Because a personal statement is unlike other documents you write in college, many students struggle with understanding the fundamentals of its definition. First off, don’t let the term itself confuse you—some application materials will use other terms such as “personal essay,” “reflective essay,” “statement of purpose,” or “narrative.” Regardless of the term used, such essays are defined by their comment elements, as detailed below.
One of the best extended definitions of the personal statement I’ve seen appears on a website from the Fellowships Office at Bryn Mawr (see the article "Advice from Fellowship Foundations"). Below I offer a condensed version adapted from that website.
A personal statement is:
- A picture. Provide a snapshot of who you are as a person.
- An invitation. Your job is to “bridge the assumed distance of strangers.” Invite your reader to get to know you.
- An indication of your priorities and judgment. Your selection of material reveals your priorities and ability to discern effectively.
- A story, or more precisely, your story. The personal statement allows you room for creative, meaningful self-reflection.
A personal statement is not:
- An academic paper with you as the subject. The objective distance of academic writing disengages the reader from you in a personal statement.
- A resume in narrative form. Other parts of your application, which might include a resume, already tell readers about your accomplishments. A personal statement must reveal and interpret well beyond a resume.
- A journal entry. A common mistake is allowing your personal statement to read like a diary. Share only relevant material selectively, in a voice that remains both individual and professional.
- A plea or justification. Don’t beg and don’t defend the (incorrect) assertion that you are more worthy than other candidates—it only backfires.
Of course, nuances to this definition may be added based on the circumstances. For instance, at times an application might require three different essays with highly specific parameters, and perhaps one of these essays involves a personal narrative while another poses you a philosophical question to answer. Always look to the application itself to determine the degree to which the definitions above apply, and know that when there is a series of questions in an application at least one of them is usually designed to elicit a personal essay from you.
To further help you in defining the basics of the personal statement, I recommend these two sites:
“Instructions for Completing a Personal Statement Worksheet” (automatic download) from Bryn Mawr College
“Definition of a Personal Statement” from the Deputy Executive Secretary of the Truman Scholarship Foundation