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Presenting the Best You: The Personal Statement May 29, 2012

I think we can all agree, personal statements are the worst.  Hated and feared by the high schooler, and blacked out over the undergraduate years, it’s no contest that personal statements are one of the most dreaded forms of writing.  They are, however, necessary – and especially for a lot of you graduating students, if you’re applying for further education, or jobs, or scholarships or grants.  And so, by popular demand (judging by the number of desperate personal statement writers I’ve had in the past week), here is a short guide to writing a good personal statement.  Note – this is not a guarantee of success, but simply a short and sweet set of tips that should give you some direction and maybe even motivation (gasp!).

1.  Show that you’re the best for the program, but also why this program is right for you – a good fit all around!

When applying for a program or a scholarship, the first thing you should ask yourself is: why am I applying for this?  What aspects of the program suit your personality and goals, and what makes you an ideal candidate?  A lot of people seem to believe that the personal statement is meant to convince a board that you’re the right fit for their program, but you should also think about why the program is a good fit for you.  Colleges, institutions, or whatever want to know that you will be an asset to them, and that you will take advantage of this opportunity, should they give it to you.  So show them that the fit goes both ways – research the program, look at the reasons why you’re applying, and figure out what you would do with an acceptance or a chance to attend their school, or a few years at this job.  Provide specific reasons for applying to this program (“Your commitment to placing first-year students in the field really appealed to my business sense!”) and show the board that you’ve done your homework – and that you’re not just sending out a form letter with an Insert Name Here callousness.

2.  Show some weakness – but not too much.

Look, we’re not all perfect students with our lives completely planned out from day one.  Personal statements can benefit from a dose of reality (it’s okay to say that you weren’t really on the ball freshman year, for instance, or that you missed a few weeks of a term for personal reasons) but turn it into a positive.  Throw the focus on the “overcoming an obstacle” story, the “breaking down barriers” “learning more about my own capacity for success” story.  Mention the setback briefly and then go into detail about the recovery process – and show that the recovery had a bearing on your decision to do better with their program.  Just like that, you’re humanized but not a slacker, and you’ve turned it into a further reason why you’re a good fit for their program.

3.  Show them what you’ve done and where you’ve been

Have you traveled overseas, had an internship, helped out in your community, done any job-shadowing?  Anything that you’ve done outside the curriculum is really appealing to the review boards, and can help make your case as a valuable asset.  Better yet, make it relevant to your application; mention your worldliness, your drive to succeed, your range of experience, and how it’ll help you make the most of this new opportunity.  Again, be specific – if you’re going into health science, who have you helped already?  If you’re going into business, how did traveling to Brazil increase your knowledge?

4.  Don’t be too personal – or too outdated.

This is your personal statement and all, but it’s not your soapbox.  Don’t derail your piece by getting into long-winded descriptions of personal problems; in other words, stay on topic.  Similarly, stick to your college and post-college experiences.  Review boards aren’t going to want to hear about how you were student council president in 10th grade, after all.

5. Be specific to you.

Personal statements are prone to clichés – there’s only so many ways to tell the same story of minor setback followed by your discovery of your true purpose and then your decision to attend this program.  The best way to avoid clichés is to make your story unique.  Include details specific to your own experience, and make it sound like you – not College Student #1234.

6.  Don’t ramble – the committee might be reading a hundred of these or more in one day.

Pretty self-explanatory, but don’t drag it out.  Say what you want to say, give the committee all of the information they need, and thank them for their time.  And wait for that decision!

For more help, consider meeting with an advisor, make an appointment with the Writing Center, or visit one of these sites:




One Response to “Presenting the Best You: The Personal Statement”

  1. markalazio Says:

    This is some great, sound advice! I know I had troubles writing my personal statement, and it is hard to know where to start or how personal to sound. Your points make a lot of sense, and I especially like the points related to showing your weakness (but not too much), and making the connection to why you are perfect for this position. I think this is an often overlooked point of personal statements, especially for education. We often get so wrapped up in making sure we are sounding like have the experience and are qualified, making those connections between the program and our goals don’t always get in there. Well done, Mallory. Hopefully many personal statement writers will find this page!

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