How to Write a Powerful Personal Statement for College
Leslie Tucker PhD, May 31, 2021
Discover which topic to choose and learn the dos and don'ts of writing your personal statement essay
As a rising senior, you’re eager to get started on your college applications. A good place to begin is with your college application essays. After all, why not knock out the hardest parts first?
One of the most intimidating pieces you’ll write for your college applications is the personal statement essay, or the “tell me about yourself” essay. Where should you start? What do colleges want to know about you? How can you write a personal statement for college that stands out from the crowd?
College application essay writing is different than most of the writing you’ve done in high school, and it demands a different approach. Let’s not forget, these stakes are high. Your personal statement essay has the power to make or break your college applications.
Keep reading to learn how to brainstorm essay topics and write an impressive personal statement for college.
Why is the personal statement for college important?
Before we dive into the “tell me about yourself” essay, we should first think about its purpose. What are admissions officers trying to learn about you through your personal statement for college?
Think of what else you include in your college applications—your transcript, GPA, test scores, and activities list. Each item shares specific information about you. How hard you push yourself in school, how well you test, and how you spend your time.
But what about your personality? What makes you unique? You certainly aren’t defined by your high school performance and extracurricular choices. Your personal statement for college should answer this question—who are you beyond your grades and activities?
Colleges want to know what you’ll bring to their campus communities. Why should they pick you instead of another applicant? That’s what you want to reveal in your “tell me about yourself” essay. (No pressure, right?)
Personal statement essays may appear in a number of different ways. Here are a few examples:
The Common App
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.
Johns Hopkins University
Use this space to share something you'd like the admissions committee to know about you (your interests, your background, your identity, or your community), and how it has shaped what you want to get out of your college experience at Hopkins.
When you choose a college, you will join a new community of people who have different backgrounds, experiences, and stories. What is it about your background, your experiences, or your story, that will enrich Boston College’s community?
Now let’s look at how to respond to these essay prompts and create a stand-out personal statement for college.
How to pick the right topic for your personal statement essay
The first step in writing your personal statement for college is brainstorming possible essay topics. Here are two brainstorming exercises for you to try.
Create a joy list. What things or activities do you love the most? What do you do in your free time? What energizes you? What makes you the happiest?
Identify your most important qualities. If you were creating an online dating profile, what would you write about yourself? What could you share about your interests, personality or background to help someone get to know you before meeting you?
The goal for both of these brainstorming exercises is to write a lot down—do a complete brain dump. And when you can’t think of anything else, you should have a nice long list in front of you.
Then you’ll start the task of narrowing down your list. You might consider which activities or qualities you’ve already displayed in your college application.
Did you write down that you’re hardworking? If your transcript contains difficult classes and high grades, that proves you have a strong work ethic. You don’t need to write an essay saying what you’ve already shown.
Is your love of dance already demonstrated through your extracurriculars? Maybe you’ll want to feature one of your other passions in your personal statement for college. This is precious space. Be careful not to waste it by repeating old information!
Personal statement essay topics to avoid
There are a few ideas you should cross off your brainstorming list because they’re over-used or not quite as impactful as you might think.
- A service trip abroad where you realized how privileged you are.
- A championship sports game you competed in—whether you won or lost.
- A biography of a beloved family member or person in your life.
If you don’t want to bore your application readers, skip over these potential topics for your personal statement for college.
Personal statement essay topics with the most potential
If you’re stuck deciding between several personal statement topics, here are a few that have the power to make an impact on your admissions readers.
- A time when you learned something meaningful or experienced significant growth—for instance, pushing through water polo even though you wanted to quit.
- A unique perspective you have on a common subject or activity—for example, the value you place in cooking for others because it’s how you show love and express yourself.
- A special experience or strong passion. If you’re bored by your essay topic, your readers will be too. But if you’re truly excited, that will come through in your writing.
Remember, you want your personal statement for college to reveal something new and interesting about yourself. Trust me, if you reflect long enough, you’ll find plenty of strong topics to choose from.
How to write a memorable personal statement for college
After choosing a strong topic for your “tell me about yourself” essay, you’re ready to begin the first draft. It’s intimidating, I know! So here’s my suggestion to beat writer’s block—pour your ideas and thoughts onto paper without self-editing.
Your first draft doesn’t have to be free of grammar and spelling mistakes. The most important thing is to get your best ideas out—editing and polishing will come later.
With that goal in mind, let’s look at some dos and don’ts of writing your personal statement for college.
Do tell stories to illustrate your points. You could state “I like art,” or you could share the story of how you created your greatest masterpiece. The second way is more enjoyable to read.
Do keep the focus on yourself, not other characters. This is why you don’t want to write a biography on your grandparents—they’re not the ones applying to college! Your personal statement should reveal information about yourself instead of other people.
Do be honest. It’s okay to show faults or weaknesses, especially within an overall story of growth. It’s all about how you present it. Instead of “I’m not good at math,” you could say, “Math is a challenging subject for me, but I’ve learned to work hard, seek help, and never give up.”
Don’t try to fit in too much. It’s better to communicate one thing about yourself well than to briefly skim over a list of your qualities or achievements.
Don’t merely state what happened. You want to bring your reader into the action. Instead of “I was excited to win the competition,” write this: “When they announced my name as the winner, I froze to my chair. My friends were cheering, but I couldn’t hear them. I just couldn’t believe it! My project had started out in tears and failure. Now it won first prize? My brain couldn’t process it, even as my legs carried me up to the stage to retrieve the trophy.”
Don’t expect your reader to understand your humor. Sarcasm rarely comes across well in writing. Plus, your reader may not find your sense of humor funny if they’re older or from a different cultural background. Be witty, be yourself. But don’t include jokes that might rub your audience the wrong way.
At the end of the day, your personal statement for college should be your story written in your voice. If you accomplish that, you’ll feel proud to submit it with your college applications—regardless of the admissions outcome.
Final thoughts about your personal statement for college
Believe me when I say the personal statement essay is one of the most difficult parts of the college application process. But that doesn’t mean you have to panic or freak out.
If you follow my tips on choosing a topic and writing your essay, you’ll be able to write a personal statement for college that’s memorable, impressive, and uniquely you. What else can you ask for?
I want to hear from you! What topic are you using for your personal statement essay? What part of the writing process are you most nervous about? Drop a comment below.