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4 Great Personal Statement Examples and Why They Worked

by Will Geiger, on Jul 22, 2021 11:46:24 AM


In the admissions process, most students will encounter the dreaded personal statement. Whether you are using the Common App, the Coalition Application, or a college-specific application, you’re bound to encounter the personal statement. While a personal statement may seem daunting, the very best personal statements will begin with moments from your life. And don’t worry, these moments can be from everyday experiences like a memorable meal or a walk around your neighborhood.

Keep on reading for four great personal statement examples and our expert analysis on why they worked!

Here’s what we will be covering:

  1. What is the personal statement?
  2. Essay #1 by Kenny L. - Accepted to Cornell University
  3. Essay #2 by Sarah S. - Accepted to Smith College
  4. Essay #3 by Michael - Accepted to Howard University
  5. Essay #4 by Romain D. - Accepted to the University of Chicago
  6. Best practices for your personal statement

What is a personal statement?

Essentially, the personal statement is an essay that allows the admissions reader to learn more about you as a person. This means that they should reveal something about who you are in both the content and voice of the essay.

You might be wondering at this point, is the personal statement going to be the same on all applications? What if I have to use a few applications--will the personal statement be consistent?

The specifics of personal statements can vary depending on the application. The Common App will give you up to 650 words, while you will only get 500 words on the Coalition Application. Don’t stress though, in these situations students can usually edit their longer personal statement to fit a lower word count limit.

Different applications will also give you different essay prompts. The good news is that most of the prompts are general and many of the applications--including Common App and the Coalition Application--will allow you to write about anything.

Why do personal statements matter?

College admissions is equal parts art and science. While data points like GPA, test scores, and number of AP or honors classes matter, admissions officers are also interested in learning more about applicants as human beings. College essays are one of the primary ways that the admissions officers get to know you as a person. This is an opportunity for the admissions officer to learn about you outside of your application, grades, and test scores. 

According to a survey of admissions officers by the National Association of College Admission Counseling, essays were the next most important factors for admissions decisions after grades and test scores. With more and more colleges going test-optional, this means that essays are even more important factors for admissions.

Now that we have that covered, let’s dive into some of the essay examples and analysis!

Essay #1 by Kenny L. - Cornell University

“Vote Paul Lee for District Leader!” My face brightened as morning commuters passed by and took flyers from my hand. As they turned the corner, they carelessly tossed the flyers away. My brows furrowed. Is this what I woke up at seven in the morning for? To hand out flyers to indifferent strangers who won’t give the time of day, nevertheless a second glance? I was just a background character, a boy handing out flyers in the scene of a lively street. I was a mannequin, easily passed by unnoticed.

After my flyer shift had ended, my boss took me out to lunch at a diner. My eyes were darting back and forth, unsure of the situation. My boss slouched casually in his seat across from me. I had only met him twice before and instinctively, I began surreptitiously examining him. I slyly lowered my menu and peered over the “wall.” He wore a simple white polo shirt and his greying hair was brushed back in an old 60s hairstyle. He seemed like just an average Chinese man. The waiter came and pulled me out of my idle thoughts. As we made our orders, he put down his menu, and said, “how about a story?”

He opened with a story about his stint with the army, when he brashly enlisted at the Chinatown recruitment center. Next was a lighthearted tale of his moment of “stardom” when he debuted on the silver screen in Hollywood. Finally, the curtains closed with a story of an “extreme makeover” of his parents’ antique store to a game shop.

I vicariously experienced the vivid fragments of his past through his stories. I felt the hope and energy of a young man slightly short in stature, but big in heart, enlisting in the army, the excitement of a risk taker trying to make it big in Hollywood, and the freedom of a high spirited man who followed his hobby and turned his parents’ antique store to a game shop.

In my mind Paul Lee had transcended the typical mannequin of an average Chinese man. I had inadvertently made the same oversight as the people that passed me on the street. I fit him into a general mold without trying to see him as an individual, just as they did to me. Looking around me, I had been blind. Every person in the room had their own unique story and character just like Paul had his, and I had mine.

Upon my realization, I found the courage to convey my own unique character to Paul through my ideas. There is a balance between practicality, creativity, and fun that I have come to hold at the highest value in my life. I proposed to Paul an idea that was the embodiment of all three: to host carnival games at the Pavilion with a voter registration stand on the side. Instead of discarding my idea as I had expected, Paul encouraged it. Throughout the next week, the volunteers worked to create flyers, brainstorm ideas for games, and gather prizes. However, on the day it all came together, it rained. Discouraged, I looked to Paul only to see that he was still in high spirits. In that moment I knew I couldn’t be the same defeated, overlooked mannequin handing out flyers in the street. Optimism and vitality surged through the mannequin within me. I wiped the scowl from my face and proudly presented to him the six registration forms we received that day with a smile. The mannequin had come to life; I was no longer a background character but the center of the scene.

Story2 College Coach Explains: Why This Essay Works

Remember, regardless of the prompt the essay is about you. The essays let colleges know what they will be missing if they don’t admit you. In essays about influences, students sometimes make a stronger case for the person who has influenced them than for themselves. Kenny avoids this common mistake.

From the start of the essay Kenny shows us his initiative and enthusiasm as we hear his voice campaigning, “Vote Paul Lee for District Leader!” Kenny gives us enough detail to understand how Mr. Lee has influenced him, but focuses the essay on his own actions. He takes a unique approach to voter registration, setting up carnival games to attract registrants. Through his actions we see a fun-loving, creative problem solver with attention to detail and perseverance. We understand his influence and have a strong reason to believe in him as a college student.

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Essay #2 by Sarah S. - Smith College

New York City, 9pm. Friends are laughing in the next room squeezed around the dinner table, as I try to whip something up. I put the water to boil, adding salt. As I wait, the steam begins to twist, to twirl, filling up the kitchen. I pause to wipe the sweat from my brow.

At eight o’clock in the morning my shirt is already moist. Sweat rolls down my face, every inch of my body. A typical morning in Perugia.

Sauté the garlic in olive oil on medium heat.

The gravel in the driveway crunches and crackles, “E’ arrivato zio Mario!” I run barefoot, almost tripping down the stairs, all the way to his car arms outstretched. His hair, grayer this year, falls over his tanned face. His hands rest on his belt, one finger cut off above the joint. I pull on my boots and he climbs onto the tractor. He hauls me onto his lap holding me tightly. The tractor roars, an olive branch lightly grazes my face, the grasshoppers go silent. At the back of the field, Mario climbs up a ladder and starts trimming the tips of the branches, the polloni. I take them and pile them in heaps. The trees are brimming with olives this year.

Chop the tomatoes, put them to simmer with the garlic, add salt and pepper. At noon, I walk back towards the house to find my Nonna in the garden, wearing a flowered apron. She tells me puoi portarmi il cestino un po’ più vicino? “bring that bucket a little closer, would you?” She fills it up with plump, juicy, purplish-red tomatoes, a meal in themselves.

Pour in the linguini, stir fresh basil into the tomatoes. We break off stems of basil. Nonna says, vedi si devono prendere quelli pieni di fiori, così la pianta può crescere. “See we have to take the ones with the most flowers on them, so the plant grows.” We climb the small hill with a full bucket of pomodori. It’s hot.

Dice the mozzarella, strain the linguini, pour the sauce over them, and add the mozzarella.

I follow Nonna into the kitchen trying to avoid the gang of mothers, uncles and aunts. I reach for the mozzarella and it melts in my mouth; creamy, smooth, dripping, flavor that overloads my senses. I thought I was so clever, but as I turn around “Sarah can you set the table? And stop eating all the mozzarella!” They caught me. I take the tablemats and retreat to the step outside. The neighbor’s cat rubs against my legs. I tear off a small piece of cheese and feed it to her.

Serve right out of the pot. “Hey guys,” I call over their laughter, “help me set the table, dinner is ready!”

Story2 College Coach Explains: Why This Essay Works

The ultimate goal of a college essay is to reveal who you are as a human being. Simple moments, like a spaghetti dinner with friends, can say a lot about a person. Sarah organizes her essay around the steps of a recipe and shows us two moments from different parts of her life. In doing so, she removes all interpretations and judgments from her writing. She never states a lesson she learned or tells us about her traits. When you tell the reader what to think, they lose the ability to connect with you.

Instead, Sarah presents us with details, dialogue, and descriptions that let the reader get to know her. From stealing bites of mozzarella to dialogue in Italian to the description of her uncle with one finger cut off above the joint, we are given loads of details that set her story apart and make it impossible to forget.

Essay #3 by Michael - Howard University

There was a girl and her name was Michael. This girl first picked up a camera when she was seven. It was a point-and-shoot camera, but it was hers. The upgraded camera she got for her 15th birthday was hers also. And so was my book. One summer she was in Florida. Her hair was dripping from the pool water, her skin shimmered in the blazing sunlight, and her eyes squinted at her stack of books. She picked the smallest of the bunch; she picked mine. The one labeled “Hawthorne.” It only had one story and she read it quickly. “Hm,” she said as she finished the first time. She said, “What?” when she finished the second time, and at the third ending she raised her sunglasses over her head and squinted at the sun. “Beautiful,” she murmured. She grabbed a pencil and wrote, “There is no absolute beauty. There is only what you make of it” on the last page of my story.

Back home she was entering another photo contest. This one had a theme of beauty. She booked the studio for two hours and brought in her friend. Her friend had high cheekbones, emerald eyes, curly red hair, and lips that sat outward. She was short but had the body of a dancer. When she moved everyone watched, mouths slightly ajar. Her muscles flexed and released with ease. Michael placed the girl in a wooden chair, turned her face upward toward the enormous lights and took a photo of every angle she could possibly get. She switched from black and white to high resolution, back to black and white. When the photos developed she never picked the winning shot for herself. “This is the one,” said her teacher.

“Wow, you don’t need to take any more pictures, Michael, this is it,” said her peers. Michael went home that night and gazed at the photo. Her brow wrinkled and eyes narrowed. She put the photo in her drawer and went to sleep. The next day Michael set out with her most basic camera, the one that is always on her person. She’s walking up 34th street and sees a woman. This woman had dirty skin and dirty clothes. Her blackened flingers held a sign that said, “I’m hungry.” Her eyes were vacant, and she looked to the side. Her eyes were trained in that direction and never moved. Michael took out her camera and took a quick picture, just one. She went to develop it that same day and put it in a folder to take home. On her bed, crosslegged, she sat looking at the red-haired girl. Her eyes cast upward, her cheek bones highlighted; Michael’s mom gazed at the picture and said, “That should be in Vogue.” Michael pulled out the other picture, of the hungry woman and placed it next to the other. Her eyes widened as she saw how the light created a shadow over the woman’s face. There was no dirt, just an eye looking away. “Now that,” her mother said, “shouldn’t be. Easy choice, huh?”

“Yes, it is,” Michael said. She placed her finger over the shadow and tapped the photo four times. She smiled. She folded the color image in half and put it in her drawer; she placed the photo of the woman in a protective folder and placed it in her bag. As she laid down that night she smirked into the glow of the TV. She said, “There is no beauty. There is only what we make of it,” and closed her eyes.

Story2 College Coach Explains: Why This Essay Works

Great college essays draw you in from the beginning, take you on a clear journey, and make you want more at the end. At Story2, we call this structure Magnet, Pivot, and Glow. It keeps readers engaged by ensuring a strong sense of purpose and direction throughout the essay:

  • The Magnet of this essay is simple but effective. The tense catches the reader off guard, as does the surprise of a girl being named Michael. We want to find out who this person is.
  • The Pivot is the point where Michael needs to make a choice that will reveal her character. She has two photographs to decide between and is being heavily pressured to choose the one that represents conventional ideas of beauty.
  • The Glow stays in the moment and ends with action. We hear her voice. It answers the question in the beginning: who is this girl named Michael? Now, we know that she is a strong woman who will make her own decisions and stand up for what she believes in. The influence of Hawthorne is clear and there is no need for a summary or a lesson learned.

Essay #4 by Romain D. - University of Chicago

Try to find us on these pages of our lives, and I believe we are hard to distinguish.

As Wenda often reminds me, traveling allows us to discover who we really are by giving us the opportunity to blend in and inspire ourselves from imitating the best in other people. Here and there I collect tools that I find useful—rope, candles, an under-water compass, along with open-mindedness, humility, responsibility, drive, and curiosity—and add them to the arsenal I carry along the road in my backpack and in myself.

One evening, after an intense day of traveling in Beijing, walking along the Great Wall and contemplating the remnants of China’s glorious history in the blistering cold, a couple of my friends and I decided to end the day by celebrating our western heritage at the nearest McDonald’s. The dark cold night had sent the streets’ beggars into the warm 24/7 restaurant. The passive look on employees’ faces as they cleaned the improvised hotel suggested this happened on a regular basis. People were lying or sleeping on every chair and bench, so we settled on the floor, in the middle of the room. We ordered a few extra burgers, and after a few bites, one by one the beggars woke up and asked us to share. We insisted they join our circle. At first they resisted. As we exposed our broken Chinese, they opened up and challenged us at a game like Yatzee, that required throwing 5 dice around and scoring high multiples. Next some young Western and Chinese kids joined in. The better generation at languages and breaking social barriers, the kids took the game to new dimensions. We ended up spending the night in our sleeping bags on the floor under the disdainful stare of the confused McDonald employees. In the end our American burgers gave us an authentic taste of China

When an environment becomes too familiar, we change pages. Whether it was wearing the same letters as my American brothers in California, acting the part of a professional fund manager when interviewing the executive board of major corporations, or tutoring Chinese children in English, the Waldo within me adapts, challenges himself and discovers something new about the people around him.

Who knows where life will take me next? I have heard of a particular platform of intellectual and cultural exchange that gathers the most interesting minds from all around the world. The institution is praised for its ability to convey experience and wisdom through round tables of interaction and Socratic rhetoric. I believe it is a place where, as my Chicago family and friends would say, “finding passionate people is easier done than said.” In other words, it is/would be a wonderful page to be on, completely invisible and singular at the same time

Story2 College Coach Explains: Why This Essay Works

With a prompt like, “Where’s Waldo?” it’s very easy to get lost in your ideas. The two biggest mistakes students make writing college essays are staying too general and writing about thoughts rather than actions. Romain avoids this by becoming Waldo. This narrative technique allows him to tell the story through his unique perspective and in his authentic voice.

Romain uses a specific moment to show readers who he is. The night spent at McDonald’s gives the reader reasons to believe in Romain as a person and community member. We see Romain as a compassionate and curious person who brings people together, explores new ideas, and welcomes the opportunity to teach and learn. He uses his fourth paragraph to give the audience the scope of his experiences and the fifth paragraph to make a specific connection to the University of Chicago. However, the heart of his essay is the third paragraph, which takes the reader into a moment and gives powerful details that reveal his character.

Best practices for your personal statement

Now you should be feeling ready to tackle your own personal statements! The above personal statement examples are powerful and yours can be, too! That’s why, before we wrap up, we want to recap three of the most important best practices to follow.

1. Strong writing

Grammar is certainly important, but it is more important to write with the power of storytelling—using description, detail, and dialogue instead of interpretations, generalizations, and cliches.

2. Unique perspective

Focus on specific moments when you learned a key lesson, changed in a fundamental way, or made a difference in the lives of others to reveal your character strengths through your actions.

3. Authentic voice

Tell your story out loud to capture your authentic voice—the unique idiosyncrasies that make you you! Psychologists call this term “mirroring” and it is a scientifically-proven way to connect with others. Beware of over-editing your essays from sounding like an individual to something generic.

After grades and test scores, your essays are going to be the most important part of your college application. Essays can be the difference between admission officers saying, “we’ve absolutely got to have this student!” and “this student could be a good fit here.” These essays, our Story2 coaches’ expert analysis, and best practices will give you a great foundation as you begin to write your own personal statements.

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Will Geiger is co-founder of A graduate of Wake Forest and Penn, Will was previously Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Kenyon College where he personally reviewed over 10,000 admissions applications and essays and oversaw the merit aid program; Associate Director of College Counseling at a high school in New Haven, Connecticut; and Marketing Manager at Story2.

Topics:college admissionscollege essayscommon appessay examples