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How to write a personal statement?

The US Common Application (Common App) is a widely used tool for students applying to colleges and universities in the United States. In a previous discussion, we explored how to fill out the activity list section of the Common App. In this article, we will focus on how to approach the personal statement, which is a crucial part of the application process.

Unlike the UK UCAS personal statement, the US personal statement is more focused on personal development and your personal background story. Therefore, it is essential to first write down what you have done in the past in your activity list and then think about what else in your background story is important to tell admission officers. Some of the best personal statements are those that can showcase the personality of the student and what sets them apart from other applicants in terms of character, life experience, and overall personality.

Let's take a look at how to approach the activity list and personal statement sections of the US Common App. Below are two use cases and respective recommended approaches, full demonstrations and further information could be found in the embedded video.

Case 1: Student Athlete


Let's look at a student (namely “Tom”) who is the captain of the debating team, founded and chairs a volunteering organization, and heads the house soccer team. He is also a member of the Model United Nations, a columnist at a student newspaper and volunteers in various capacities.

How to approach

As per our communication with Tom, his positioning can be described as a student leader, writer and an expressive person. It is important to consider what kind of major Tom is interested in, as this can inform the content of the personal statement. When crafting the personal statement, it's important to focus on the student's personal background story and showcase their unique personality. For example, we might ask ourselves a couple of questions:

  • How did this student become so driven?

  • What inspired them to join so many activities on their own and become a leader?

In brainstorming ideas for the personal statement, we might discover that Tom might be a person who used to think quite highly of himself and was not always so driven. However, someone in their life inspired them to give back to the school community, which led them to show more compassion and leadership capabilities. This transformed him from an overachieving student athlete to someone who wants to use his achievements to give back to the community. By telling this story in the personal statement, we can complement the activity list and fill in the blanks of the student's background.

Case 2: Successful Applicant of Princeton University


Another example is a student (namely “John”) who entered Princeton University and had an activity list focused on doing research in the lab and starting a volunteer organization to teach free STEM courses in public schools.

How to approach

We might ask what inspired John to do all these things and discovered that John’s family didn't have the resources to allow him to pursue his interests in science throughout his school years due to financial limitations. As the situation improved, John started to get sufficient support to pursue his dream and he wanted to use science to not only develop the next cure for cancer but also help less privileged kids learn more about science. This is a noble cause that speaks to the student's personality and worldview.

Let's take a closer look at the personal statement process at the Common App specifically for Princeton University. The writing component consists of several questions that are asked each year, for example:

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. *This question allows students to talk about anything that is meaningful to them.*

  • Please reflect on a time when you faced a challenge or setback and how it affected yourself.

  • Please describe a topic or concept that captivates them and discuss an accomplishment or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

  • Please share an essay or talk on the topic of your choice.

Crafting a personal statement

Crafting a personal statement for college applications can be challenging, but there are three key elements to consider.

  1. A strong hook First, a memorable story can define who you are and showcase your unique personality and interests. For example, a golfer who has done charity work through his golf career can tell a story about impacting underprivileged kids to play the sport. A strong hook can help engage the reader and set the tone for the essay.

  2. A compelling storyline Second, a compelling storyline can help structure the essay as a hero's journey, with an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. For example, a student who had to take care of his family from a young age can tell a story about how he became an ultra-independent person and developed maturity through obstacles. The storyline should showcase the student's journey and how it relates to their future goals.

  3. A thoughtful reflection Finally, a thoughtful reflection can tie everything together and give the reader a takeaway message about the student's personality and worldview. For example, reflecting on what was learned from a particular experience and how it relates to future goals can provide insight into the student's character and potential contribution to the college community.

By combining a strong hook, a compelling storyline, and a thoughtful reflection, students can create a personal statement that is engaging, memorable, and reflective of who they are. Although crafting a standout personal statement can take many drafts and involve a lot of editing, with effort and creativity, students can create an essay that sets them apart from other applicants and catches the attention of college admissions officers. Our main advice is not to focus solely on the questions asked but to look within yourself first.

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