Undergraduate Admission Blog

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August 8, 2013

Tips and Tricks for Tackling the Personal Statement

Girl Studying           Calling all seniors! The school year is right around the corner, and that means it’s time to start thinking about college applications. While grades and test scores are definitely an important part of the application, at USC, we conduct a holistic review of files, meaning that we take all components of the application into account when making an admission decision.

          Therefore, we expect you to put a fair amount of time and energy into the qualitative aspects of your application; namely, your essay and short answer responses. This year, the Common Application has changed the essay prompts to the following (you pick one):

          Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

                              Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

                              Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

                              Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

                              Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

          While there is not one topic that is better than another, we do expect a few things from you. Firstly, your essay should be free of grammatical and spelling mistakes. This may sound very obvious, but you would be surprised at how many personal statements we see that contain errors. While most are small, it does look careless and ultimately, does not reflect well on your application as a whole. Make sure you have a few people—parents, counselors, teachers, etc.—look over your writing to ensure that it is spotless!

          Your writing should also be authentic and show your own unique voice. Do not try to impress us by using fancy words you found in a thesaurus. We want to hear your story, your struggles, your triumphs. You can share this while staying true to your writing style.

          Do also remember that your personal statement is an opportunity to share something, well, personal about yourself, and to let an admission counselor know who you really are outside of your GPA and standardized test score. The writing components of the application are your chance to paint a complete picture of who you are– to highlight something that may not shine through elsewhere.

          While admission counselors cannot review any personal statements before they are officially submitted, we are here to answer any questions you may have about the process. Happy writing!


  1. Jonathan says:

    What is it that you look for in a student?

  2. Vidar Eriksen says:

    Hi there ! how many words are required? ive seen in a FAQ section that 650 is required, but I need more room than that, is there an exception or is 650 the ultimate max amount ?

    I dont feel like i get to express fully what i need on 650 letters…

  3. Alicia says:

    Hello, I have a question about the writing part of the application process on the common app (for transfer student). It says that for the personal statement, I should state the reasons for transferring and objectives I hope to achieve. However, under “Writing Questions” and “Prompt Essay”, I saw that the it consists of three topics that I have to choose from? Such as interacting with people of different backgrounds, something else I am interested in learning, or something about myself that is essential? Is “Prompt Essay” and “Personal Statement” the same thing?
    Thank you in advance.

    • Hillary Higgins says:

      Hi Alicia, The question with 3 options is a short answer question specific to USC. The Common Application also requires an essay about your reasons for transfering.

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