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Preparing a Personal Statement: A Guide

Prepared by James Airozo, Ph.D., CUNY Director of Student Academic Awards and Honors


​What is the purpose of a personal statement and what are its characteristics?


•      The personal statement is a tool by which the members of a selection committee can get a sense of who you are as a person: your personal history and background, goals, academic and intellectual interests, and your character as illustrated by examples related to community service, leadership roles etc.  They also want to know what motivates you to succeed and what your long terms goals and aspirations are.

•      The goal of a personal statement is to persuade the readers to select you over other qualified candidates in the applicant pool.  Part of this task of persuasion is to offer concrete evidence that you are likely to persist and successfully receive you bachelor's degree in the normal amount of time.  You also need to make clear that given your background and life experience, you can make good use of the support services and financial aid provided by the scholarship.

•      With this in mind, it is extremely important that the opening paragraph of your personal statement have a hook, i.e. that it is written in such a way that the reader wants to learn more.  One way to do this is to provide an anecdote that focuses on a specific event, interaction, experience etc. that set you on the academic and personal path on which you now find yourself.  The more visual it can be the better.

•      In addition, a personal statement should include targeted and focused supporting evidence with reference to important individuals, events, experiences that have shaped your values and aspirations.  It is not enough to simply make assertions as in: "I am an excellent candidate for this scholarship because I am highly motivated to succeed no matter what the obstacles are."  Simple declarations of positive attributes do not persuade.  It is for the selectors to decide if you are qualified and fit the profile based on the evidence that you provide.  So, it is much better to show your qualities of character with reference to specific situations than to merely tell the selectors what your positive qualities are in a series of assertions.

•      Selectors are also trying to determine if you have the qualities of character and personality to adapt to new surroundings, to deal appropriately and openly with individuals who may not look like you, may come from very different backgrounds, communities etc. and who may have belief systems that are quite different from your own.

•      On the other hand, a personal statement is not a mini biography that includes everything that has ever happened in your life or that simply reiterates the items of your resume.  You should also avoid providing too much detail on the obstacles that you may have faced.  Instead, the emphasis should be on how you overcame any obstacles; it is the story of your triumph over adversity that should be emphasized and not the details of the challenges that you may have confronted.

•      Personal statements should avoid negative information unless this can be used to demonstrate character and persistence in overcoming serious difficulties or impediments.  In any case, it is the overcoming that should be emphasized and not the difficulties themselves.

In summary, a personal statement is:

•      A picture:  It provides a snapshot of who you are as a person

•      An invitation:  Your job is to invite your readers to know you in all of your uniqueness and complexity.

•      An opportunity to persuade the selectors that you are a good risk i.e. that you are the kind of candidate with the skills and qualities of character to succeed.


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