The personal statement, commonly called the “college essay,” is one of the most critical parts of any student’s application. After all, most students are applying to schools where the other applicants have similar GPAs and test scores – the essays are often what sets a student apart.
The good news is everyone is capable of writing a compelling essay by following the six steps described below. You can also go through these steps by creating a FREE account at Prompt.com and going through their personal statement module to guide you as you develop and structure your content.
- Identify your ambitions – the types of things you want to do or accomplish in the future. Many of the most compelling college essays provide a glimpse into your future. Including a look to your future provides a clear narrative arc for where you are heading based on the experiences you discuss in the essay. While you may not know exactly what you want to accomplish, you may have a sense of the types of things you enjoy. For example, maybe you want to do something entrepreneurial or related to helping people. It’s okay if you do not have a sense of the types of things you want to do or accomplish; you’ll just need to work a bit harder to identify the most compelling experiences from your life to include in your essay.
- Identify compelling experiences. There are two types of experiences you should focus on – your passions and times of personal growth. Let’s go through both of these in detail. Ideally, if you have a sense of the types of things you want to do or accomplish in the future, then the experiences you identify here should relate in some way to your ambitions.
Times of Personal Growth – A time of personal growth is an experience or set of experiences you went through where there is a clear difference between who you were before the experience and who you are now. We find there are three common types of times of personal growth – (1) you overcame a challenge or went through a trying experience, (2) your view of yourself or others changed over a period of time, and (3) you went through a period of time where you found your skills rapidly improving as a result of your own actions.
Passions – A passion is an interest on which you spend a significant portion of your free time. A passion can really be anything, such as a topic or activity you are drawn to, helping others, community service, improving athletic or artistic skills, interacting with people from other cultures, or being a part of a family or culture. The core question to think about when developing your passions is “what are the things I’m far more excited about than my peers or do differently than my peers?” For example, playing in a band and loving music is not enough; you must be able to demonstrate a much deeper passion than your bandmates such as practicing outside of class for fun, forming a rock band, or building a deep knowledge of various artists.
- Match your values to your experiences and ambitions. A reader will only remember a couple sentence summary of your essay. As such, it’s important to consider how you define yourself in a few words – i.e. your values. The College Essay Guy considers a student’s values the most important part of any essay. Use the College Essay Guy’s Values Exercise to identify your values or do the values exercise within the Personal Statement Module within Prompt. After identifying your values, determine which values relate to your times of personal growth, passions, and ambitions. You’ll want to make these values clear to your reader in your essay.
- Create an outline. There are two common ways to structure your personal statement – the Journey structure and the Passions structure. If you’re writing about a time of personal growth, you’ll likely use the Journey structure. If you’re more focused on your passions, then you’ll use the Passions structure. We recommend using one of these structures as each leaves plenty of room for creativity while also ensuring you cover the right things within your essay.
The Journey Structure – A Journey essay has three main parts – the before, during, and after your time of personal growth. In your introduction, you’ll start with a scene that drops hints as to what is to come in your essay. Then, in the “Before” section, you’ll talk about who you were before your time of personal growth (the intro + before should be about ⅓ of your essay). In the “During” section (about ⅓ of your essay), you’ll discuss what happened during your time or personal growth. Finally, you’ll wrap up with the “After” section (about ⅓ of your essay) which will detail what you learned from your experience, how you changed, the specific actions you’ve gone on to take as a result of this experience, and how all of this ties to your future ambitions.
The Passions Structure – A Passions essay consists of multiple experiences all related to a single theme (e.g., your passion). This structure works well when you have a number of disparate experiences across your life that all played a significant role in shaping who you are today (i.e., your values). In your introduction, you’ll start with a statement or a scene that sets up the theme of your essay. Your body will consist of a paragraph for each experience you wish to discuss related to your theme. For each experience, you’ll include what you learned about yourself as a result of the experience which should relate to one or more of your values. At the end, you’ll restate your theme and provide a tie-in to your future ambitions.
- Write your first draft. Once you have your outline, spend 30-45 minutes writing your first draft. Don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time – your essay will likely change in significant ways before you have a final version. The key with the first draft is to just get something on which you can have someone provide feedback.
- Get feedback and iterate. Getting feedback on your essay and then acting on the feedback is the most critical part of the essay-writing process. You can have your parents, teachers, counselors, or peers provide feedback, but you should also strongly consider getting a professional to review your essay such as from Prompt.com, the leaders in providing feedback on college admissions essays. Be strategic in obtaining feedback by asking each person to answer the same questions that Prompt’s Essay Specialists answer for every personal statement. If you ask the right people for thoughtful feedback, you should be at a solid essay within 2-3 drafts.
What did you learn about the student? Write 1-3 sentences on what you walked away understanding about the student. Focus on how you would describe the student (e.g., values, personality traits)
Is the content compelling? Does the content provide a clear sense of what makes the student unique, what the student values, and what sets the student apart from their peers?
What didn’t you learn that you wanted to learn? These are the questions that pop into your mind but go unanswered such as…
Who were you before this experience?
What did you learn from this experience? (i.e., how did it change you?)
What have you done recently that is a direct result of this experience?
How does this experience tie with your future ambitions?
Is the essay well structured? How can it be improved?
Do you think “accept” from the beginning to the end of the essay?
Do you have a sense of where the essay is heading at each point in the essay? (i.e., there aren’t parts that leave you thinking “How this is relevant?”)
Does the introduction “hook” you into wanting to learn more?
What content can be cut and where can more content be added?
Consider providing a short, example outline of how it could be restructured
And, you’re done! Writing the personal statement may seem like a daunting task, but by following these six steps, you should have a compelling essay in only 5-10 hours of your time.
Better yet, start by creating a FREE account at Prompt.com. Prompt will provide you with a list of every essay you need to write (including supplements) and step-by-step guidance on writing your personal statement and other common types of essays. Once you have a draft, use Prompt’s Essay Specialists to get actionable feedback on the content, structure, and grammar of your essays. Sign up by using the Edmit.me referral link, and you’ll get up to 10% off Prompt’s essay review packages. Happy writing!