A great personal statement contains all these qualities and helps the reader:
Feel closer to and empathize with you
Identify your insights on your past experiences and growth
Recognize your values
See the time, process, and craft that went into your final draft
How to best structure your statement depends on your topic and the answers to the following questions: 1) Do you feel like you’ve faced significant challenges in your life … or not so much? And 2) do you want to write about them? (Because, to clarify, you don’t have to write about a challenge you faced. That is a common misconception. But it is definitely a misconception.)
If you said no to either or both parts, then the Montage Structure is what you’ll probably want to try. (to the Montage Structure, and to brainstorming a montage topic.) If you said yes to both parts, then a Narrative Structure is most likely to work for you. ( to the Narrative Structure, and to brainstorming a narrative topic.)
Regardless of which structural approach you choose, you’ll want to do some thorough brainstorming, and theseare a great place to start.
For now, let’s take a look at the major differences between Narrative and Montage by analyzing a sample of each. (Note that both of these examples were written for the Common App, which has a more generous budget of 650 words, but these could easily be cut to 500 words to fit FAMU’s requirement.)
Example 1: Montage
When I was a little girl, I imagined I had superpowers. Deadly lasers would shoot from my eyes pulverizing the monsters hiding under my bed. Mom would wonder where I had magically disappeared to after I turned invisible as she forced me to eat that plate of broccoli. It was the wish I made on every birthday candle and upon every bright star.
Who knew my dream would come true.
I discovered my first power when I turned 14. My mom had been diagnosed with Ovarian cancer my freshman year of high school. Seated alone in my room, I became lost in a cycle of worry and panic. In the midst of my downward spiral, I reached out for a small bristled paintbrush, guiding it across the canvas–the motion gave me peace. My emotions spilled out onto the canvas, staining my clothes with a palette of blues and blacks. A sense of calm replaced the anxiety and fear which had gripped me tightly for so many months. Painting gave me the power to heal myself and find peace in a scary situation.
Little did I know, sharing my superpower would lead me to unfamiliar parts of my city. I was alerted to trouble at an elementary school in Dallas where students’ access to the arts was under threat from budget cuts. I joined forces with the principal and the school’s community service representative to create an afterschool arts program. From paper masks in October to pots of sunshine crafts in March, it did more than teach students to freely draw and color; it created a community where kids connected with the power of art to express joy, hope, and identity. The program, now in its third year, has succeeded in reaching kids deprived of art. Sharing art with these students has given me the power to step outside of my familiar surroundings and connect with kids I never would have met otherwise. I am grateful for the power of art to not only heal but to also connect with others.
I knew my powers worked on a local level but I wanted to reach out globally. For four years, I have been searching for a way to defeat the scourge of child marriage, a leading cause of poverty in rural India. I discovered a formula in which girls’ education successfully defeats child marriage as part of my capstone project through the Academy of Global Studies (AGS) program at my school.
I took my powers overseas, flying 8,535 miles to arrive at a dilapidated school in the bleak slums of Jaipur, India. While conducting interviews with pre-adolescent girls stuffed into dusty classrooms, I learned of their grey routines: rising early to obtain well-water, cooking, cleaning and caring for younger siblings prior to rushing to school. Despite the efforts of keeping these girls in school to prevent child marriage, their school relied on rote memorization without any creative arts programming. As I organized my art project for these girls, I was unsure if my powers would reach them. Their initial skepticism and uncertainty slowly transformed into wonder and joy as they brought their bright paper fish cut-outs to life. The experience opened my eyes to the power of art to form universal connections, and it inspires me to share and strengthen its force within the lives of all children.
Much of the little girl yearning for superpowers remains a part of me. But now I have moved beyond wishing for powers to acquiring a deeper understanding of how superpowers work. While I never fulfilled my wish to run at lightning speeds or shoot spiderwebs from my fingers, my experiences with art have taught me that the greatest superpowers lie within each of us — the powers to create, express, and connect in meaningful ways. Every girl deserves the chance to dream, I am just lucky mine came true.
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Tips + Analysis:
As previously mentioned, most great essays illustrate four qualities: core values, insight (i.e., an illuminating answer to the question, “so what?”), vulnerability, and craft.
This montage essay uses the theme of the author’s artistic superpowers to highlight different aspects of her life and serves as a great reminder to …
Convey your values throughout your personal statement. Note how the author infuses each paragraph (whether directly or indirectly) with a mix of values: hope, peace, a desire to help others, creativity, connection, joy, identity, healing, self-assurance, and self-expression, to name a few. Thatwe linked earlier can help you find the ones that resonate with you (and with FAMU). Because this personal statement is relatively short (you’ll likely eat up those 500 words faster than you think), you can reflect your values in several ways—by establishing the values as they relate to the core of who you are, the values around a certain theme or topic, and/or even the values you aspire to embody someday.
Reveal insight and growth about your experiences. Remember that admission readers need to be reassured throughout your essay that you’re going to be a great asset to their campus, and showing your awareness of your own growth and development is a great way to do that. Note how almost every paragraph of this sample essay answers the question, “so what,” in a compelling way. Like this: “Painting gave me the power to heal myself and find peace in a scary situation.” And this: “The experience opened my eyes to the power of art to form universal connections, and it inspires me to share and strengthen its force within the lives of all children.”
Dare to be vulnerable. From the recurring theme of girlhood wishes for superpowers to discovering her first “superpower” during her mom’s illness and while helping others, this writer does a great job of balancing serious information and issues with lighthearted imagery. These details also allow her to be vulnerable, by admitting to childhood dreams that she may be shy about sharing broadly—which allows us to identify and sympathize with her, endearing her to us and making us root for her success.
Commit to craft. Because the aspects of her life she chooses for her montage—from the personal and local to global scales—all relate to children and young women, it makes her intro and conclusion language choices that much more suitable and engaging. That’s a good way to show craft, but there are almost infinite ways to do so. Don’t know if your essay is crafted well once you’re on draft 3 (or 10)? Take.
Example 2: Narrative
My mom opened Kanishka’s Gastropub in 2013. I was ecstatic. We would become the first Mother-Son Indian duo on Food Network peeling potatoes, skinning chicken, and grinding spices, sharing our Bengali recipes with the world.
However, the restaurant tore apart my parent’s relationship. Two years after opening, my dad started coming home late most nights, plastered from “happy hour with work colleagues.” My mom, trying to balance her day job at Kaiser and owning a restaurant, poured her stress on me,“What the hell is wrong with you! Always watching YouTube and never talking!”
The worst time came when my parents tried to fix their relationship. Repeated date nights induced more arguments. Enduring the stress of her restaurant, my father, and her mistakes, my mom attempted to end her life. Fortunately, I found her just in time.
Over the next two years, things were at times still hard, but gradually improved. My parents decided to start anew, took some time apart, then got back together. My mom started to pick me up from activities on time and my dad and I bonded more, watching Warriors and 49ers games.
But at times I still had to emotionally support my mom to avoid sudden India trips, or put my siblings to bed if my parents weren’t home at night. Over time, I found it difficult being my family’s glue. I wanted back the family I had before the restaurant–the one that ate Luchi Mangsho together every Sunday night.
So I looked for comfort in creation. I began spending more time in our garage, carefully constructing planes from sheets of foam. I found purpose balancing the fuselage or leveling the ailerons to precisely 90 degrees. I loved cutting new parts and assembling them perfectly. Here, I could fix all the mistakes.
In high school, I slowly began to forge a community of creators with my peers. Sophomore year, I started an engineering club and found that I had a talent for managing people and encouraging them to create an idea even if it failed. I also learned how to take feedback and become more resilient. Here, I could nerd-out about warp drives and the possibility of anti-matter without being ignored. I would give a weekly report on new technology and we would have hour-long conversations about the various uses a blacker material could have.
While building a community at school rebuilt my confidence, I still found I enjoyed being alone at times. While driving in my car, I’d let my mind wander to movies like Big Hero Six and contemplate if a zero-friction bike really was possible. I’d create ideas like an AI highway system that tells drivers exactly when to switch lanes based on timing and calculus to prevent braking from nearby cars. Or I’d blueprint a new classroom with interactive desks, allowing students to dive deep into historical events like a VR game. I found outlining complex ideas like these sometimes provide insights into something I’m researching or could one day materialize into future projects.
Looking back (and perhaps inadvertently), the conflicts from the restaurant days have taught me valuable lessons. Helping my mom through her relationship taught me to watch out for those in emotional distress. Spending nights alone made me more independent–after all, it was then that I signed up for advanced math and programming courses and decided to apply for software internships. Most of all, seeing my mom start her restaurant from no food-industry experience inspired me to found two clubs and a Hydrogen Car Team.
Even though we eat Luchi Mangsho on a monthly basis now, I know my family will never be the way it was. My mom and I won’t become a Food Network mother-son duo. I can’t fix all the mistakes. But I can use them to improve the present.
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Tips + Analysis
Succinctly describe compelling challenges + effects. In less than 200 of his allotted 650 words, this student shares a deeply personal challenge and its external consequences. He shows some of his feelings in that section, but more directly shifts to his internal journey in the fifth paragraph. If you know you’ve experienced some significant change but you’re not sure how to describe it, or how much it’s affected your decision-making and growth, use ourto get started.
Focus on both showing and telling what you did and learned. It can be tempting to make the story of the challenge itself the main focus of your personal statement, cramming in your reflections at the tail end. Far more difficult (and effective) is condensing that story to an appropriate contextual length (probably about one-third of the word count) so you can spend more words highlighting what you did in response to the challenge and the ways it changed or reframed your behavior and thinking—which is what admission officers want to read. To manage the demands of home, the author seeks “comfort in creation” while also developing his abilities in “managing people and encouraging them to create an idea even if it failed” and mentally outlining complex ideas to “provide insights into something [he’s] researching.” Speaking of that last line …
Show insight by answering the question, “so what?” The thing that really brings this essay home is the last line. It answers the “so what” question because it shows that he took the lessons he learned during that difficult part of his childhood and applied it to his life more broadly—i.e., creativity and solitude helped him find balance so he could confidently build community and help others at school while learning resilience, the core value embodied in that last line. After you’ve written your first draft, go back through it and make sure you’ve clearly shown what you’ve done to act on your reflections and exercise your.
Mention (or directly tie in) your future aspirations. If you know what career you want to pursue, or even if you have some general idea of the field of interest you plan to study in college, one option is to incorporate that look ahead toward the end of your essay. This student alludes to his engineering and STEM interests without directly saying he wants to pursue them (either intentionally or so he can explain more in supplemental essays without being repetitive). Since FAMU doesn’t have other essays, you can help yourself (and the reader) by directly connecting the values and skills conveyed throughout your personal statement back to traits that would make for an awesome [insert career choice here].
For more on the differences between narrative and montage and on the whole personal statement writing process—including links to great example essays that worked—check out our recent blog post.