take an Abnormal Psychology class at Duke University’s West Campus.  This class opened my eyes to the interaction between neuroscience and mental health, mental illness, and personality.  Years later, I am currently continuing my education outside of school as an intern at the University of Texas Dallas Center for Brain Health.  Through this internship, I have been able to see different aspects of neuroscience including brain pattern testing, virtual reality therapy, and longitudinal research studies.  With this background, I have positioned myself to be accepted by top neuroscience programs throughout the nation.  So far, I have been accepted to the neuroscience department of University of Southern California, the University of Virginia, the University of Texas, and Southern Methodist University, as well as the chemistry department at University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill.  

It is with this passion for neuroscience driven by my family and passion for education driven by internal motivation that I will set out to conquer my career objectives.  My educational aspirations consist of acquiring a bachelor’s degree in a biological or health science that would assist me in pursuing a medical career as a neuroscience researcher.  I decided to attain a career as a researcher since my passion has always been assisting others and trying to improve their quality of life.  After obtaining my Masters and my PhD, I plan to become a professor at a prestigious university and continue performing lab research on cognitive disorders.  I am particularly interested in disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  In the lab, I hope to find different therapies and medications to help treat the 3.5 million people around the world suffering from ASD.  Furthermore, I want to contribute back to underserved populations that struggle because they do not have as much access to medical assistance as other privileged groups.  As such, I hope to do a part of my research in less developed or developing Spanish-speaking countries. This will also allow me to pursue my love of Spanish while pursuing my love of neuroscience.  I think that following such a career path will provide me the opportunity to learn about the medical needs of the autistic community and improve their quality of health.  Furthermore, I hope to train a new generation of students to strive to research and make comparable discoveries.  Whether it be through virtual reality labs or new drug discoveries, I believe that research leads to innovation which leads to a brighter future. 

This student does a great job of making themself appear competent and dedicated to the field of neuroscience. This is primarily because they provided tangible evidence of how they have pursued their dedication in the past—through their AP Capstone courses, their Abnormal Psychology class at Duke TiP, and their internship at UTD. There is no doubt in the mind of a reader that this student is high-achieving. 

This student also engages successfully with a past-future trajectory, where they end with a vision of how they will continue to use neuroscience in the future. This helps the review committee see what they are investing in and the ways that their money will go to good use.

This student has two major areas for improvement. As we have said, the purpose of a personal statement is for a student to humanize themself to a review committee. This student struggles to depict themself separately from their academic achievements. A solution to this would be for the student to establish a theme towards the beginning of their essay that relates to both their values as a human and their achievements.

At the beginning of the essay, the student explores how their interest in neuroscience began. They explain their interest through the following sentences: “During this time, my love for neuroscience was sparked as I began to research her condition and, then, other neurocognitive conditions” and “Once again, with this illness came a lot of research on my part — research that encouraged me to pursue my dreams of exploring neuroscience.” The student made the great decision to tell the backstory of their interest, but they described their research in very mundane and redundant terms. Instead, they could have focused on their value of intellectual curiosity as a magnetic force that encouraged them to research their mother and sister’s ailments. Curiosity, then, could serve as a value-related thematic throughline to taking AP Capstone classes, taking college courses during the summer that weren’t required, and interning before even graduating high school.

A second area for improvement would be avoiding statistics. As the student identifies their valedictorian status and the number of AP classes they have taken, they might turn away certain personalities on a review committee by appearing braggy. Even further, these statistics are a waste of space. The review committee already has access to this information. These words distract from the major theme of the essay and would have been better used to humanize the student.

Throughout my academic career, I have been an avid scholar, constantly pushing myself towards ambitious goals. I held and continue to hold myself to a high standard, enrolling myself in rigorous curriculum, including Honors and Advanced Placement courses to stretch my mental potential. During my junior year of high school, I took four AP tests, two on the same day, and earned the AP Scholar with Honor Award. Additionally, I received the Letter of Commendation for the PSAT/NMSQT, and qualified for Rotary Top 100 Students both my freshman and senior year, a sign of my commitment to my studies. However, school has not been all about having the best GPA for me; beyond the numbers, I have a deep drive to learn which motivates me to do well academically. I truly enjoy learning new things, whether it be a new essay style or a math theorem. I always give each class my best effort and try my hardest on every assignment. My teachers have noticed this as well, and I have received school Lancer Awards and Student of the Month recognitions as a result. It is a major goal of mine to continue to aspire towards a high level of achievement regarding future educational and occupational endeavors; I plan on continuing this level of dedication throughout my educational career and implementing the skills I have learned and will learn into my college experience and beyond.

This fall, I will begin attending the University of California Los Angeles as an English major. I chose this major because I am fascinated by written language, especially its ability to convey powerful messages and emotions. I also enjoy delving into the works of other authors to analyze specific components of their writing to discover the meaning behind their words. In particular, I cannot wait to begin in-depth literary criticism and learn new stylistic techniques to add more depth to my writing. Furthermore, I recently went to UCLA’s Bruin Day, an event for incoming freshmen, where I was exposed to many different extracurriculars, some of which really piqued my interest. I plan on joining the Writing Success Program, where I can help students receive free writing help, and Mock Trial, where I can debate issues with peers in front of a real judge. The latter, combined with a strong writing background from my undergraduate English studies will be extremely beneficial because I plan to apply to law school after my undergraduate degree. As of now, my career goal is to become a civil rights lawyer, to stand up for those who are discriminated against and protect minority groups to proliferate equality.

As a lawyer, I wish to utilize legislation to ameliorate the plight of the millions of Americans who feel prejudice and help them receive equity in the workplace, society, and so on. Though this seems a daunting task, I feel that my work ethic and past experience will give me the jumpstart I need to establish myself as a successful lawyer and give a voice to those who are often unheard in today’s legal system. I have been a Girl Scout for over a decade and continually participate in community service for the homeless, elderly, veterans, and more. My most recent project was the Gold Award, which I conducted in the Fullerton School District. I facilitated over ten workshops where junior high students taught elementary pupils STEM principles such as density and aerodynamics via creative activities like building aluminum boats and paper airplanes. I also work at Kumon, a tutoring center, where I teach students to advance their academic success. I love my job, and helping students from local schools reach their potential fills me with much pride.

Both being a Girl Scout and working at Kumon have inspired me to help those in need, contributing significantly to my desire to become a lawyer and aid others. My extracurriculars have allowed me to gain a new perspective on both learning and teaching, and have solidified my will to help the less fortunate. In college, I hope to continue to gain knowledge and further develop my leadership skills, amassing qualities that will help me assist others. I plan to join multiple community service clubs, such as UCLA’s local outreach programs that directly aid residents of Los Angeles. I want to help my fellow pupils as well, and plan on volunteering at peer tutoring and peer editing programs on campus. After college, during my career, I want to use legal tactics to assist the underdog and take a chance on those who are often overlooked for opportunities. I wish to represent those that are scared to seek out help or cannot afford it. Rather than battling conflict with additional conflict, I want to implement peaceful but strong, efficient tactics that will help make my state, country, and eventually the world more welcoming to people of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. These goals are close to my heart and therefore I will be as diligent as I am passionate about them. My perseverance and love for learning and community service drive my ambition in both education and life as a whole, and the drive to make the world a better place is one that I will carry with me for my entire life.

This student emphasizes two values in this essay: hard work and community service. These are values that go together nicely, and definitely make sense with this student’s end goal of becoming a civil rights lawyer! That said, some changes could be made to the way the student presents their values that would make their personal statement more convincing and engaging.

Structurally, instead of using a past-future trajectory, this student starts by explaining their academic achievements, then explains their career goals, then explains their history of community service, then explains their future desires for community service. This structure loses the reader. Instead, the student should have started with either the past or the future. 

This could look like 1) identifying their career goals, 2) explaining that hard work and a commitment to community service are necessary to get there, and 3) explaining that they aren’t worried because of their past commitment to hard work and community service. Or it could look like 1) providing examples of their hard work and community service in the past, then 2) explaining how those values will help them achieve their career goals.

Additionally, like with our other example, this student shows a heavy investment in statistics and spouting off accomplishments. This can be unappealing. Unfortunately, even when the student recognizes that they are doing this, writing “beyond the numbers, I have a deep drive to learn which motivates me to do well academically. I truly enjoy learning new things, whether it be a new essay style or a math theorem,” they continue on to cite their achievements, writing “My teachers have noticed this as well, and I have received school Lancer Awards and Student of the Month recognitions as a result.” They say they are going beyond the numbers, but they don’t go beyond the awards. They don’t look inward. One way to fix this would be to make community service the theme around which the essay operates, supplementing with statistics in ways that advance the image of the student as dedicated to community service.

Finally, this student would be more successful if they varied their sentence structure. While a small-scale autobiography can be good, if organized, every sentence should not begin with ‘I.’ The essay still needs to be engaging or the review committee might stop reading.

Feedback is ultimately any writer’s best source of improvement! To get your personal statement edited for free, use our Peer Review Essay Tool . With this tool, other students can tell you if your scholarship essay is effective and help you improve your essay so that you can have the best chances of gaining those extra funds!

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

how to write a personal essay for a college application

Should college essays touch on race? Some feel the affirmative action ruling leaves them no choice

When the supreme court ended affirmative action, it left the college essay as one of few places where race can play a role in admissions decisions.

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

Max Decker, a senior at Lincoln High School, sits for a portrait in the school library where he often worked on writing his college essays, in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, March 20, 2024.

Amanda Loman / AP

Like many students, Max Decker of Portland, Oregon, had drafted a college essay on one topic, only to change direction after the Supreme Court ruling in June.

Decker initially wrote about his love for video games. In a childhood surrounded by constant change, navigating his parents’ divorce, the games he took from place to place on his Nintendo DS were a source of comfort.

But the essay he submitted to colleges focused on the community he found through Word is Bond, a leadership group for young Black men in Portland.

As the only biracial, Jewish kid with divorced parents in a predominantly white, Christian community, Decker wrote he felt like the odd one out. On a trip with Word is Bond to Capitol Hill, he and friends who looked just like him shook hands with lawmakers. The experience, he wrote, changed how he saw himself.

“It’s because I’m different that I provide something precious to the world, not the other way around,” wrote Decker, whose top college choice is Tulane, in New Orleans, because of the region’s diversity.

This year’s senior class is the first in decades to navigate college admissions without affirmative action . The Supreme Court upheld the practice in decisions going back to the 1970s, but this court’s conservative supermajority found it is unconstitutional for colleges to give students extra weight because of their race alone.

Still, the decision left room for race to play an indirect role: Chief Justice John Roberts wrote universities can still consider how an applicant’s life was shaped by their race, “so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability.”

Scores of colleges responded with new essay prompts asking about students’ backgrounds.

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor.

FILE - Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, in this June 29, 2023 file photo, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor.

Jose Luis Magana / AP

Writing about feeling more comfortable with being Black

When Darrian Merritt started writing his essay, his first instinct was to write about events that led to him going to live with his grandmother as a child. Those were painful memories, but he thought they might play well at schools like Yale, Stanford and Vanderbilt.

“I feel like the admissions committee might expect a sob story or a tragic story,” said Merritt, a senior in Cleveland. “I wrestled with that a lot.”

Eventually he abandoned the idea and aimed for an essay that would stand out for its positivity.

Merritt wrote about a summer camp where he started to feel more comfortable in his own skin. He described embracing his personality and defying his tendency to please others. But the essay also reflects on his feelings of not being “Black enough” and getting made fun of for listening to “white people music.”

Related: Oregon colleges, universities weigh potential outcomes of US Supreme Court decision on affirmative action

Essay about how to embrace natural hair

When Hillary Amofa started writing her college essay, she told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. About being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana and growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. About hardship and struggle.

Then she deleted it all.

“I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping,” said the 18-year-old senior at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago. “And I’m just like, this doesn’t really say anything about me as a person.”

Amofa was just starting to think about her essay when the court issued its decision, and it left her with a wave of questions. Could she still write about her race? Could she be penalized for it? She wanted to tell colleges about her heritage but she didn’t want to be defined by it.

In English class, Amofa and her classmates read sample essays that all seemed to focus on some trauma or hardship. It left her with the impression she had to write about her life’s hardest moments to show how far she’d come. But she and some classmates wondered if their lives had been hard enough to catch the attention of admissions offices.

Hillary Amofa, laughs as she participates in a team building game with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person."

Hillary Amofa, laughs as she participates in a team building game with members of the Lincoln Park High School step team after school Friday, March 8, 2024, in Chicago. When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a small apartment in Chicago. She described hardship and struggle. Then she deleted it all. "I would just find myself kind of trauma-dumping," said the 18 year-old senior, "And I'm just like, this doesn't really say anything about me as a person."

Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

Amofa used to think affirmative action was only a factor at schools like Harvard and Yale. After the court’s ruling, she was surprised to find that race was taken into account even at public universities she was applying to.

Now, without affirmative action, she wondered if mostly white schools will become even whiter.

It’s been on her mind as she chooses between Indiana University and the University of Dayton, both of which have relatively few Black students. When she was one of the only Black students in her grade school, she could fall back on her family and Ghanaian friends at church. At college, she worries about loneliness.

“That’s what I’m nervous about,” she said. “Going and just feeling so isolated, even though I’m constantly around people.”

Related: Some Oregon universities, politicians disappointed in Supreme Court decision on affirmative action

The first drafts of her essay didn’t tell colleges about who she is now, she said.

Her final essay describes how she came to embrace her natural hair. She wrote about going to a mostly white grade school where classmates made jokes about her afro.

Over time, she ignored their insults and found beauty in the styles worn by women in her life. She now runs a business doing braids and other hairstyles in her neighborhood.

“Criticism will persist,” she wrote “but it loses its power when you know there’s a crown on your head!”

Ma reported from Portland, Oregon.

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org .

OPB’s First Look newsletter

Streaming Now

Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me!

IMAGES

  1. College Essay Examples

    how to write a personal essay for a college application

  2. 💋 Writing a personal statement for college application. 5 Tips On How

    how to write a personal essay for a college application

  3. How to write a good college application essay personal statement

    how to write a personal essay for a college application

  4. How To Write A College Application Essay

    how to write a personal essay for a college application

  5. 30+ College Essay Examples

    how to write a personal essay for a college application

  6. Personal Essay Examples for College Admission

    how to write a personal essay for a college application

COMMENTS

  1. How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application

    Here are some tips to get you started. Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don't have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to ...

  2. How to Write a Personal Statement (Tips + Essay Examples)

    In a great personal statement, we should be able to get a sense of what fulfills, motivates, or excites the author. These can be things like humor, beauty, community, and autonomy, just to name a few. So when you read back through your essay, you should be able to detect at least 4-5 different values throughout.

  3. How to Write a Personal Statement

    Insert a quote from a well-known person. Challenge the reader with a common misconception. Use an anecdote, which is a short story that can be true or imaginary. Credibility is crucial when writing a personal statement as part of your college application process. If you choose a statistic, quote, or misconception for your hook, make sure it ...

  4. Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

    Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor. 1. Start Early. Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school.

  5. Ultimate Guide to Writing Your College Essay

    Sample College Essay 2 with Feedback. This content is licensed by Khan Academy and is available for free at www.khanacademy.org. College essays are an important part of your college application and give you the chance to show colleges and universities your personality. This guide will give you tips on how to write an effective college essay.

  6. How to Write Your College Essay: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide

    Next, let's make sure you understand the different types of college essays. You'll most likely be writing a Common App or Coalition App essay, and you can also be asked to write supplemental essays for each school. Each essay has a prompt asking a specific question. Each of these prompts falls into one of a few different types.

  7. How to Write the Best College Application Essay

    When writing college essays, consider the point you want to make and develop a fleshed-out response that fits the prompt. Avoid force-fitting prewritten pieces. Approach every personal essay prompt as if it's your first. 4. Stick to Your Style. Writing college essays isn't about using flowery or verbose prose.

  8. How to Write a College Essay

    Making an all-state team → outstanding achievement. Making an all-state team → counting the cost of saying "no" to other interests. Making a friend out of an enemy → finding common ground, forgiveness. Making a friend out of an enemy → confront toxic thinking and behavior in yourself.

  9. How to Write a College Application Essay

    How to Write a Personal Statement for College: 6 Tips. A key characteristic of an excellent college application essay is writing quality. The personal statement can weigh heavily on some admission decisions. With this in mind, students can employ several strategies to make their essays stand out. 1. Pick a Meaningful Topic

  10. How to Write About Yourself in a College Essay

    Focus on a specific moment, and describe the scene using your five senses. Mention objects that have special significance to you. Instead of following a common story arc, include a surprising twist or insight. Your unique voice can shed new perspective on a common human experience while also revealing your personality.

  11. How to Write a College Essay Step-by-Step

    Step 2: Pick one of the things you wrote down, flip your paper over, and write it at the top of your paper, like this: This is your thread, or a potential thread. Step 3: Underneath what you wrote down, name 5-6 values you could connect to this. These will serve as the beads of your essay.

  12. How to Write a Personal Statement That Wows Colleges

    2. Show, don't tell. One of the biggest mistakes students make is to simply state everything that happened, instead of actually bringing the reader to the moment it happened, and telling a story. It's boring to read: "I was overjoyed and felt empowered when I finished my first half marathon.".

  13. How to Write the Common Application Essays 2023-2024 ...

    Be specific. Choose active voice, not passive voice. Avoid clichés. Write in a tone that aligns with your goals for the essay. For example, if you are a heavy STEM applicant hoping to use your Common App essay to humanize your application, you will be undermined by writing in a brusque, harsh tone.

  14. How to Write a Personal Essay: 6 Tips for Writing Personal Essays

    Include your hook, state your thesis, and form an emotional connection with the reader. Set your audience up for what your piece will be about and give them something to look forward to. 3. Fill your body paragraphs. Use sensory details about the sequence of events surrounding your thesis to guide the reader through your personal essay. Build ...

  15. What Is a Personal Statement? Everything You Need to Know About the

    Personal statement —an essay you write to show a college admissions committee who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their school. It's worth noting that, unlike "college essay," this term is used for application essays for graduate school as well. College essay —basically the same as a personal statement (I'll be using the terms ...

  16. Application Essays

    Essays That Worked for College Applications: 50 Essays That Helped Students Get Into the Nation's Top Colleges. New York: Ballantine Books. Stelzer, Richard. 2002. How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School, 3rd ed. Lawrenceville, NJ: Thomson Peterson.

  17. How to Write an Amazing Personal Statement (Includes Examples!)

    5. Use an authentic voice. Your personal statement reflects who you are, so you should use a tone that represents you. That means you shouldn't try to sound like someone else, and you shouldn't use fancy words just to show off. This isn't an academic paper, so you don't have to adopt a super formal tone.

  18. 27 Outstanding College Essay Examples From Top Universities 2024

    This college essay tip is by Abigail McFee, Admissions Counselor for Tufts University and Tufts '17 graduate. 2. Write like a journalist. "Don't bury the lede!" The first few sentences must capture the reader's attention, provide a gist of the story, and give a sense of where the essay is heading.

  19. 177 College Essay Examples for 11 Schools + Expert Analysis

    Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other). My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.

  20. How to Start a Personal Statement

    Learning how to write a personal statement for college includes learning how to choose the best prompt for you. The personal statement topic you ultimately choose is extremely important; your topic is essentially the soul of your essay. ... This college application essay gets into much deeper themes as the narrative continues. However, the most ...

  21. How to Write a College Application Essays in 2024

    Strong college essays are concise. For students unfamiliar with writing a college personal statement, lengthy writing can lose the reader's attention. Remember that you only have a few hundred words to make a lasting impression. Read Also - College Essay Format: Guidelines, Structure & Tips. Is Grammar Important in Writing College Essays?

  22. 4 Tips to Complete College Applications on Time

    The Common App typically announces essay questions for the upcoming application cycle in January or February, giving students ample time to prepare for or begin writing the essays. Warfield ...

  23. 10 Personal Statement Essay Examples That Worked

    Personal Statement Examples. Essay 1: Summer Program. Essay 2: Being Bangladeshi-American. Essay 3: Why Medicine. Essay 4: Love of Writing. Essay 5: Starting a Fire. Essay 6: Dedicating a Track. Essay 7: Body Image and Eating Disorders. Essay 8: Becoming a Coach.

  24. Essential Tips for College Admission Essay

    There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay. However, the general format is "Introduction-Body-Conclusion." Simply put, ensure your essay has a clear introduction ...

  25. How to Write a Resume for College Applications

    Following instructions is crucial for a successful application. College Application Resume Must-Haves. While a college resume shares similarities with a professional resume, it serves a distinct purpose. Here's a breakdown of what to include in your high school resume for college applications: 1. Contact information

  26. 12 Outstanding Personal Statement Examples

    If you're applying to college, you'll most likely need to write a personal statement as part of your college application. (And please note that the personal statement examples below are for undergraduate applications—if you're trying to find grad school statement of purpose examples, please head to that link.). But before diving into analyzing some great personal statement examples, it ...

  27. Should college essays touch on race? Some feel the affirmative action

    When she started writing her college essay, Amofa told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. She wrote about being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana, about growing up in a ...

  28. The Best Books About College Admissions

    $10.91. Shop Now. An essential guide for any family about to navigate the complex process of paying for college. Ron Lieber, a personal finance columnist at the New York Times, offers practical ...

  29. How to Write a Personal Statement for a Scholarship + Examples

    That said, it is of the utmost importance that you find a focus. First, think about both your goals and your values. Types of goals include: Career goals. Goals for personal growth. The type of friend you want to be. The change you want to make in the world. Values could include: Authenticity.

  30. Should college essays touch on race? Some feel the affirmative action

    When Hillary Amofa started writing her college essay, she told the story she thought admissions offices wanted to hear. About being the daughter of immigrants from Ghana and growing up in a small ...