College Personal Statement Definition

Because a personal statement is unlike other documents you write in college, many students struggle with understanding the fundamentals of its definition. First off, don’t let the term itself confuse you—some application materials will use other terms such as “personal essay,” “reflective essay,” “statement of purpose,” or “narrative.” Regardless of the term used, such essays are defined by their comment elements, as detailed below.

One of the best extended definitions of the personal statement I’ve seen appears on a website from the Fellowships Office at Bryn Mawr (see the article "Advice from Fellowship Foundations"). Below I offer a condensed version adapted from that website.

A personal statement is:

  • A picture. Provide a snapshot of who you are as a person.
  • An invitation. Your job is to “bridge the assumed distance of strangers.” Invite your reader to get to know you.
  • An indication of your priorities and judgment. Your selection of material reveals your priorities and ability to discern effectively.
  • A story, or more precisely, your story. The personal statement allows you room for creative, meaningful self-reflection.

A personal statement is not:

  • An academic paper with you as the subject. The objective distance of academic writing disengages the reader from you in a personal statement.
  • A resume in narrative form. Other parts of your application, which might include a resume, already tell readers about your accomplishments. A personal statement must reveal and interpret well beyond a resume.
  • A journal entry. A common mistake is allowing your personal statement to read like a diary. Share only relevant material selectively, in a voice that remains both individual and professional.
  • A plea or justification. Don’t beg and don’t defend the (incorrect) assertion that you are more worthy than other candidates—it only backfires.

Of course, nuances to this definition may be added based on the circumstances. For instance, at times an application might require three different essays with highly specific parameters, and perhaps one of these essays involves a personal narrative while another poses you a philosophical question to answer. Always look to the application itself to determine the degree to which the definitions above apply, and know that when there is a series of questions in an application at least one of them is usually designed to elicit a personal essay from you.

Examples of Awesome Personal Statements

Article Type: Tasty Bits

Write your own awesome personal statement with our COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAY LAB, which will guide you through the process, providing tips and even more examples along the way.

Before you start, check out our own sample essays—or scroll down for the Best of the Web. Whether you're an athlete, a minority, or no one special (or, uh, probably some combination), we've got you covered.

No One Special

Minority

Athlete

Emotional Hardship

Physical Hardship

International Student

Special Skills

Non-Traditional Age


Some are surprising and some are clever, but they're all good examples of a "hook," not the kind with the pointy mustache but something that writers use to grab their reader's attention and make them want to keep reading.

Grab Them with the First Line
Stanford Magazine compiled the following list of great opening lines written by hopeful Stanford applicants.

Essays That Worked
Connecticut College posts a list of college essays “that worked.”

More Essays that Worked
Hamilton College provides access to some of their favorite application essays.

Other Resources for College Essay Writing

Writing the Personal Statement
The Purdue Online Writing lab offers a guide to writing all kinds of personal statements.

UC Berkeley Has a Say
Check out the University of California at Berkeley’s guide to writing the personal statement.

Application Tips: Tackling the Personal Essay
Abc.com provides some good tips on approaching the personal essay.

10 Tips for Writing the College Application Essay
The famous U.S. News & World Report offers some writing advice.

The Elements of Style
Flip through this famous guide to writing by William Strunk, Jr. that many students and teachers use. Read the 1918 version for free online.

Get Your Writing On
Some great handbooks on writing by writing guru Andrea Lunsford.

A Guide to Grammar and Writing
A cool interactive guide to grammar.

Grammar Resources
The University of Chicago’s guide to grammar.

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