A reference letter can make or break an application. Learn how to write a letter of reference so compelling that it lands the interview.
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A personal statement is most often a letter that goes with your application for med school, law school, or other higher learning institutions. It’s a special cover letter for college, designed to show the great passion needed to get into one of the toughest school experiences on the planet.
Sometimes the term “personal statement” has other meanings and uses, such as a business cover letter or resume summary (UK). Most often, though, it’s proof positive that you deserve to be in a highly-selective school.
Sound daunting? You’ve got this. You’ve already got the drive. You just need to show it so the admissions office understands.
This guide will show you:
- How to write a personal statement that proves Helene-Gayle-level passion.
- Interview-getting personal statement examples you can use and adapt.
- The right personal statement format to look your most professional.
- Answers to FAQs like how long should a personal statement be and how to start a personal statement.
Want to write your cover letter fast? Use our cover letter builder. Choose from 20+ professional cover letter templates that match your resume. See actionable examples and get expert tips along the way.
Sample cover letter for a resume—See more cover letter templates and create your cover letter here.
But—what if you’re writing a personal statement for business, for a resume in the UK, or for a cover letter? In that case, see these guides:
- For the UK: Personal Statement/Personal Profile for Resume/CV: Examples
- For a resume summary: Professional Resume Summary Examples (25+ Statements)
- For a cover letter: How to Write a Cover Letter for a Job (12+ Examples)
Now let’s get you into the interview room with a personal statement example you can use:
Personal Statement Template
BS in Biology, Boise State University
265 Fantages Way
Boise, ID 83702
Dean of Admissions
Oregon University of Health Sciences
4391 Heron Way
Portland, OR 97205
Dear Ms. Eustis,
When my neck broke, everything went numb. I’d been having fun with friends at the lake, and like the not-so-careful 16-year-old I was, doing sailor dives in shallow water with my hands down by my sides. The deck was 8 feet off the water and getting wetter by the moment. Predictably, I slipped, and my scalp connected with the sand with devastating force. I cracked two vertebrae and tore several ligaments, but my problems were just beginning. The surgeon at the local hospital said an operation was too dangerous. My mother, an ER nurse, sought a second opinion from a neurosurgeon at the Mayo Clinic. His opinion? I could sneeze or turn my head and suffer instant paralysis or death.
Three days later the surgeon, named of all things Dr. Albert Spine, skillfully rebuilt my cervical spine, taking bone from my hip, shaving off four spinous processes, and using wire and titanium bolts to hold it all together while it healed. His deft spinal fusion saved my life, and in the process taught me there’s a vast range of expertise within the medical community. I became fascinated by stories of medical success and failure, and that interest led me to my lifelong passion—medicine.
I’m frequently amazed by how much the human body can endure. My best childhood friend, Sarah Locklin, was shipwrecked in an attempt to sail around the world in the South Seas, but survived without food for 38 days before being rescued by a merchant marine vessel. That’s an astounding feat of survival, yet something as simple as a tiny stem cell mutation can be lethal. During my time as a lab research assistant at the University of Texas Anderson Cancer Center, my work on the Leukemia Research Team gave me great respect for the power of research to shine a light into the apparently mysterious inner workings of the body’s systems. Identifying cell changes under the microscope and using hemocytometers to determine cell counts was an eye-opening experience that kindled a growing excitement for potential medical advancements. As a physician, the analytical and creative thinking skills I learned will help me build on increasing advancements to create an upward spiral of quality of life for my patients.
When Dr. Spine explained my broken neck as three fractured vertebrae, torn ligaments, and worsening kyphosis, I had no idea what he meant. He quickly showed me on a model of the c-spine, in a way that made sense to my 16-year-old self. That experience underscores one of the most important skills a physician can have—patient education. As an undergraduate teacher assistant at Columbia University, I provided feedback and guidance to 100+ students. I graded over 800 papers, using insights from that task to guide the students toward deeper understanding. In my future career as a surgeon, those communication and interpersonal skills will be invaluable to help me cut through fear and confusion and gain patient trust and buy-in for complex procedures and crucial rehabilitation practices. This communication and education step is one of the most misunderstood and overlooked parts of modern medicine.
Recovering from a broken neck wasn’t easy, but with persistence and the right guidance from the Mayo Clinic medical team, I quickly recovered my full range of motion and ability. Last month, I competed in the Portland Triathalon for the third time, achieving a personal best. Now that I’ve been through the recovery process personally, I know the job of helping patients regain their quality of life doesn’t end after a procedure. This deeply-ingrained lesson has given me a commitment that will motivate me to follow through until the job is done. My focus is to build relationships with patients, not just fix their immediate structural problems.
It took a massive injury for me to understand my life’s goal—to end the suffering and to increase and prolong the quality of life of others. I can never pay back the gift Dr. Spine gave me, but I can pay it forward. More, from my teacher’s assistant position, I’ve felt the intense motivation and reward of helping others. It’s a fuel that will carry me through my entire professional life. The neurology program at Harvard Medical School is the ideal place to temper that passion into the skill to bring my dream of helping others to fruition. Harvard’s legendary program and faculty have the know-how to re-form my raw passion and ability, shaping me into the skilled surgeon I know I can become. I’ll likely never take an unnecessary risk again, but with persistence and with your help, I’ll build the expertise to help others who’ve been broken in some way, to make as dramatic a recovery as I have made.
That’s a standout medical school personal statement. If you’re writing a law school personal statement or other college application essay, use the same convincing logic. In short, make a case for your passion for law, your skills, and why this school matters out of all the rest.
Need the anatomy of how this works? Keep scrolling for tips, formatting, and a template.
What Is a Personal Statement?
A personal statement for college is a letter with your college application, often for law or medical school. It shows you have the intense passion to succeed in the toughest educational environment on earth. It also spotlights your skills, why you like this school, and what you bring to the table.
A personal statement can also be a CV summary for a job—if you’re a job seeker in the UK. Some people also confuse a personal statement with a resume summary. That’s a short paragraph at the top of a resume the sums it up. Others mix up personal statements with cover letters.
How long should a personal statement be?
A personal statement should be at least three paragraphs, but successful statements are 5 to 8 paragraphs long. For word count, they’re about 700 to 1,000 words. The key factor isn’t length though, but whether you convey your passion in a way that proves you’ll overcome any obstacle in your path.
When making a resume in our builder, drag & drop bullet points, skills, and auto-fill the boring stuff. Spell check? Check. Start building a professional resume template here for free.
When you’re done, Zety’s resume builder will score your resume and tell you exactly how to make it better.
How to Write a Personal Statement
The best personal statements do a few things right. First, they show passion through a personal story. Second, they highlight skills needed to succeed in the school and/or career. Third, they tie your skills to the personal story. Fourth, they explain how this school will help you reach your goal.
There’s a tried and tested way to write a standout statement. One that makes the admissions board say, “Wow. This candidate will make us proud.” Ready to see how it’s done?
1. Format Your Personal Statement Correctly
- Single-space your personal statement with standard cover letter spacing.
- Write 5 to 8 paragraphs and 700 to 1,000 words.
- Choose a respected cover letter font like Arial, Helvetica, or Cambria.
- Put your name and contact info in a cover letter heading at the top.
- Add a blank line, the date, and another blank line.
- Add the dean’s contact info, then a cover letter greeting, then the body of your letter.
- End with “Best regards” (or similar) and then your name, phone, and email.
Format a personal statement just like a cover letter. See more: How to Format a Cover Letter?
2. Stand Out With a Strong Opening
The best schools get 70,000+ applicants per year. To stand out in the glut of applications, your personal statement needs to grab them from the first sentence. So—start with a strong hook, but ground it in your personal story. Why do you want this life so much? Set the hook in your life’s passion.
This personal statement example shows how:
When my neck broke, everything went numb.
That sample works only if you can then tie it to your passion. If you use it to tell the story of what made you decide to go into medicine, you win.
Starting a personal statement is just like starting a cover letter. Read more: How to Begin a Cover Letter
3. Focus On Skills in the Body of Your Personal Statement
Knowing what to write in a personal statement is tricky—until you find your focus. That focus is the driving force that will make you the best student who’s ever graduated from their program. It may take you a few days to find a focus, so don’t panic if you don’t know it right away. The rest will follow.
Once you have the central theme, hang two things on it—the skills and qualities you’ve built so far, and the ones you will build in school. Show how your BS degree has given you the tools to get high scores in their curriculum. But—tie that to your personal story.
Here’s a personal statement sample snippet that shows how:
When Dr. Spine explained my broken neck as three fractured vertebrae, torn ligaments, and worsening kyphosis, I had no idea what he meant. He quickly showed me on a model of the c-spine, in a way that made sense to my 16-year-old self. That experience underscores one of the most important skills a physician can have—patient education. As an undergraduate teacher assistant at Columbia University, I provided feedback and guidance to 100+ students. I graded over 800 papers, using insights from that task to guide the students toward deeper understanding. In my future career as a surgeon, those communication and interpersonal skills will be invaluable to cut through fear and confusion and gain patient trust and buy-in for procedures and crucial rehabilitation practices. This communication and education is one of the most misunderstood and overlooked parts of modern medicine.
That personal statement example works because it uses your passion to showcase a central skill.
Pro Tip: Academic factors are 3x more likely to matter than personal matters for college admissions. Except—at the most selective schools like Harvard or Berkeley.
4. End With a Summary
There are many ways to end a personal statement. One of the best is to refer back to the hook that started off the statement. Use your final paragraph to sum up the case you’ve made for why the school should let you in. You can also use your ending paragraph to explain why this school matters.
See this sample personal statement ending for a clue:
It took a massive injury for me to realize my life’s goal is to end the suffering and increase and prolong the quality of life of others. I can never pay back the gift Dr. Spine gave me, but I can pay it forward. More, from my teacher’s assistant position, I’ve felt the intense motivation and reward of helping others. It’s a fuel that will carry me through my entire professional life. The neurology program at Harvard Medical School is the ideal place to temper that passion into the skill to bring my dream of helping others to fruition. Harvard’s legendary program and faculty have the skill to re-form my raw passion and ability into the skilled surgeon I know I can become. I’ll likely never take an unecessary risk again, but with persistence and with your help, I’ll build the expertise to help others who’ve been broken in some way, to make as dramatic a recovery as I have made.
That personal statement example works because it comes full-circle to your letter’s hook. In short, it shows where you can take your life, if they’ll only let you in. It conveys a burning desire to help others. As a bonus, it explains that a poor choice made in your younger years will not repeat.
Ending a personal statement is like ending a cover letter. Read more:Best Ways to End a Cover Letter
5. Answer the questions they ask
One caveat—don’t get too caught up in the tale of your own passion right away. If they ask questions in the personal statement assignment on the application form, answer them. One of the biggest mistakes on college applications is failing to answer the stated questions.
The good news? You can use their questions to find the focus of your statement. Don’t see application questions as restrictive. See them as guidance to help narrow down your options.
6. Freewrite before you write
“But I don’t have a driving passion!” Yes, you do. Otherwise you wouldn’t be on this path. To find it—spend a few days journaling. Most people didn’t go into medicine or law because they broke their neck or lost their home in a foreclosure. That’s okay! Trust me, you have worthwhile dreams and career goals.
The problem? You don’t know why you have your goals yet, because you haven’t analyzed it. So—spend a few days digging into why. Journal it. Freewrite it. Why do you want this education so badly? Spending a few mornings at this will focus your thoughts. That’ll save you hours or days when it’s time to write your personal statement.
Pro Tip: Don’t kill yourself freewriting. Do it in short, frequent bursts. Journal for 10 minutes in short morning, afternoon, and evening sessions, or whenever you find time.
7. Research the school
Oh-oh. Your personal statement for college failed. What went wrong? You didn’t know what the school wants in their perfect student. That blunder cost you a slot, because you told them you have all the wrong skills. Or you said you want to build the skills they don’t know how to teach.
The solution? Know before you go. Look into their curriculum. What do they excel at? What can they teach you? What do you already know that will help you shine after they let you in? How can you tie those things to your personal story? The answers to these questions are your passkey through admissions.
When writing a personal statement, remember to:
- Use a personal statement template so you don’t have to start from scratch.
- Think hard about your passion. Why do you want this career so much?
- Start your statement with a hook that draws the reader in.
- Tell the story of your driving force. That will prove to the admissions team you have the strength to make it through the long, hard years of work ahead.
- Tie your skills and achievements to your story. What have you accomplished so far in your education that will help you if they let you in?
- Add the things the school can teach you. How can you connect their curriculum to your personal story of drive and passion?
- End your personal statement by coming full circle to your hook.
Plus, a great cover letter that matches your resume will give you an advantage over other candidates. You can write it in our cover letter builder here. Here's what it may look like:
Questions? Concerns? We’re here for you. If you still have questions about how to write a personal statement for college that lands the interview, drop me a line in the comments.