How to Decide What to Write About in a Personal Statement

Personal Statement

A personal statement has always been an important part of any application. It is your opportunity to showcase your personality in a way that is greater than the proverbial “stack of papers” that make up the rest of the application. However, with everything happening in the world right now, the personal statement carries more weight than ever. With that in mind, this article explores how to approach the task of writing an effective personal statement, starting from the brainstorming phase all the way through completion.

Pitfalls to Avoid Writing Personal Statement

Before we get into how you choose which topic you should write about, first let’s cover which topics to avoid. You want to make sure your personal statement communicates a clear picture of who you are, and because of that, there are some common pitfalls to avoid.

Common Mistakes People Make When Choosing a Topic for Personal Statement:

  • Writing what you think admissions officers want to hear
  • Picking a generic topic
  • Rehashing your resume
  • Writing a statement of purpose rather than a personal statement

Let’s explore each of these topics in more detail below.

Writing what you think admissions officers want to hear

There is truth to the idea that you want to write an essay that is centered on an appealing topic for admissions officers to read about. However, the secret is that the most appealing essays are about topics the writer is knowledgeable about, has a passion for, or has a point of view on to discuss.

For example, you may think that admissions officers want to read about international travel, but if you’ve only been out of the country once, this is probably not the topic for you. The same goes for community service. If you have a lot of experience and passion for community service projects—so much so that it’s an intrinsic part of your personality—that’s great, but otherwise this should not be the focus of your essay.

Picking a generic topic

Many personal statements aren’t focused enough and so they come across as generic. For example, writing about a minor medical procedure and drawing a loose connection to how that made you want to become a doctor is not a strong essay topic. There are, or course, exceptions, but a strong essay about something that has nothing to do with medicine that shows us who you really are or that highlights positive attributes (for example determination, dedication, loyalty, etc.) is a much stronger choice.

Taboo subjects

You want to avoid focusing on topics that emphasize why your political views or your religious views are right and others are wrong in an essay like this. That does not mean you must avoid talking about religion or politics at all—they’re valid and important subjects that may be useful windows into who you are as an applicant and as a human—but focusing on them through the lens of how they have shaped your identity or an individual experience is the best way to incorporate these topics.

Rehashing your resume

Your resume is already a part of your application package. In contrast to your resume, your personal statement should have a narrative feel to it. There should be a beginning, a middle, and an end. This means you should choose a topic that you can delve into and explore. This should not be a narrative version of your resume. Instead, it should focus on one aspect of your life and experience and draw on that to make bigger conclusions about yourself, your interests, your future, and so on.

Writing a statement of purpose rather than a personal statement

On the surface, this may seem like a subtle difference, but there’s a vast difference in terms of content between the two. A statement of purpose is about your preparation for your career goals and area of study, whereas a personal statement showcases you as an individual and illustrates what makes you who you are. This often includes discussing your future goals or areas of study, but as a part of a larger narrative.

Brainstorming

Now that you’re clear on what you shouldn’t focus on, where should you start to find your topic? It’s important to let yourself brainstorm when you’re looking for your personal statement topic. With that in mind, before you start writing, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are some of the key characteristics I would use to describe myself?
  • What have been some of my most pivotal experiences so far?
  • What are some of my successes? My failures?
  • How have I spent my happiest days?
  • What obstacles have I overcome to get where I am so far?
  • Why am I interested in my future area of study?
  • What am I afraid of?

Use your answers to these questions as a baseline to do some introspection. This should show you a lot about your frame of mind, your aspirations, your identity, and your life journey so far. Now that you have some of these answers outlined, consider which of these things has a story attached. Perhaps you wrote that a key characteristic was “bravery” in part because of an experience you had getting lost in the woods on a hike. That hiking experience could serve as the base of your personal statement and could then allow you to describe other areas in life where you’ve been brave as well.

Now that you’ve done some introspection, write out a list of potential stories to explore in your personal statement. Ask yourself if any of these experiences are illustrative of your life as a whole or your future aspirations. Can any of these serve as metaphors? Are any of them parts of formative experiences for you? Do any of them feel so representative of you that a profile of you would be incomplete without this insight? With this list in hand, pick what stands out to you most and move forward to the outline phase.

Outlining

You’ve chosen a topic! Now it’s time to start an outline. You may feel like you’re a better writer without tying yourself down to an outline, but this is the most effective way to be sure that the throughline of your story is at its best and clearest. My suggestion is that you outline as follows:

  • Introduction
    • Introduce the idea of your story
    • I find a lot of success with starting with the big picture in the introduction and letting yourself dig into detail in the body
  • Body
    • Use the body of your story as the basis for telling us more about yourself. For example, in the hiking example, maybe you used skills you learned in environmental science to find your way and that becomes an opportunity to explain your love of understanding the natural world. The story you tell should be the glue that binds together your statement of who you are.
  • Conclusion
    • Make sure to finish the story itself, but also use this as a chance to tie up loose ends about anything else you’ve brought up. In our example about the hike, maybe you use this experience to discuss how this solidified your certainty in your future area of study, and the bravery you experienced is part of what makes you certain you can leave your comfort zone and attend a program that is thousands of miles from home.
    • Make sure you also look ahead to what the future can offer, and how where you’re applying and what you’re applying for is a part of that story.

Writing A Draft

The good news is that since you’ve carefully selected your topic and outlined your personal statement, writing your first draft should be a pretty straightforward endeavor. The goal of the first draft is to get everything you can down on paper. Try not to judge yourself or focus on getting everything perfectly right on your first draft. That’s what revisions are for! Tell your story. Refer to your outline. Make sure you’re taking care to really have a beginning, middle, and an end. Get to the end of the essay to get your first draft completed!

Polishing Your Personal Statement

You have a full draft on paper, so now you’re ready to really look at the specifics. Do you use clichés or does your language feel original and specific? Are you utilizing opportunities to incorporate figurative or colorful language? Do you have clear, concise topic sentences for each paragraph? This is where you can also refine which details you’ve chosen to include and assess whether or not you’d like to incorporate any new details or swap anything out.

In addition, if you’re looking to take your essay to the next level and need additional eyes on it to provide constructive, expert feedback, you can reach out to EssayEdge and work with personal statement editor to hone and refine your essay further.

In Summary

If you follow these steps, you are well on your way to having an effective and well-written personal statement. While it can seem like the most amorphous and overwhelming aspect of any academic application, your personal statement is a crucial part of your application, and you’ll be glad you spent this time developing yours with such great care.

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