Tips for Writing Your Personal Statement

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Tips for Writing Your Personal Statement

All applicants to the University of California must respond to two prompts. You have a maximum of 1,000 words to answer both prompts and can allocate the word count as you wish as long as each response is a minimum of 250 words.

The personal statement is one of many pieces of information that is used in your application review. While it is an important piece, an admission decision is not made on the personal statement alone.

The personal statement is used to

  • Gain insight into your academic, personal and extracurricular achievement.

  • Obtain additional information that may not be evident in other parts of the application.

  • Discover and evaluate distinctions among applicants whose academic records are often very similar.

What the UC looks for

  • Initiative, motivation, leadership, persistence, service to others, special potential and substantial experience with other cultures.

  • Achievement in light of the opportunities available to you.

  • Any unusual circumstances or hardships you have faced and how you have responded to them. Having a hardship is no guarantee of admission. If you choose to write about difficulties you have experienced, you should describe how you overcame your challenges and what you learned or achieved in spite of these circumstances.

Academic achievement
  • For freshman applicants: include academic accomplishments, beyond those shown in your transcript. Include how your academic interests developed and describe any related work or volunteer experience.

There isn’t a formula or “correct answer” to the personal statement. Think about all the elements that make you who you are – school, family, and community – and tell us about them in a clear and persuasive manner. Your responses should add clarity, depth and/or context to the application as a whole. This is the time to brag. The colleges want to hear about your wonderful achievements.

Source: Personal Statement [PDF], Undergraduate Admissions, University of California, San Jose. The URL is

Tips and Techniques


    • Start early. Allow sufficient time for preparation, revisions and careful composition.

    • Think carefully about your responses. Look critically at the information in your application: your grades, awards, activities and work experience, family and income. Anticipate questions an admissions evaluator will have after reading your application. The personal statement is your opportunity to answer those questions.

    • Write clearly. Present information and ideas in a focused, deliberate and meaningful manner. Use concrete examples and details to support your point. A list of qualities is not persuasive.

    • Proofread. You will not be graded on grammar, spelling or sentence structure, but ensuring accuracy and flow will enhance overall presentation and readability.

    • Get feedback. Your personal statement should reflect your own ideas and be written by you alone, but others – family, teachers and friends – may offer valuable suggestions.
    • Use a word-processing program. Once you are satisfied with your statements, copy and paste them into the space provided in the application. Proofread once more for odd characters or line breaks that may have appeared.

    • Use “I” statements. Talk about yourself so that we can get to know your personality, talents, accomplishments and potential for success.


    • Plagiarize. Ask advice of whomever you like, but do not use ideas or content from print or online sources. Use your own ideas and words.

    • Use creative writing. Avoid clichés, poems, scene-setting, quotes or jokes.

    • Write about events in the distant past. Unless they clearly illustrate your plans for your college career, your passion or future goals.

    • Write about other people more than yourself. It’s great to have family support or a loving friend or role model, but the personal statement should be about you.

    • Duplicate information found elsewhere in your application; instead add to the UC College understanding of you as an individual.

    • Give a long list of accomplishments and activities. Place them in context with explanations or examples. Thoughtfully describe what you’ve done, the choices you’ve made and what you’ve gained as a result.

    • Pose philosophical questions. Get to the point and tell the UC College what you mean.

    • Use acronyms. If the college doesn’t know what they are your meaning may be lost.

Source: Personal Statement [PDF], Undergraduate Admissions, University of California, San Jose. The URL is

Personal Statement Prompts

As an example of the prompts that you may need to respond to for your personal statement, here are the University of California 2016–17 Freshman Personal Insight Questions. If you have a college or college system that you will be applying, make sure you are responding to the correct prompts—they can change from year to year.

You are provided eight question prompts and will choose four:

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.

  2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

  3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

  4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

  5. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

  6. Describe your favorite academic subject and explain how it has influenced you.

  7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

  8. What is the one thing that you think sets you apart from other candidates applying to the University of California?

Source: University of California Admissions Freshman Personal Insight Questions Accessed June 6, 2017.

Personal Statement Prompts, p. 2

Another example of the prompts that you may need to respond to for your personal statement, are these from the Common Application 2017–18 Essay Prompts. If you do submit a Common Application, make sure you are responding to the correct prompts—they can change from year to year.

The common application provides seven prompts, you will choose one:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Source: Common Application Accessed June 6, 2017.

rectangle 58California Career Resource Network, California Department of Education

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