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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)

Planning a Personal Statement Strategy: How and When to Write the Right One

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Preparing your personal statement can often feel like the most daunting part of the application process, and for good reason: It’s arguably the best opportunity you have to present yourself to adcoms in an eloquent, honest, and unique light—and there’s really no “right” way to go about crafting it.

If we could give you a definitive “How-To” guide to writing your statement that would ease your stress and solve all your problems, we would. But the personal statement is so – well, personal – that there’s really no “one size fits all” advice. Since a how-to guide isn’t possible, we’ll try to give you the next best thing: answers to your questions about the logistics of your personal essay. Read on for tips on setting yourself up for success, scheduling your writing, asking for advice, and more.

When to Start

Some students will start thinking about their personal statements at the end of their junior year of high school, others will spend their summers writing and rewriting them in order to finish it before school starts in the fall, and still others will wait to write it at the end of the summer and in the first month of school. In the interest of staying organized, relaxed, and feeling prepared, it’s never too early to think about your personal statement.

That said, if you have plans to travel, do service, or work abroad over the summer and don’t think you’ll find the time to put in serious thought until early August, don’t fret. Though it’s vital that you leave yourself ample time to write and revise your personal statement, starting in August still gives you several months to complete the process. In fact, you may have an experience over the summer that ends up inspiring your personal statement!

How to Start

The hardest part of any writing assignment is sitting down and typing the first words; your personal essay will likely be no different. That’s okay! You can start small, by brainstorming topics of discussion. It can be helpful to make a list of your favorite childhood memories, people in your life who have impacted you, or stories about yourself that are integral to your identity. All of these can become fantastic vehicles for sharing deeper truths about yourself in your personal essay. If you need help brainstorming a topic, check this post out for more tips.

What’s the Process Like?

There really aren’t any secrets or fancy tricks here—at some point, you’re just going to have to sit down and start typing. Simply getting words on the page is productive and energizing, and you’ll only know whether a story is worth telling if you begin writing it. Don’t be afraid to start several essays at once. You may find that one story or vehicle is better than the other, but you may also perhaps find that two essays could be stronger if you merged them into one.

There’s plenty you can do to set yourself up for success, and you can start by reading all about these tactics here and here. Meanwhile, your process should always be one that is focused on improvement and revision. Don’t underestimate your ability to edit yourself!

Where to Look for Help

You have several options at your disposal, depending on when you want to start writing. If you want to write your essay from start to finish over the summer, there are several programs offered at universities that can help you do just that. You should research each on your own to determine what fits your needs best, as they vary slightly in tuition fees and scheduling, but such programs are offered at Harvard, Cornell, Brown, Columbia, and Princeton.

If seeking out professional help isn’t in your budget, don’t fear! There are plenty of other people to turn to for help. To start, see if your English teacher at school would be willing to sit down with you, read your essay, and give you feedback. It should go without saying that it would be ideal if this teacher knew you well—after all, your personal statement should be a truthful and realistic representation of who you are, and it helps if your editor has a close enough relationship with you to be of help

If your English teacher is unable to help or you don’t feel comfortable asking, you could also reach out to an older sibling, cousin, or friend who has recently gone through the college admissions process. These students will likely have valuable advice and feedback for you based on their own experiences. Meanwhile, your guidance counselor is a great person to ask for help throughout this process, as is anyone working in your school’s college or career center if you have one.

Last but not least, once you’ve written your essay and revised it a few times, it can’t hurt to show it to an adult you’re close to and trust—be it a parent, guardian, or confidant who knows you well. Not only can they help you catch spelling and grammar errors, but they’re also in a good position to comment on how accurately the essay presents you as the person who knows you best.

How Do I Know When It’s Done?

Though it can feel like the process of writing your personal essay can last forever, it shouldn’t. Remember, writing your essay isn’t impossible; it simply needs to be done with care. You will reach a point when you know you’re done—when your essay sounds like you, says what you want it to, and makes you proud. At that point, submit it with confidence.


Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

Lily Calcagnini
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Lily is a History and Literature concentrator at Harvard University who is doing her darnedest to write a thesis about all of her favorite things at once: fashion, contemporary culture, art journalism, and Europe. A passionate learner, she cares deeply about helping high school students navigate the process of college admissions, whether it be through private essay tutoring or sharing advice on the CollegeVine blog.