The Struggles of Writing the Personal Statement

April 26, 2017

Does everyone have an obvious story to write about for their personal statements? No. When you read the final essay, it might seem like the writer had it all figured it out from the start. But, the truth is almost everyone struggles with the personal statement at first. Take it from Mazoo, USC ‘19 —here’s her experience:

After a few minutes spent blankly staring at a blank word doc, you’d think you would come to the realization that it’s impossible to sum up the whole of a complex human being in 500 words. Well, it took me something more like a few weeks, but eventually the epiphany came.

Yet even then, I had no idea what I was doing—personal statement? What could I possibly write?  I’d never experienced an absolutely life-changing moment or battled my way through poignant tragedy or won a Nobel Peace Prize. Still haven’t, to be honest. So I cast prompt to the side for a while and in the end simply chose the most versatile one (about identity), crafting my own topic to fit.

But let’s tell the story from the beginning: I started with abstractions, brainstorming the personal qualities and ideas I wanted to showcase: aspirations, capacity for perseverance, quirkiness, curiosity, and the like. If you’re initially unsure what exactly to write about, I think it’s actually incredibly helpful to begin this way, since as immaterial as it might seem, this provides you with some sense of direction. From there, I searched for a significant concrete experience to ground my ideas in. Significance was difficult for me to find—at first I found myself looking for heroism where there was none, essentially seeking that Nobel Peace Prize I had never even earned. I must have sat for hours at a time internally debating the single perfect topic I could expand on.

It’s funny the way ideas often come to you when you’re not really intensely looking for them, though. Eventually I went on a walk one day and spontaneously thought up a perfect simple metaphor—genes—that tied in with my search for confidence, my personal characteristics, my summer research experience, and my future goals. Killing two birds with one stone? I killed four.

That really seems too easy, right? Yet looking back, I think it makes sense that the best ideas pop up during times of relaxation and in environments of calm inspiration. Essentially I built the bare foundation for my personal statement—the abstract messages I wanted to convey—and then let the overarching inspiration come in its own time. Sitting there with a stumped expression won’t do you any good—take it from the girl who has wasted hours upon unproductive hours doing exactly that. If you’re stuck, go on a walk; paint a picture; do something completely unrelated that stimulates creativity. That’s what will give you the most unexpected of ideas, the ones that stand out and tie an essay together with unprecedented cohesion. And when the idea you’ve been looking for comes, just sit down and let the words flow.

Applying to college?
View the app files and essays of accepted students.

Want to read the final version of the essay that got her accepted to USC? You can unlock her profile and read her full application. For more inspiration, make sure to search through profiles of students accepted to see essays, stats, and advice. See how they got in, and how you can too!

Browse Successful Application Files

USC ‘18

Accepted to USC, Illinois, U Iowa, U of Minnesota

Operations analyst in the AWS industry. Graduated early from USC with degrees in business administration and environmental studies.
USC ‘19

Accepted to USC, NYU, UMich, UCSD, Rochester, BC, BU, Miami OH, Loyola U Chicago, Miami, U of Minnesota, Drexel, Illinois

Typical Student from Chicago who has had the best of the American/Hispanic Culture. As well, I applied to 25 schools
USC ‘19

Accepted to USC, BU, Fordham, NYU, UC Berkeley, UCSD, UCLA, Florida

Pre-med student at USC, majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Theatre. In the free time I don't have, I compete on USC's Cheer team, and am more than happy to answer any of your questions about the application process!
Christina C
USC ‘19

Accepted to Rice, USC, Washington, Arizona, Arizona State


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