College Applications

How to Write a Personal Statement (A Crash Course)

By Ethan Sawyer, College Essay Guy

First, what even is the personal statement? Itโ€™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 youโ€™ll bring to college. ย 

But itโ€™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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Image Courtesy of collegeessayguy.com

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What Makes a Personal Statement Great? ๐Ÿ“‹

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 โ€œso whatโ€ 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 ๐Ÿง 

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).

Donโ€™t skip these! Youโ€™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 ๐Ÿ—๏ธ

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

Montage Structure ๐Ÿ“ธ

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:

  • โ€œI love/I knowโ€: It could be something you love or know a lot about, as in the โ€œFoodโ€ essay.
  • Academic/career interests: Your essay could explain why youโ€™re interested in a particular career, as in the โ€œBehavioral Economicsโ€ and โ€œFlyingโ€ essays.
  • Identity/ies: Or you could choose a particular identity and focus on that, as in the โ€œPunk Rock Philosopherโ€ essay.

If you prefer brainstorming co-working videos, hereโ€™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 ๐Ÿ“–

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

Heads up: Most students *donโ€™t* have such a challenge, and by the way, you totally donโ€™t have to write about a challenge to have a great personal statement.

To brainstorm a challenge-based essay (or decide if a challenge youโ€™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 youโ€™ve done that, create a basic outline:

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

Writing & Revising ๐Ÿ˜ฎโ€๐Ÿ’จ

Once you have a basic outline, itโ€™s time to write. Donโ€™t worry too much about word count and grammar on your first draft. Set a timer and go.

Then youโ€™ll revise (and revise, and revise ...)

This process is all about revisions, in fact, and in my experience, itโ€™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 โ€œso whatโ€ concerning my experiences and values?

This guide to Revising Your Essay in 5 Steps will help you navigate some of the revision process. When youโ€™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!

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