Examples of Awesome Personal Statements
Article Type: Tasty Bits
Write your own awesome personal statement with our COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAY LAB, which will guide you through the process, providing tips and even more examples along the way.
Before you start, check out our own sample essays—or scroll down for the Best of the Web. Whether you're an athlete, a minority, or no one special (or, uh, probably some combination), we've got you covered.
No One Special
Some are surprising and some are clever, but they're all good examples of a "hook," not the kind with the pointy mustache but something that writers use to grab their reader's attention and make them want to keep reading.
Grab Them with the First Line
Stanford Magazine compiled the following list of great opening lines written by hopeful Stanford applicants.
Essays That Worked
Connecticut College posts a list of college essays “that worked.”
More Essays that Worked
Hamilton College provides access to some of their favorite application essays.
Other Resources for College Essay Writing
Writing the Personal Statement
The Purdue Online Writing lab offers a guide to writing all kinds of personal statements.
UC Berkeley Has a Say
Check out the University of California at Berkeley’s guide to writing the personal statement.
Application Tips: Tackling the Personal Essay
Abc.com provides some good tips on approaching the personal essay.
10 Tips for Writing the College Application Essay
The famous U.S. News & World Report offers some writing advice.
The Elements of Style
Flip through this famous guide to writing by William Strunk, Jr. that many students and teachers use. Read the 1918 version for free online.
Get Your Writing On
Some great handbooks on writing by writing guru Andrea Lunsford.
A Guide to Grammar and Writing
A cool interactive guide to grammar.
The University of Chicago’s guide to grammar.
The Common App Prompt #1
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Breaking It Down
In many ways, Prompt One is the quintessential personal statement prompt in that it asks students to reflect on who they are as individuals. This prompt is relatively broad, and encompasses many different topics such that students with varying experiences can respond to it. Let’s take a look at exactly what this prompt is addressing, so we can better understand how to respond to it.
“Background” can mean a lot of things depending on each individual’s interpretation of the term. For instance, one could discuss their cultural heritage, their socioeconomic status, their religious beliefs, or their race, ethnicity, or nationality. All of these different topics would fall under the domain of one’s background.
That being said, “background” can also be viewed more metaphorically. For instance, different experiences could qualify as one’s background. For instance, maybe a student encountered a specific set of circumstances in their past, and these circumstances were critical to their development as an individual. These circumstances could range anywhere from dealing with a debilitating illness, to growing up in a big family, to moving around a lot as kid. So long as these past experiences were formative in your life, they can be used to help answer this prompt.
In short, one way to think about background is to consider it as your personal history. It’s your past narrative leading up to the moment of you writing this essay and applying to colleges. It’s the events, circumstances, and other factors that have made you who you are today. Whether those factors are more concrete or abstract — as long as they qualify as personal history — they’re fair game for Prompt #1.
In many ways, there’s a lot of overlap between the terms “background” and “identity.” Many of the different topics we mentioned as applicable to the former also apply to the latter, with some nuances.
For instance, one’s race, ethnicity, or nationality is certainly one aspect of their identity, as is religion. To add to this more technical approach to identity, sexuality, gender identity, and socioeconomic identity also apply.
However, this list is certainly not comprehensive, and it never truly can be. One’s identity is entirely unique to them. Your identity is essentially what makes you who you are as an individual; it’s the different attributes, qualities, and characteristics that largely define you. What you personally view as part of your identity is entirely up to your discretion, because there is no one way to define the term. After all, by its very nature, identity is extremely personal.
As a general rule of thumb, you can assume that anything that fundamentally contributes to and defines who you are is part of your identity, and thus something that you can certainly focus on in your response to Prompt One.
In many ways, this term is relatively more self-explanatory. By including “interest” as part of the prompt, the Common App is giving you the opportunity to elaborate on your passions and motivations.
One way to approach this is by connecting the interest you describe in this essay to the larger theme of your overall application. For instance, if you’ve taken several AP science courses, are a leader on your school’s Science Olympiad team, and conduct research in a lab, you can elaborate on your interest in science. You could provide anecdotes that demonstrate how that interest started, details on what spurred it, and other information that adds another dimension to your application.
Another approach to the “interest” part of this prompt is to write about a quirky or unique interest college admissions officers may not otherwise know about. This can help to more fully flesh out your application. For instance, one could describe their interest in entomology (the study of insects).
The key is to ensure that this quirky interest helps to reveal something deeper about you. In our example, you could connect your passion for entomology to your fascination with nature and the environment, and also demonstrate why this passion is so integral to who you are as an individual.
This is your opportunity to elaborate on special skills, unusual abilities, and other unique aptitudes you bear. You can describe talents from across the spectrum, ranging from musical abilities to less common skills, like tightrope walking.
Additionally, you can also discuss talents that may not immediately seem obvious, like your ability to listen to others and be a shoulder to cry on. Like most terms used in this prompt, talent is a very broad term, and that’s purposeful — this prompt is meant to encompass a wide range of interpretations so that it’s accessible to many students.
Of course, no matter what talent you choose, it’s vital that you show admissions officers why this talent is so meaningful to who you are today. Indeed, whether you decide to focus on background, identity, interests, or talents, the most important thing about this essay is to demonstrate why any one factor is “so meaningful [that you] believe [your] application would be incomplete without it.”
Although many terms in this prompt are rather subject to interpretation, the term “incomplete” is not — your topic choice must be something that is absolutely integral to who you are as a person, or it will not be as effective.
Considering how open-ended this prompt is, you may initially be at a loss as to what to focus on. One way to help clear this form of writer’s block is to start generating relevant ideas and then deciding which concept works best for you. To do so, you can try out this brainstorming exercise.
- Think about how you would describe yourself to a person you’re relatively close to and have a good deal of trust in. What comes to mind first? What is most important to you? What details are most pertinent? What do you want to ensure they know about you? What is most central to who you are?
- Jot down the different responses that come to mind. You can use sentences, phrases, words — anything that works for you, personally. Focus on recording what’s coming to mind right as you’re thinking it, and don’t filter anything out just yet.
- Analyze the list you’ve created. What themes do you see? Does anything show up more than once? What are some of the recurring ideas? What feels most compelling to you? If you could only discuss one of the concepts you’ve listed, which would you choose? Why?
- Once you’ve identified what you feel is most central, think about how it relates back to the prompt. Does it fall under the category of either background, identity, interest, or talent in some way? How does it do so? Which category does it relate best to? Is their overlap? How so?
- Most importantly, is this concept absolutely integral to who you are as an individual? Does it help define you in some way? How does it do that? Is it meaningful? If applications did not know this specific thing about you, would they still be able to fully understand who you are as a person? If not, why?
Once you’ve run through this brainstorming exercise, you should at least have a better idea of what topic you’d like to focus on. With a topic in mind, it now becomes time to actually write the essay!