personal statement (essay)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

personal statement
"An effective personal statement," says Mark Alan Stewart, "will focus on one or two specific themes, incidents, or points. Don't try to cram too much into your essay" ( How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, 2009). (Paul Bradbury/Getty Images)


A personal statement is an autobiographical essay that many colleges, universities, and professional schools require as part of the admissions process. Also called a statement of purpose, admissions essay, application essay, graduate school essay, letter of intent, and goals statement.

The personal statement is generally used to determine a student's ability to overcome obstacles, achieve goals, think critically, and write effectively.

See Observations and Recommendations below. Also see:

Observations and Recommendations

  • Get good advice
    "[T]he essay or personal statement began as a gauge of student enthusiasm ('Why in particular do you wish to attend Bates College?'). Over the years, it has been called upon to do other work: to capture how the applicant thinks; to reveal how he or she writes; to uncover information about values, spirit, personality, passions, interests, and maturity. . . .
    "Admissions officers, counselors, teachers, and students in my survey rated what matters most in an application essay. All four groups agreed that the most important criteria are correctness, organization, specific evidence, and an individual style. . . .
    "As an applicant's best chance to plead his or her own case, the essay is a valuable piece in the admissions puzzle. Students need the advice of someone who knows them well to put together a convincing case, and parents are great resources, with their firsthand information about and commitment to their children."
    (Sarah Myers McGinty, "The Application Essay." Chronicle of Higher Education, January 25, 2002)
  • Get started
    "It's difficult for most people to write about themselves, especially something personal or introspective. The following suggestions may help your creative juices to flow.
    1. Consult friends and relatives for ideas. . . .
    2. Take inventory of your unique experience, major influences, and abilities. . . .
    3. Write an experimental creative essay in which you are the main character. . . .
    4. Assemble your applications and determine how many essays you must write. . . .
    5. Get feedback from others before completing your final draft."
    (Mark Allen Stewart, How to Write the Perfect Personal Statement, 4th ed. Peterson's, 2009)
  • Keep it real
    "Authenticity is what matters in personal statements, in my experience. Strong writing and scrupulous proofreading are essential, but most of all, the topic and the expression must bring alive in the minds and hearts of the readers some aspect of the real teenager writing the statement. . . .
    "Writing a strong personal statement calls upon you to observe your real life, as it is, and get it on paper. Your best writing will emerge when you slow down to notice and record not just what happened, but also the small sensory details that make up the important and challenging events of your life. In a nutshell: Keep it real; show, don’t tell."
    (Susan Knight, director of college placement at the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Brooklyn. The New York Times, September 11, 2009)
  • Make it relevant
    "'With so many students getting similar grades, personal statements are often all that universities have to go on,' says Darren Barker of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas). 'That’s why we advise applicants to take them seriously.' . . .
    “'You need to express yourself concisely and give thought to what universities are likely to regard as relevant,' he says. 'If you have done work-shadowing in the field in which you have chosen an academic course, that’s obviously a plus. But even extra-curricular things on your CV can be worth including. . . .'
    "Personal statements are just that, personal. . . . This is about you--who you are, where you have come from and where you want to go. Bluff, spin a line, pretend you are something you are not and you will be found out."
    (Julie Flynn, "Ucas Form: A Very Personal Statement of Intent." The Daily Telegraph, October 3, 2008)
  • Be specific
    "A possible area of discussion in your personal statement might be around what led you to pursue medicine as a career. You could discuss the courses, people, events or experiences that have influenced you and why. Discuss your extracurricular activities and why you participated. Tell about your educational experiences and summer internships. When doing so, write chronologically. . . .
    "Be specific and do not exaggerate. Be philosophical and idealistic, but be realistic. Express your concern for others and share your unique experience that had a profound effect on your career choice. Express all of these things, but show your sense of value, partnership, independence and determination."
    (William G. Byrd, A Guide to Medical School Admission. Parthenon, 1997)
  • Focus
    "Statements may be weak for several reasons. The most foolish thing you can do probably is not to proofread what you write. Who wants to hire someone who turns in a statement with spelling, grammatical, or capitalization errors? An unfocused statement is also not likely to help you. Hiring institutions like to see focus, clarity, and coherence, not a stream-of-consciousness approach that seems incoherent to the reader, however coherent it may seem to you. Also, do not just say what you are interested in. Say what you have done about your interests."
    (Robert J. Sternberg, "The Job Search." The Portable Mentor, ed. by M. J. Prinstein and M. D. Patterson. Kluwer Academic/Plenum, 2003)
  • Know yourself
    "Admissions officers say the most successful essays show curiosity and self-awareness. Says Cornell's [Don] Saleh: 'It's the only thing that really lets us see inside your soul.' While there's no one right formula for soul baring, there are many wrong ones. It's disastrous to write, as a Rice applicant did, of what he could 'bring to the University of California.' A self-absorbed or arrogant tone is also a guaranteed turnoff. Exhibit A: a Rice essay beginning, 'I have accumulated a fair amount of wisdom in a relatively limited time of life.' Exhibit B: a Cornell applicant who set out to 'describe the indescribable essence of myself.'"
    (Jodie Morse et al., "Inside College Admissions." Time, October 23, 2000)
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Nordquist, Richard. "personal statement (essay)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). personal statement (essay). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "personal statement (essay)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).