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Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

Frequently Asked Questions About Your Personal Statement

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by College Essay Guy Essay Specialist Kaila Barber in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


What’s Covered: 



Writing About Personal Challenges


Many students struggle with selecting a topic for their personal statement. Kaila Barber, an essay specialist from College Essay Guy, is often asked if certain topics are too personal or even too negative for a college application. 


It’s not uncommon for students to write about navigating personal challenges in their personal statements or as part of the broader college application process. Certain essay prompts will specifically ask you to reflect on these types of experiences. While there are certain topics you should navigate carefully or avoid entirely, in your personal statement, Barber confirms that there isn’t a blanket right or wrong topic to choose.


Is Mental Health an Appropriate Topic for a Personal Statement?


As studies around mental health become more common and widely discussed, many students ask if writing about a severe mental health challenge would be appropriate for a personal statement. 


There are a few things to keep in mind when writing about mental health or any similar challenge. Certain types of challenges will be more commonly written about than others, although this shouldn’t discourage you from writing about them as well. However, keep in mind that your personal statement should set you apart in some way from the other students applying. When talking about your mental health challenge, it’s important to make sure that you convey your personal experiences with specific details that are unique to who you are. 


Focusing on specific events and experiences that tie back to your overall topic of mental health and how you navigated it tells your reader a lot more of your values, skills, qualities, traits, and interests. For example, if you’ve struggled with mental health but developed a creative coping strategy using music or the arts, you could discuss those experiences as part of your statement. Perhaps you developed a music therapy program at your school and your work was featured in an article or a live interview. 


What Makes a Successful Personal Challenge Essay?


Writing about challenges of any sort can be just that―a challenge. In general, if you can take your essay and swap in someone else who also has navigated a similar challenge, then you’ve got to be a little bit more specific. While you don’t have to share your deepest, darkest secrets, be sure to include details and experiences that are unique to you—after all, it is a personal statement.


It’s also important to remember that your essay should include reflection. Many students who choose to write about their challenges forget to talk about how they overcame or what they learned from their experiences. Make sure that you don’t spend your entire essay talking about the challenge, reflect on how you navigated this challenge and how you’ve grown as a person. 


When you think about your challenges and experiences, ask yourself what did you learn? How has this impacted your perspective and how you think about the world around you? 


This same guidance applies regardless of whether you’re discussing your experiences with mental health, trauma, loss, or any other personal events. Be sure to include details that are specific to you and reflect on them accordingly.


Setting Yourself Apart


Once you’ve selected a topic, the next step is to think about how to set yourself apart. Barber recommends that, regardless of your academic or extracurricular profile, you should be genuine and authentic. While some students tend to inflate their experiences based on what they think an admissions counselor would want to read, this is something picked up on easily and can impact your chance of admittance negatively. 


How Can I Set Myself Apart When Writing About Accolades or Accomplishments?


Remember that, as part of your college application, you’ll be asked to provide a resume as well as some information about your extracurriculars and any related accomplishments. Your personal statement should not be a second resume. While the context related to awards and accomplishments can often make for interesting stories, it’s important to make sure that you craft a strong personal voice as many students will have a long list of impressive accomplishments to reflect on similar to yours. 


Certain types of accomplishments, such as competing at a national or international level, will be rarer and will have a higher “wow” factor to begin with. Even regional, state, or local competitions can make for a strong essay topic when written with a strong personal voice and reflections.


So, if you’re going to write about a particular competition or event, for example, focus on the interactions and details that were most meaningful to you. Focus on the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that you had during the competition. What did you learn from it? Certainly don’t downplay your accomplishments but, rather, bring your reader into your world with thoughtful reflections on how the experience impacted you and how you’ve grown.


What If I’ve Reached the Word Limit?


Many students have a tendency to be quite wordy when writing the initial drafts of their personal statements. Regardless of whether you’re writing a standard three-prong essay or something more experimental, there are a few tips and tricks you can use to make sure your statement meets the word limit. 


The first thing is to use contractions. This trick won’t save you hundreds of words but changing an “I am” to an “I’m” where appropriate can certainly help to trim down a little fat. Similarly, cutting down on auxiliary verbs and unnecessary words can help make your writing more effective and concise. Rather than saying “I was driving in the morning,” simply saying “I drove that morning” will save you a few words and create an action-driven narrative. 


Barber also recommends reading your essay out loud. It is easy to unintentionally restate things when writing. However, reading your statement out loud can help you identify when you’re repeating yourself. If you still find yourself significantly over the word count, give your essay to someone you trust and ask them to cut out anything that they think doesn’t add to the story. In general, if there are sentences or details in your essay that do not further the reader’s understanding of who you are, consider cutting them out.


Are you looking for more tips on how to write an effective personal statement? Check out our other posts on personal statements for more information.