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Personal Statements 101 (Ideal Length, Contents, Outline)

Personal Statements 101 (Ideal Length, Contents, Outline)

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Applying for a job and applying for college are two very stressful situations.

Almost all applications today are handled online, which ought to take some of the stress out.

In reality, however, many online systems seem designed to frustrate, often asking applicants to manually enter information that’s already on an uploaded resume or other file.

Then there’s all the specialized language you need to know just to understand what the people who review applications are even looking for.

If you’re applying for university, you might need to figure out your college rank or whether you might qualify as a legacy applicant, to say nothing of the long and arduous process of applying for financial aid.

Job applications are just as bad, often requiring you to decipher jargon like “dynamic” and “potential for growth” in the job description itself, before you ever even see the application form.

Sometimes, you might even see job postings that ask for ninja or wizards.

Even after you’ve successfully navigated the minefield of an application for college or a job, there’s one final trap laying in wait: the personal statement.

It seems like a personal statement would be easy, since all you have to do is describe yourself. In reality, crafting a well-written personal statement is an art in itself.

Let’s review how to put your best foot forward when applying for a job or college admission, starting with the common question of how long personal statements need to be.


How long should a personal statement be in a college application?

Unless otherwise indicated on the application form, personal statements should be somewhere between 300 and 500 words, or three to four paragraphs. Although it’s possible to write very short statements, remember that the reviewers will be hoping to learn as much as they can about you. That means it’s best to target the upper limit, rather than writing as little as possible. Writing more also lets you showcase your talents as a writer and your unique qualities as a person, student and candidate.

How long should a personal statement be on a job application?

200 to 300 words is a good length for a personal statement on a job application form. In general, you should try to keep this type of personal statement to two paragraphs max. This statement is your chance to stand out in the eyes of hiring managers, so be sure you strike a balance of expressing your strengths without bragging or exaggerating. If you have a personal statement on your resume or CV itself, rather than on a job application form, this statement should be a single sentence that describes your objective or the type of job you are looking for.


Personal statements: surprisingly complicated

Describing yourself in a few hundred words is harder than it seems, and that goes double when so much is on the line.

No matter what context you’re writing in, personal statements should tell reviewers a story about you and your life.

That includes not only your strengths and weaknesses, but your hopes and your dream, including where you’ve come from and where you’d like to go in your career or after receiving an education.

In other words, when writing a personal statement you should try to capture the reviewer’s imagination, enabling them to see you as a unique individual rather than just another nameless applicant.

The best personal statements will stick with the reviewer after they’ve finished reading hundreds of others, making them want to meet you and help you succeed in your aspirations.

Rather than trying to define a catch-all strategy for writing the perfect personal statement, we’ll break down the best strategies and lengths for college or university applications and job applications separately.

Personal Statements 101


Personal statements on college applications

On a college application, you will commonly be asked to write one or more short essays.

For example, sometimes you will be asked to describe what attracts you to the school you’re applying to, or to describe your approach to studying and education.

The exact details of these essays will depend on the university or college to which you are applying, but one that you can comfortably write beforehand is a personal statement. That’s because almost all college applications ask for this kind of essay.


What exactly is a personal statement?

In the realm of university applications, a personal statement should tell the school about your educational goals. However, it also needs to explain why these goals are important to you, and what you will do to attain them.

At the same time, you don’t want to just talk about education. That makes you sound flat and uninspiring, and will make you indistinguishable from the thousands of other college hopefuls.

Think again of the idea that a personal statement should be a story about yourself.

Because you want your story to be memorable, you need to lead with something that will stick out, tie that into your educational goals and then finish with a conclusion which shows that you have the potential to achieve great things for yourself, your community or the world.

Put simply, a personal statement on a college application should be a very short autobiographical essay that leaves the reviewer excited to see what you can accomplish at their college or university.

What should you put in a personal statement?

Exactly what you put in your personal statement is, well, personal.

However, there are a few themes that work well, and which you can fine-tune to your own life experiences.

One option is to describe a time you had to overcome a personal crisis. Another is to talk about a lesson you learned from failing at something, although with this you need to be sure to emphasize what you did to fix things.

Other popular topics for college personal statements include hobbies or interests, stories about helping your family and community, experiences when you served as a leader and your history with volunteering.

If none of these fit you, try to find something that will help you tell a story about yourself, rather than simply showing off your grades or other academic successes.

How long you should make your personal statement on a college application

In general, a good length for personal statements of this sort is between 300 and 500 words, or 3 to 4 paragraphs.

That seems like a lot, but remember that you need to make yourself stand out and show the reviewer what makes you unique. That’s really hard to do in 500 words, let alone fewer than 300.

Although 300 to 500 words is a good guideline, some college application forms will actually tell you how many words they want you to write.

No matter how much space you’re given, try to aim for the upper end of the wordcount without padding unnecessarily.

This makes sure you don’t look lazy, but it also gives you the maximum amount of room possible to tell a compelling story about yourself and your need for higher education.

Suggested outline for a college application personal statement

Again, there’s no one way to write a good personal statement. If you’re the sort of writer who struggles without an outline, though, the one below is a good starting place. Just remember to personalize your story, and your statement, if you want to succeed.

  • First paragraph – Briefly introduce yourself and the story you are telling in the statement. This is your “hook,” the paragraph that will make the reviewer eager to read on
  • Second paragraph – Show the reviewer more detail now that they understand your basic situation. You can introduce a complication, show examples of your determination to succeed or simply provide more information.
  • Third paragraph – Now that you’ve fully told your story, explain how furthering your education with a college degree will help you achieve the goals you established in the first two paragraphs.
  • Fourth paragraph – Revisit your personal circumstances and the story you’re telling about yourself, without repeating paragraphs one and two. One neat trick to end an essay of this type is to invert your introduction, showing how your situation would be different after you achieve your goals.


Personal statements on job applications

When job postings ask for personal statements, the reviewer usually wants to make sure that candidates have relevant skills and experiences, will be a good fit for the company’s ethos and will otherwise get along with the people who work there.

When writing a personal statement for a job application, then, you need to tailor the story you’re telling about yourself so that it hits these main points.

Don’t spend the entire time talking about a hobby you enjoy or where you lived as a child unless you can somehow make these directly relevant to the position you’re applying for.

On the one hand, this makes personal statements for jobs much more work, as they must fit in with either a specific company or industry. However, it also gives the writer much more guidance.

What should you put in your personal statement?

If you’re writing a personal statement for a job application, you should make sure that most of it is about your professional experience.

However, you don’t want to give the impression that you’re a workaholic who only cares about your current job, either. One of the best ways to strike a balance between “professional” and “memorable” is to talk about your values.

In other words, don’t just talk about work you’ve done in the past. Talk about what kind of work is important to you, and then describe why it’s important.

If you can show the reviewer that your worldview generally matches up with your potential employer’s, your work is already halfway done.

In most cases, tying your values to specific examples of things you’ve done is most compelling than speaking in the abstract.

Just make sure you’re always explaining why these tasks were important to you, rather than bragging about how successful you are.

The best length for a personal statement on a job application

Personal statements on a job application should be somewhere between 200 and 300 words, and should take up one to two paragraphs.

Because of their shortness, you’ll need to pare your story down to its essentials. Every word needs to be relevant to what you’re saying. This is an art in itself, and one that is especially important in business writing.

In that sense, whether or not your personal statement is well written serves as another form of evaluation for the reviewer of your application.

Of course, some job applications may specify a different number of words. In this case, adjust the amount you write

Suggested outline for a job application personal statement

Since personal statements of this sort need to be succinct, it’s best to have two paragraphs at most.

In the first paragraph, introduce yourself and your values in a compelling way. Next, show examples of these values from your professional experience, if possible.

Alternatively, this can be a great place to talk about your family and community, if these are where your values came from.

By the end of this paragraph, the reviewer needs to have a good understanding of what makes you tick.

The second paragraph of your personal statement can show ways you hope to change or grow. Talking about how you overcame a struggle in the past, or how you failed at something and learned from it, are good ways to handle this.

You don’t need to specifically mention the job you want or company where you’re applying, but the reviewer should be able to connect your goals and aspirations with what you can do for the company.

End on an upbeat, sincere note without sounding full of yourself or corny.

Putting a personal statement or objective on your CV or resume

Another place personal statements sometimes appear in a professional context is on a CV or resume.

These personal statements, sometimes called “objectives,” should be much shorter. In fact, anything more than one sentence is going to stand out in the worst possible way.

If you’re trying to write a personal statement for your CV, set yourself the task of coming up with an “elevator pitch,” a short, pithy sentence that you could say to someone in the time it takes for an elevator to go up a few floors that highlights your unique qualities and what you want to accomplish.