What is a personal statement?
A personal statement is a document some universities use to evaluate your suitability for admission. Sometimes the personal statement is used only for admission, and sometimes it's also used to assess your qualification for scholarships (so the purpose is often twofold).
Some personal statements (sometimes referred to as 'personal profiles' or other names) are required for admission, and some may be optional. For example, the Personal Profile is required for admission to many programs at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
Admissions personal statements are common in the United States. Although they're less common in Canada, more and more Canadian universities are starting to use personal statements for admission and scholarships, and I predict this trend towards a more "holistic" admissions process will continue to grow.
Why use a personal statement?
The rationale behind using the personal statement varies, but basically it provides another way for universities to evaluate your suitability as an applicant beyond your academics. Statements are used quite often at universities where admission is competitive, as a way to differentiate well-qualified applicants.
For example, in programs like Queen's Commerce, McMaster Health Sciences, and Waterloo Engineering, most of the applicants have averages at 90% or above, so the personal statement provides another way to choose from so many qualified students. Some programs may also use a video interview (in addition to the personal statement) as another method of evaluation.
What are schools looking for in a personal statement?
The key information varies according to the statement.
For personal statements in supplemental applications for highly competitive programs, you should specifically demonstrate specifically your skills and personal qualities, and how they align with that particular program.
Generally speaking, though, what most personal statements have in common is they want you to demonstrate self-knowledge, and to align your interests, skills, and personal qualities to the program or university in some way. Schools will often ask about what you've learned through your academic and non-academic experiences. It's vital that you do some self-reflection before writing your statement so you can communicate their best learning experiences (this is part of what I help students to do). You want to draw connections between your experiences and the education you expect to receive.
Personal statements are also used to gauge your community involvement and ability to manage time. If you've been quite involved with your community, for example, through volunteer activities, and you've still maintained a 90%+ average, it demonstrates that you can balance academics and extra-curricular activities, which makes you an attractive candidate for any school.
Further, a history of involvement in high school increases the likelihood of continued involvement in university. That's exactly what the university is looking for: a solid student who will become a part of the campus community and make contributions to it. Schools aren't as interested in students who will only leave their dorm room to go to class.
UBC provides a great description of what a personal statement is, and tips for how to complete it. Watch the video on the UBC Personal Profile page. Although the information is specific to UBC, it's general enough to describe how to complete most personal profiles.
And remember the golden rule of writing: revise! Never send out your first draft. Once you've got a personal statement written, give it a few days, then return to it and make some edits. Show your draft to a trusted friend or loved one for feedback. This means you'll need to leave time for revision, so don't leave your statement til the last minute!
Janet MacDonald is a Scholarship Coach at MycampusGPS. She teaches students how to prepare their best scholarship applications through one-to-one coaching and workshops. She also wrote the guide "How to Find and Win Scholarships in Canada." Janet's blog is one of the top education blogs in Canada.