Q&A: Tips on U.S. Personal Statement Writing

Q: University application deadlines are creeping up and I haven’t started my personal statement! What should I do? How should I go about it? What are admissions officers looking for? Help!



A: Hi Justin,

We understand your pain, as you open a new word document file and watch the menacing, black line blink with more judgment as each second passes by. How to portray your seventeen years of existence? How to describe your life in less than a thousand words? How do you even start? And more importantly, Where do you even begin? In what way should you write it? What experiences are worthy enough to be put into print and sent before the judging eyes of college admission officers? These are just some of the questions that will be the source of much stress and anxiety when you begin to write your personal statement essay for the CommonApp. These feelings may be inevitable, but here are a few pointers to save you from going over the edge. The tips below will get you started, and our next article will focus on how to refine your statement.


Selecting a Theme
We are multi-dimensional individuals each with different facets. In the personal statement, we have the space for one or, at most, two of these to come out. We want to establish a theme in the essay to work around. We want the core of the personal statement to reflect a side of you that the admission officer will associate you with. The theme draws out the basic sketches of the painting before we color it in with the details of experiences and anecdotes. Here is an example of a student who has been coming to Aegis Advisors for the past few years. During our first session, we talked about his passions, motivations and goals in life, and began the process of selecting a theme that resembles an individual ready for higher education. He is a sporty guy, who plays on several varsity teams. He is an adventurous young adult who has scuba-dived and hand-glided around the world. He is a tech guy who has built and restructured computers and software for children in impoverished countries. The list goes on but what shined through most in his activity sheet – a document, similar to a resume, describing your experiences during the high school years – was his innate desire to give back and his passion for film. We combined the two and built the personal essay around the theme of contributing back to the community through filmmaking. Having a clear and established theme will help you filter through which experiences and stories will fit and others that will be irrelevant.


Creating an Outline
From our selected theme(s), we are able to plan the rest of the essay. A detailed personal essay rich with eloquently described experiences and anecdotes that transitions seamlessly will require an outline.  Eager but misguided students would believe – falsely – that they have it all planned out in their mind and start writing immediately, letting everything flow from one sentence to the next.  What is the problem with that? The piece will feel unstructured and all over the place.  Let’s say you begin to write about volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity. Then that reminds you of the time you spent a few months in Chengdu teaching English to impoverished children, and you continue on to write about that instead. Without fully fleshing out the entire Habitat for Humanity experience and moving on to teaching in Chengdu, the details and richness of both stories are lost; the piece is left feeling choppy and unfinished.

An outline will save you from unintentionally falling into this problem. It will help map out what you want to express and how you want to express it in an orderly fashion. Imagine a lost tourist stops you to ask for directions. You could start with what to do first and explain the subsequent steps thereafter. Alternatively, you could start at step one then suddenly jump to step five because it is related to the action of taking a right turn before rewinding back to step two and then explaining step six. Which would the tourist prefer?  The admissions officer is the tourist in your world. Be kind to him or her; create an outline that will guide you and, in turn, help the admissions officer understand you in the easiest and clearest possible way.

Good Luck!