To write a good personal statement, you have to think outside of the box. You’ve got to write an essay so interesting that it leaves whoever reading it wanting to know more about you. And, in most cases, you have to do all of that in less than 2 pages! 

Tricky? Yes. But it’s 100% possible when you know what you’re doing!

That’s why in this post we’re going to show you how you can write an amazing personal statement for college and scholarship applications in just 7 steps. 

But before we dive into what each of those steps will look like, we’re going to start things off by answering a few common questions on personal statements like:

  • What is a personal statement?
  • What’s the purpose of the personal statement?
  • What’s the difference between a personal statement for college and a personal statement for scholarships?
  • What do I write about in my personal statement? 
  • What makes a good personal statement? 

Let’s take a look at that first question now! 

What is a personal statement?

A personal statement is a short personal essay that you’ll need to write when applying for most colleges and some scholarships.

You might also hear people refer to the personal statement as a “college essay,” “scholarship essay,” “Common app essay,” “Coalition app essay,” or a “statement of purpose”. 

What’s the purpose of the personal statement?

The personal statement is one of the only parts of the application where the people reviewing your application get to hear directly from you. It’s their opportunity to see what has shaped and inspired the person you are today.

And, let’s be real. They’d never be able to get that information from a transcript, standardized test score, or even a recommendation letter! 

That being said, the purpose behind personal statements for college applications and personal statements for scholarship applications does differ slightly. 

What’s the difference between a personal statement for college and a personal statement for scholarships? 

For college applications, the purpose of the personal statement is to give college admissions officers insight into what makes you unique and how thoughtfully you can reflect on your life experiences. They’re looking for self-awareness, intellectual promise, creativity, and individuality. 

For scholarship applications, the purpose of the personal statement is to show that you are an ideal candidate and representative of the scholarship foundation’s mission. It can definitely have some of the same qualities as the college personal statement. But, depending on the scholarship, you may need to directly answer in your essay questions like why you deserve the scholarship, what you plan to study in college, and what you hope to do in the future.

What do I write about in a personal statement? 

What you write about in your personal statement depends on how you plan to submit your applications.

For college applications, you’ll likely use the Common Application or the Coalition Application, which both have their own essay prompts and requirements.

Let’s take a look at the 2020-21 essay prompts found on each of these college application portals and a few personal statement prompts for scholarship applications. 

The Common App essay prompts

There are nearly 900 colleges and universities that use the Common App! If you’re applying to one of them, you’ll need to write a 650-word (max) personal statement that addresses one of seven prompts

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  1. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  1. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  1. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  1. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  1. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  1. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

The Coalition App essay prompts

You may also apply to colleges and universities on the Coalition App. If so, you’ll need to write a 500-550 word personal statement that addresses one of five prompts

  1. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  1. Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  1. Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  1. What is the hardest part of being a student now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  1. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

Scholarship application essay prompt examples  

Some scholarship applications don’t require a personal statement. But, for the ones that do, you can expect to write an essay that focuses more on your readiness for college and what you hope to accomplish in the future. 

For example, here are two scholarship essay prompts: 

Carrington-Philbert-Scholarship

Please write an essay (250 – 500 words) addressing the following: What has been the driving force for you to pursue a higher education? What are your passions and how do you plan to ensure you follow them?

Dell Scholarship 

Describe the most significant challenges you may face transitioning to and while in college and what steps you may take to address those challenges. As appropriate, include skills/strategies you learned in your College Readiness Program that have prepared you to be successful in college.

(If you plan to apply for the Dell Scholarship, check out How to Win the Dell Scholarship!)

What makes a good personal statement?

Whether you’re writing a personal statement for your college applications or scholarship applications, there are some general characteristics of good and bad personal statements. 

Let’s take a look!

Characteristics of a good personal statement

A good personal statement…

  • Reveals something about you not seen in other parts of your application 
  • Has a creative narrative structure
  • Does more showing than telling 
  • Demonstrates your potential to thrive in college and in life
  • Is free of careless mistakes in spelling, grammar, etc. 

Characteristics of a bad personal statement 

On the other hand, a bad personal statement…

  • Reads like a laundry list of your accomplishments
  • Sounds more like a research paper than a creative story about your life 
  • Does more telling than showing 
  • Rambles without giving the reader any idea who you are 
  • Is full of clichés and mistakes in spelling, grammar, etc.

How to write an amazing personal statement in 7 steps 

Alright, now that we have those general questions out of the way, we can get to the good stuff! 

Here are 7 steps you can follow to help you write an amazing personal statement: 

Step 1: Brainstorm to find the best topics to write about  

The personal statement is your one shot to truly show college admission officers and scholarship selection committees who you are. So, rather than picking the first idea that comes to mind. Do some brainstorming to find a few good potential options. 

Ask yourself questions like: 

  • What are some of my greatest accomplishments? What did I have to do to achieve those accomplishments? 
  • What obstacles have I overcome in my life? How have those experiences shaped how I view the world today? What actions did they inspire me to take later in life? 
  • What makes me different from my peers? What are some stories from my life that really show those qualities? 
  • What do I love doing? When and why did I start doing that activity? What interesting experiences have I had because of how much I love doing this activity?
  • What’s the most important lesson I have learned in my life? When, where, and from who did I learn that lesson? How has that lesson influenced my aspirations?  

Write down the stories that stand out to you as being the most likely to be an interesting topic for a personal statement.

Step 2: Get feedback from someone who can be objective about your essay topic 

Now that you have one or more stories for your personal statement topic, it’s time to get some feedback. But keep in mind that not all feedback is useful feedback when it comes to personal statements.

For example, your parents or friends might like the story you’ve chosen because it highlights one of the qualities they like most about you. But, without knowing much about the college admissions or scholarship application process themselves, they might encourage you to write about a topic that’s cliché or not suitable for your applications. 

Instead, get feedback from someone like your school guidance counselor, your favorite teacher, or a student who recently applied to college. 

Step 3: Outline a personal statement for the most promising topic

Once you have a promising idea for your personal statement, the next thing you’ll want to do is set yourself up for success with a solid outline. 

A good outline will help you structure each section, avoid leaving out important information, and serve as a guide when you actually start writing. 

You can also use your outline to decide what are the one or two qualities you hope to express throughout the essay. For example, by the end of the essay, do you want the reader to think of you as highly-creative? An expert problem solver? Someone who is committed to giving back to their community? 

Step 4: Free-write as much as you can in your first draft

The first few drafts of your personal statement don’t need to be perfect. So, rather than stressing about the first sentence or the quality of your writing, start by free-writing. 

Free-writing will help you get all of your ideas on to paper, making it possible for you to see and decide what is and isn’t actually interesting later on. Sometimes the best ideas come from random ideas you initially thought were unimportant! 

Just don’t go too overboard with how much you free-write. You might regret that later when it comes time for the next step. 

Step 5: Edit and cut it down to a readable draft 

Now that you have a complete first draft with all of your ideas on paper, it’s time to start the first round of editing.

Take another look at your original outline and ask yourself:

  • Did I achieve the goal of my essay? 
  • What can I cut from the story without losing the flow of the essay? 
  • Am I including enough examples?
  • Did I miss any important details? 
  • Am I using descriptive language to creatively show what I am talking about or does my personal statement sound like a research paper? 

Make sure to also cut it down to the right word count and start checking for spelling and grammar mistakes. 

Step 6: Get feedback on your draft 

Now, it’s time to get more feedback. But this time, you should have multiple people read it. That way, you can collect data on what is and isn’t working. 

To get the most useful feedback, ask your readers questions like:

  • Does anything in my personal statement seem insincere, made up, or not fully explained? 
  • Is the essay coherent with a clear beginning, middle, and end?  
  • What did you learn about me after reading the essay? 
  • Does it make you want to know more about me? 
  • Do you have any advice on how it could be better? 

If any of those things don’t match up with what you were aiming for, keep working on it! 

Step 7: Edit again

You knew this last step was coming, didn’t you? In the final stretch, it’s time to polish your essay until it’s gold! 

Take into account all of the feedback you have received and make any necessary adjustments. 

Make sure to also edit again for word length, correct grammar, spelling, sentence flow, word choice, etc. 

To help you speed up and perfect the editing process, check out Scholly Editor. It’s our AI-powered writing editor that dives deep into your writing and gives you that edge to help truly write an amazing personal statement!

7 more personal statement tips 

#1 Start early

Good ideas take time. To give yourself the best shot at writing the best personal statement, at least start brainstorming and freewriting your ideas a few months before the application deadlines.

#2 Use your voice 

College admissions and scholarship committees want to know who you are. And that means using your voice throughout the essay and avoiding throwing in big words just for the sake of trying to sound smart. 

#3 Start with a strong introduction 

Your personal statement needs to hook the reader from the first line. Why? Because if not, you run the risk of the reader immediately starting to skim rather than actually read your essay. Not ideal! 

#4 Follow the word limit 

The word limit on personal statements is not a suggestion. It’s a requirement. That means any word over the word limit will not be included when you submit your application. So, to avoid leaving your readers confused by an incomplete concluding sentence, always follow the word limit! 

#5 Be willing to start over if an idea isn’t working  

Just because you started working on one idea for your personal statement doesn’t mean you should force it to be the topic of your personal statement. If after a few drafts, you find that the story you chose to tell in your personal statement just isn’t working, start over. You only get to submit the application once, so make sure it’s something you will be happy with! 

#6 Pick the prompt for your college personal statement after you finish writing 

Do you remember the last essay prompt on both the Common App and Coalition App? For both, it says you can submit an essay on a topic of your choice. What does that mean? You shouldn’t get stuck trying to pick the “right” prompt before you start writing. The prompts are really just there for guidance. As long as you follow the steps we laid out earlier, your essay will fit at least one of the essay prompts. 

#7 Adapt your college personal statement for scholarship applications 

Since scholarship applications differ quite a bit, you’re better off adapting your college personal statement to your scholarship personal statements rather than the other way around. 

Just remember, that unlike the personal statement for colleges, the scholarship personal statement might require you to be more direct and answer questions about why you deserve the scholarship and your plans for college.

(For more tips on how to write scholarship essays, check out How to Write a Scholarship Essay and Win BIG [2020 Edition]!)

Personal statement examples 

If you’re still not sure you’re ready to get started on your personal statement, it might help to look at a few examples. 

Here are examples of successful personal statements for a college application and a scholarship application. 

Personal statement for college example

This personal statement comes from a student who was recently admitted to Johns Hopkins University. It’s a great example of how to hook the reader’s attention in the introduction and use storytelling techniques to build interest right away. It also highlights an important activity for the student and gives insight into what makes him different. 

I looked up and flinched slightly. There were at least sixty of them, far more than expected. I had thirty weeks to teach them the basics of public speaking. Gritting my teeth, I split my small group of tutors among the crowd and sat down for an impromptu workshop with the eighth graders. They were inexperienced, monotone, and quiet. In other words, they reminded me of myself…

I was born with a speech impediment that weakened my mouth muscles. My speech was garbled and incomprehensible. Understandably, I grew up quiet. I tried my best to blend in and give the impression I was silent by choice. I joined no clubs in primary school, instead preferring isolation. It took six years of tongue twisters and complicated mouth contortions in special education classes for me to produce the forty-four sounds of the English language.

Then, high school came. I was sick of how confining my quiet nature had become. For better or for worse, I decided to finally make my voice heard.

Scanning the school club packet, I searched for my place. Most activities just didn’t feel right. But then, I sat in on a debate team practice and was instantly hooked. I was captivated by how confidently the debaters spoke and how easily they commanded attention. I knew that this was the path forward.

Of course, this was all easier said than done. Whenever it was my turn to debate, I found that I was more of a deer in the headlights than a person enjoying the spotlight. My start was difficult, and I stuttered more than I spoke in those first few weeks. Nonetheless, I began using the same tools as I did when I learned to speak all those years ago: practice and time. I watched the upperclassmen carefully, trying to speak as powerfully as they did. I learned from my opponents and adapted my style through the hundreds of rounds I lost. With discipline, I drilled, repeating a single speech dozens of times until I got it right.

Day by day, I began to stand a little taller and talk a little louder both inside and outside of debate. In a few months, my blood no longer froze when I was called on in class. I found I could finally look other people in the eyes when I talked to them without feeling embarrassed. My posture straightened and I stopped fidgeting around strangers. I began to voice my opinions as opposed to keeping my ideas to myself. As my debate rank increased from the triple to single-digits, so too did my standing at school. I began interacting with my teachers more and leading my peers in clubs. In discussions, I put forward my ideas with every bit as much conviction as my classmates. When seniors began to ask me for advice and teachers recruited me to teach underclassmen, I discovered not only that I had been heard, but that others wanted to listen. At heart, I am still reserved (some things never change), but in finding my voice, I found a strength I could only dream of when I stood in silence so many years ago.

Standing in front of the crowd of students, it was my hope that by founding this program, I could give them an experience that was as empowering as mine had been for me. As the weeks passed, the students inched past their insecurities and towards finding their voices, just as I had always wanted to do. On the last day of class for that year, I looked up and saw each of the students standing confidently, equipped and ready to speak their minds in whatever they wanted to do. They had come a long way from being the shy and stuttering novices that they were just thirty weeks before—I can’t wait to see how far they can go from here.

If you want to find more examples of successful personal statements for colleges, check out these awesome resources! 

Personal statement for scholarships example

Here’s a scholarship personal statement that comes from a student who won the Kang Foundation Scholarship. The essay also does a great job of immediately grabbing the reader’s attention and creatively narrating a unique story from the student’s life. Notice how it could easily be used for a college personal statement right up until the end where it directly speaks to scholarship selection committees. 

Fedora? Check. Apron? Check. Tires pumped? Check. Biking the thirty-five minutes each evening to the cafe and back to work a six-hour shift was exhausting, but my family’s encouragement and gratitude for the extra income was worth it.

A few years earlier, my family of nine had been evicted from the home we had been living in for the past ten years. With nowhere else to go, we moved into our church’s back room for three months, where I shamefully tried to hide our toothbrushes and extra shoes from other church members. Right then I made a commitment to my family to contribute financially in whatever way I could. My sacrifice translated to a closer bond with my siblings and deeper conversations with my parents, helping me understand the true meaning of a unified family and the valuable part I play in that.

With the financial stability that my part-time jobs provided my mother could stay home to raise seven children, my learning-disabled older sister could attend college, my younger sister could go on a mission trip to Korea, and my twin siblings could compete in national math competitions. I’ve seen that even as a high school student, I have so much potential to impact my family and beyond — how one small act can go a long way.

Through the successes of my efforts, I also realized that poverty was just a societal limitation. I was low-income, not poor. I was still flourishing in school, leading faith-based activities and taking an active role in community service. My low-income status was not a barrier but a launching pad to motivate and propel my success.

To additionally earn more money as a young teen, I began flipping bicycles for profit on craigslist. Small adjustments in the brake and gears, plus a wash, could be the difference between a $50 piece of trash and a $200 steal. Seeing how a single inch could disarrange the lining of gears not only taught me the importance of detail but also sparked my fascination with fixing things.

When I was sixteen I moved on to a larger project: my clunker of a car. I had purchased my 2002 Elantra with my own savings, but it was long past its prime. With some instruction from a mechanic, I began to learn the components of an engine motor and the engineering behind it. I repaired my brake light, replaced my battery, and made adjustments to the power-steering hose. Engineering was no longer just a nerdy pursuit of robotics kids; it was a medium to a solution. It could be a way to a career, doing the things I love. I was inspired to learn more.

Last summer, to continue exploring my interest in engineering, I interned at Boeing. Although I spent long hours researching and working in the lab for the inertial navigation of submarines, I learned most from the little things.

From the way my mentors and I began working two hours earlier than required to meet deadlines, I learned that engineering is the commitment of long hours. From the respect and humility embodied within our team, I learned the value of unity at the workplace. Like my own family at home, our unity and communal commitment to working led to excellent results for everyone and a closer connection within the group.

What most intrigues me about engineering is not just the math or the technology, but the practical application. It is through engineering that I can fix up my car… and facilitate submarine navigation. Engineering, in fact, is a lifestyle —  instead of lingering over hardships, I work to solve them and learn from them. Whether the challenge is naval defense or family finances or even just a flat tire on my bike before another night shift, I will be solving these problems and will always be looking to keep rolling on.  

Success is triumphing over hardships — willing yourself over anything and everything to achieve the best for yourself and your family. With this scholarship, I will use it to continue focusing on my studies in math and engineering, instead of worrying about making money and sending more back home. It will be an investment into myself for my family.

Final thoughts

Writing a personal statement for college or scholarship applications may take some time and effort. But if you follow the advice we’ve shared here, we know you’ll be able to write an amazing one that helps increase your chances of being admitted to the college of your dreams and winning some scholarships to help cover the cost! 

And if you want more advice on how to pay for college, make sure to check out the Scholly blog where we share tips on how to find and win scholarships, avoid student loan debt, and get the most out of your college education.