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How to write a personal statement that stands out

So, you’ve made it to one of the most important steps of the application process: the personal statement. Writing your personal statement is often considered to be one of the most stressful steps in applying to college — but it doesn’t have to be!  

We spoke to Vivian Chan Rendon, Pacific’s director of first-year admission, to learn more about what admission counselors are looking for and how to write a personal statement that stands out. Follow these tips and you’ll have a glowing college essay to round out your application in no time!  

What is the purpose of a personal statement?  

In short, the purpose of writing a personal statement is to help our admissions team get to know you better. We want to know your interests, passions and life experiences to get a sense of who you are as a person, not just a collection of classes and test scores.  

But don’t stress about it too much — we’re not looking for a manifesto, just a brief glimpse into your unique personality and perspective. Vivian’s advice is to focus on one topic instead of trying to cram every detail of your life story into one page.  

“We are not looking for a very long essay,” says Vivian. “We like to see essays that are organized and to the point.”  

Myth: No one actually reads your personal statement anyway, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t spend much time on it.  

Myth-buster: Pacific’s admission counselors do read every applicant’s personal statement! A strong personal statement can help you stand out and give you an edge in the admission process.    

What do admission counselors look for in a personal statement?  

There is no correct or specific answer to what you need to include in your personal statement, but Vivian says impactful writing and authenticity is what grabs her attention.   

“A strong opening makes us curious to read further,” she says. “Sharing true feelings or thoughts and heartfelt stories will make your essay stand out.”  

However, there is a specific answer for what not to include in your essay. Your personal statement is not the place to list your extracurriculars or explain poor grades and how the pandemic affected you. 

“We can get this information on your application and transcript, so there’s no need to repeat it in your essay,” Vivian explains.  

To explain pandemic impacts and/or other circumstances or qualifications not reflected in your application, you can use the “additional information” section on the Common App and type your responses in the essay spaces provided. If you’re applying with Pacific’s Thriving Student Application, you can type “additional information” at the end of your personal statement as a separate section and upload your essay and responses together.

How to get started on a personal statement that stands out 

You have the freedom to choose what to write about in your personal statement, but if you’re looking for topic ideas or guidance, Pacific’s Thriving Student Application has a number of prompts that can help you get started. We’ve listed them here: 

  • Describe your professional and educational goals in conjunction with your selected major choice. 
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to our success. Tell us about an obstacle you have overcome and what you learned in the process. 
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. Share with us the experience and your personal approach to finding growth through challenging the belief or idea. 
  • Describe a problem you have solved or would like to solve. Why was it important to tackle this problem? Tell us what was unique about your solution. 
  • Describe an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth. 

If you’re still stuck with writer’s block, try starting with a brainstorming session to get your ideas flowing. Using the prompts as a launching off point, jot down everything that comes to mind—stories, accomplishments, emotions, whatever you think of.  

Then, once you’ve finished your brain dump, you can go back and flesh out your stronger ideas. Ultimately, you should pick the topic that makes you the most excited and have the most to say about.  

How to structure your personal statement 

Again, there isn’t one correct answer for how to approach your essay, but here are a few guidelines to help you structure your thoughts:   

  • Keep your essay short (250 – 650 words). 
  • Include a strong opening or “hook” to grab readers’ attention. 
  • Stay organized by making sure each paragraph brings the focus back to your theme.  
  • Write a strong conclusion paragraph that reinforces your main topic and wraps up your ideas.  

A helpful way to make sure your personal statement is well-organized and to the point is starting with an outline instead of jumping right to the writing process. There are many methods to use to create an outline, but plotting out the main points of your introduction, body section and conclusion is always a good way to start.  

Myth: Your personal statement must follow the traditional five-paragraph essay format.  
Myth-buster: You do not need to follow a specific essay format in your personal statement. The five-paragraph format is not required but can be helpful in organizing your thoughts. The best rule is to choose the number of paragraphs that will do the best job of showcasing your ideas.  

Final steps  

Once you’ve finished writing your statement, you might be tempted to send it in right away, but there a few final steps to take before you hit submit. Here’s a checklist that can help you through the reviewing process: 

  • Get feedback. We recommend sharing your essay with a few people you trust to get helpful feedback. Your reviewers can give you suggestions you might not have considered to make your writing more polished and impactful. However, we suggest that you don’t work with more than two people, as too many conflicting opinions can get confusing.  
  • Make revisions. Using the suggestions from your reviewers, make revisions and rewrite your essay until you’re happy with it. Don’t rush this process—your personal statement is your chance to stand out and let your personality shine! 
  • Proofread. Make sure to review your essay a few more times to check grammar, usage, punctuation and spelling. You can also use a proofreading tool like Grammarly to help catch any mistakes you might have missed.  
  • Submit. Congratulations, you’re ready to send us your personal statement! To send your essay to Pacific, make sure you are using a supported file format and size (you can find this information on the Thriving Student Application). You can submit your personal statement at the same time as your application, or send it to us later if you need more time.  

This article is part of the Before You Submit series, where we offer tips to help guide you through the application process. Check out part one to learn more about filling out your application.  

If you have any additional questions about applying to Pacific, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at 209.946.2211 or Ready to take the next step? Apply today!  

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