Structuring Your Personal Statement with a Strong Backbone

Your personal statement has one key goal: To tell the admissions team things about you they could never otherwise know by reading other parts of your application. This mainly includes sharing elements of your personal background, motivations and aspirations with the reader. Consider those parts the vital organs of your essay. To make sure those vital organs function properly, you’ll need strong bones in place. Those bones are the structure of your essay.

After editing hundreds of essays and speaking with former admissions personnel, the strongest structure for a personal statement is typically as follows:

  1. Introduction Paragraph
  2. Body Paragraph 1 – Topic: Back to the Beginning
  3. Body Paragraph 2 – Topic: Confirmation of Your Passion
  4. Body Paragraph 3 – Topic: Current Self + Future Aspirations
  5. Conclusion Paragraph

Now, depending on your situation, you may have another body paragraph or two in your essay, and usually that’s fine as long as those paragraphs have important themes. But the above structure serves as a great starting point when you’re looking to write an essay from scratch. Most importantly, you’ll notice that the body paragraphs have elements that the admissions team is looking to learn about you. Let’s take a closer look at those body paragraphs:

Body Paragraph 1: Back to the Beginning

After your killer introduction (which you can learn more about how to write here), you’ll ideally want to take the admissions team back to where/when your passion for career X started and grew. For example, let’s say in your intro, you shared a story about breaking your arm at the age of 7, which led to your first hospital visit. Perhaps the experience ignited an interest in medicine. In your first body paragraph, you would want to bring the admissions team on a journey through the most important stages from that hospital visit through to med school. That may mean talking them through your decision to study biology in college, to volunteer at a free clinic, etc. Share anecdotes about moments that had a profound impact along the way.

Body Paragraph 2: Confirmation of Your Passion

While your first body paragraph should talk about the genesis of your passion and how it bubbled to the surface, your second body paragraph should show the admissions team that YES, this is the career for you. Show them proof that this is the path meant for you. This paragraph should be heavy on story-telling, detailing moments that made you think, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” For some tips on how to tell powerful stories in your essay, check out this blog post on showing vs. telling.

Body Paragraph 3: Current Self + Future Aspirations

In your third body paragraph, you want to share where you’re at today, what your next steps are, and what your future goals look like. Areas to discuss include why you want to pursue program X (the one you’re applying to) and why it’s a good fit for you. How will this program achieve your ultimate career goal? And what is that ultimate career goal? Try to be as specific as you can. For example, instead of saying you want to be a physician, you could say that you want to be a physician who works at an inner-city hospital. Then connect it back to your previous body paragraphs by citing how you enjoyed the volunteer opportunity you had at the inner-city free clinic while in college (again, for a fictitious example). This third paragraph will allow your essay to flow seamlessly into your conclusion. For how to write a killer conclusion, we recommend you check out our previous blog post on that subject. Applicants who have used our services in the past report back to us that this blog post really helped them take their essays to the next level.

Once you implement this strong structure, you’ll find that your sentences flow much smoother and that your essay becomes more concise. The last thing you want is for your essay to be an expanded version of your resume, and this type of structure lends itself well to demonstrating how this career is right for you and why. Good luck!

Writing a Personal Statement?

Ben Frederick M.D.
During my fourth year of medical school, I was faced with writing yet another personal statement, this time for a radiology residency. I'm not a strong writer, but after sending my personal statement to our founding editor, Sam Dever, I had to turn down interviews because I was getting too many. True story!

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