1. The purpose of the personal essay/statement is for the admissions committee to get to know you and to make yourself standout from the crowd of thousands.
2. The best way to see a person is to hear a story about him/her.
3. Telling an intelligible story involves sequencing ideas and events in the proper order.
4. The committee wants to hear your individual voice. “Voice” is your topic and tone.
5. The committee wants to know what you really care about.
The essay isn’t just a summary of your extracurricular activities or some creative free response! And it isn't a place to brag or try to impress (you can't).
Now let's summarize the elements of a good story:
1. A story is a journey...
2. A story has a beginning, middle, and an end.
The best kind of story to tell for your college personal statement is going to be one in which you have gone on a character journey. A character journey isn’t your family’s last vacation, per se. It is how you have grown or learned something as a person.
3. Beginnings... are about dilemmas–a problem or a challenge. Think about the fairytale, Little Red Riding Hood, and how it begins. Poor Red’s grandmother is ill and Red's mother wants to send her some cakes. Red wants to bring the cakes to Grandmother, but has to go through the forbidding forest to get to Grandmother's. This is also what we would call the story’s setup.
4. Middles... are about making decisions. How/why do you act to solve this challenge? This is especially important for the common application essay. The admissions committee wants to see you making choices and doing things proactively. Ideally, your story should not just be about things you observe or things happening to you. Think of yourself as the heroine/hero of your own tale! Heroines don’t just sit back and watch. They slay dragons…etc.
5. Endings... are about realizations. You need to reflect on your experiences in order to learn from them. For a UK application, you must show how your journey has prepared you to be successful in your chosen course of study. The admissions committees want to see how you think — how you view the world and how you learn from your experiences. Are you a thoughtful, engaged person? Hopefully, yes :)
To show this, you must conclude your character journey by describing what you’ve learned or how you’ve changed. Show how your experience has inspired you to pursue a certain philosophy, course of study (UK), activity or achievement.
For US personal essays, shoot for a final draft of around 500 words or the maximum allowed by the university. For UK personal statements, you are allowed a maximum of 4000 characters (approximately 700 words). It is NOT a good idea to exceed the maximum word or character count allowed.