36 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing Your Personal Statement

Phase I of Writing Your Personal Statement: 36 Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Begin

In less than 650 words, you have to persuade a stranger to care about you and your application. That’s why the Common App personal statement is one of the most discussed aspects of the college application. Think about how much time you spend on homework, standardized testing, and extracurriculars. This single essay will influence admissions officers as much as these other factors. You could be the perfect applicant, but if your reader doesn’t get to know you and CARE about YOU, you won’t be admitted.

There is no formula for creating the perfect personal statement. The best personal statement topic for your friend might not work well as a topic for you. The topic that might inspire your friend to show his most unique thoughts, the challenges he’s overcome, and the maturity he has gained, might not help you reveal what’s most interesting and compelling about you.

So, how can you write the best possible personal statement for you and your application? Here are the first steps in the process.

1. Start early!

The worst thing you can do is rush the creation of your personal statement. The next two steps below might take weeks…and these occur before you even have a good first draft and can start multiple rounds of edits. You should edit your personal statement multiple times. You should get feedback from as many family members, friends, and teachers as you can.

But, before you get to this stage, you need to choose the perfect topic (and the best Common App essay promptfor you.

So, when is the right time to start the process of writing your personal statement? You should start brainstorming for your personal statement as early as the spring of your junior year and as late as the summer between junior and senior year.

Why shouldn’t I start earlier? A successful personal statement relies on having a strong and mature sense of yourself. It can also rely on your understanding of what you’d like to do in college, what type of college community you’d like to be a part of, and why you care about your education. Starting too soon might mean you need to start over (see step 3) after you really do some soul-searching about college.

There is a lot of thinking and planning that happens before you start writing, so that’s why you should start early. You will complete your best work when you’re not up against a deadline and you’ll be able to start over (again, see step 3) if this is in your best interests.

2. Brainstorm

If you complete this stage of the process with care and attention, you won’t be faced with Step 3. This step in the process helps you pinpoint that perfect topic for you… which won’t be the same perfect topic for someone else.

To start the process of writing your personal statement, ask yourself the series of 36 questions below. These will help generate topics that will be important and meaningful to you. Keep a written list of possible topics you could choose.

Academics:

  1. What’s your main academic area of interest?
  2. Why does this matter to you?
  3. When did this interest first start to matter to you? Was there a specific event that sparked your interest?
  4. How did your interest evolve over time?
  5. Did you ever face a really big challenge in continuing to learn about or study this topic?
  6. Was this challenge the result of your gender, race, or religion?
  7. Was this challenge the result of your family’s socio-economic background or the result of the culture of the place you lived?
  8. Would you still pursue this academic interest if you earned a very small income with your future job in this area?

Activities:

  1. What’s an extracurricular activity you do that’s incredibly rare?
  2. What’s an extracurricular activity that has shaped your personality and character?
  3. Why does this activity matter so much to you?
  4. When did this activity first start to matter to you? Was there a specific event that sparked your interest?
  5. How did your interest in and commitment to this activity evolve over time?
  6. Have you done something with this activity that no one else you know has done?
  7. Did you ever face a really big challenge in continuing to pursue this activity?
  8. Was this challenge the result of your gender, race, or religion?
  9. Was this challenge the result of your family’s socio-economic background?
  10. Was this challenge the result of the culture of the place you lived?

Life-events:

  1. Is there something you’ve done or experienced that changed you forever in a positive way?
  2. How did this event make you more mature, compassionate, self-aware, determined, or strong?
  3. Is there a day from your life that you reflect on often? Why is this day so memorable to you?
  4. Are you similar to or different from your parents / siblings? What made you this way?
  5. When did you feel like you didn’t fit in with a group of people? What made you different than others?
  6. Is there something (non-academic / extracurricular) that you devote A LOT of time to? Why do you do this?
  7. What have you done that didn’t earn you praise, attention, or success?
  8. What makes you feel like your life is meaningful and important to you?
  9. What is one thing that you would never change about yourself or your life experiences?

Once you’ve created your list of topics, you’ll need to start narrowing them down. For each topic, ask yourself:

  1. Is this a topic I care about?
  2. Is this a topic that I’ve cared about for more than 1-2 years?
  3. Is this a topic I think shows something about my character and personality?
  4. Is this a topic that shows something impressive and / or unique about my achievements or activities?
  5. Is this topic memorable to me? Do I think about this fairly often in my life?
  6. Am I the only student in my high school class who would write about this topic?
  7. Does this topic show only positive things about my character, maturity, and perspective on life?
  8. Would I be interested in reading about this topic if someone else wrote about it?
  9. Could I write 10 pages about this topic (far more than you’ll need to write, of course)?

If the answer to most or all these questions is “yes!” you’ve probably landed on an ideal topic for you! And get started with writing your personal statement! 

3. Start over?

Have you already written your 650 words? Ask yourself: is this best possible story I could tell about myself to admissions officers? What does this story show about me? Is there anything that’s negative in this essay? Is there anything that would make me appear privileged, immature, irresponsible, unfriendly, boring, or unmotivated?

One of the best skills you can develop while writing your personal statement is not to be too attached to your writing. Good editors make BIG changes. And sometimes “big change” means starting over from scratch.

I’ll share my story as a cautionary tale. After careful planning, I wrote the first draft of my personal statement during the summer before my senior year of high school. I was really proud of it. I’d developed a (I thought) complicated and literary metaphor throughout the personal statement. I printed it off. I gave it to my dad to read. He read it through once and said, “you should start over from scratch.”

I was shocked and horrified. What about the more than 5 hours I’d spent planning and writing this essay? My dad pointed out to me the ways in which my personal statement didn’t show the most impressive things about me. It was fine. But it wasn’t unique. It wasn’t personal.

Writing your personal statement is a very strategic part of your college application. There are many “bad” topics you should avoid, there are many “good” topics you could choose, but there are a few that are “outstanding” because they bring a new, personal, thoughtful, and insightful angle to your application and your personal story. This is the personal statement you want to write! Your personal statement needs to engage your readers in less than 650 words in a way that convinces them to believe in you. Your admissions officer will need to advocate for you in order for you to be admitted. You want this person on your side.

Ask your family, friends, and teachers to read your personal statement or consider the topic you’ve selected. Do they feel like this piece of writing or this topic shows the person they know and love? Could this topic make a stranger care about you in the way that your family, friends, teachers care about and support you? This is your personal statement topic selection goal!

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