How to Write a Personal Statement
Use your years of watching TV shows and movies to power up your personal statement.
You know that feeling when you read a personal statement prompt, and it's like, "Tell us about a time when you encountered a significant challenge and changed as a person," and you're like:
Yeah, we know the feeling. But, don't worry, we're here to help you figure out the perfect story and how to share it with colleges.
Brainstorming a Story
We'll tell you a secret. The strength of an essay is very rarely just about the topic - it's about how you write about that topic. So, if you're worried that in your ~17 years of life you haven't had any super life-changing, crazy experiences - don't worry.
Think about popular YouTube stars - half the time, they're not doing anything that interesting, but they talk about life in an authentic, genuine, and unique way. THAT'S the key to your essay. So, we have two steps to brainstorming, first, we need to find something unique and authentic about you. Answer these 10 questions: (We have some sample answers to help you out)
Step 1: Something unique
What is your favorite meal? homemade dumplings
If you could change anything about yourself, what would it be? I cry easily, so I would make myself cry less easily.
What's a tradition that reminds you of home? making dumplings together with my family.
If you could make one rule that everyone in the world had to follow, what would it be? if you make more than a certain amount of money, you have to give away a large portion of it to low-income communities.
How do you treat yourself when you accomplish something? I go to the local grocery store and buy a Twix bar, then eat it by myself while listening to my favorite song.
What's your morning routine look like? roll out of bed on the third alarm, brush my teeth, get yelled at by my mom to hurry up, then drag my little sister out of the house to walk to school.
What is a superstition you have? I make weird bets with myself - like, if I can beat this level of my video game, I'll do well on my test.
What is your favorite place to go? I love the grocery store, because...I love food.
What do you spend the most time watching on YouTube? those videos of people eating a ton of food, like the whole Popeye's menu, as fast as they can
If you could make up a new school subject, what would it be? a class on really amazing people in history who were forgotten, because they were people of color, women, or LGBTQ
Nice! So we have 10 things about you that are unique. Now, let's think about stories to tell. Answer these 9 questions: (Again, we have sample answers to help you out)
Step 2: Finding a Story
When was the last time you felt challenged? Applying for financial aid for college and figuring out all the forms we need
Did you ever get in trouble in school? For what? Sometimes I skip school.
What was the biggest argument you ever got in with a family member? A couple months ago, my mom and I fought about whether I should go to college.
What was your best birthday like? I'm actually not a fan of birthdays - the attention is too much for me.
Who was your favorite teacher? Why? My track coach is my favorite teacher. He's the one telling me about college scholarships and encouraging me to apply.
What advice would you give yourself at the beginning of high school? I would tell myself to be nicer to my parents.
When was the last time you felt you were treated unfairly? My parents favor my brother, because he's a boy, and our family culture treats boys better.
When was the last time you felt an emotion strongly? (Could be happy, sad, angry, confused, frustrated, etc.) I felt really happy when I finally beat my brother in a video game last week.
When was the last time you felt proud of yourself? Last month, we had to give presentations in class. I hate public speaking, but I practiced and did well.
Great! Okay, so now, we're going to try to combine something unique with a story - here are some examples using our sample answers:
4 & 1: We can combine the answer to question 4 in step 1 and the answer to question 1 in step 2. A sample intro might be -
Looking at the many financial aid forms I need to fill out, I decide to take a break. I look up how much money Jeff Bezos has. He has $176 billion. College is about $50,000 per student. He could send 3.5 million students to college. Well, that was fun, back to financial aid applications.
Then, the next couple paragraphs could each be about a different question and how they make you feel. Maybe the question, "What was your parent's income last year?" makes you think about how hard your parents work and whether Jeff Bezos really works that much harder than them. Your essay could then end with a reflection based on all these paragraphs. Something like this -
I've always known there's inequality in the world, but seeing the numbers feels different. I think about all the people who can't afford to go to the doctor, or to buy food, or go to college (like me), and wonder how it's possible one man can pay for 3.5 million of us to attend college. Maybe there's a better way for our country to work, but we just haven't figured it out yet. Maybe it's as easy as saying that for every billion dollars you make, you have to pay for one kid (not your own) to go to college. I have a lot of maybe's, but I do know one thing for sure - I want to do my part to make the world a more equal place, and to do that, I have a lot to learn. I hope that in college, I can learn more about different systems, the things that work well and don't work well in different countries, and the ways we can improve our society.
7 & 9: We can combine the answer to question 7 in step 1 and the answer to question 8 in step 2. A sample intro might be -
As I watch my character die on screen, I think to myself, "There go my chances of doing well on my test tomorrow." Weird, right? For as long as I can remember, I've made small bets with myself, connecting one event with another. If I get past this level in the game, I'll pass my test tomorrow. If this napkin makes it into the trashcan, the girl I like will like me back. My bets rarely work out, but I still keep doing it.
Then, for the rest of the essay, you can share a story about giving a presentation in class. Telling a story well is tricky, so let's take a look at a structure you can use.
Telling a Story
Think about any movie or TV show you really like. Most likely the episode or movie you're thinking of told a story. And that story most likely followed a formula 🙀. Dan Harmon, the creator of Rick and Morty, shared the formula for a good TV story, and we adapted it for personal statements.
Basically, every story can be thought of as a circle with 8 steps - we'll use the movie Moana as an example.
Comfort Zone: We start with the character in a comfort zone. In the movie, we start with Moana hanging out in her village with her pet pig and family. Chill.
Challenge/New Situation: Then the character encounters something new, like when Moana sets sail for the first time to save her island.
Adapt: The character finds an easy way to adapt to the new situation at first. In the movie, this is when we see Moana find Maui and start to learn how to sail.
Struggle: But, then, the character begins to struggle with the new situation, like when Maui leaves, and Moana gives up on saving her island.
New Learning: Just in time, something happens to help the character learn something important. In the movie, this is when the ghost of Moana's grandmother shows up to help her understand that giving up is okay, as long as that's what she really wants to do. This helps her realize she wants to keep trying.
Apply Learning: The character then uses this new learning. In the movie, Moana gains the confidence she needs to continue on her journey.
Success: By using this new learning, the character finds success. Moana is able to save her island by not giving up and persevering.
Return Changed: Then, we return back to the comfort zone we started at, but the character has changed. The movie ends with Moana returning back home, but taking on the role of chief and leading her people forward.
When you're thinking about your story for your personal statement, think about it using this structure. Thinking back to the topic we had, the unique thing we were using is making small bets to determine the outcome of situations and giving a successful presentation in class. Following our formula, this is how we'd break that story down:
Comfort Zone: You start with just a normal day in class, nothing unusual.
Challenge/New Situation: The teacher comes in and announces that you're all going to have to do a presentation in front of the whole class for the next assignment.
Adapt: You hate public speaking, so you keep avoiding the assignment. At the last minute, you prep a little, but then leave it up to chance. You make a bet with yourself that if you can beat this level of Candy Crush, you'll do well on the presentation. You beat the level and feel better about the assignment.
Struggle: Despite the bet you made, your presentation doesn't go well. You're not prepared, you forget what you were supposed to say, and your teacher is disappointed.
New Learning: After class, your teacher asks you what went wrong. You shrug and tell her that you were just nervous. Your teacher tells you that you need to put in the work. The more you prepare, the more prepared you'll feel, and the less nervous you'll be. As you head home from school, you think about how you've been trying to gain confidence by doing these little bets, but it's just an easy way out. Maybe part of success is luck, but you have to make sure you're ready to take advantage of the luck. You still have to be prepared and work hard.
Apply Learning: Your teacher assigns another presentation, and this time you practice it over and over again. The night before the presentation, you still feel a little nervous, so for fun, you make a bet with yourself again that if you beat this level of Candy Crush, you'll do well. You beat the level, but realize that you feel good about the presentation because you prepared, not because you beat the level.
Success: Your presentation goes well this time!
Return Changed: You're back in class, reflecting on what you've learned. Luck is great, but you can't rely on it, and sometimes you have to make your own luck. Every now and then, you still find yourself making little bets, but they're more for fun now. At the end of the day, you'd rather rely on yourself than on the universe.
See how we broke it down? If you write out this outline for your story first, it'll help you structure it so that the story and your personal growth are super clear for your reader. Try this out, then check out our list of 7 things to avoid and 5 things to do in your personal statement.