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:
- Introduction Paragraph
- Body Paragraph 1 – Topic: Back to the Beginning
- Body Paragraph 2 – Topic: Confirmation of Your Passion
- Body Paragraph 3 – Topic: Current Self + Future Aspirations
- 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!
When writing a personal statement, an amazing conclusion simply has to do three things:
- It recaps where you’ve been
- It recaps where you are.
- It recaps where you are going.
If you can tie it back to some memorable aspect of your introduction while hitting on those three points, you’ve hit the Holy Grail. So let’s go in depth on each of these three crucial aspects for your own essay:
1) It recaps where you’ve been.
Throughout your essay, you’ve shared experiences, skills and knowledge that have driven you toward who you are today. In your conclusion, remind the admissions team about how all those different elements work in combination to make you a unique candidate for their program.
2) It recaps where you are.
This is an aspect applicants often forget to include. You are at a crucial junction between the past and the future, and this program you’re applying to is the bridge. Recap why this program is an important stepping stone in your career path and how it’s a good fit for you personally.
3) It recaps where you are going.
Most importantly, you must tell the admissions team what your long-term career goal is. The more specific you can be, the better (even if you aren’t 100% sure, it’s best to come off as confident that you know what you want!). For example, rather than just recapping that you want to become a doctor, you can share additional sub-goals, such as wanting to be a doctor who works in low-income, inner city hospitals since you volunteered at those types of facilities before. Or perhaps you plan to go back to the country where you grew up and work as a surgeon there since they are in such short supply.
Bring It Together
Once we bring all three of those elements together, you can see how they link together to form one, solid conclusion. Ideally, your conclusion should be about 4-6 sentences long — not too short but not a long ramble. Below is an example showing how fusing the past (1), present (2) and future (3) together can end your essay on a strong note:
With my experience volunteering in Chicago’s free health clinics combined with my passion for helping children (1), I am ready to take the next step in my career. My grandmother always told me I would make a great pediatrician as she watched me perform checkups on my teddy bear, but it wasn’t until college that I realized she might have been on to something (1 + reference to intro). The University of XYZ’s program would help give me the tools, skills and knowledge necessary to excel in this career path (2). Moreover, its hands-on approach and small class size are the perfect fit with how I learn best (2). I look forward to one day becoming a pediatrician who can work with the same types of children and families I did back in Chicago so that I can make an even bigger difference in both their lives and in the community at large (3).
Applicants typically have the toughest time writing the introductions of personal statements. You have all this great experience — where to begin? If you find yourself thinking the same thing, these 4 tips are about to change everything:
#1: Start with a story
The best way hook the admissions team into your essay is to start with a gripping story from a moment that changed your life. For example, one applicant described how she had lost a friend in a car accident and pulled the reader right into the thick of that life-changing situation: “Her body laid on the gurney, cold to the touch. I looked at her face once more, kissed her forehead, and whispered goodbye.” A little story like this not only gives the selection committee better insight into who you are, but it also keeps their attention longer so they WANT to learn more about you.
#2: Use vivid imagery
By including little details, active verbs and a more story-like format, you can transform your introduction into a gripping start to your essay. Incorporate aspects of the five senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) to really take it to the next level. As you can see in the following two examples, the little details make all the difference:
Not very vivid: We were sitting in the emergency room and were staring at the ground. It was hard to wait so long and not know if she was ok.
More vivid: The fluorescent lights buzzed as we sat in the emergency room. I sat bent forward with my head resting on my knees, staring blankly at the cracks in the tile floor below. Would she make it? Would I ever see her again?
#3: Bridge your past, present and future
Your introduction has one primary goal: It must tell the admissions team where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going. You can do this by using transitions that seamlessly weave those parts together. For example:
“After working for five years as a researcher , I discovered that while I loved problem-solving, I longed to be able to work directly with the real people behind the data. By applying to medical school , I look forward to bringing my unique lab experience into a clinical setting. Becoming a physician , will allow me to form strong relationships with my patients and problem solve for them on an individual level.”
#4: End with your ultimate goal
In the above example, you’ll notice that the final sentence includes a note about what the long-term goal is: becoming a physician. Always make sure to include this in the last sentence or two of your introduction! The admissions team wants to know that you have a specific career goal in mind, which will give them more confidence in you.
Once you sew together a great introduction, it's always smart to run it past an editor to make sure you're on the right track. Don't hesitate to send your first paragraph to our team of pros and we'll help you craft the best intro possible for your killer personal statement.