How to Write a Personal Statement (A Crash Course)

By Ethan Sawyer, College Essay Guy

First, what even is the personal statement? It’s the ~650-word essay required by the Common Application (and other platforms), and its purpose is to demonstrate the skills, values, qualities, and interests you’ll bring to college.  

But it’s not a classic five-paragraph essay you write for English class. Here are some other ways a personal statement differs from an English class essay:
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What Makes a Personal Statement Great? 📋

Colleges are looking for a lot of things when they read through your application, but the personal statement brings a few special things to the table. I believe college admission officers are looking for these four things in personal statements:

  1. Core Values: What do you care most about?
  2. Insight (aka “so what” moments): Can you think critically?
  3. Vulnerability: Is your essay personal?
  4. Craft: Has the essay gone through several revision drafts?

Want to learn more about what makes a personal statement great? Head here.

Okay, but how do you actually do this in your personal statement?

First, Brainstorm Some Quality Content 🧠

When a student begins the process, I ask them to complete the following exercises. So open a blank Google doc (or download a copy of my template here).

Don’t skip these! You’re about to generate a bunch of great content (i.e., super cool details about you) for your personal statement.

Choosing an Essay Topic & Structure 🏗️

I teach two different ways to structure your essay: Montage and Narrative.

Montage Structure 📸

Montage essays present a series of qualities, experiences, or moments that are thematically linked, allowing students to show multiple sides of themselves that may not otherwise fit into a single narrative arc.

How do you find a common theme for your essay?

There are so many ways. But as you look back through your brainstorming sheet, look for:

  • “I love/I know”: It could be something you love or know a lot about, as in the “Food” essay.
  • Academic/career interests: Your essay could explain why you’re interested in a particular career, as in the “Behavioral Economics” and “Flying” essays.
  • Identity/ies: Or you could choose a particular identity and focus on that, as in the “Punk Rock Philosopher” essay.

If you prefer brainstorming co-working videos, here’s how to find 7 ideas in 20 minutes.

Once you have a topic in mind, brainstorm 4-7 values that connect back to your theme, then for each value, list a specific way it manifests in your life.

Example: If you write about repairing cars (something you love), maybe that connects to your family values, literature, curiosity, adventure, and personal growth. Once you have those values, brainstorm a specific example of each value in your life.

Narrative Structure 📖

A Narrative Structure personal statement focuses on a challenge that fundamentally changed your life.

Heads up: Most students *don’t* have such a challenge, and by the way, you totally don’t have to write about a challenge to have a great personal statement.

To brainstorm a challenge-based essay (or decide if a challenge you’ve faced is essay-worthy), I recommend the Feelings and Needs exercise. In about 20 minutes you should have a basic outline for your essay.

Once you’ve done that, create a basic outline:

  • Challenges + Effects (~⅓ of your essay)
  • What I Did About It (~⅓ of your essay)
  • What I Learned (~⅓ of your essay)

Writing & Revising 😮‍💨

Once you have a basic outline, it’s time to write. Don’t worry too much about word count and grammar on your first draft. Set a timer and go.

Then you’ll revise (and revise, and revise ...)

This process is all about revisions, in fact, and in my experience, it’s common for an essay to go through at least five drafts.

Here are a few questions you (or a trusted friend/mentor) can use when revising:

Does my narrative outline/essay ...

  • Make clear what the challenges I faced were?
  • Make clear how these challenges affected me?
  • Make clear In what ways I was able to overcome these challenges?
  • Make clear what these experiences taught me.

Does my montage outline/essay ...

  • Have a precise topic or thematic thread?
  • Provide specific examples in each paragraph that are linked to my clear topic/thematic thread?
  • Provide solid examples of my values?
  • Give a solid answer to the readers “so what” concerning my experiences and values?

This guide to Revising Your Essay in 5 Steps will help you navigate some of the revision process. When you’re ready, put your essay through the Great College Essay Test.

Looking for more in-depth, step-by-step instructions on writing the personal statement? Check out my free guide here.

For more advice on the rest of your college application, check out these amazing Pinterest Boards!

Check out these other guides that you might need.