Personal statements are often very tough questions. For your three greatest accomplishments, you may know instantly the stuff from your past that is amazing. For the time you led a team or group, you’ll instantly have a few relevant options. You know the work you did and you know the results well.
But for a personal essay, it’s a bit more challenging. It’s no longer running in a straight line from “home plate to first base” … the playing field is 360 degrees, you’re given very little direction, and then they fire the starting pistol, and you have no real sense of where to run…
There are milestone events of your life, there’s your philosophy on life, there are defining relationships or experiences you might think of, there are visions that inspire you… what do you talk about that really defines you? And moreover, which choice would be strategically best for your application?
Our suggestion: Save this question for last. Once you have written out all the achievements and failures and career goals stuff elsewhere, then it will become clearer what piece of yourself is MISSING from the app.
It didn’t come up that you were the captain of an America’s Cup sailing team? Now would be a great place to show how this experience defines some critical aspect of who you are. Be careful, this is not a dumping ground for the scraps that never made it—rather, you want your reader to walk away with a complete sense of who you are, and if there is an aspect of an achievement, or a relationship, or a passion, etc. that DEFINES you, now is the time to identify what that thing is—having gone through the exercise of writing all that other stuff.
Let’s say you have a profound love of animals. Understand this: no one is interested in a personal fact by itself. However, if your love of animals led you to volunteer at an animal hospital for the last ten years… and you can explain what stirs you about this experience, that could very easily become a compelling section. But it has to pass the test of revealing something interesting about who you are.
Not every school asks for this directly, but some (like Booth, NYU, Cornell, Stanford, etc.) will tee up some “creative” and “open-ended” questions that tend to stymie applicants when they attempt to attack it FIRST.
Work your way up. Stretch first, before the 200lb bench-press.