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How To Write A Short Personal Statement

How To Write A Short Personal Statement

















































Writers Workshop: Writer Resources

Writing Tips: Personal Statements

Overview of the Personal Statement

Personal statements are sometimes also called «application essays» or «statements of purpose.» Whatever they are called, they are essentially essays which are written in response to a question or questions on a graduate or professional school application form which asks for some sort of sustained response.

Some applications ask more specific questions than others. There is no set formula to follow in shaping your response, only choices for you to make, such as whether you should write an essay that is more autobiographically focused or one that is more professionally focused.

From application to application, requested personal statements also vary widely in length, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to a series of essays of a page or so each.

Personal statements are most important when you are applying to an extremely competitive program, where all the applicants have high test scores and GPA’s, and when you are a marginal candidate and need the essay to compensate for low test scores or a low GPA.

Context Considerations

How are personal statements read, and by whom? It’s most likely that your personal statement will be read by professors who serve on an admissions committee in the department to which you are applying. It is important in developing your personal statement to carefully consider this audience. What are the areas of specialty of this department, and what might it be looking for in a graduate student?

Additionally, since personal statements will most often be read as part of your «package,» they offer an opportunity to show aspects of yourself that will not be developed in other areas of your application. Obviously, it is important that personal statements are not simply prose formulations of material contained elsewhere in the application.

It may be helpful to think of the statement as the single opportunity in your package to allow the admissions committee to hear your voice. Often times, committees are sorting through large numbers of applications and essays, perhaps doing an initial quick sort to find the best applicants and then later reading some of the personal statements more thoroughly. Given that information, you will want your statement to readily engage the readers, and to clearly demonstrate what makes you a unique candidate—apart from the rest of the stack.

One Process for Writing the Personal Statement

  1. Analyze the question(s) asked on a specific application.
  2. Research the school and/or program to which you are applying.
  3. Take a personal inventory (see below). Write out a 2-3 sentence response to each question.
  4. Write your essay.
  5. Revise your essay for form and content.
  6. Ask someone else — preferably a faculty member in your area — to read your essay and make suggestions for further revision.
  7. Revise again.
  8. Proofread carefully.

Personal Inventory Questions

  • What makes you unique, or at least different from, any other applicant?
  • What attracts you to your chosen career? What do you expect to get out of it?
  • When did you initially become interested in this career? How has this interest developed? When did you become certain that this is what you wanted to do? What solidified your decision?
  • What are your intellectual influences? What writers, books, professors, concepts in college have shaped you?
  • How has your undergraduate academic experience prepared you for graduate/professional school?
  • What are two or three of the academic accomplishments which have most prepared you?
  • What research have you conducted? What did you learn from it?
  • What non-academic experiences contributed to your choice of school and/or career? (work, volunteer, family)
  • Do you have specific career plans? How does graduate or professional school pertain to them?
  • How much more education are you interested in?
  • What’s the most important thing the admissions committee should know about you?
  • Think of a professor in your field that you’ve had already and that you like and respect. If this person were reading your application essay, what would most impress him or her?


  • Answer all the questions asked.
    • If you are applying to more than one program, you may find that each application asks a different question or set of questions, and that you don’t really feel like writing a bunch of different responses. However, you should avoid the temptation to submit the same essay for different questions—it’s far better to tailor your response to each question and each school.
    • If you do find yourself short on time and must tailor one basic essay to fit a number of different questions from a number of different schools, target your essay to your first-choice school, and keep in mind that the less your essay is suited to an application’s particular questions, the more you may be jeopardizing your chances of being admitted to that school.
  • Be honest and confident in your statements.

    Use positive emphasis. Do not try to hide, make excuses for, or lie about your weaknesses. In some cases, a student needs to explain a weak component of his or her application, but in other cases it may be best not to mention those weaknesses at all. Rather, write an essay that focuses on your strengths.

    Write a coherent and interesting essay.

    Make your first paragraph the best paragraph in your essay.

    Develop a thesis about yourself early in the essay and argue it throughout.

    Each piece of information you give about yourself in the essay should somehow support your thesis.

    Pick two to four main topics for a one-page essay.

    Don’t summarize your entire life. Don’t include needless details that take space away from a discussion of your professionalism, maturity, and ability to do intellectual work in your chosen field.

    Use the personal statement as a form of introduction.

    Think of the essay as not only an answer to a specific question but as an opportunity to introduce yourself, especially if your program doesn’t interview applicants.

  • Ask yourself the following questions as you edit for content:
    • Are my goals well articulated?
    • Do I explain why I have selected this school and/or program in particular?
    • Do I demonstrate knowledge of this school or program?
    • Do I include interesting details that prove my claims about myself?
    • Is my tone confident?
  • Make sure your essay has absolutely perfect spelling and mechanics.
  • Use technical terminology and such techniques as passive voice where appropriate.

    You should write clearly and interestingly, yet also speak in a voice appropriate to your field.


    • Write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. You are probably wrong, and such a response is likely to make you blend into the crowd rather than stand out from it.
    • Use empty, vague, over-used words like «meaningful,» «beautiful,» «challenging,» «invaluable,» or «rewarding.»
    • Overwrite or belabor a minor point about yourself.
    • Repeat information directly from the application form itself unless you use it to illustrate a point or want to develop it further.
    • Emphasize the negative. Again, the admissions committee already knows your GPA and test scores, and they probably are not interested in reading about how a list of events in your personal life caused you to perform poorly. Explain what you feel you need to, but emphasize the positive.
    • Try to be funny. You don’t want to take the risk they won’t get the joke.
    • Get too personal about religion, politics, or your lack of education (avoid emotional catharsis).
    • Include footnotes, cliches, or long-winded and slow introductions.
    • Use statements like «I’ve always wanted to be a…» or any other hackneyed phrases.
    • Use gimmicks—too big of a risk on an application to a graduate or professional program.
    • Allow any superficial errors in spelling, mechanics, grammar, punctuation, format, or printing to creep under your vigilant guard.

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    How to Write a Personal Statement

    A personal statement lets an academic institution, organization, workplace, or potential client know more about you and the reasons you want whatever position it is you are presently applying for. Every personal statement will be a little different, but there are a few steps you should follow in order to create the best one possible. Keep reading to learn more about the process.

    Steps Edit

    Part One of Four:
    Brainstorm Edit

    List your formal achievements. While you should not include a straight list of achievements in your personal statement, some of your most significant achievements do deserve to be mentioned. Writing out a list of your achievements will help you to recall each one and determine which to include.

    • Formal achievements can include:
      • Academic degrees and certifications
      • Scholarship awards
      • Awards or honors from academic institutions
      • Workplace promotions, reviews, and evaluations
      • Speaking at a conference, convention, or workshop
      • Published works in your field of expertise
      • Official recognition for community service or contributions

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    Define your academic and career goals. [1] Another important aspect you need to address in your personal statement regards your goals. These goals allow the reader to know that their contribution will have a significant impact. You do not need to describe all your goals in your final statement, but list as many as possible during the brainstorming stage.

    • In order to thoroughly cover your goals, ask yourself a range of questions like:
      • How will this university/academic program/scholarship/job position/client directly impact my future?
      • What is my ultimate career goal?
      • Where do I see myself in 1 year? 5 years? 10 years?
      • What are the steps I need to take in order to reach my ultimate goal?
      • What are other goals I hope to accomplish along the way?

    Outline how you reached this place in your life. Jot down a list of experiences and turning points in your life that led you to develop your goals or present set of interests.

    • Questions worth asking yourself include:
      • When did you originally develop an interest in your field of choice?
      • What do you love most about your field of choice?
      • Why do you think your field of choice is important?
      • What experiences have you had that have provided you with experience in the field?
      • Has there ever been a time that you nearly gave up on this dream?
      • Had you given up any other dreams or expectations in order to chase after this one?

    Describe any challenges you have faced. Challenges and difficulties often make the hero of the story—you—seem more endearing. Everyone loves an underdog, and many people will be willing to assist you if they see that you have already worked so hard to reach the position you are currently at.

    • Possible challenges worth exploring include:
      • Financial difficulties
      • Social status difficulties
      • Prejudice
      • Learning disabilities
      • Physical disabilities
      • Family problems
      • Medical problems
      • Unexpected tragedies

    Ask yourself why you should be chosen. You will likely have plenty of competition, so you need to thoroughly describe whatever it is that sets you apart from the rest of the crowd. Before you can convince the reader of your uniqueness, you need to convince yourself. [2]

    • Ask yourself a range of questions, such as:
      • What personal qualities (leadership skills, organizational skills, self-control, etc.) do you possess which make you a valuable asset?
      • What experiences and beliefs have shaped your present character?
      • What are some of your proudest «unofficial» accomplishments? (Emphasize accomplishments that demonstrate a positive character trait.)
      • Have you had any turning points that redirected your life in a positive way?
      • Why would you choose yourself over other candidates? Why should anyone else?

    Part Two of Four:
    Know Your Audience Edit

    Vary the content based on the type of personal statement you need to write. While the basic structure and purpose of a personal statement remains the same, there are different aspects of your life you will need to focus on describing based on the type of situation this personal statement will be used for. [3]

    • If writing a personal statement for undergraduate schools or scholarships, focus on how your interests came to be, your high school achievements, your community involvement, and your positive character traits.
    • If writing for an undergraduate transfer, focus on your current academic and community record with your present school and describe your reasons for wanting to switch universities.
    • If writing for graduate school, focus on your long-term plans for the future, your undergraduate experiences, and the reasons you plan to further your education.
    • If writing for a job, portfolio, or to gain a particular client, focus on your past work experiences, the experiences you gained academically within the past five years, and your positive character traits.

    Research the institution or organization you plan to send the statement to. Before you write your personal statement, do a little digging to find out what the reader will find important.

    • Look into the institution’s or organization’s:
      • Mission statement
      • History
      • Star students or employees
      • Recent accomplishments or news stories

    Address any specific questions mentioned. Sometimes, an institution or organization will provide a list of specific questions or topics they want you to address. If this is the case, review the list carefully and write out answers that directly answer those concerns.

    Write a separate personal statement for each institution. While several institutions or organizations may share similar concerns, you should resist the urge to use the same personal statement for each. Instead, write a fresh personal statement tailor-made for each institution. [4]

    • Some differences may exist between your statements, but each one should be a little different in some way.
    • Note that you can, however, use the same notes you took during your brainstorming sessions.

    Part Three of Four:
    Write Your Personal Statement Edit

    Create a strong beginning. Your first paragraph must grab the reader’s attention. A strong introductory paragraph will clearly introduce the thesis or theme of your personal statement while avoiding cliches or overused phrasing.

    • Avoid starting with phrases like, “The most important moment in my life was when. ”
    • A better way to introduce that “important moment” would be to simply start describing it. Explain that, “The summer I turned 17 would leave me a changed person,” or, “When I first started working at XYZ Company, I never imagined that my belief about widget manufacturing would change so dramatically.” Directly break into the narrative instead wasting time alerting the reader that you intend to do so.
    • Provide as much detail in the first paragraph as possible. Introduce the main idea of your personal statement and describe the conditions of that idea. Save any elaborate details or related notes and experiences for the body of your essay, though.

    Only address a few main topics. In general, a one-page personal statement should only elaborate on two to four main issues. Choose issues that are both relevant and meaningful.

    • Never share your entire life story.
    • Write about what interests you. You will be able to write more convincingly and more passionately if you write about events, goals, experiences, or ideas that you already feel passionate about.
    • Address issues specifically brought up by the institution or organization. If there are any topics that the reader demands to see, then make sure that those are included in your personal statement.

    Give the reader a solid idea about who you are. Keep in mind that the purpose of a personal statement is to introduce yourself to the institution or organization you send the statement to.

    • Do not be vague or general.
    • Do tell the reader about experiences, goals, and ideas unique to you.

    Resist the temptation to guess about what the reader wants. You can and should address specific concerns brought up by the institution or organization, but you should not write your personal statement with the sole purpose of impressing the reader.

    • Do not attempt to be the “perfect match.” You have no definitive way of knowing what the perfect match would be like, and attempting to create a skewed image of yourself will only cause problems in the future.

    Maintain an upbeat tone. Write in an optimistic, confident tone.

    • Avoid uncertain or weak phrasing like, “I’m not sure but I think I would probably be a good fit for your program.”
    • Even when discussing challenges or difficulties you faced, focus on your triumphs over those problems rather than attempting to paint yourself as an unfortunate and helpless victim.

    Part Four of Four:
    Revise Edit

    Expand or cut back as necessary. Your first draft can be as long or short as you need it to be, but many institutions and organizations have word count or page count limits on personal statements. If yours exceeds the word count, cut information out. If yours is not long enough, add more information.

    • When trimming your personal statement down, scan the essay for any parts that do not directly address your point or those that only serve to provide “background information.” Also consider reducing your number of main points if one point does not seem especially significant.
    • When expanding your personal statement, look for ways to elaborate on the information you already have. Include more detail to create a fuller picture. Alternatively, you could introduce another main point to discuss.

    Read your personal statement aloud. Reading the piece out loud will give you a more accurate idea of how it sounds.

    • As you read, listen for errors or clunky wording.
    • Note any sentences or paragraphs that seem displaced.
    • Also ask yourself if it sounds like your natural voice. If you were describing these things in person, would the way you speak sound like the way you wrote out your thoughts?

    Ask for constructive criticism. Having another set of eyes proofread your personal statement is a good idea because another person may be objective enough to analyze the statement’s strengths and weaknesses honestly.

    • Accept constructive criticism graciously and try not to take anything personal.
    • When asking for constructive criticism, first go to professional sources like:
      • High school teachers
      • University professors
      • Internship supervisors
      • Academic advisers
      • Trustworthy colleagues
    • After your professional sources have been exhausted, you can ask friends and family for their thoughts.

    Rewrite and revise accordingly. Once you have your own ideas and the ideas of others in hand, revise your personal statement by fixing any weak parts and adding or removing detail as needed.

    • Note that it is perfectly normal to go through more than two drafts of your personal statement.

    Proofread one final time. Once you feel satisfied with the content of your personal statement, proofread it one last time for basic spelling and grammar errors.

    • Once you fix these problems, your personal statement is ready to mail out.

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    How To Write A Personal Statement

    You have a limited amount of time to make an impact on the reader (no more that 30 seconds to be precise) therefore the effect has to be immediate. A personal statement is usually situated at the top of a cv under your personal information and is one of the first sections of a cv that the reader will come across. There are various formats and types of cv that are useful dependant on the job role or your skill set, however almost all include a personal profile. In addition generally most application forms will also include a personal statement section.

    “This is your banner heading summarising your main selling points»

    So what should this heading or opening paragraph include?

    • A brief overview of who you are and what personal qualities you have to offer.
    • Reference to your skills ensuring they are specifically tailored to that of the position
    • Outline your areas of expertise and experience

    In addition it should entice the reader to want to know more and go on to read the rest of your cv or application form.

    How long should a personal statement be?

    There is no definitive answer providing the information is relevant and interesting, however generally a profile will consist of between 30 – 60 words. No more than a few short sentences around 5 lines long.

    How do we go about writing a personal profile?

    • Firstly you should think about compiling a list of descriptive words or phrases that you may wish to use when explaining the above mentioned bullet points.

    Some sample words; Approachable, Analysed, Caring, Challenging, Creative, Diplomatic, Experienced, Flexible, Helpful, Influential, Inspiring, Motivated, Organised, Professional.

    Some sample skills; Effective listener, Good at motivating others, Training, Writing, Public Speaking, Completing Forms, Cooking, Innovative thinker.

    • Your personal profile should be written in third person narrative, as written in first person will appear as only your opinion of yourself.
    • Compile a few short sentences combining your pre — selected words and key skills. It is recommend you have two versions of your profile, one which targets a specific job or industry sector and a general multi — purpose version which you can adapt dependant on your requirements. This will also help if you are applying for a range of different jobs.
    • You must feel comfortable in explaining and justifying the points included and be mindful of not sounding “too good to be true”.

    It is not uncommon to be asked questions in relation to points included within your profile for example;

    Q: You state that you are a good problem solver can you provide an example of a problem you have solved and how?

    Q: You mention you are an innovative thinker, can you explain an idea that you have suggested that was successful?

    • Where possible have someone proof read or help suggest points for you to include as it can sometimes be difficult to write in a positive and descriptive manner about yourself.

    To conclude here are some example profiles and important Do’s and Don’ts:

    • Set the tone appropriately and word in a positive manner that will help precondition the reader.
    • Contain only appropriate and relevant information.
    • Keep it within the recommended length or you run the risk of waffling.
    • Pigeon hole yourself to one type of person or profession (unless your intention is to achieve one very specific objective).
    • Include and information in relation to your life eg, married, single, age, how long you have been unemployed.
    • Go over the top, try were possible to keep it simple and do not include anything negative in this opening paragraph.

    A responsible, intelligent and experienced retail professional with an extensive background in fashion and children’s wear both in large departments and small boutiques. Highly creative, adaptable and bright individual with an excellent eye for visual detail and design.

    A skilled and adaptable Project Manager, with experience in implementing and overseeing change. Has a proven track record of exceeding performance expectations, remaining customer focused and adhering to budgets and timescales. Ability to bring about the fundamental changes needed in response to changing commercial, legislative and financial factors. Strong strategic vision; along with the ability to successfully deliver complex multi-track projects.

    An energetic, ambitious individual who has developed a mature and responsible approach to any tasks undertaken. As a Finance graduate who also possesses three years’ managerial experience, now seeks a senior financial management role. Has the ability to organise people and systems in order to achieve objectives and is used to working under pressure and meet strict deadlines.

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