For some reason, it’s challenging to write (or talk) about yourself. Think about that for a minute. One of the most common scholarship interview questions is “What are your strengths?” As I was thinking about how I would answer that, at this exact moment, what popped into my head was, “Umm well, when I was younger I used to pretend that swings were rocket ships that would take me to the moon if I swung high enough” — so I guess I’m imaginative? Probably not what I would actually say out loud in a real interview, but you get the point.
Fortunately, you have a bit more time to prepare and write a personal statement and your elevator pitch—you’re not on the spot. Having said that, the personal statement is one of the hardest parts of any kind of application. Sometimes just figuring out where to start can take forever. Here are some tips on how to write a personal statement.
1. What are the requirements?
Most of the time, a personal statement will come with a set of requirements. There’s a very good chance that the school, scholarship, or position you are applying for will request that you answer a question or discuss something specific in your personal statement or essay. Purdue Owl’s number one piece of advice for personal statement writing is to answer the question! It may seem like common sense, but if you get a topic, stick to it as best you can.
Another requirement might include a page or word cap for the essay word counts (e.g., 1000 words max.). Depending on the limit, you might have to be quite concise when writing. Having said that, even if there is not a length requirement, be sure to keep your writing to the point.
2. Talk to others
Before you start writing, talk to your close friends and family. Find out what they see as unique about you. Sometimes it is really difficult to come up with a list of your own strengths, so have others do it for you! Ask them if they have any stories that would be helpful. Alternatively, ask them what they think sets you apart from other applicants. What they have to say may surprise you.
3. Organize your thoughts BEFORE you start writing
Sit down and outline your personal statement to structure what you want to say before you start to write. Not only will this help keep your thoughts organized, but it will also ensure that your essay flows nicely. Make sure your first paragraph includes a good hook, you want to make sure they keep reading.
Using an outline will also help keep you on track if there’s a page or word limit. You’ll be able to gauge how much “space” you still have left to get out everything you want to say. Or, if you find yourself rambling about one topic for too long, you will know where to shave words/sentences to fit the rest of your points. Remember, be specific and tell a story–be memorable.
4. Why should they choose you?
Even if the topic you’re given, or question you’re asked to answer, is a bit abstract, make sure you’re presenting yourself in a positive light. Let the reader(s) know why they should choose you.
If you need to do a bit of research, by all means, go for it. You want to know your stuff if you’re going to be writing about it. Don’t make things up–the reader(s) will know. For essays or scholarships that ask you questions like “why do you want to go to our college” or “why do you deserve this scholarship,” stick to what you know and be yourself.
5. Address gaps/discrepancies that may appear
When you write a personal statement for a scholarship or college admissions, explain things that may not match up or make sense when paired together. For example, if you really struggled freshman and sophomore year and failed a few classes, you probably don’t have a 4.0 GPA. But, you might have a high ACT/SAT score. So, when someone is looking through your materials (e.g., transcript, test scores, etc.) they might be confused by the discrepancies. Use your personal statement to explain what was going on in your life, your mistakes, or how your attitude towards school has changed over the years.
While there are some things that are good to explain in a personal statement, there are also topics you should avoid. Don’t include things that aren’t relevant to the question or prompt. If you aren’t sure whether or not something should be included, it never hurts to ask. Now, when I say ask, I don’t mean turn to your locker partner and say, “Hey, should I write about that time that Susie dumped her strawberry milk on me in 10th grade and ruined my white jeans? That was embarrassing…” Try talking to a teacher or your school counselor instead.
6. Have someone else proofread your writing
Poor grammar and spelling mistakes are a surefire way to have your application tossed away without a second glance. It doesn’t matter if you’re competing against 3 or 3,000 other students–incorrect English always looks bad.
If you don’t have anyone around to proofread for you, and the application is due in 15 minutes, try reading it out loud. Reading your writing aloud helps identify places where you might need commas or where you skipped or misused a word.
7. Seek feedback
Before submitting your final draft, ask your school counselor, teacher(s), or someone else you trust to not only read over your work but also to provide feedback. They can find tidbits that you maybe shouldn’t include, or where you need to further explain a few details. You know what you’re trying to say or explain, but it might not always come across the best in writing.
Receiving and working with feedback is something you’ll be doing the rest of your life, so this is good practice now. Constructive critiquing will always benefit you. It isn’t an attack against you, and it isn’t saying that your writing is terrible, it is helpful. Listen to what others have to say. But, at the end of the day, it’s still up to you whether or not to make the changes.
A Few Brief Examples
Here are a few examples of personal statements for your college applications and why they work.
What Can You Tell Us About Yourself?
Example: I’ve always been passionate about computers. Ever since my early teens, I’ve been the person my family and friends called upon to fix a software issue, a hard drive problem, or even build their computers, but it’s something I enjoy in my free time too! I also enjoy getting involved in our local tech club weekly and take part in swim meets as I’m part of my school’s swim team.
Why It Works: This response works as a personal statement because you’re stating you’ve been passionate about something for a long time. You’re even considered the expert among your peers. That shows dedication and know-how and is especially good if you’re majoring in that particular subject. You’re also talking about your other interests outside of just, in this case, computers, to show you’re a well-rounded person and part of a community.
Tell Us About Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Example: One of my strengths has to be my dedication to a project. Once I get started on an assignment or hobby, I need to finish it and be sure it’s finished correctly. However, a weakness I would have that’s tied in with this strength is that I lean towards focusing too much on the details. I want the project to be perfect, but may sometimes get lost in the finer touches. I’m working on letting go of that tendency towards perfectionism by trying to focus more on the bigger picture. This approach has definitely resulted in an improvement in my work overall.
Why it Works: This response focuses on your dedication and confidence in a project, while also talking about how you are aware you have things to work on going forward. You even can mention how you’re going to work on your weakness to improve. Talking about how you’re improving yourself shows the school that you’re aware of your weaknesses, but are actively taking steps to make it a strength.
Why Do You Want to Attend This School?
Example: It has always been a dream of mine to attend X University. I’ve visited the campus several times and always been taken by its attention to detail and beauty, as well as the kindness of the staff and students. However, the astounding biology program is the main reason I chose this school. I know this will definitely give me the education I need to pursue a top job as a future ecologist.
Why It Works: This example talks about how attending the university is not a passing interest by stating it has been on your mind for a while now, but also that you’ve visited the campus quite a few times. You compliment the campus, staff, and program while talking about how it can help with your future goals. You’re also displaying that you know exactly what you’d like to do upon graduation, so you show you have a plan.
My last tidbit of advice for you is: do NOT wait until the last minute to start writing. The more editing you have time to do the better. Hopefully, our how to write a personal statement guide helped you get started!
If you need further assistance with your personal statement, Purdue OWL has great resources (including examples) available on their website!
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