Tips on Writing the Personal Statement
A personal statement, although not required by all colleges, universities or scholarship agencies, is a mandatory part of the UC Admissions application. You have to submit a personal statement in order to be considered for acceptance. More than that, however, the personal statement is your chance to convince the admissions reader why you should be accepted into their university. It tells them who you are and what you can contribute to their campus community. It is not the only component of the UC application, but it can be the most important.
Your application will be compared to those of other students with similar experiences – those serving as student body or organization leaders, those playing and exceeding in sports, those volunteering for community service, and those achieving high grade point averages. The personal statement enables you to set yourself apart from the others, to tell the admissions reader more about your life and past experiences than the listing of accomplishments or classes already stated in your application. You can tell them if you have battled a serious illness, injury or disability, if you have had obstacles or special circumstances in your past that you have overcome and what you have learned from them, or, if you have not faced hardships or obstacles, how you have taken advantage of opportunities available to you.
The personal statement is NOT a sample of your writing skills although proper grammar, spelling and level of word usage is expected. It is NOT a listing of your accomplishments, honors, and awards – those should already appear in your application. It is NOT an exaggeration of problems or obstacles. The personal statement should be honest and original and should be written in your own voice. It should be based on your life and show that you have taken responsibility for your choices and behavior. It should show how your world, experiences, talents, personal qualities, or contributions have shaped your life and made you who you are. It is your personal statement, and although you should have others proof read your statement and give you feedback, you should NEVER let someone else write it or re-write it for you.
Steps to Writing and Effective Personal Statement:
- Before diving into the personal statement, gather information and complete the application first. This can help you organize your thoughts and your experiences.
- Read over your application and analyze it. Your life story is so familiar to you that you may not think there is anything worth mentioning. Ask yourself questions. The levels of questions can give you insight into how to approach your personal statement.
- Level 1 – answers to these questions are evident in the application and can provide details in your personal statement.
- Examples: What classes do I excel in? What sports do I prefer? What types of clubs do I join?
- Level 2 – answers to these questions are open to interpretation using the information provided in the application. They provide clarity to what is in the application and can be used as topic sentences for your personal statement.
- Examples: Why am I so interested in science? Why do I excel in English classes? Why is math so challenging?
- Level 3 – answers to these questions address larger issues not evident in the application but supported by the application. They answer the question, “So what?” or “What does it matter?” They can provide the thesis statements for your personal statement.
- Example: How can I use my interest in science and volunteer experience at a nursing home contribute to the health needs of the elderly? How has excelling in English classes and reading southern literature lead to a larger understanding of social injustice and prejudices in this country and how can I help to alleviate those injustices?
- Level 1 – answers to these questions are evident in the application and can provide details in your personal statement.
- After you have completed your application, analyzed it, and questioned it, you are ready to develop a topic. Your personal statement should be direct and focused – it should NOT address multiple topics. Ask yourself – What am I trying to say? If you can’t answer the question easily, your topic is not clearly defined or you’re trying to address more than one topic in your writing.
- Finally, get feedback. DO NOT try to complete your personal statement in one sitting. Write it, leave it, read it, edit it. You should be revising your personal statement multiple times before submitting it, and you should have someone giving you feedback between. Ask your reader what he/she has learned about you from reading your personal statement, and if your statement answers the questions asked in the prompts. Furthermore, ask him or her to help you with grammar and spelling. Although your essay is not being judged on grammar and spelling, you are applying for college and your writing should reflect your ability to write at college entrance level.
De-mystifying the Personal Statement Prompts
The personal statement consists of 2 prompts that can be broken down into 4 parts. You are limited to 1,000 total words that can be split between the 2 prompts. However, if you choose to elaborate more on one prompt, the response to the other prompt should not be shorter than 250 words. Stay within the word limit as closely as possible. A little over – 1,012 words, for example - is fine.
Prompt #1 – Describe the world you come from – for example, your family, community or school – and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
- Part 1: Describe the world you come from…
- Part 2: Tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
- Answer both parts. Many students answer the first part and ignore the second when the second part will tell the reader more about you. The reader doesn’t need to know where you came from; he/she needs to know how the “world” from which you came shaped who you are. Part one sets the background but part two answers the question.
- DO NOT try to describe all three (family, community or school). Focus on one. You can even define your world as your room, club, or church, if you wish. Choose one that is important to you and describe it to the reader.
- Look at the questions you came up with while analyzing your application and sort them according to the prompt they best fit. Here are some examples of questions that would best fit this prompt:
- How has serving as my family’s interpreter encouraged me to excel in school and influenced my decision to study sociology and Chicano/Latino literature?
- How did my student government experiences shape my perspective on the political process and how do I want to participate in shaping that process in the future?
- How has my experience working in a local hospital contributed to my understanding and desire to work on health care issues?
- How did studying literature that exposed the social injustices of the world lead me to volunteer my time at a local soup kitchen, and how do I plan to use this experience and knowledge to alleviate social injustice in the future?
- Focus on one topic per prompt and chose the one that will give you the opportunity to make the most persuasive argument and will answer the most pressing questions related to the prompt. In other words, which topic will tell the admissions reader how your “world” has shaped who you are and made you a student who will contribute to their university’s community?
Prompt #2 – Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?
- Part 1: Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you.
- Part 2: What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?
- The set up for this prompt is similar to the first prompt – set up the background. This is the “what” of the prompt – what quality, what talent, what accomplishment, what experience – and, like the first prompt, you will use your application as evidence to support your statement.
- The most challenging aspect of this prompt is figuring out what to focus on. Many students think they have to focus on a talent or an accomplishment, but if you read the prompt, you will see that you have a wide degree of freedom to focus on just about anything – a personal quality or an experience. Since a person’s life is made up of nothing but experiences, you will have plenty to draw on. You can focus on an experience related to your educational goals or on a life-altering experience that changed your perspective on life. You can focus on a contribution you made while volunteering your time or how leading a local youth group has strengthened your leadership qualities.
- As with prompt one, look at the questions you came up with while analyzing your application. Here’s some examples of questions that would best fit this prompt:
- How did my focus on fencing impact my grades? (Talent)
- What did I learn about myself as a participant in the academic preparation program Upward Bound and how has the program prepared me for college? (Experience)
- How did establishing and editing my school’s newspaper influence my decision to become a writer and what did I learn from the experience? (Accomplishment)
- Why is personal leadership so important to me? (Quality)
- What impact has the service club I started at my school had on student morale and achievement? (Contribution)
- Also like prompt one – focus on one topic. Don’t try to impress the reader with an array of qualities, talents, accomplishments, contributions or experiences. Do not repeat the list you have already entered on your application. Choose one quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that has meaning to you and significantly relates to who you are.
Final Tips When Writing Your Personal Statement
- COMPLETE YOUR UC APPLICATION BEFORE WRITING YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT. The personal statement supplements the information you have provided in your application.
- Be mindful that your audience will be professionals who know nothing about you other than what is written in your application. They are college graduates, most likely proficient writers themselves, who would appreciate reading essays not only free of grammatical and spelling errors but also organized, focused and full of details. It is critical that you read and re-read your writing and have someone else proof read it before submitting it.
- DO NOT attempt to write a story to make the reader feel bad for you. You will not gain admittance through pity. If you have endured hardships, your essay should focus on how your life has been shaped by those hardships and how you have overcome them.
- Don’t repeat information. The personal statement should not be a list of what you have already stated in your application. It should focus on one topic per prompt and explain how they shaped who you are.
- Don’t complain. Avoid the pitfall referred to as “whining.” You might think your 9th grade teacher didn’t like you, but it won’t help you gain access to a university if that is the topic of your personal statement.
- DO NOT focus on someone else’s experience. Your single mother may have had to work 3 jobs to put food on the table, and you might admire her strength and determination and resilience, but your mother isn’t applying for college – you are. While you can use your mother’s situation as a background, the focus of your writing must be about you. Focus on your strength and determination and resilience.
- Avoid clichés, over-the-top prose, and words seldom used in day-to-day speech. Words and phrases like, “there is nothing to fear but fear itself,” or “a feeling of indescribable disbelief overcame me,” or “admirable erudition,” serve only to use up precious word count or demonstrate that you know how to look works up in a thesaurus.
- Don’t try to be funny or wildly creative. Few people can pull it off successfully, and it may not achieve the effect you are seeking.
- If applying for the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) – a support group for students from low-income families in which neither parent is a college graduate, write about your determination to succeed even though you may have lacked academic or financial support and discuss how this program might benefit you.
Following the personal statement, there is a section called Additional Comments. Use this space – up to 500 words - to tell the admissions reader anything you want him or her to know about you or your academic record that you have not had the opportunity to describe elsewhere in the application.
A lot of help writing the personal statement can be found online. Read as much as you can and become familiar with what the personal statement is and what it is not. Once you understand why you need to write a personal statement, what information you need to convey in it, and the audience you will be addressing, writing the personal statement will not be such a formidable task. For more information about the personal statement, go to:
A video of suggestions on writing the personal statement is available online.