College Essays: The Personal Statement

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”?

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. 

college essays

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. 

college essays

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. 

Concluding Thoughts

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! 

Anna Lenaker

Guide to a Successful Interview

interview skills

Interviews help employers understand who you are and what you bring to the table, preparing correctly helps put your best foot forward. 

As automated as the hiring process has become, one thing remains tried and true: interviews. Whether potential candidates are meeting employers virtually or in-person, employers want the opportunity to put a face to the name emblazoned at the top of the resume. It provides context for who that person is and what kind of energy he or she will bring to the workplace. In fact, Quartz.com states that almost 60% of hiring decisions are made within the first fifteen minutes of meeting an applicant. Applicants must prepare themselves deliberately, showcase personality intentionally, and highlight their strengths humbly. The task requires more than showing up with a few copies of one’s resume in hand. Performance during an interview can result in a job offer or a tersely written rejection email. 

Here are Prepory’s best tips for acing an interview:

1. Research the company

Companies want to know that applicants know who they are and what they stand for. Applicants should visit the company’s website, read the company’s goals and mission statement, and look over the company’s social media pages. The information shared will provide context about the company’s culture, tone, and values. Jot down any important details about the company, such as the awards they’ve won, or phrases or words repeated on their website, those are likely part of the company’s ideals. Interviewees should use this information to understand why they want to work for the company. They should, then, share this information in the interview. It helps align the applicant’s interests to the company’s and proves that the two are a good fit. Researching companies can be helpful as some companies may pointedly ask, “What do you know about us?”

2. Tell them who you are

Most interviewers will begin an interview asking applicants to talk about themselves. Applicants should orient their answers towards their professional life and accomplishments. They should discuss the jobs they’ve worked, their educational background-- if relevant, and applicable experiences. It is important to use this short speech wisely by highlighting tasks that specifically align with the expectations of the job. At the end of their professional experience, interviewees should add a few details about what they do outside of their job, including hobbies, personal goals, etc. Providing personal information humanizes the applicant and makes the interview more memorable. 

3. Align experience with the job’s expectations

Employers want to know that interviewees have experience in a specific job function because it will likely mean they will require less training. Before interviewing, applicants should reread the job description and find commonalities between the jobs they have previously held and the position’s expectations. Then, in the interview, applicants should highlight the commonalities to prove aptitude for the position. If applicants are moving industries, it is pivotal that they highlight their transferable skills. In other words, they must explain how the skills they utilized in their previous job can be applied to a new industry. Skills like organization, communication, and time management are necessary in almost all job functions and can be highlighted in any interview. 

4. Use the STAR method

Employers will likely ask applicants to identify a time when they faced a problem at work. This question often causes issues for interviewees as they spend too much time explaining the problem and rush through the solution. Before going into the interview, applicants should think of a time they had a problem at work and practice using the STAR method to explain the issue.

  • Start by identifying the Situation, or the problem. Give a few details to explain the severity of the issues and how it would affect the company.

  • Then, explain the Task or the objective to fix the situation. In other words, what needed to be done to fix the problem at hand?

  • Next, explain the Action taken to alleviate the situation. When explaining the action, use action verbs. Take more time explaining this section than the first two. Use a great deal of detail here as it showcases initiative and ability. 

  • Finally, share the Results. If the results were quantified, include those numbers. For example, saying “I created a computer software that increased productivity by 45%.” Numbers show rather than tell how effective the applicant’s input was. 

Even if an employer does not ask about a question about a problem they faced at work, applicants should use the STAR method in their interview to concretely highlight their professional successes. 

5. Acknowledge your weaknesses

Before going into any interview, applicants should access their weaknesses and/or identify any reservations an employer may have before hiring them. It is better for applicants to be honest and address shortcomings when asked. Applicants can also mention why their weaknesses should not bar them from consideration. For example, if an applicant has mostly worked in customer service and is applying for a job in human resources, he/she should address his/her lack of experience with potential employers. He/she could say, “I am aware that my background is in customer service and I applied for a job in human resources. I understand why you may be reluctant to hire someone with so little experience, however, customer service is very similar to human resources. Essentially, human resources is like an internal customer service. Both jobs are rooted in doing everything possible to service your clients. I know that my abilities in customer service can easily be translated to an internal market that seeks to advocate for the employee rather than the customer.” 

Employers often ask what applicants’ greatest weakness is. Interviewees must be honest with themselves and interviewers by addressing real weaknesses. Saying “I’m a perfectionist,” or “I care too much,” may lead employers to believe that applicants are neither self-aware nor willing to accept their faults. In other words, applicants shouldn’t humblebrag. Interviewees should address real weaknesses that are relevant and appropriate. However, applicants should be careful about the weakness they choose to share. If the weakness is pivotal to the job’s expectation, interviewees should seriously consider whether or not they should disclose this information. If they choose to share this information, they should be sure to address how they are working to fix this weakness.  

6. Review the most common interview questions

Most interviewers source the same questions from a repository. Do a quick Google search of the most commonly asked interview questions and have answers prepared for each one. Applicants don’t have to memorize answers, but it is helpful to have a general idea of how to answer each question. The more applicants practice common interview questions, the better prepared they’ll sound and feel for interviews. Practicing especially helps those who get nervous during interviews. 

7. Send a follow-up email

Interviewers are likely interviewing more than one person a day for a job. Interviewees are encouraged to send a follow-up email to ensure their name remains fresh in the interviewer's heads. Highlight details from the interview to provide context and reiterate interest in the position. 

8. Bring questions

At the end of every interview, interviewers will ask if the applicant has any questions. Applicants should always have at least three questions for the interviewers. These questions should be relevant and informed. Interviewees should not ask questions that can be found on the company’s website. The questions should be insightful and original. 

9. Remember you’re interviewing the company, too!

Interviewees often forget that they, too, are interviewing the company. Go to the interview with questions about company culture, promotion opportunities, etc. These kinds of questions can help applicants understand what kind of company they are interviewing for and whether or not they’d fit. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if the applicant aces the interview if they don’t like the job or company. 

Prepory wishes you luck on your interview. Remember to smile! 

Chelsi Chang

A Guide to The Holistic Admissions Process

A Guide to The Holistic Admissions Process

Many of the top colleges and universities in the United States utilize holistic admissions when determining whether or not a candidate is a good fit for their community. So, what is “holistic admissions” and how does one become a prime candidate for competitive schools?