Writing the personal statement for a college application can feel like a daunting task. How do you start? What is the right format? How do you find the one topic that will get you admitted to your dream school? 

Less Is More

In most cases, keeping it simple is probably best. Therefore, I suggest you start your essay with a specific story—a time in your life when you experienced something that stands out. Then, explain the backstory to elaborate further on why the opening story was significant. Finally, end the personal statement with what you learned and how the experience will be valuable to your future self in college and beyond. 

A word of caution: If the essay includes too many small topics, including multiple extracurriculars, academic interests, and goals, it will lack focus and be less effective. If you’d like to read more about my thoughts on the personal statement topic, please consider reading my blog post comparing Star Wars and The Office

Once you have landed on a simple story that you’d like to tell, the next challenge is how to tell the story. I believe the most impactful personal statements can be told in four different ways. 

Model #1: “The Problem”

Start your essay by recounting a specific time or experience in your past. The experience should be a conflict or a barrier to successfully getting something you wanted. It could be a big deal that changed everything for you, or it could be something simple that happened in your life. Then, tell the reader what you did about this problem. 

There are two ways you might do this. One is to fix the problem and vanquish what was in your way. The second is to describe how you found a detour around the problem, not necessarily do away with the problem altogether. In most cases, there are elements of solving the problem and finding a new way around it. 

At the end of the essay, reflect on the personal traits you relied on by relating how you navigated this problem. 

Model #2: “The Observation”

As before, start your essay by recounting a short story of a specific time in your life. It does not have to be a problem, a conflict, or good or bad. Just something that is sticking in your mind from your memory. 

Then step back from that experience and simply observe for the reader two or three character traits that are revealed about you in this recollection. These should not be run-of-the-mill traits such as, “I am friendly, smart, and responsible.” 

To make this model work for your personal statement, you must reflect on characteristics that go to the core of your deeply held beliefs about who you are and will be in college. 

Model #3: “The Before and After”

After you relate your opening short story, reflect on how you felt or thought about a particular part of yourself before and after this experience. You should identify a clear contrast between the before and after. And most importantly, the after should be more significant than the before

For example, it would probably not be interesting to an admission office that you liked chocolate ice cream before dinner but vanilla ice cream after dinner because the difference is not significant for your future as a college student. 

The key to making this model work is choosing a story that represents a turning point in how you thought or felt about something in your life that will persist into the near future. 

Model #4: “The Ignition” 

With this model, you start with a short story that identifies a specific time in your life as an experience that ignited a passion, an awareness of a part of yourself that is important to you, a future career or life goal, or simply realizing something about yourself for the first time. 

The essay should show the moment these new ideas were first ignited in your heart or mind. This is the origin story for some vital part of your life that you think is relevant for a college admission officer to know about you.

Are you interested in more tips about how to write (and choose topics for) your personal statement? I’d love to help. In my many years as an Independent Educational Consultant, I’ve enjoyed very much providing students with ideas about how to make their college admission essays stand out. If you would like to take advantage of my expertise and personalized support, please feel free to contact me.