Anatomy of a Personal Statement

Writing a personal statement is a large part of the application process to colleges and universities.As you start the college application process, you’ll have to gather relevant information about yourself to show colleges your unique qualifications. Students must submit SAT/ACT scores, grades, and descriptions of their courses and fill out info about extracurriculars and other academic accomplishments. 

While filling out this information is important, you should pay special attention to your personal statement. The rest of your application—your GPA, your SAT or ACT scores, your Activities List—can only show so much of your personality and your abilities as a student, which is why it’s crucial that you craft a Personal Statement essay that lets your character and abilities shine through. 

You should consider the topic for your personal statement carefully, but—once you’ve landed on your subject matter—how do you structure your statement, and what is the best way to write out your essay for your college application? Most students are used to writing lengthy essays, sometimes many pages in length. But for your personal statements, rather than working to fill up a minimum page requirement, you’ll need to economize your writing to fit the 650-word limit. 

Here, we’ll analyze the anatomy of a personal statement and suggest ways to successfully structure your essay to provide you an opportunity to grab your admissions officer’s attention and tell them exactly why you should be given a spot at their school. 

How Should You Structure Your Personal Statement?

 Though the individual prompts have occasionally changed, the Common App has provided students with seven essay prompts to choose from. These prompts can help you identify a topic for your essay by describing personal struggles, formative experiences, and other significant events in your life. It’s important to understand that these prompts are merely a means to the end of producing a strong essay that captures your character: one of the prompts encourages students to respond to a prompt of their own creation, indicating that colleges don’t care about the prompt being addressed but about the essay the prompt yields. 

Some schools that are not part of the Common App system require their own Personal Statements that respond to different prompts. Typically, though, non-Common App schools’ prompts are phrased in order to allow students to copy their Common Essay with minimal changes.  

Regardless of the prompt you’re addressing, you need to create a Personal Statement that is structured and easy to understand. Writing an essay with no organization will make it harder for admissions officers to follow your writing, which can lead to rejection. 

As you outline and structure your essay, we recommend keeping three main components in mind to weave a compelling story for your statement. You want an introduction that hooks readers, body paragraphs that reflect on your story and provide additional evidence to support your claims, and an ending to your statement that emphasizes how the personal qualities or characteristics highlighted in the essay help you succeed in college. 

What Specific Elements Should You Include in Your Personal Statement?

To properly structure your personal statement, you should include a beginning, middle, and end. We’ll get more into the specifics and anatomy of your personal statement here. 

1. Begin With an Introductory Narrative Hook

To catch admissions officers’ attentions, start your personal statement with a strong introduction. Though there are many ways to hook your reader, the most tried and true is by creating an introduction that tells a brief, immersive story illustrating the personal qualities or characteristics you want your essay to emphasize. 

Your hook will help cement your essays tone and—more importantly—its theme. Think carefully about which of your personal qualities you are trying to emphasize in your personal statement. Do you want your readers to walk away from your essay impressed by your creativity? your dedication? your empathy? 

As you ponder this, try to think of an opening story that is memorable and eye-catching. Remember, admissions officers read thousands of essays, so you don’t want start off writing something bland. That said, you don’t have to have climbed Mount Everest or saved a baby from a burning building to catch your readers’ attentions; a striking metaphor or some surprising and incisive insight into our daily lives can demonstrate your intellect better than a story about an athletic triumph or a fancy vacation your parents took you on.

We recommend crafting a narrative—a story like you might read in a novel—for this part of your essay. Talk about specific situations—the events of ten minutes or an hour—that illustrate your character. Include dialogue, vivid descriptions, and compelling details about yourself. These sorts of concrete details make you feel more real to your readers, like an actual person rather than a disembodied voice emerging from the screen. You want your readers to imagine you and your actions, as if you were in a little movie playing in their mind.  

Importantly, though, your story should be more than just a series of events: it should tell us something about who you are. This personal quality or characteristic is your essay’s main theme. Your theme—even more than the story that illustrates it—is the real focus of your essa. Your theme might be about your resilience—how you overcame challenge and what you learned—or it could focus on your curiosity—how you seek out new information on topics that interest you, tracking footnotes to find new resources and politely pestering librarians to interlibrary loan books on topics that interest you. Regardless of your story and theme, your essay’s introduction should foreshadow the ideas that the rest of your essay will expand on.

2. Flesh Out Your Body Paragraphs

In the second section of your personal statement—its body—you want to flesh out your essay. First, you want to state your theme clearly. While your opening story about preparing your grandmother’s bao dumplings for a potluck you organized for your friends in which everyone brought one of their family’s traditional dishes will effectively illustrate your theme (that you love learning about others’ cultures and sharing your own), your body paragraphs are where you want to state your theme explicitly. Treat your opening anecdote as you would a stanza of Shakespeare or a paragraph from Gatsby that you might analyze in an English paper. Unpack its meaning for the reader, telling us how it testifies to your positive qualities.   

In particular, you should reflect on why you value the particular personal quality you’ve chosen to highlight as your theme. How does your opening anecdote highlight the importance of this virtue? How does it demonstrate the pleasures and satisfactions to be found in possessing that virtue? How does it hint at the lessons you’ve learned by possessing that virtue?

As you reflect, you’ll want to bring in further examples from your life. You don’t need to dwell on these examples as much as you did on your opening anecdote, but strive for specificity. This will serve as further evidence to support your character and qualifications as a student. Whether you’re talking about a specific personal challenge or simply want to prove that you possess the academic skills necessary to flourish in college, always remember to show and not simply tell your readers what you want them to believe. These specific details will ensure that your essay can describe you and no one but you.

As your admissions officer reads the middle portion of your essay, they should start to understand who you are and what makes you unique as a candidate. Don’t be afraid to get personal, but be careful of disclosing behavior that might cause colleges to question your judgment.

3. Create an Ending

After telling your story and showing your reader how you embody your key thematic virtue, you need to create an ending for your essay. The best essay conclusions tell readers why they should care about what they just read, and—lucky for you—those stakes are very clear for a college admissions essay: your reader should care about this essay insofar as it demonstrates why you are a promising candidate for admission at their college. So show them why! Imagine yourself in college, continuing to exemplify the personal characteristics you describe earlier in the essay. 

The key here, as throughout the essay, is specificity. Even though you’re imagining a hypothetical future, don’t skimp on detail. If you’re telling them how you’re going to be staying late at the library when your friends are out having fun on a Friday night, mention the lukewarm cup of coffee by your side. Here as elsewhere, you want to conjure a mental picture for the admissions officers. You want them to be imagining you walking around their campus so real-seeming that they feel like you’re already haunting the place, that, by merely ticking “Admitted” on their forms, they can turn you into a real live student.

If you are interested in learning more about the college admissions process, or about college life in general, check out more of our blogs and resources here at HelloCollege. We believe that preparing for university shouldn’t be scary, and we are here to help guide you or your student through the process every step of the way.

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Rasha Myers

Rasha Myers

Rasha, an educator, and administrator with over a decade of experience, believes education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. Passionate about developing future generations, she has devoted her life to seeing an increase in both the availability and quality of education. As they embark upon the college admissions process, Rasha strives to ensure that every student has access to the tools and resources they need to make the best financial and educational decisions. Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. She earned a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction and a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology from Tuskegee University.