How to write a good personal statement (and make sense of your life at the same time)?

Nov 28, 2012 by

How to write a good personal statement (and make sense of your life at the same time)?

This unusual piece, a set of instructions in fact, has been inspired by a conversation with a group of curious and not-hesitating-to-ask IB students in a high school in Szczecin ( as well as by numerous more or less successful attempts of my sister and a few other friends to write their personal statements).

There is no one recipe for a good personal statement. Moreover, what one person finds good, another might find dreadful. However, after my classes at Oxford and Yale, where I regularly wrote and discussed  a variety of texts with professors of different subjects, I believe there is a common thread to good writing (be it good writing of personal statements, or other pieces).  The discovering of this “thread” did not happen overnight, and is still in process.  Nonetheless, I am happy to share what I have learnt so far and I hope it will be useful to some of you.

One golden rule: do not take anything at face value (my rules including!). Ask yourself, does this make sense to me? Is it convincing? Do I agree? If you do, then follow those rules. If you do not, write to me and suggest changes. I am open for discussion and (constructive!) criticism.

So here you are, my tentative list:

What makes a good personal statement?

1.       The right balance of facts and interpretation. Is there a story to this life?

A  personal statement is an attempt to put your life-story onto one page. I might sounds crazy, but it is not. On the contrary, it is a great and difficult exercise in making sense of your life, for you, your interviewers and future professors. How to do it:  Select the events and experiences that you feel have influenced you most and are most relevant to your future degree/university, and connect them  to make a story, a narrative, out of your life.  Do not be scared of the word “story” – this implies that you see a direction and purpose in what you have done so far and can see and present your life as a coherent whole (this sounds abstract but now follow the more concrete rules as to how to do it).

A good personal statement  is a mix of facts from one’s biography (“I did this project…” “I got awarded…”) and an interpretation (“This taught me..” , “Had I not done this…, I would never have managed to later…”). A good personal statement is about finding the right balance between facts and interpretation, value-neutral and value-loaded statements. From my experience, I would suggest that a good mix is around 70% facts and 30% interpretation/connecting the dots, but this may vary depending on individual circumstances (the kind of course you apply for, your experience etc.).

2.       Creativity without mentioning the word. Is this person really creative?

While the instructions attached to personal statements may ask a demonstration of the candidate’s maturity, individuality and creativity, using those very words explicitly will neither make you appear mature, individual, nor creative. Do not say you are creative, but let your deeds speak for you. Describe (briefly!) the projects you did, pinpoint what was unusual about them, say how you have contributed to their success and how they have contributed to your personal development. A well-written description of a truly creative project will speak for itself! There is no need to use words such as “creativity” that, through their frequent use, have been emptied out of meaning. In your personal statement, fill them up with meaning again and surprise your future professors with your experiences, knowledge and skills instead.

3.       Focus on arguments, not dreams  (do not use words “always”, “never”, “dreamt” and other exaggerations.)  Can I take this applicant seriously?

While making a story out of your life may lead you into thinking you are writing a fairy tale (“…and they lived happily ever after.”), this is not so. Being able to make a story out of your life (and write a personal statement) means (or at least implies to the interviewer) you can see a direction in your life and you are in control of its further development.  This, however, does not mean that you should use sentences such as “I have always wanted to study at…university” and believe to be believed and taken seriously. Be careful with strong words such as “dream”, because the risk  is that you will stop being concrete.  Focus on well-developed and logical arguments (to the interviewers, not just to you), not dreams. It might sound a little too down-to-earth and of course it is important to speak about “passions” as well (I do not have anything against this word as long as it is used not more than twice on a page!), but after reviewing a number of personal statements, I have noticed a tendency to “fly” rather than to do your job and explain the reasons for your decisions to your future professor.

4.       Speak of your strengths, but do not boast. Is this person worth meeting?

Speak of your strengths and things you are good at, but do not boast. Saying you are better than Mrs. X at something does not mean you are good. Rather, it implies you are an arrogant person. Personality is just as important in English and American universities as scores are, so be careful what tone you assume, what words you use and how you put your strengths forward. I am not saying this is easy but a helpful tip might be focusing on our subjective interpretation  (e.g. “Chemistry interests me due to the unpredictability of the outcomes. I am a risk-taker, I enjoy experimenting and I find it fascinating to observe study and intervene in the chemical processes, especially those involving….). Be specific. By resorting to detail and logical connection between personality traits, attitudes and choices you make, you escape the risk of empty words and making an arrogant impression.

 5.       Take the perspective of the reader. Is there life behind this personal statement?

After you have written your first draft, put it aside for a day or two. Next time you pick it up, imagine you are  Prof. X, you know NOTHING about this person and this personal statement and you have 3 minutes to scan  it. What is your first impression? Does it make sense to you? It is gripping and well-developed at the same time? Do I want to meet this person?

It is not easy to distance yourself from your own life, but it is a skill worth practicing, for the sake of personal statements and many other activities in life. Take yourself with a pinch of salt for a moment, smile, say “this is ridiculous!”, change things that do not convince you or that you fell you put only because you needed to fill in a line. Words need to match reality. An experienced interviewer sees through empty phrases. This statement is a statement on your life, not an abstract creation. Is that how it sounds?

6.       Structure. Structure, Structure. Make it work, or else there is chaos.

I suggest first noting down the most importing arguments. Ask yourself a question: “Why do I want to study there?” “Why do I want to study this?” “What makes me a good applicant?” “What makes me and my experience unique?” (you can elaborate on this last point, without drawing comparisons to other people, as I explained before).

Once you have identified 3-5 main points, write paragraphs around them. Substantiate your claims with examples, projects, references to your life, personality, experience. Once you have done that, think: which one is my strongest argument? Put it first. Which arguments are in some ways connected? Put them one after another.

Then read through the first sentences of each paragraph (while ignoring the rest for now). Does this make sense? Are these your four main points? Do these four sentences fit together to form a person of blood and flesh, or do they contradict each other? Psychological verity is important. The most helpful tip here is: be honest and focus on your strengths (there is no contradiction between those two!).


I hope this will be helpful to some. I am excited about your questions , thoughts and comments. And about your applications as well (once the “first youth” is over, you start to live the youth of others, a dangerous sign of coming of age:)

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