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How to Write Your Personal Statement: A College Essay Expert’s Step-by-Step Process for Success

College essays are a crucial piece of the admissions puzzle. They’re your best–and sometimes, only–chance to tell admissions officers, in your own words, who you are, what you care about, and how you’ll contribute to their community as a future college student and as a person. They also provide an opportunity for you to connect with a college admissions officer in a more genuine way that isn’t possible with test scores, GPA or even letters of recommendation, which is particularly relevant for colleges that have gone test-blind or test-optional. 


If you’re one of the millions of high school students applying to college, you might find yourself wondering what makes for a good college essay and where to get started. When it comes to writing a personal statement–the main college essay, which is usually 650 words or fewer, colleges typically provide broad prompts. This can be a good thing, though, because it means you can write about pretty much anything you want! But it also means that you have to narrow the focus of your essay yourself.


Are you looking for some support to get started? 

Read our step-by-step guide for how to write a strong personal statement as a high school student! 


1. Brainstorm Different Essay Topics (Experiences)

The best college essays are those that show admissions officers the student’s authentic character based on what they’ve done. They don’t need to be grand, ambitious, or revelatory, epic in scale or focused on some incredible accomplishment. Simple, everyday aspects of your real life can actually be much more effective. 


So how can you identify those aspects? Start by asking yourself two simple questions: 

  • Who are you? This is the most important thing that college admissions officers want to know. In other words, what are the primary qualities of your character? What makes you unique? 

  • What do you care about? The things you care about are a powerful way to give admissions officers more insight into the person you are now and the person you’ll be in the future, as a college student and beyond. What are your passions, hobbies, and interests? 


Jot down some high-level ideas in response to those questions. Be as detailed as possible! 


When it comes to choosing a topic, there are some do’s and don’ts:

  • Do write about something that’s interesting, important, and/or unique to you. The best essays are those that allow the student’s passion to shine through. 

  • Don’t choose a topic simply because you think that’s what admissions officers want you to write about. There’s no single “right” topic! 

  • Do choose a topic that gives admissions readers a glimpse into your character and reasons to believe in your future success. Focus on what you've done and how you've made a difference. 

  • Don’t write about anything that's intentionally offensive or controversial, or anything that reflects you in a less-than-positive light. Remember that admissions readers are real people with their own opinions, perspectives, and backgrounds. 


In order to choose a topic for your college essay, consider some real-life experiences that show, through action, who you are and what you care about. Start by making a list of all experiences that come to mind, and then you can narrow down the list later depending on what you want to write about for your personal statement. Hold on to this list: it may be useful for supplemental essays, or the shorter, more specific essays that some schools require.


Here are a few example experiences to get you started:

  • A travel, volunteer, or leadership experience. For example, “My trip to rural Belize.” 

Hint: Go deeper than “it was fun to learn about different cultures.” What specifically did you learn about yourself?


  • A daily ritual or routine. For example, “Riding the M11 bus.” What do your daily rituals mean to you, and what can they tell readers about you as a person?

  • An activity of significance. For example, “Having a Sunday dinner with my family.” How does your favorite activity reflect what you care about? 

  • Spending time with an important person in your life. For example, “Spending time with my grandpa every Tuesday.” 

Hint: What are the influences that have shaped you? 


2. Zero in on Specific “Moments”

Once you have a list of experiences, it’s now time to zero in on specific “Moments.” While experiences are a bit more general (i.e. visiting the Museum of Science in Boston on a field trip, going to a math competition in Chicago, spending a few weeks studying Medieval History at a prestigious university, etc.), Moments are much more specific instances within that experience. Zeroing in on specific Moments will give your reader a better understanding of who you are and what makes you unique.


To brainstorm a list of Moments, create a table with two columns:

Experiences

Moments

My trip to rural Belize

  • The time I ate warm corn tamales while sitting around a campfire with other volunteers, each person sharing a highlight from our day in the field

Riding the M11 bus

  • The time I had a had a 30-minute conversation with a fellow traveler where they told me about their experience as a former English as a Second Language middle school teacher in Harlem, NYC

Eating Sunday dinner with my family

  • The time my mom made chicken parmesan, my personal favorite meal, for Sunday dinner and we ate joyfully with our new neighbors who had just moved to the neighborhood from Boston

Spending time with my grandpa

  • The time I picked up a copy of Time, my grandpa’s favorite magazine, and brought it his house, where we ate chocolate chip cookies and struggled to solve a challenging 1,000 piece puzzle


Once you have a list of experiences and Moments, consider the Moment that you think best exemplifies who you are, your character and how you’ll show up on a college campus. 


3. Plan out your Magnet, Pivot + Glow

Now that you have a Moment to focus on for your personal statement, it can be helpful to map the beginning, middle and end of your essay–what we at Revision Learning call the Magnet, Pivot and Glow.


A. Begin with a Magnet (Captivating First Sentence)

Your first sentence (or first few sentences) is what draws readers into your world. Consider these two examples:


  • "Sometimes, it’s the lives of others that bring out the best in you."

  • “I sat down at the base of the tree, whistling her favorite tune and listening to the birds echoing me.”


The first sentence is somewhat vague, boring and a bit clichéd. The second sentence, by contrast, is filled with descriptive details and puts the reader in the action right from the start.


  • You want to craft an engaging opening that compels your reader to delve further into your unique story.


Consider the two sentences above. Which sentence makes you want to continue on to find out what happens next?


B. Have a Distinct Pivot (Turning Point(s) with Impact)

A pivot is your essay's turning point, revealing risk, learning, growth, change, or action. Consider these two examples:


  • "It was then I realized that even the simplest of actions could change the world, even if it’s just the world of one person." 

  • "I looked back at the girl. She was walking away with her head bowed. I looked ahead at the woods in front of me, and took a deep breath. 'Hey!' I called back to her, and held out my hand, 'Quick, come with me!'" 


The first sentence is a bit clunky, vague and clichéd. It also relies heavily on someone’s own perception of the event, instead of giving the reader an opportunity to make their own judgment. (Think show, don’t tell.) The second sentence, by contrast, is much more descriptive and grounded in action and gives the reader a chance to infer what’s happening and why (i.e. why would she be “walking away with her head bowed”?). 


  • Your pivot showcases a clear before-and-after scenario, emphasizing the transformative moment in your narrative.


Consider the two sentences above. Which sentence demonstrates a unique, distinct change in the person telling the story?


C. End With a Glow (Strong Last Impression)

The glow is your essay's last sentence(s), a powerful conclusion that stays with your reader and makes them want to know more about you. Consider these two examples:


  • "I couldn't agree more with Hubert H. Humphrey, who wrote, 'The greatest gift of life is friendship, and I have received it.'" 

  • "I threw my hand up in the air, holding up three fingers in remembrance of my fallen friend, and found within me a new resolution to make it through." 


The first sentence is general, boring and clichéd. It is a popular quote and won’t help the writer distinguish themselves from the thousands of essays an admissions officer will read. The second sentence, by contrast, is more descriptive and memorable: the reader can visualize the author’s three fingers in the air and the distinct change that’s occurred within them.


  • Your glow should keep the reader immersed in your story, leaving them eager to know more about you


Consider the two sentences above. Which one leaves a stronger, more lasting impact and makes you want to get to know the author further?


By following this simple structure, you will be able to write essays that seamlessly captivate admissions officers from start to finish. Craft your narrative with precision and let your story shine brightly!


4. Write a first draft

So, how are you going to get started? 

Now that you have a Magnet, Pivot and Glow, write a first draft of about 500 - 1000 words, filling in all of the in-between details that will bring your story to life. The idea here is to get past your usual responses, and to get to the heart of what’s important to you. So make sure to let your pen run free for the draft! If you find your ideas are going all over the place, that’s okay; you’ll be able to edit your writing later!


5. Edit Your Essay Yourself 

Once you have taken some time to get your ideas down, it’s important to go back and check your writing. Here are some things to look for:


Do I draw the reader in from the first sentence?

Don’t start your essay by stating the obvious: “Hi, I’m a senior in High School, and I’m writing this essay so I can get into college.” The first sentence of your essay should draw the reader into your story like a MAGNET. Jump right in, like this: “I woke up to a splash of water on my face. ‘Get up,’ Juan said to me, ‘We’re moving.’”


Do I show how I learned, grew, or made a difference?

This is the PIVOT—a turn in the action when you risk something, learn something, or try something new. It’s where you change or take action in some way. The PIVOT shifts the direction of your story and keeps the reader engaged.


Do I end in the action?

Your ending should not summarize what you’ve already told the reader. Instead your final sentence, the GLOW, should end in the action, creating a lasting impression and leaving the reader wanting to know more about you. Here is an example from one of our students: “And though it was no masterpiece of genius, it was a working robot.”


Have I replaced general things that many people can say with specific Details, Dialogue and Description from my own experience?

You can make every sentence of your essay more powerful by replacing general ideas, as well as thoughts and interpretations that happen in your own mind, with actions that take place in the world of shared human experience. Sensory details, dialogue (what people said), and physical description (such as where you are and who else is there) make your essay uniquely your own, while drawing the reader into your unique experience.


6. Share your essay with a friend or family member

Is there someone in your life–a friend, family member, teacher, counselor, etc.–whom you feel confident will provide honest, objective feedback about your writing? Once you feel like your essay is in a good place, share it with them to get some feedback on how to improve your writing. Getting someone else’s eyes on your writing can provide helpful insight and give you ideas about how to improve. However, it’s also important to share your personal statement carefully. Each person has a different idea about what you “should” write, and sharing it with too many people who offer different and even contrasting feedback can cause you to question yourself and lose the “heart” of your writing.


At Revision Learning, we believe that every person has a story to tell. We use patented technology, 1-1 support with experienced, trained coaches and feedback on writing drafts to teach high school juniors and seniors what makes for a good story, what admissions officers are looking for and how to write in a way that maximizes impact. With our help, students are able to tap into the science of storytelling and writing to communicate effectively and authentically. 


Need some additional support? Create a free Revision Learning account, where you’ll have access to our StoryBuilder software, our daily writing prompts and our asynchronous courses, here. Revision Learning can also help you through 1-1 coaching and essay editing; you can find more information about that here. Use code LUMIERE at checkout for 20% off.


Nick Fernald, Ed.M., is a teacher, storyteller and entrepreneur. His passion for education initially led him to the classroom, first as a Fulbright English teacher, then to a teaching master's program, and then to various humanities positions. In 2023, he channeled his passion for promoting educational opportunity into founding his own company, Revision Learning, which helps students use storytelling for college application and career success while improving their writing skills in the process.


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Wow, thank you for sharing such insightful tips on how to craft a compelling personal statement! It's absolutely crucial to showcase your authentic self through meaningful experiences and moments that define you. Remember, your personal statement is your chance to shine and connect with admissions officers on a personal level. If you're seeking additional support, consider checking out https://ukwritings.com/personal-statement-help for expert help with your personal statement writing needs. They offer valuable guidance and resources to help you navigate the college essay process effectively. Good luck with your college applications!

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