Your Personal Statement is an incredibly important part of your application. In fact, in a year when many schools are going test optional, most experts would agree Personal Statements carries even more weight than before. Selecting the right story to tell for this narrative can be a challenge, and we are here to help. We hope our expert insight provides thought-provoking questions and ideas to help get your narrative off on the right foot. If you feel stuck with your Personal Statement, please reach out! You can schedule a free consultation to discuss the right strategy for you.


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. 

There are many ways to approach this prompt. In order to approach it, you first have to take it apart and look at the four areas of importance the prompt includes: background, identity, interest, or talent. Each area is open to interpretation. 

Part 1

Background has many layers and your background can address your family and its history, your region and where you come from, your culture, your religion and religious beliefs, your political affiliations, country, social status, etc. 

You can also look at background as the backdrop of your life and all that has happened to you thus far. You can roll up all of your past experiences and include them under this category. So, if you were a military brat, a singer on the road, a climber of Mount Everest, a cancer patient, you could use these experiences and many others to address the first prompt. 

Part 2

Identity and background can be treated similarly and they do overlap. Here are the differences. More personal than background (which you might share with many others), identity is all about you and what motivates you. While background might outline some specific aspects of your life, identity defines you at the core. It is you, not just some aspect of you. We all define our identity in two ways:personal and social. That means. If you are writing the most personal story about what makes you you, the identity prompt and prompt #1 are likely where you will land. Your identity can come from many places. Here are a few things you might consider when writing this topic: 

1) Who you are as an individual and your belief set apart from the world 2) Who you are as a family member 3) Who you are as a member of a social group 4) Areas where you are different or excluded. 5) Areas where you connect around a certain love or interest and find yourself in unison with others. 6) How you look. This can touch on your physical appearance, gender, race, ethnicity, etc 7) How you experience connectedness or disconnectedness from others 8) A group and the rules of the group you belong to or have rejected 9) Your intentions of doing things and your capability or incapability in realizing your intentions 10)Gender, race, nationality, family. Your position in the world 

Part 3

The interest part of prompt one (1) is meant for students with a great passion, success, or area of deep interest. Whether you love Stan Lee’s Marvel characters, Chemistry Olympiad, or computer science, this prompt may be the one for you. It is also excellent to highlight an area of great success(particularly if it is academic or has a major impact on others in some way). 

You can offer experiences and stories that show how your interest started, evolved, continues, and your plans for the future. If you are writing to address this area of prompt #1, you may choose many small windows or daily scenes from your life where your interest comes into play and patchwork them together. For example, if you are a drummer, you may drum for orchestra, a jazz band, and some outside groups. What moments or brief stories could you weave together for the reader? Another way to approach answering this part of prompt 1 is to share an obscure interest that would be exciting to an admissions committee reader and help you stand out. Ideally, the excitement that you create around a topic should be one to highlight your intellectual love of a subject. If you have a passion for Balkan textiles of the 16th century and have curated shows,share that. If you love insects and have a deep involvement with collecting insects or studying them, you might choose that subject. Even if idiosyncratic,your involvement may be meaningful to others and you may do well to share it. Be sure to link your idiosyncratic topic to a value you have (what it means to you), an archetypal value or future plan (what your love means to your future goals, others, or the world). 

Part 4

If you have a talent, ability or talent you would like to share, tackle this part of prompt #1. This part of the prompt offers you the opportunity to share more about your talent with the admissions committee. You can talk about any special talent you have. This can be from performing with aerial silks, divining water, reading minds, playing the viola, and more. It doesn’t have to be a talent that you have learned or practiced. It can also be an interpersonal talent like having great empathy toward others and being seen as other people’s listening ear. 

Whatever your special skill, always remember to make the important connections the admissions committee needs to see in order to understand you best. Why is this factor important to you, to others and to your future self. The connections you make should be multi-layered. 


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? 

This prompt is asking about adversity in your life and how you handled it. The best opportunity to respond to a prompt like this is to explore the aspects of yourself that allowed you to survive through difficult times. There are times in life when something happens that shakes us from the core and makes us question everything about our lives (a divorce, a death, a break-up, a failure) 

While many choose to play it safe with a mundane failure and answer this question with a simple story about winning/losing or something like tearing the ACL and learning to win after and then wrap it all up in a neat bow tie ending, that’s a big mistake on this essay prompt. This is an opportunity to really dig deeper and share some wrenching realizations. The more open you are, the better the result. If you only have a simple “failure” story to write, then write that and try to make deep connections about how it impacted you. However, a more impactful way of handling this is to write about a core failure and consider ways the failure or core shake-up impacted your development after. . 

● A failed relationship with a teacher, parent, or friend 

● A failed attempt to understand what happened or what’s to come 

● A failed career choice 

● A failed attempt at greatness, a failed run for class president, a major loss in a competition There are times when it feels like your life is ending and everything you know shifts or is shaken. These are times when you experience a setback or challenge and do not see a way out of the problem. It is important to highlight and discuss your response to a moment like that in your life. Lay out your your actions and what steps you took in order to find an answer or to identify a path back to where you need to be. Highlight how you were thinking about things and try to focus on the writing a story that leans positive. It does not have to have a pat ending. However, you do need to show how you changed and grew and what lead you to that growth. 

Did you take responsibility for the problem and have you changed since? If you were not the one responsible, how did you deal with the situation anyway? What lead you to understanding things better. 


Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 

This prompt is all about going against social norms and is difficult to answer for many high school students because it asks you to describe a time when you went against the grain or challenged a norm. You have to balance your response to show that you are pro-social and will not be a challenge to the institution where you end up while also talking about a time when you may have challenged the larger group. Most students are use to following the rules and adhering to a set of norms. That makes this prompt difficult for most to respond to and find a meaningful story. Students who haven’t participated in the types of iconoclastic protests against societal ills that lend themselves to an awe-inspiring response may want to steer clear here. If you are sure this is your prompt but are not sure what to write about, a more robust option here could be to highlight a time that you challenged the social norms of a group that was not acting out of positive social intentions toward others. Students have taken this topic on in many different ways. Here are some topics that you might be able to discuss: 

1) A teacher or teacher group may see a student negatively and you decide to help 

the student overcome the adverse effects of this. 2) A peer group shuns another student and you decide to help that student. 3) A law is passed that you disagree with going against a group or groups that 

should be protected and you speak out through demonstrations or organizing activity. 4) You are wholly interested in a topic and no one around you is. You organize 

some public event to highlight and bring attention to a topic that no one in your community understands. 


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.

The fourth Common App prompt asks you to dissect this question into its three parts. Like the first prompt, there are several options for you to mine here. The three parts of the question are: 1) an intellectual challenge 2) a research query 3)an ethical dilemma. Choose a problem and solve it. The first two parts of the prompt may be most interesting to those who are deeply immersed in an area of academics or research. However, the third part opens it up to anyone with a conscience. You want to essentially do a deep dive on a topic of interest to you. Sharing some interesting aspects of this area will build the reader’s trust in you and show off your expertise. However, you want to be careful not to go overboard and be too arcane for this prompt. You certainly will want to explain what got you interested in the topic and any resulting issues that may have come up as a result. However, if your area of intellectual interest or research query relates to an obscure subject, you want to make your topic easier to understand not harder. Make all the connects you need, explain your problem and your subject, and try to keep in an English we all understand. It’s not the admissions committee’s job to decode your essay. So, make it easy for them to understand what you have to say. If you are talking nanotechnology, for example, English your essay up and science it down a bit. 


Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

You can really talk about anything here that changed the way you see yourself, others, the world or the future. Again, there are several parts to dissect here. You can choose an event, a success, or just a eureka moment that changed everything for you. If you won the Regeneron or an international Olympiad and it changed the world for you, this would be the place to talk about it. Be sure to discuss the growth that you experienced or the new understanding you developed. Again, you may want to highlight the process of actually getting to a new realization. If you won a major award, what was the road in getting there? Who were the other people associated to your achievement and what does it mean to the new future you now have in mind? You don’t have to talk about a major award or success either. You can take a less formal route and highlight insights in seemingly mundane moments of life that work well, too. You just need to highlight what you realized about yourself, about the other person or people, and what that will mean to your future. Less formal topics students write about range from: 

1) Fishing with your granddad

2) Gardening at your house

3) Baking/cooking with a parent or grandparent

4) Trekking or hiking excursions

5) Training for an event with a parent or sibling 

Define the elusive details and share what helped you most to become the person that you are today. The ways you evolved and changed should be specific, in-depth, and should be layered. Remember connect to the self, to others, and to the world. 

Here is a great article posted by the NY Times to five essays that do this beautifully. I also like many of the essays in this book published by the staff of the Harvard Crimson. They are inspiring, beautifully written, and diverse. If you do not see yourself anywhere in the NY Times essays, and many of you will not, 50 Successful Harvard Application Essays will have something to offer you-a rich selection of essays from students who have gotten in that might inspire you, too. 


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? 

This prompt allows you to take a simple subject, thought or concept and really build it out. Expand on one idea as much as you can here. The bonus of answering this prompt is that you can talk about absolutely anything. 

You could talk about any number of topics here: 

1) If you are passionate about Tibetan thangka, you can do a deep dive on your topic and  get very granular as to why you selected details about that.

2) If you like stargazing in the Himalayas, talk about the constellations.

3) If you are a make-up artist, discuss the processes, protocols of doing that, the people in your world, what it means to you, and what you see happening with it in the future.

4) Answer the question of why something captivates you instead of simply saying “I love Cezanne”

Be complete and layer your experiences. Use sense-see, feel, smell, hear, and taste. Also, never forget to connect it back to yourself, your feelings, your world and future goals as you can. 


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. 

Honestly, most students write and respond to prompt one. If you have an essay or submission you are burning to submit and it really does not fall into any other prompt, this is the one for you. It is unlikely, but OK. Go ahead. If you are so original that your essay needs something totally different, choose prompt seven. For those of you who want to do something more visual or artistic and are trying to squeeze into this bucket, fine. However, follow the rules and submit 650 words in order to meet the requirement. High risk may equal high reward here. If you have a school or two you feel will appreciate the risk, you may consider this option. 

Here are some topics that students have chosen to explore in the past: 

1) Compare yourself to Freddy Mercury the Queen years

2) Write poetically to show your love of poetry.

3) If you are a coffee expert or an expert on cars, you can use this prompt to show your authority on a subject by discussing it at a high level.

4) Maybe you want to submit a comic strip and your school has no room for a portfolio submission. Make sure to submit 650 words with the strip. 

Whatever you do, make it accessible, explain what you are doing, and make sure to demonstrate all the value you have to offer through connections to self, your world, and your future goals.  

A strong Personal Statement is essential. Your overall narrative is anchored by what you share in your Personal Statement, and we hope these tips help guide you in your writing!

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