What makes a great personal statement?

(Source: eLearning Infographics)

College Essay: Brainstorm | Essay Essentials

Q: How do I begin to write my college essay?

A: If you’re reading this, you’ve already begun. On my main website you’ll find some ideas on how to brainstorm and structure your essay.

Q: How long should my essay be?
A: It depends. Your main Common App essay can be up to 650 words (as of November 2013). Your UC essays will add up to 1,000 words combined, and your supplemental essays will vary.

Q: How many essays will I need to write?
A: Around 15 is average. These include the Common App, UC 1, UC 2, plus supplements, which number anywhere from 6-20, depending on the number of schools you apply to.

Q: What should my essay be about?
A: In a word, you.


Q: What are college admissions officers looking for?
A: They’re looking for the answers to these three questions: 

  1. Who is this person?

  2. Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?

  3. Can this person write?

Q: How do college admissions officers evaluate my essay?
A: Each school has its own criteria and different readers will prefer different elements. Michael Gulotta, former Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at USC, for example, has told me he most looks to the essay to assess a student’s writing ability. But Rick Diaz (Regional Director of Undergrad Admissions at SMU) is less interested in writing ability and more interested in a student’s story.

Q: So which is more important: your story or your writing skill?
A: Both are important. A good story, well told. That’s your goal. 

Q: When should I start writing my essay?
A: Today. Right now.

Q: How do I structure my essay?
A: You’ll learn about two options on this site: Narrative Structure and Montage Structure.

Q: How much do essays matter?
A: It depends on the college, but generally between 10%-30%. Essays tend to matter more for small schools, or schools who look at applications holistically.

Q: If my grades are bad, can I get into Harvard with a great essay?
A: Nope. Schools look at your GPA, course rigor and test scores more than anything. When you’re being compared to other students with similar GPA/SAT scores, that’s when the essays can make or break your chances. Harvard is great, but there are a lot of other awesome schools too. For a list of Colleges That Change Lives, Google “Colleges That Change Lives.” (Really.)

Q: Can a bad college essay negatively affect my application?
A: Yes.

(Source: collegeessayguy, via collegeessayguy)

Where can I find great personal statement examples?


The quad. Columbia University, fall 2010.

(via college-campuses)

How to Decide Which Extracurricular Activity to Write About

For the sake of argument, let’s say there are four types of extracurricular activities:

  1. Passion Projects (something you love and would do for free even if it didn’t help your chances of getting into college)
  2. Rockstar Achievements (those in which you’ve won something or held a leadership position)
  3. One Hit Wonders (things you did once)
  4. I’ve Played Piano for 14 Years But I Hate It (something your parents have made you do since you were a kid and you’re either too nice or too afraid to tell them you don’t want to do it anymore)

So which one should you write about?


Okay, ideally, your passion project is the one you you’ve turned into a Rockstar Achievement. If so, write about that.

But what if you have to choose? What if you’ve been a part of both:

  • something very personal that has a strong WHY component (passion project), and
  • something less personal that has an impressive WOW (rockstar achievement)

Which do you write about?

In general, if your rockstar achievement has …

a. earned you recognition

b. demonstrated your leadership potential, and

c. required you to shoulder some real responsibilities.

… then I’d say write about your rockstar achievement.

Why? A couple of reasons:

The first, kind of superficial reason is this:

For instance, University of California (UC) readers are zipping through your application at a pretty good clip and while they are somewhat interested in who you are they’re also interested in what you’ve done. Don’t leave out that second part.

The second reason, based on my experience working with lots of students is this:

I think it tends to be easier to explain the “why” behind an impressive activity than to generate a significant “wow” for a personal project if no such “wow” actually exists.

Here’s an example:

If you’re choosing between your passion for listening to different kinds of music, for example, and the time you won Nationals in Academic Decathlon (ACADECA), write about winning ACADECA.

Why else should you do this?

If you’ve put in hours and hours of work prepping for and winning ACADECA and you don’t write about it, that’s what in the college admissions world we call a missed opportunity. Or, what they call in Vegas, leaving money on the table.

Here’s an exception:

What if you have to choose between either

a.) that time you won a small award in something you didn’t care a whole lot about, or

b.) a passion project that’s really cool and that makes you stand out?

What if, for example, you won a Certificate of Merit in the 9th grade for playing violin and you’re still in the orchestra but it’s not a really big deal to you because your REAL passion—the thing that keeps you up until 3 am is your passion for constructed languages—that’s right, making up your own language. (This is a real example, btw.) WRITE ABOUT CONSTRUCTED LANGUAGES.

Seriously. That’s because constructed languages are amazing. Actually, I never really knew there was such a thing as ConLang, as the cool kids call it, until one of my students wrote an awesome essay about his passion for constructed languages.

So, in short, opt for the passion project if it’s something really cool and geeky. And by geeky I mean something that you know so much about that when someone mentions it you start talking really fast and start using arcane vocabulary that makes people go, “Wha?”


And no, your 1000 hours spent building up three Level 90 Warriors in WOW doesn’t count as a “wow” project. Unless you started a WOW club that held a fundraiser for victims of epilepsy and donated the money.

Finally, here’s a question I get a lot:

Student: But what if I’ve already written about my most impressive extracurricular activity on another essay prompt?

Me: Then write about your second most impressive extracurricular activity.



(Source: theyuniversity, via collegeessayguy)

What’s a good template for a personal statement?


Princeton, Johns Hopkins, New York University, Yale

(via college-nerd)

how2fluffaduck asked: Thanks for answering my question! To clarify, the suggested word limit for the extended essay is around 500 words, and the "Why UChicago" essay is also 500 words? I'm a little confused about what people have been referring to when they say "supplement essay" vs "extended essay."


Good clarifying question! When we refer to the “extended essay”, we’re talking about one of the “fun prompt” essays— so, our suggestion is around 500-1,000 words for one of the five prompts like “What’s so odd about odd numbers?”, etc. 

The other essays on the supplement, such as the “Why Chicago” essay, are welcome to be shorter— somewhere on the order of 250-300 words. 

(Source: theyuniversity)

How do I start my personal statement?

100 Brave and Interesting Questions for Brainstorming Topics for Your Personal Statement


  1. What’s the toughest decision you made today?

  2. What’s the toughest decision you made this year?

  3. What’s the toughest decision you ever made?

  4. What have you forgotten?

  5. What do you want to be when you grow up?

  6. What’s it like being you right now?

  7. What makes you nostalgic?

  8. If you had two hours left on earth what would you do?

  9. What’s the most beautiful word in the world?

  10. Who makes you laugh more than anyone?

  11. What did your father teach you?

  12. What did your mother teach you?

  13. What’s the best gift you’ve ever given?

  14. Best gift you ever received?

  15. How many times a day do you look in the mirror?

  16. What do you bring most to a friendship?

  17. If 100 people in your age group were selected randomly, how many do you think they’d find leading a happier life than you?

  18. What is or was your best subject in school?

  19. What activity do you do that makes you feel most like yourself?

  20. What makes you feel supported?

  21. Whom do you secretly admire?

  22. What time of the day do you feel the most energetic and what do you usually do in those moments?

  23. What’s something you never leave home without?

  24. What’s a recurring dream you have?

  25. What makes you feel safe?

  26. What’s the best thing that ever happened to you?

  27. What do you want people to say about you once you’re gone?

  28. What’s the coolest thing about science?

  29. What’s the best money you ever spent?

  30. What’s a bad habit you have?

  31. What are you grateful for?

  32. Whom are you envious of?

  33. What’s an image you’ll never forget?

  34. Describe a near-death experience.

  35. If you had a clone, what would you have the clone do?

  36. What’s your idea of Heaven?

  37. What’s your idea Hell?

  38. When did you know?

  39. What can you do better?

  40. When are you most yourself?

  41. What superpower would you most like to have?

  42. If you were granted three wishes, what would you do with the second wish?

  43. What is your actual superpower?

  44. If you won 100 million dollars, what would you buy first?

  45. What’s the best sound in the world?

  46. What’s perfect about your life?

  47. What song do you sing only when you’re alone and what memory does it bring back?

  48. Describe a moment you were so embarrassed you wanted to disappear.

  49. How many times a day do you think about money?

  50. Who has been the biggest influence on you in your relationship to money?

  51. What’s one thing you’re certain of?

  52. Describe one of your colossal failures.

  53. What makes you cringe?

  54. What does your inner voice tell you?

  55. What crime have you considered committing?

  56. What’s great about your mom?

  57. What’s great about your dad?

  58. Which day would you gladly re-live?

  59. What are you awesome at?

  60. What do you want people you meet for the first time to think about you?

  61. When were you most afraid?

  62. What are you terrible at but love to do anyway?

  63. What weapon would you carry during the Zombie Apocalypse?

  64. Which of your five senses would you keep if you could only keep one?

  65. What’s something you love to make?

  66. What do you cook better than anyone?

  67. What do you wish you’d invented?

  68. What would you like to invent?

  69. Out of 100 random people, where would you rank yourself in terms of your intelligence?

  70. Where do you want to be right now?

  71. If you could be someone else for a day who would it be and why?

  72. What makes you feel powerful?

  73. What’s the meanest thing you’ve ever said?

  74. What’s the meanest thing someone has ever said to you?

  75. What three words would you have on your grave stone?

  76. What’s your first thought when you wake up?

  77. What’s one thing you wake up to in the middle of the night worrying about?

  78. If you could tell someone something anonymously, what would it be?

  79. Whom would you like to forgive and forget?

  80. If you could get rid of one of your responsibilities today, what would it be?

  81. What type of person angers you the most?

  82. What is your greatest strength?

  83. What is your worst weakness?

  84. How do you show your love for others?

Extra Brave and Interesting Questions (once trust has been established):

  1. Why are you here in this room right now?

  2. When is a time you forgave someone or were forgiven for something?

  3. What’s the biggest mistake you ever made?

  4. What are you hiding?

  5. What’s your unanswerable question—the question you seem to always be asking yourself?

  6. What are you ashamed of?

  7. What is stopping you?

  8. What’s a secret you have?

  9. How do you secretly manipulate people to get your way?

  10. When was the last time you apologized?

  11. What is the biggest lie you tell yourself?

  12. What’s the moment you left childhood behind?

  13. What’s missing from your life?

  14. Do you believe in a higher power?

  15. What are you ready to let go of?

  16. What are you not saying right now?

Click here for more college essay inspiration.

(Source: collegeessayguy)