Skip to main content

What’s a personal statement for college?

Published March 20, 2024| minute read
Hadiya Iqbal

Senior Associate, JPMorgan Chase

    As you complete your college applications, whether it’s through the Common App or by individually applying, you’ll likely come across prompts in the application that ask you to write about yourself. Think of it as an opportunity to introduce yourself to the admissions committees of the schools you’re applying to in a different way than the insights recommendations and your transcript can provide.

    Sometimes called an admissions or application essay, a personal statement, or a statement of purpose, what’s typically being asked for is information about your background, experiences, accomplishments, future goals, and any challenges or obstacles you may have had to overcome. Because of that, when it comes to any personal statements you write for college applications, the aim is usually to showcase your personality, interests, and character in a compelling and authentic way.

    Keep reading for more information about personal statements, the prompts to expect, and some tips for mastering this part of a college application.

    When will you have to write a personal statement during the college application process?

    Many college applications require a personal statement of some kind. For applications submitted through the Common App, a personal statement is a required component for nearly all colleges and universities that use the platform. The Common App allows students to write one comprehensive essay that’s sent to all colleges they’re applying to through the system. This means you’ll write just one personal statement, which will be part of every college application you submit through the Common App. Some colleges might ask for additional shorter essays, known as supplemental essays, on top of this, so be prepared for those asks.

    Many scholarship applications also require at least one personal statement or essay as part of the application process. Like college applications, scholarship personal statements provide an opportunity for applicants to showcase their qualifications, experiences, and personal motivations. A personal statement for a scholarship application often serves as a way for applicants to demonstrate their merit, express their career and educational goals, and explain how they’d benefit from and contribute to a scholarship program.

    How can your personal statement impact your college applications?

    Your personal statement can have a significant impact on your college applications in several ways:

    • Demonstrating your character and personality: Your personal statement offers admission committees insight into who you are beyond your grades and test scores. It can showcase your values, motivations, and unique qualities, helping to paint a more comprehensive picture of you as a prospective student.
    • Highlighting your achievements and experiences: It allows you to discuss your academic accomplishments, extracurriculars, and any challenges you’ve overcome. This can demonstrate your potential for success and your ability to contribute to a campus community.
    • Conveying your passion and commitment to a particular school: A personal statement allows you to articulate your academic and career goals and connect them to your reasons for applying to a specific college or program. Admissions committees are looking for students who are genuinely interested in and committed to their educational and personal growth, along with being excited to attend their school.
    • Setting you apart from other applicants: A well-crafted personal statement can help you stand out among applicants with similar academic credentials. It allows you to showcase what makes you unique.
    • Addressing any weaknesses or challenges: If any aspects of your application may raise concerns to the admissions committees, such as a lower grade point average (GPA) in a particular semester, your personal statement can allow you to provide context and explain any extenuating circumstances. This can help mitigate potential red flags in your application.

    How do you know what topic to write about in your personal statement?

    Over 1,000 U.S. colleges accept the Common App, so many students will be choosing from among the Common App’s seven essay prompts.

    Below is the list of essay prompts from 2023-24 Common App:

    1. “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
    2. “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
    3. “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”
    4. “Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?”
    5. “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
    6. “Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”
    7. “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”

    Beyond the prompts from the Common App, which many students utilize, some schools may have their own applications with their own prompts or supplementary prompts that they expect students to complete.

    For instance, at Yale University, one of the school’s supplementary prompts is: “Tell us about a topic or idea that excites you and is related to one or more academic areas you selected above [on your application].” At Amherst College, one of the supplementary questions is: “In what ways could your unique experiences enhance our understanding of our nation and our world.”

    What makes a good personal statement for a college application?

    A lot goes into writing a strong personal statement for college applications.

    Hafeez Lakhani of educational coaching firm Lakhani Coaching told the New York Times to think of it like this: “Every college is like a dinner table. What will make you the most interesting contributor to that dinner table conversation? What will make you help everyone else have a more interesting experience?”

    Lacy Crawford, a former independent college application counselor and author of Early Decision, told USA Today: “These essays should read like smart, interesting 17-year-olds wrote them. A sense of perspective and self-awareness is what’s interesting...I think most students are torn between a pathway dividing a diary entry and a press release. It’s supposed to be a marketing document of the self.”

    Here are a few tips to make the most of a personal statement.

    • Tell a story: Use the space to showcase your personality, interests, personal values, life experiences, and even your sense of humor. Don’t just use it to regurgitate your accomplishments, which can be gleaned from your high school transcript and other parts of your application.
    • Consider emphasizing your volunteer work and other community work: Many college admissions offices look for students who are active in their communities, be it volunteering or in different ways. The personal statement is a good place to emphasize how you’re making the world a better place.
    • Emphasize any extra work you’ve done to dive into your field of interest: Be it internships, college-level courses at a community college, or extracurricular activities, anything that shows you’ve done extra work to explore your chosen field of study will help to emphasize your passion. Tie this passion to why you’re particularly excited about attending a particular school, and you may have a winning formula.
    • Make sure you check grammar and spelling: You don’t want to write a great essay and let a few grammatical and spelling errors get in your way. Read and re-read your essay to check for spelling and grammar, and get a few people you trust to help you proofread your work as well.

    Final thoughts

    A strong personal statement can make a positive impression on admissions officers and contribute to a well-rounded and compelling college application. It allows you to showcase your strengths, demonstrate your potential, and express your genuine interest in the college or program.