How to Write the Best Personal Statement Essay for College (with Tips and Examples)

Personal Statement Essay Tips for College

Written by Jason

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Last updated Feb 28, 2024 | Published on Feb 25, 2021

Just not sure about that Personal Statement essay? 

We understand! The Personal Statement essay might feel like one of the most intimidating aspects of the college application process. 

Keep reading to find out how to spruce up the language in your essay, how to structure your essay, and why you should set up your own deadlines. Finally, don’t miss a great example of an effective college essay at the end of this blog post. 

What Exactly is a Personal Statement Essay?

Great question. If you apply to college through an institutional application such as the Common App or Coalition App, you will submit a response to one of several prompts, or questions. You might have a bunch of questions about the Personal Statement, and that’s normal: 

  • What is the Common App word limit? (650 words.)
  • What is the Coalition App word limit? (500-650 words.)
  • Are any of my life experiences really that meaningful or essay-worthy? (Yes!)
  • What aspects of my personality should I highlight in my essay? (You should showcase whatever makes you unique!)
  • What type of tone or voice should I use? (Yours and nobody else’s!)
  • What do admission officers really look for in my essay? (Glad you asked. We’ll cover that in a sec.)

The founders of Ivy & Quill, Marisa DeMarco-Costanzo and Andrea Schiralli, returned to my blog as co-authors to help answer some of these questions. They specialize in guiding students through the written portion of the college application process. Collectively, they’ve edited over 20,000 college application essays to date! 

Keep reading to learn Ivy & Quill’s top tips so you can write an amazing Personal Statement essay. 

What’s the Purpose of Your Personal Statement? 

Think of your college admission essay as a work of creative nonfiction. You should inject as much creative writing and personality as possible into it. But, what does that mean?

Creative Writing Skills

It means that how you tell your story is almost as important as the content inside it. That said, remember that college admission officers know that most high school students don’t take creative writing courses. They don’t expect you to be the next Fitzgerald. 

However, as you already know, the competition remains fierce and many students will have impressive test scores, GPAs, and extracurricular activities across the board. If you’re serious about increasing your chances of getting into a decent university, ensure that every aspect of your application is as perfect as possible, including your admission essay.

How to Create an Effective Personal Statement Essay

Once you decide which Common App prompt you wish to address, you can start working on your essay.

Bring your story to life using tone, style, and figurative/rhetorical devices. We’ll explain how to do that in our tips below.

Personal Statement Essay English Tips

Tip 1: Don’t cram.

Don’t view preparation as a means to an end with these essays. The goal isn’t to cram in as many creative writing tips and to read as much as possible to absorb writing skills via osmosis. 

Rather, you want to express your ideas clearly — a skill useful in college, the workforce, and in daily communication. By the way, I also suggest that you start treating reading as a leisure activity (not a chore) or you may find college difficult.

Tip 2: Make your essay memorable and moving.

Make all the essays you write memorable and moving, whether you write a personal statement or supplement. Reveal your personality through your “voice.” Most personal essays don’t allow for a heavy injection of creativity but your essay responses for shorter, more straightforward supplemental prompts will still benefit from the use of rhetorical and/or figurative devices.

Tip 3: Show, don’t tell.

When discussing emotions, you should use the “showing, not telling” strategy. “Telling” emotions usually come across as forced and unreal. 

For example, rather than saying “I was so nervous about my math exam,” show the reader your anxiety. Use language like, “My hands shook as I picked up the pencil.” 

Rather than saying, “I was shy around the handsome boy,” describe how your “face turned beet red as he looked my way” or your “heart skipped a beat or three.”

Every once in a while, you might want to “tell” instead of “show,” especially if you wish to skip whole scenes. For example, rather than describing your bus ride home from school, you can simply skip from school to home with a transition such as, “Later that day…” Read through more examples of when you should tell and not show in this excellent article.

Finally, show actions and personality traits. Check out these two examples: 

  •     Weaker sentence: He is a horrible driver. 
  •     Improved sentence: He wove between lanes and narrowly avoided a head-on collision.
  •     Weaker sentence: He was a kindhearted gentleman. 
  •     Improved sentence: He frequently donated to children’s charities and other community events. 

Never toot your own horn by saying something like, “I’m proud of my resilience.” Instead, let your actions speak for themselves and reflect whichever virtue or trait you wish to convey.

Tip 4: Use sensory descriptions. 

Can you almost hear your English teacher talking about sensory descriptions? She probably said, “Use sensory descriptions to pull the reader into the story! What did you see, hear, taste, feel, or smell?”

You can infuse sensory descriptions wherever applicable and especially when you describe a setting. For example, if you’re describing a day at the beach, you could mention the taste of the saltwater, the noxious smell of sunblock, the sand gritting against your legs, the blue of the ocean melting into the sky, and the cawing of the seagulls overhead. Don’t overdo it! Aim for two to four sensory descriptions per essay.

Try using synesthesia, which means you use a word typically associated with one sense to describe another. Synesthesia causes your reader to do a double-take: 

  •     Her voice dripped with honey.
  •     The cookies smelled like Christmas morning.
  •     The velvet sky was thick with stars.

Good stuff, huh?

Tip 5: Pay attention to adjectives. 

A wise writer once said, “Pick adjectives the way you would pick diamonds.” In other words, choose carefully and opt for quality over quantity. 

  • For example, note the difference between “green eyes” and “emerald eyes.” Emerald not only describes a specific shade of green, but it also makes the reader imagine that sparkly, jewel-like quality characteristic of bright eyes. See how just one specific adjective can provide layers of description? 
  • Another example: “Red lips” versus “cherry lips.” “Cherry lips” not only brings to mind the darker hue of cherries but also evokes images of summer or a sweet taste.

When writing, balance your adjectives so your reader doesn’t get bogged down by the description and/or can’t imagine what is happening.

Tip 6: Check your nouns. 

The same tips for adjectives apply to nouns. You may want to use a more specific noun, such as “mint chocolate chip ice cream” instead of the broader word “dessert.” Even a one-word tweak can help your reader visualize what you intend to depict. 

  •     Weaker sentence: The woman walked a dog.
  •     Improved sentence: The woman walked a Yorkie. 

See how the second sentence really allows the reader to form a more concrete image of a small terrier? 

Now, it’s perfectly fine to use vague nouns, such as “tall man” rather than “the six-foot man.” Think about what deserves more of a description and use your best judgment.

Tip 7: Slash dead weight from your verbs. 

One thing that most writers agree on is that adverbs add deadweight to your prose. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you can replace an adverb with a strong verb. For example: 

  •     Weaker sentence: She ran quickly. 
  •     Improved sentence: She sprinted. 

Whenever you edit your essay and spot an adverb, ask yourself: Can I replace this with a strong verb?

Tip 8: Use figurative language.

You can also replace an adverb with figurative language. For example:

  •     Weaker sentence: She ran quickly. 
  •     Improved sentence: She ran like a hyper-caffeinated bunny.

Figurative language perks up the reader’s imagination, makes your writing more memorable, allows you to express ideas in a more creative way, and adds to the “magic of literature.” Don’t forget to tap into similes, metaphors, hyperbole, and personification as well. (Ask your English teacher for more direction!)

Tip 9: Sprinkle in dialogue, if applicable. 

If it fits into your essay, dialogue can provide the reader with a momentary respite from dense prose and help bring your personal statement essay to life.

Play with sentence structure for pacing. Use shorter sentences, fewer descriptions, and more action scenes to speed up your essay. Use more adjectives, complex sentences, and internal monologue (inner thoughts) to slow down your story.

You may want to add more creativity to your essay structure, deviating from the traditional five-paragraph format. Examples of other narrative formats include: 

  • Diary format: This could work well if your story takes place over several days, such as in a transformative vacation.
  • Manifestos: You could compile a manifesto that declares your origins and reasons behind your veganism or your metaphysical beliefs, for example.
  • Pivotal essays: You start with the conflict as your hook.

You may also want to leave the reflection paragraph out and simply conclude with the end of your story. If you choose this method, make sure that whatever realizations you would have written in your conclusion are revealed throughout the story itself. 

How to Set Deadlines for Your Personal Statement 

When you set deadlines for yourself, you take ownership over the development of your Personal Statement by allotting ample time to reflect on your experiences, thoughts, and what inspires you to do your best. 

Do Not Procrastinate Essay Deadlines

Tip 10: Set deadlines yourself.

You feel more in control when you physically set your own deadlines for brainstorming, strategizing topics, drafting, revising, and editing your personal statement essay. Mark everything on a calendar or save it as a note on your phone to help you self-manage and work toward achieving reasonable goals over a long period of time. 

Tip 11: Don’t wait until the last minute. 

When students wait until the last minute to write their personal statement, they compromise quality (not a surprise, right?). Admissions application readers can easily tell when students rushed through their writing! Take the essay seriously and give it the appropriate level of attention so you develop an essay that reflects the best version of yourself. 

High school juniors should aim to complete personal statement essays over the summer, allowing time for multiple revisions. Read through our Personal Statement brainstorming blog post, which poses 10 important self-reflection questions.

Tip 12: Work on your Personal Statement essay over the summer.

Students who procrastinate during the summer risk having a lot of essays to write in the fall, especially when they encounter Early Application/Early Decision deadlines. Every year, more colleges require additional supplemental essays as part of their application. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill requires a Personal Statement essay and two supplemental essays by its October 15 Early Action deadline.

You might find it difficult to manage application deadlines and everything else that comes your way during fall of senior year, so plan well! 

Personal Statement Essay Prompt

The Personal Statement essay prompts give you the launchpad to tell your story. Take a look at the 2023-2024 Common App essay prompts so you know your full list of options. 

Common App Personal Statement Essays

Think carefully about each prompt and which option fits in with your life. Hopefully, one prompt in particular compels you to write like crazy! 

Personal Statement Essay Example

Take a look at this Personal Statement essay and use it to get ideas for your own Personal Statement essay: 

To celebrate the last day of classes in the tenth grade, I wore a pretty dress that my mom had gifted me. The smooth swirl of the dress brushing above my knee added an involuntary skip to my step. I could just taste the freedom!

But when I tried to step into my classroom, the teacher greeted me at the threshold, arms akimbo. “Sherry, return to the dorms and change immediately! Your skirt is obscenely short! Don’t you know that’s against school policy?”

I was flabbergasted! Scanning the classroom, I noticed all the boys were wearing shorts that exposed their thighs. Some of the girls started to protest this unjust double standard, yet my teacher only replied, “Rules are rules. And girls should be protected.”

Protected? From what? Our skirts?!

One of my male classmates quipped, “I don’t know… Maybe some boys like to stare. Teachers may think that showing too much leg will distract them.”

Wow. I couldn’t believe my ears. In five minutes, I had become someone who needs protection from my apparent vanity as if the lack of fabric in my dress meant that I’m lacking in intellect. My strong legs, which were praised on the track field, had suddenly become objectified and sexualized.

I huffed and puffed my way back to the dorms. I later learned that the school’s AI surveillance camera (which automatically scans everyone walking around campus) had detected my rule-breaking and automatically published an image of me and my skirt onto the school’s WeChat page! My teacher had seen the image before I’d even reached the classroom. Thanks to AI, I had effectively been branded with a scarlet letter.

My anger didn’t dissipate as summer vacation progressed. The more I thought about the issue, the more frustrated I became. However, I’m a believer in the power of words and I started writing many letters to my principal about the unfairness and outdatedness of our policy. The strict dress code, no-makeup rule, and no dating rules were always more harshly applied toward female students. To resolve this issue, I proposed several ideas, including pretty school uniforms, but the principal completely ignored them.

By the end of summer, I was ready to battle this like Joan of Arc. Unfortunately, it was just me. Although they agreed with me, my girlfriends moved on from their initial anger and didn’t want to cause trouble. Realizing that I wouldn’t be able to change anything without first changing the girls’ minds, I decided to gather my troops.

I’ve been leading casual book discussions with my friends since freshman year. For the following months’ meetups, I assigned “Little Women” and “Gone with the Wind” while emphasizing that our discussion would center around a modern feminist twist. We passionately discussed Scarlett O’Hara in her contradicting characteristics, seeing marriage as a means of securing economic stability while also showing determination and courage against her own destiny. We vented over how the creative and ambitious Jo’s worth was determined merely by her marital status in Little Women. Since then, nothing was off the table for discussion.

On Sundays, you’ll catch us in flowery dresses and sweatpants, sneakers and heels, elaborately painted and bare-faced, animatedly debating hate crimes toward women, the media objectification of females, and the idealization of youth. Looking around, I swell in pride that my troops are getting stronger. Not to pick a fight but to be the catalyst of change so we are not judged solely by our cover, silenced at the table, or put in a box we don’t want to be in. My battle to change our school policy is still ongoing. However, it’s no longer just me. Our fight has become a community project, and I have faith that together we will keep raising our voices until there’s no choice but to hear us.

Know the Importance of the Personal Statement Essay

As many colleges announce the continuation of test-optional policies, the Personal Statement essay has become an even more important factor in the application review. Colleges have fewer application items to review, so they will heavily weigh the Personal Statement essay. 

It’s wonderful to have professional colleagues at Ivy & Quill support the Campus to Career Crossroads’ community by providing so many helpful writing tips for high school juniors in this blog post. If you can integrate these tips into your writing, you’ll create a more competitive Personal Statement essay that stands out to admission application readers.

About the guest coauthors: 

Marisa De Marco-Costanzo, Executive Director and Co-founder of Ivy & Quill Admission Essay Consulting and Editing Services, received a Master’s degree in Art and Art Education from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the Fashion Institute of Technology at the State University of New York. Since 2015, Marisa has closely worked with college-bound students to develop their admission essays by providing extensive consulting and editing services. Marisa has devoted her career to educating students from all walks of life and guiding them to reach their highest potential.

Andrea Schiralli, Executive Director and Co-founder of Ivy & Quill Admission Essay Consulting and Editing Services, holds a Master’s degree in Education from Harvard University (2014) and a Bachelor’s degree in French literature from Cornell University (2010). She enjoys helping students appreciate classic poems and novels, teaching them to manipulate language for effect and have fun while finding their writing voices.

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  1. Leo Musacchia

    Very helpful and informative! Thanks!

  2. Jason

    Thanks Leo! I am glad you found the blog helpful and informative!

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