16 – Applications

Personal Statements & Other Application Essays

Matt McKinney

Although the term “personal statement” implies uniformity in terms of genre conventions, the length, focus, and structure of personal statements can vary quite a bit. Some universities or scholarship organizations want your statement limited to one page; some go up to three or five. Some personal statements allow the applicant to focus on a broad question such as why they want to attend the university; some ask the applicant to focus on a specific goal they have or challenge they’ve overcome. Some organizations offer little guidance in terms of how the personal statement should be structured; some ask the applicant to provide short answers to multiple questions.

Despite the variety in length, focus, and structure, there are some common factors that applicants can use to create a “master” personal statement that can be adapted for multiple purposes. Below are some guidelines to make this genre approachable.

Anchor your statement using prompt language. As with all application material genres, you need to find clues in the prompt to determine what your audience wants to know. If they are asking you to focus on a hardship in your life, then that needs to be the main focus of your essay as opposed to your GPA.

Open with a “Wow” section to make yourself memorable. Similar to a cover letter, your personal statement is your opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants through a deep dive of relevant experiences. However, a personal statement should create a professional narrative that touches on your passions and background, not just your skills and career goals. Some refer to this as the “Wow” paragraph, because it encourages the audience to read your full application and see what you have to offer based on your experiences. For example, were you inspired to pursue medicine through a doctor who saved a loved one’s life? Did you come from another country to study in the United States? Did you overcome a particular obstacle in order to make college a viable option for your future? These are the kind of questions the Wow section should answer.

When you share your “Wow” story, make sure you frontload the point for the reader. If you begin your story with an explanation for why you’re telling it, your reader will have a better idea of how to interpret your experiences and evaluate them accordingly. Stories without a clear purpose or relationship to the prompt are less likely to engage the reader. For example, it might help the reader to know you were inspired to pursue a degree in English by a particular book in your senior AP class, but going into detail about a typical school day for you is probably not helpful.

Follow up with a “Why” section to showcase how you are a good fit for the institution or scholarship. Once you’ve created a memorable and distinctive impression on your audience, you then want to move to convincing them that you have something to offer. If you’ve already held a job or taken courses in your field, for example, talking about those experiences will help the audience understand how you would fit into the curriculum and professional culture of the organization, or why you’re the best candidate for a particular honor. You could also mention whether there are particular faculty you want to work with, or particular projects you want to pursue, because this shows specific interest in the organization and that you are goal-oriented.

When discussing challenges and hardships, disclose sensitive information strategically. There are two primary instances where you as an applicant may need to address hardships you’ve faced: when the prompt specifically requests it (as mentioned previously), or when there is a perceived weakness in your credentials (such as a low GPA). In either instance, make sure that you are communicating ethically and honestly without covering unnecessary information. When possible, try to focus on hardships dictated by circumstances rather than personal choice, and don’t go into graphic detail. For example, audiences are very likely to be understanding if you got a C in your major or took longer to graduate because you were working to support your family, or had to learn to speak and write English at the same time. By contrast, blaming your previous teachers or describing a driving under the influence (DUI) charge is less likely to elicit a positive response.

McKinney, Matt, Kalani Pattison, Sarah LeMire, Kathy Anders, and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt, eds. Howdy or Hello?: Technical and Professional Communication. 2nd ed. College Station: Texas A&M University, 2022. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.