How to Write a Personal Statement for a College Application

I’m Tutor Phil, and in this tutorial I will guide you through writing a winning personal statement, also known as a college essay. 

A personal statement that you have to include with your application to a college or program will generally be one of three types:

Type 1. Common Application essay 

This is a response to one of the common application essay prompts that are accepted by about 700 colleges in the United States. The 2020 – 2021 set contains seven essay prompts which we’ll go over in detail in this tutorial.

Type 2. Supplemental essay

Supplemental essays are additional prompts that you must sometimes respond to. They are usually less formal and more specific than the common app essays. 

We’ll tackle several of these here, as well. 

Type 3. Program-specific essay

These college essays or personal statements are generally required by graduate or professional schools. That said, some undergrad programs will also require them.

In a program-specific college essay, your task is to convince the reader why you and the specific program for which you are applying are a good match for each other. 

Most of what you’ll learn about writing common college essays applies to these, too. But I’ll give you tips on how to make your program-specific essay or personal statement unique and effective. 

Common Application Essay Prompts 2020-2021

Let’s tackle each of the common application essays and see how you can make it uniquely yours. After you’ve read through this list of prompts and ways to develop them, just pick one you like the most and give it your best shot. (source)

Prompt 1

“Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.”

Read the Prompt Carefully and Get Total Clarity

The first thing you want to do when approaching an essay topic is read the prompt carefully because it contains clues to your essay’s structure and content.

The key word in this essay prompt is the word “or.” See, if the word “and” were used instead, then you’d have to talk about all four:

  • Background
  • Identity
  • Interest
  • Talent

However, because the word “or” is used, you must pick only one of these aspects of your person and write about it. 

According to the prompt, you must pick the most “meaningful” aspect. This implies that whatever you choose to discuss, it must have some kind of a lesson, insight, or epiphany about it. In other words, it must have resulted in an inner transformation. 

Finally, the prompt mentions “story.” And your picture of what you’re supposed to do is complete. 

In effect, your task is clear:

You must write a story associated with your background, identity, interest, or talent that led you to a personal transformation. 

And now that you know your task, it is much easier to choose the best element out of the four. And that is your next step. 

Choose One of the Elements and Take a Stand

Which of these elements – background, identity, interest, or talent – can be best discussed in the context of a story with a lesson?

The answer to this question will be different for everyone. Let me give you an example of a complete thesis statement for this prompt:

“My musical talent has been a source of several defining moments in my life. The time when I won a junior piano competition taught me the all-important lessons of hard work, decisiveness, and humility that I’ll never forget.”

What have we done here? We picked a talent (music), a particular event (competition), and three lessons derived from that experience. Why three?

Let me introduce you to the Power of Three, a principle I use when approaching pretty much any essay, argumentative or admissions. 

In order to write an effective essay, you must have some kind of a way to structure it. And to structure or organize an essay, you need one main idea (thesis) and several supporting ideas. 

Each of these supporting ideas will enable and correspond to a section in your essay. And what is the best number of supporting ideas when you have the freedom of choice?

Three is the easiest number for your brain to deal with. Less than that, and that’s not enough sections. More than that, and your focus may blur, and your essay may sprawl.

We picked a talent and an event, which is a story. And then we simply came up with three character traits that became prominent in the story:

  • hard work
  • decisiveness
  • humility

Now, all we need to do is write out this essay. It will consist of three parts:

  1. How hard work enabled the winning outcome
  2. How decisiveness was necessary to make the final round 
  3. How humility after the win made you think of other people’s roles in the outcome

Let’s say that you need to write about 750 words. In that case, your essay will have the following word count distribution:

  • Introductory paragraph (75 words)
  • Body paragraph 1 – about hard work (200 words)
  • Body paragraph 2 – about decisiveness (200 words)
  • Body paragraph 3 – about humility (200 words)
  • Conclusion (75 words)

If you do the math, the total is 750 words, which is exactly the outcome you want. Can you write 200 words on each of these subtopics? You’ll find that you can do that easily with the Power of Three.

Prompt 2

“The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

Read the Prompt Carefully and Get Total Clarity

Let’s remember that the prompt provides us with clues to organizing the essay. Let’s break it down.

We know that we’re looking for “lessons we take from obstacles.” We are possibly looking for multiple lessons. We’re already thinking the Power of Three.

Just like in the previous prompt, we have the power word “or,” which means that we must pick one challenge, setback, or failure. 

Now, in this particular prompt, the difference among the three is minimal. We are basically looking for a problem that presented us with three lessons. 

Finally, we have the power word “and” in the last sentence of the prompt. It indicates that we should discuss the ways the problem affected us AND what we learned. 

It looks like we can divide the big problem into three aspects of it. And then discuss each aspect in terms of how it affected us and what we learned from it.

Given these clues, here is how we can outline this essay:

Sample Personal Statement Outline for Prompt 2

  • Introductory paragraph (What was the challenge?) (75 words)
  • Challenge aspect 1
    • How it affected you (100 words)
    • What you learned (100 words)
  • Challenge aspect 2
    • How it affected you (100 words)
    • What you learned (100 words)
  • Challenge aspect 3
    • How it affected you (100 words)
    • What you learned (100 words)
  • Conclusion (75 words)

Again, if you do the math, you’ll see how all the words add up to the desired word count of 750. 

You’ll also notice how much easier it is to deal with an essay when you break it down into chunks like this. 

Prompt 3

“Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

Carefully Reading the Prompt to Get Total Clarity

Just like in the previous prompts or in following any prompt, we must look for key words. The word that is repeated twice in the prompt is the word “or.”

You are asked to “reflect” or think back to “questioning” or “challenging” a belief or idea. Is “questioning” really different from “challenging?” 

A slight difference does exist. To question is simply to be unsure of the validity of an idea and to express your doubt.

To challenge means to be pretty sure that the idea has a serious flaw if it’s not entirely wrong. So, to challenge is stronger than to question.

Next, what is the difference between “a belief” and “an idea?” A belief is usually more personal and has some emotional value to it. 

An idea could be just a general concept floating around in nobody’s head in particular. In other words, a belief is probably more personal and specific than an idea. 

This is the kind of analysis you should conduct on your essay prompts. This way you’re making sure you are giving a precise answer in your essay, which is the foundation of success in the admissions process. 

The distinctions you arrive at enable you to choose an ideal subject to discuss in your essay.

What Are the Actual Questions?

This prompt happens to include two specific questions:

  • What prompted your thinking? 
  • What was the outcome?

Notice that the first question really asks “why?” In other words, what was the cause of your questioning or challenge?

The second question is about the effect. Now, you have a perfect setup to use the Power of Three. Your essay can include three sections.

Sample Personal Statement Outline for Prompt 3

  1. Describe the actual idea or belief and how you questioned or challenged it.
    1. Describe how you came across the idea, including how you became exposed to it.
    2. Present the idea in the language of its source. What exactly was the idea or belief?
    3. Tell the reader how you questioned or challenged it. Did you speak, write, make a video? 
  2. Explain why you decided to do so.
    1. What were the reasons? Provide between one and three. 
  3. Describe what happened as a result.
    1. What were the consequences of your response to the idea or belief?
    2. You can discuss consequences for you, the person whose idea you questioned, and for anyone else involved.

Prompt 4

“Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.”

The First Step – Careful Reading and Interpretation

This is always our first step. We want to get as much as possible out of the prompt. In fact, the prompt should provide us with a clear outline, if we examine it carefully enough.

Again, the main key word in the first sentence is the word “or.” Note that is separates two possibilities:

  1. A problem you’ve solved (the past), OR
  2. A problem you’d like to solve (the future) 

Then, we are given a choice:

  • intellectual challenge
  • research query
  • ethical dilemma
  • anything of personal importance, no matter the scale.

So, we are at a crossroads again. We must choose – past or future and the type of a problem. At this point, you must make this decision and stick with it because in the next step, you’ll use the Power of Three.

But to do the Power of Three, you must have a clear decision on the subject first. Note the key word “and” in the last sentence of the prompt. This word indicates a separation into two sections. 

Here is an example of how this personal statement can be structured:

  • Thesis: “I faced a problem: to tell or not to tell on my classmate. I chose not to.”
    • Past, personal, ethical dilemma
    • Describe exactly what happened
  • Why was the decision significant to you?
    • List one to three reasons. 
  • What steps did you take to make things better?
    • List one to three steps. 

Once you have a detailed outline, you can begin writing. 

Prompt 5

“Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

Follow the Key Words

Again, it is our first step to read the prompt closely and use it as a guide in creating an outline. The words “or” and “and” give us a clear separation into sections.

We have three choices of the subject:

  • accomplishment
  • event
  • realization

Note right away that an “event” is more general than either an accomplishment or a realization because both an accomplishment and a realization can be thought of as types of an event.

This means that it’s probably a good idea to narrow the choice down to two options – an accomplishment or a realization.

What is the difference? Well, an accomplishment is usually an outward event – something others can see and describe. 

A realization is an inner event which cannot be seen by others except by change in behavior. 

So, it’s your choice what you’d like to discuss. If you’re more physical, then an accomplishment is a great choice.

If you’re more cerebral and love to ponder things, then a realization may be the way to go.

Next, we have two sections separated by the power word “and.” This event must have sparked:

  • a period of personal growth AND 
  • a new understanding of yourself or others

Also notice the key word “or” in the last phrase. In this case, you can actually use it to further subdivide your essay structure. 

Here’s our sample personal statement outline based on this analysis of the prompt:

  • Thesis: “Becoming a junior tennis champion has led me to a new level of self-confidence and to a closer connection to people I love and care about.”
  • Describe the accomplishment
    • How you prepared for it
    • What obstacles you had to overcome
    • How it actually happened
  • Describe the period of personal growth that happened as a result
    • Talk about a new level of confidence
    • You used to have another challenge
    • Taking the title showed you that you can do a lot more than you thought
    • So, you took on that other challenge and overcame it
  • In the process of preparing for the championship, your alliances became clear
    • Many people supported you and genuinely cared
    • Some tried to put you down, including some of your friends
    • In the end, it became clear who your real friends were
    • As a result, the real friendships only grew tighter while some relationships fell away, which was a good thing

Again, as you can see, if you take the prompt apart and create a detailed outline based on it, you’re halfway to writing a winning college essay.

Prompt 6

“Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”

Yup, Follow the Key Words

By now, you’re pretty familiar with using key words, such as “or” and “and” to analyze the prompt and use it to create an outline. 

Let’s simply create an outline right off the bat, based on this prompt.

Sample Personal Statement Outline for Prompt 6 

  • Thesis: “Populating Mars is an idea that captivates me.”
  • Let’s use the Power of Three:
    • Reason 1: Humanity needs a home away from home.
    • Reason 2: What if there was life on Mars in the past?
    • Reason 3. The mechanics of traveling to Mars and back are fascinating. 
  • When it comes to learning about travel to Mars, I consult:
    • Elon Musk and his work
    • Scientific publications, such as the Science Magazine, etc.
    • Documentaries available on different platforms.

Just keep dividing your essay into parts until you have the confidence to begin writing. 

Prompt 7

“Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”

This prompt is pretty self-explanatory. If you have an essay in your portfolio that has done well in the past, pull it out, dust it off, perhaps make a change or two, and use it.

If you don’t have a winning essay, you can still choose this prompt to have the ultimate freedom in the subject and what you want to say about it.

If that’s what you want, then this tutorial I wrote on essay writing for beginners is your next ideal place to go. 

Writing the Supplemental College Essays

Some schools require that you write an additional essay, called a supplemental essay, as a part of your application. These are usually a little more personal and specific. They are also usually shorter.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of supplemental essay prompts and how to handle them (source). 

Supplemental Essay Prompt 1

“Describe a person you admire.”

This sounds like a simple descriptive essay. Definitely use the Power of Three and pick three qualities of this person whom you admire. In each section, describe the quality and why you admire it. 

Here is a sample outline:

  • Thesis: “I admire my father because he is caring, brave, and hard-working.”
  • Section 1: My father is caring.
    • Explain what makes your father caring; provide examples.
    • Explain why you admire this quality in him.
  • Section 2: My father is brave.
    • Explain what makes your father brave; provide examples.
    • Explain why you admire this quality in him.
  • Section 3: My father is hard-working.
    • Explain what makes your father hard-working; provide examples.
    • Explain why you admire this quality in him.

Notice that in each section, you can provide explanations or examples, or both. If you choose to or have to write on this prompt, I highly recommend my tutorial on how to write an essay about a person

Supplemental Essay Prompt 2

“Why do you want to attend this school?”

This is an essay in which you have to make it clear why you and the school are a good match for each other. 

Again, you should use the Power of Three and provide three reasons why you think this is a good match.

Find three aspects of the school which can correspond to three of your needs. These can be:

  • One or more professors you admire
  • One or more specializations or areas the school is famous for
  • Sports or other extracurricular activities 

An additional section should be about how you plan to be an asset to the school. So, it’s not only how the school can serve you but also how you can serve the school. 

Supplemental Essay Prompt 3

“What is a book you love?”

In this essay, pick your favorite book and write out a discussion. You can structure it in one of several ways:

  • Three reasons you love this book
  • Three ways in which the book has affected you
  • Three elements in the book that fascinate you 

For a detailed explanation of how to write an essay about a book, I highly recommend my tutorial right here

Supplemental Essay Prompt 4

“What extracurricular activity has been meaningful to you?”

In this essay, just pick one activity and discuss:

  • Three reasons you’ve found it meaningful
  • Three ways it has affected you

Program-Specific Personal Statements

Some schools and programs have more specific essay or personal statement prompts. Programs that require them are usually graduate and professional courses of study.

Everything you’ve learned up to now in this tutorial applies to these essays, as well. But one characteristic is common to program-specific essays:

It is crucial for you to explain in detail why a specific program is a good match for your needs and desires and why you are a good fit for the program. 

In other words, you must make a strong case for an excellent fit between you and the program.

For example, Columbia University Teachers College (grad school) requires that you address these three questions in an application essay:

  1. Why you?
  2. Why now?
  3. Why Teachers College?

As you can see, the committee wants first to know why you are a good fit. Next, they want to know why this is a good time for you in your life. And only then they want to know how TC can help you achieve your goals. 

These three are excellent questions to guide you in writing your specialized admissions essay. Here are some tips on how you can answer them effectively.

Why You?

In this section, discuss any aspects of your life or person relevant to the program of study. The first step is to read as much as possible about the program. 

Then, pick some of the following elements to discuss:

  • How your previous studies relate to the program 
  • Any concentration that is a good fit and why
  • How your research will contribute to the world
  • Any past work you have done that qualifies you
  • Any relevant volunteering efforts you want to mention 
  • And specific and relevant training and achievements
  • Any skills or qualities of character

Whatever elements you choose, and you can pick any number of these, make sure to connect each one to the program. Or at least make sure it’s relevant to your subject of study. 

Why Now?

Here are some of the sub-questions to answer:

  • What is particular about this time in your life that makes it ideal for you to be admitted into the program?
  • What things have happened up to now that point in the direction of the program for you?
  • Why not later? Why you don’t want to waste time (perhaps because you’re clear on your goals and aspirations). 

Why This Program?

Here are some sub-questions for this section:

  • Your goals and why you have them
  • How the program can help you achieve them
  • Your plans after graduation 

Again, make sure to connect each of these to a specific aspect of the program you’re applying to. 

And that’s all. Hope this was helpful. Now go ahead and write your own winning personal statement!

Tutor Phil

Tutor Phil

Tutor Phil is an e-learning professional who helps adult learners finish their degrees by teaching them academic writing skills.

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