An Expert Guide to the Most Common College Admission Prompt
The personal statement is your opportunity to tell your story to a stranger that will have a say as to whether or not you are accepted to attend their college or university. Without trying to cover too much, you want to tell a story of some event, experience, or identity that has shaped and defined you. It is a chance for you to tell admissions officers what makes you unique. Your personal statement is a moment to be creative, to be reflective, and to express your aspirations and share your inspirations.
What is the “personal statement”?
The personal statement is a component of the application process for many colleges and universities. The length of the personal statement varies depending on the platform you are submitting it through. The two most used college application platforms are the Common Application and the Coalition Application. Additionally, some colleges and universities utilize their own application platform, and you will have to be aware of the similarities and differences of their prompts from the prompts of more common application platforms. Schools that use their own platform include Georgetown University, the University of California school system, and MIT.
The Common Application platform provides students yearly with the choice between seven prompts to which they can respond to in their personal statement. Prompts for the 2019-2020 application cycle, include:
“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.”
“The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you face a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
Common Application personal statements are limited to a maximum of 650 words. Coalition Application personal statements, on the other hand, are limited to a maximum of 550 words. Coalition Application prompts for the 2019-2020 application cycle, include:
“Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.”
“Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.”
As you can see, while the prompts may vary across platforms, they are united by common themes and content requirements. Personal statement prompts are a chance for you to answer the question: Who are you? Consider the personal statement to be an opportunity for you to express your values, insights, and personality. It is a way for admissions officers to get to know you absent of, or in addition to, an interview. Your statement is a way for you to communicate how you came to be and where you hope to go.
How to Get Started
Getting started on your personal statement can be incredibly intimidating. It is easy to get stuck for weeks on end staring at a blank page. To get started and settle on a prompt you are going to answer, try one or more of the recommended approaches below to get you brainstorming and writing your first draft. Many of these strategies can be used together. Find what works best for you!
Ask yourself a series of questions to initiate the brainstorming process. What’s special and unique about you and your life story? What have been the most impactful experiences for the formation of your character/values? What are your passions and why are you passionate about them? Have you overcome obstacles related to one of your identities (economic, physical, social)? What details about your life does a stranger have to know to better understand you? What ideas and/or values are important to you and how have they shaped your academic/professional trajectory?
Talk through your ideas with a friend, teacher, advisor, and/or family member. Give some examples of what you have been thinking of writing about and get their feedback. Encourage your conversation partner to ask you questions. Responding to inquiries will help you develop your ideas more, as well as help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your ideas so you know what to expand on and improve.
Write everything down on the page and do not worry about imperfections, flow, or relevance at first. Capture all of the ideas floating around in your head and get them down on the page. This may take the form of a chronological narrative or a series of interconnected thought bubbles. Find a form that works for you.
Keep an idea notebook on you at all times. This may be the “Notes” app on your cell phone or a physical notebook. Jot down all the personal statement ideas you have randomly throughout the day, whether it be events to focus on, a line of dialogue, a clever metaphor, or an idea you want to make sure to include. If writing everything down on the page in one sitting is intimidating, try doing it piece-by-piece over a period of a few weeks.
General Advice on Writing Your Personal Statement
As college admissions experts, we would like to share with future personal statement writers some of the rules to follow when writing their personal statements, as well as some common errors to avoid.
Your personal statement should...
Respond to the prompt. This almost goes without saying, but make sure you are answering all parts of the question(s) you are being asked.
Have an engaging introduction or “hook” that latches on to the reader’s attention. Make the reader excited to hear the rest of what you have to say.
Tell a story. Your personal statement should use descriptive detail and not just passively summarize what happened to you. Engage the reader with active language. Be creative.
Be specific. Avoid using too many general statements. Don’t say you learned a lot from your travels, but show the reader with descriptive detail where you traveled and what you learned from your experiences in that destination.
Capture your unique voice. Express yourself in your own words while adhering to grammar rules.
Include a takeaway. Your statement should include some personal insights and reflections on the meaning and significance of whatever experiences and events you are focusing on. Let the reader know what you have learned and think is important to share with others.
Your personal statement should not...
Use excessively fancy language that you would not use in everyday conversations. Examples of excessive language may include words like brusque, carte blanche, ennui, harbinger, malinger, maudlin, and panacea. If you have to google what something means this may be a sign that it does not belong in your personal statement.
Overuse clichés or confusing metaphoric language.
Talk about drugs and alcohol, express politically incorrect opinions, lament failed romantic relationships, mention engagement in illegal activities, etc.
Be a summary list of all of your accomplishments bragging about how smart you are.
Your personal statement is just that: personal! It is not a list of all of your accomplishments detailed elsewhere in your application. It is not overly academic. Your personal statement should talk about the personal experiences, events, ideas, and people who have influenced, inspired and challenged you. Remember that your first draft will not be your best draft. Consider asking a teacher, counselor, mentor, or parent/guardian for help in refining your ideas.
And, most importantly, do not treat your personal statement like yet another requirement you have to check off in order to complete your college applications. Use it as an opportunity to do some self-reflection and appreciate the long journey you’ve traveled in order to arrive at who you are. If you do this, you’ll be sure to have an impressive personal statement. Need help drafting a personal statement? Our expert college admissions coaches are trained to help students get from brainstorming, writing, reviewing, to finally submitting!