How to Write a Personal Statement: A Step-wise Guide

[W]hen I read Jean-Paul Sartre or Bertrand Russell it is their specific, individual voice and presence that makes an impression on me over and above their arguments because they are speaking out for their beliefs. (Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual)

I begin with this sentence from Edward Said because he is speaking of presence in writing; he is speaking of voice, and perhaps most importantly of authenticity. Said is compelled by the writing of Sartre and Russell because he believes them. Similarly, when you write a strong personal statement, it will make an impression on readers, and that impact could unlock doors to competitive undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as to scholarships, grants, and fellowship applications. But how does one represent presence in writing? How strike a fair balance between confidence and humility, focus and impassioned curiosity? It is within this framework of genuine self representation that I invite you to consider this “personal statement guide” or “step-wise guide” for writing the personal statement.

Step One: Structural Overview

Begin by reading carefully the directions and/or any prompt of the schools or university programs to which you’re applying. In fact, your self-representation starts here because you’ll want to demonstrate to your audience that you’ve read closely their programmatic and instructional materials. (Good listeners are often close readers!) Once you are clear on what you’ve been asked to produce, you can begin to strategize. In the case of the personal statement, your next move is to consider an organizing device, such as a thesis or narrative pattern.

Majority of the best personal statement examples are structured as narratives of development rather than thesis-driven essays. This developmental design pattern allows the writer to construct a story that exhibits an arch of growth in a particular subject or field. When readers witness your movement from novice to apprentice, they will trust your desire to achieve expertise in their program. Personal statements can also be designed to illustrate the proper match between the applicant and a specific program. Ask yourself how your statement can enhance particular elements of your intellectual history and professional aspirations to match your desired program. Generate notes that can help you tell a compelling story about how and why you are drawn to your field of study, program, or career path. And remember that strong writing is specific; it is vivid. It bolsters intellectual engagement among readers at the level of sense, imagination, and intellect.

Step Two: Research the University and/or Program

Like you, universities and their programs have unique qualities. And like all of us, admissions professionals respond to applicants who demonstrate genuine interest in their school and/or program. When you take the time to familiarize yourself with the details of the school or program you’re applying to, you show your audience that you’ve carefully selected their school or program from among competitors. Ask yourself how your specific goals will be served by this particular fellowship, internship, or university. What—specifically—about the program or university under consideration makes it such a good fit for you? Be sure to make your prospective goals clear. Remember, just as your past is interesting and specific, so is your future. What are your professional objectives, and how will this program help you achieve them? Who’s on the faculty in your discipline? What are their research interests? What have they written, and what do you hope to gain from studying with them? Do you want to design green buildings for an environmentally-sound future? Or are you set on becoming a first-chair oboist in a large symphony orchestra? In either case, how do you plan to get there, and how does this particular program fit into your plan?

Step Three: Drafting

One truism I often share with students is this: Strong writing isn’t written; it’s rewritten. Knowing that my first draft won’t be my last allows me to relax. While I still struggle to begin, and I must still enact discipline during the writing process, knowing my draft doesn’t have to be perfect takes the pressure off. Because I have been writing in academic settings for over forty years, I know that writing develops over time—over drafts. Much like an old Polaroid photograph comes slowly into focus, the self-portrait that emerges through your writing should be crisp, detailed, and aesthetically pleasing by the end.

So, put your fingers on the keyboard (or your pen to paper) and write! Share your history as it relates to your professional goals. Help your audience recognize the seamless fit between their school or program’s vision and your mission. Speak in your own voice—don’t try to sound like someone you are not! And don’t be overly critical of your first draft. Don’t expect it to be anything other than what it is: a draft. Instead, once you have a full draft, step back, reread, and move on to the next step.

Step Four: Revision

Revision is where the real work of writing begins. Read through what you’ve written, and evaluate what’s working and what’s not by asking yourself some of the following questions:

  • Does your opening paragraph engage the reader? Does it convey a definite picture or impression of you as a person?
  • Are you answering the questions you set out to answer?
  • Is there a guiding idea or theme that runs through (and unifies) the entire piece?
  • Are you spending too much time on your personal history (remember, this isn’t an autobiography—only relevant information should be included)?
  • Have you clearly detailed your principle intellectual interests and aims? Is there evidence of your intellectual engagement and of the ideas that motivate you in your work and/or studies?
  • Are you specific enough?
  • Is your voice natural and compelling?
  • Have you shared your commitments to community service, to campus or off-campus organizations or leadership roles?
  • Is the closing paragraph effective? Does the full piece leave the reader with a genuine representation of who you are as person? Can we see and feel the spirit that motivates you to develop yourself as a professional in your field?

After carefully reviewing your first draft—rewrite. Then, rewrite again!

Step Five: Revision Redux

Once you feel the personal statement says what you want it to say, show it to somebody else. If you have access to a Writing Center at your high school or college, use it. It is also helpful to get feedback from a professional in your field. Many personal statements are discipline-specific. What works in the sciences might not work in the humanities, and what works for business majors might not work for artists. And, finally, if you are looking for help from a professional, consider using TAVVY, where you can work one-on-one with experienced educators like me who can guide you through this complex but rewarding process.

Christine Abbott, PhD