Have a language expert improve your writing

Run a free plagiarism check in 10 minutes, generate accurate citations for free.

  • Knowledge Base
  • Applying to graduate school
  • How to Write Your Personal Statement | Strategies & Examples

How to Write Your Personal Statement | Strategies & Examples

Published on February 12, 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on July 3, 2023.

A personal statement is a short essay of around 500–1,000 words, in which you tell a compelling story about who you are, what drives you, and why you’re applying.

To write a successful personal statement for a graduate school application , don’t just summarize your experience; instead, craft a focused narrative in your own voice. Aim to demonstrate three things:

  • Your personality: what are your interests, values, and motivations?
  • Your talents: what can you bring to the program?
  • Your goals: what do you hope the program will do for you?

This article guides you through some winning strategies to build a strong, well-structured personal statement for a master’s or PhD application. You can download the full examples below.

Urban Planning Psychology History

Table of contents

Getting started with your personal statement, the introduction: start with an attention-grabbing opening, the main body: craft your narrative, the conclusion: look ahead, revising, editing, and proofreading your personal statement, frequently asked questions, other interesting articles.

Before you start writing, the first step is to understand exactly what’s expected of you. If the application gives you a question or prompt for your personal statement, the most important thing is to respond to it directly.

For example, you might be asked to focus on the development of your personal identity; challenges you have faced in your life; or your career motivations. This will shape your focus and emphasis—but you still need to find your own unique approach to answering it.

There’s no universal template for a personal statement; it’s your chance to be creative and let your own voice shine through. But there are strategies you can use to build a compelling, well-structured story.

The first paragraph of your personal statement should set the tone and lead smoothly into the story you want to tell.

Strategy 1: Open with a concrete scene

An effective way to catch the reader’s attention is to set up a scene that illustrates something about your character and interests. If you’re stuck, try thinking about:

  • A personal experience that changed your perspective
  • A story from your family’s history
  • A memorable teacher or learning experience
  • An unusual or unexpected encounter

To write an effective scene, try to go beyond straightforward description; start with an intriguing sentence that pulls the reader in, and give concrete details to create a convincing atmosphere.

Strategy 2: Open with your motivations

To emphasize your enthusiasm and commitment, you can start by explaining your interest in the subject you want to study or the career path you want to follow.

Just stating that it interests you isn’t enough: first, you need to figure out why you’re interested in this field:

  • Is it a longstanding passion or a recent discovery?
  • Does it come naturally or have you had to work hard at it?
  • How does it fit into the rest of your life?
  • What do you think it contributes to society?

Tips for the introduction

  • Don’t start on a cliche: avoid phrases like “Ever since I was a child…” or “For as long as I can remember…”
  • Do save the introduction for last. If you’re struggling to come up with a strong opening, leave it aside, and note down any interesting ideas that occur to you as you write the rest of the personal statement.

Once you’ve set up the main themes of your personal statement, you’ll delve into more detail about your experiences and motivations.

To structure the body of your personal statement, there are various strategies you can use.

Strategy 1: Describe your development over time

One of the simplest strategies is to give a chronological overview of key experiences that have led you to apply for graduate school.

  • What first sparked your interest in the field?
  • Which classes, assignments, classmates, internships, or other activities helped you develop your knowledge and skills?
  • Where do you want to go next? How does this program fit into your future plans?

Don’t try to include absolutely everything you’ve done—pick out highlights that are relevant to your application. Aim to craft a compelling narrative that shows how you’ve changed and actively developed yourself.

My interest in psychology was first sparked early in my high school career. Though somewhat scientifically inclined, I found that what interested me most was not the equations we learned about in physics and chemistry, but the motivations and perceptions of my fellow students, and the subtle social dynamics that I observed inside and outside the classroom. I wanted to learn how our identities, beliefs, and behaviours are shaped through our interactions with others, so I decided to major in Social Psychology. My undergraduate studies deepened my understanding of, and fascination with, the interplay between an individual mind and its social context.During my studies, I acquired a solid foundation of knowledge about concepts like social influence and group dynamics, but I also took classes on various topics not strictly related to my major. I was particularly interested in how other fields intersect with psychology—the classes I took on media studies, biology, and literature all enhanced my understanding of psychological concepts by providing different lenses through which to look at the issues involved.

Strategy 2: Own your challenges and obstacles

If your path to graduate school hasn’t been easy or straightforward, you can turn this into a strength, and structure your personal statement as a story of overcoming obstacles.

  • Is your social, cultural or economic background underrepresented in the field? Show how your experiences will contribute a unique perspective.
  • Do you have gaps in your resume or lower-than-ideal grades? Explain the challenges you faced and how you dealt with them.

Don’t focus too heavily on negatives, but use them to highlight your positive qualities. Resilience, resourcefulness and perseverance make you a promising graduate school candidate.

Growing up working class, urban decay becomes depressingly familiar. The sight of a row of abandoned houses does not surprise me, but it continues to bother me. Since high school, I have been determined to pursue a career in urban planning. While people of my background experience the consequences of urban planning decisions first-hand, we are underrepresented in the field itself. Ironically, given my motivation, my economic background has made my studies challenging. I was fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship for my undergraduate studies, but after graduation I took jobs in unrelated fields to help support my parents. In the three years since, I have not lost my ambition. Now I am keen to resume my studies, and I believe I can bring an invaluable perspective to the table: that of the people most impacted by the decisions of urban planners.

Strategy 3: Demonstrate your knowledge of the field

Especially if you’re applying for a PhD or another research-focused program, it’s a good idea to show your familiarity with the subject and the department. Your personal statement can focus on the area you want to specialize in and reflect on why it matters to you.

  • Reflect on the topics or themes that you’ve focused on in your studies. What draws you to them?
  • Discuss any academic achievements, influential teachers, or other highlights of your education.
  • Talk about the questions you’d like to explore in your research and why you think they’re important.

The personal statement isn’t a research proposal , so don’t go overboard on detail—but it’s a great opportunity to show your enthusiasm for the field and your capacity for original thinking.

In applying for this research program, my intention is to build on the multidisciplinary approach I have taken in my studies so far, combining knowledge from disparate fields of study to better understand psychological concepts and issues. The Media Psychology program stands out to me as the perfect environment for this kind of research, given its researchers’ openness to collaboration across diverse fields. I am impressed by the department’s innovative interdisciplinary projects that focus on the shifting landscape of media and technology, and I hope that my own work can follow a similarly trailblazing approach. More specifically, I want to develop my understanding of the intersection of psychology and media studies, and explore how media psychology theories and methods might be applied to neurodivergent minds. I am interested not only in media psychology but also in psychological disorders, and how the two interact. This is something I touched on during my undergraduate studies and that I’m excited to delve into further.

Strategy 4: Discuss your professional ambitions

Especially if you’re applying for a more professionally-oriented program (such as an MBA), it’s a good idea to focus on concrete goals and how the program will help you achieve them.

  • If your career is just getting started, show how your character is suited to the field, and explain how graduate school will help you develop your talents.
  • If you have already worked in the profession, show what you’ve achieved so far, and explain how the program will allow you to take the next step.
  • If you are planning a career change, explain what has driven this decision and how your existing experience will help you succeed.

Don’t just state the position you want to achieve. You should demonstrate that you’ve put plenty of thought into your career plans and show why you’re well-suited to this profession.

One thing that fascinated me about the field during my undergraduate studies was the sheer number of different elements whose interactions constitute a person’s experience of an urban environment. Any number of factors could transform the scene I described at the beginning: What if there were no bus route? Better community outreach in the neighborhood? Worse law enforcement? More or fewer jobs available in the area? Some of these factors are out of the hands of an urban planner, but without taking them all into consideration, the planner has an incomplete picture of their task. Through further study I hope to develop my understanding of how these disparate elements combine and interact to create the urban environment. I am interested in the social, psychological and political effects our surroundings have on our lives. My studies will allow me to work on projects directly affecting the kinds of working-class urban communities I know well. I believe I can bring my own experiences, as well as my education, to bear upon the problem of improving infrastructure and quality of life in these communities.

Tips for the main body

  • Don’t rehash your resume by trying to summarize everything you’ve done so far; the personal statement isn’t about listing your academic or professional experience, but about reflecting, evaluating, and relating it to broader themes.
  • Do make your statements into stories: Instead of saying you’re hard-working and self-motivated, write about your internship where you took the initiative to start a new project. Instead of saying you’ve always loved reading, reflect on a novel or poem that changed your perspective.

Your conclusion should bring the focus back to the program and what you hope to get out of it, whether that’s developing practical skills, exploring intellectual questions, or both.

Emphasize the fit with your specific interests, showing why this program would be the best way to achieve your aims.

Strategy 1: What do you want to know?

If you’re applying for a more academic or research-focused program, end on a note of curiosity: what do you hope to learn, and why do you think this is the best place to learn it?

If there are specific classes or faculty members that you’re excited to learn from, this is the place to express your enthusiasm.

Strategy 2: What do you want to do?

If you’re applying for a program that focuses more on professional training, your conclusion can look to your career aspirations: what role do you want to play in society, and why is this program the best choice to help you get there?

Tips for the conclusion

  • Don’t summarize what you’ve already said. You have limited space in a personal statement, so use it wisely!
  • Do think bigger than yourself: try to express how your individual aspirations relate to your local community, your academic field, or society more broadly. It’s not just about what you’ll get out of graduate school, but about what you’ll be able to give back.

You’ll be expected to do a lot of writing in graduate school, so make a good first impression: leave yourself plenty of time to revise and polish the text.

Your style doesn’t have to be as formal as other kinds of academic writing, but it should be clear, direct and coherent. Make sure that each paragraph flows smoothly from the last, using topic sentences and transitions to create clear connections between each part.

Don’t be afraid to rewrite and restructure as much as necessary. Since you have a lot of freedom in the structure of a personal statement, you can experiment and move information around to see what works best.

Finally, it’s essential to carefully proofread your personal statement and fix any language errors. Before you submit your application, consider investing in professional personal statement editing . For $150, you have the peace of mind that your personal statement is grammatically correct, strong in term of your arguments, and free of awkward mistakes.

A statement of purpose is usually more formal, focusing on your academic or professional goals. It shouldn’t include anything that isn’t directly relevant to the application.

A personal statement can often be more creative. It might tell a story that isn’t directly related to the application, but that shows something about your personality, values, and motivations.

However, both types of document have the same overall goal: to demonstrate your potential as a graduate student and s how why you’re a great match for the program.

The typical length of a personal statement for graduate school applications is between 500 and 1,000 words.

Different programs have different requirements, so always check if there’s a minimum or maximum length and stick to the guidelines. If there is no recommended word count, aim for no more than 1-2 pages.

If you’re applying to multiple graduate school programs, you should tailor your personal statement to each application.

Some applications provide a prompt or question. In this case, you might have to write a new personal statement from scratch: the most important task is to respond to what you have been asked.

If there’s no prompt or guidelines, you can re-use the same idea for your personal statement – but change the details wherever relevant, making sure to emphasize why you’re applying to this specific program.

If the application also includes other essays, such as a statement of purpose , you might have to revise your personal statement to avoid repeating the same information.

If you want to know more about college essays , academic writing , and AI tools , make sure to check out some of our other language articles with explanations, examples, and quizzes.

College essays

  • College essay examples
  • College essay format
  • College essay style
  • College essay length
  • Diversity essays
  • Scholarship essays

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Avoiding repetition
  • Literature review
  • Conceptual framework
  • Dissertation outline
  • Thesis acknowledgements
  • Burned or burnt
  • Canceled or cancelled
  • Dreamt or dreamed
  • Gray or grey
  • Theater vs theatre

Cite this Scribbr article

If you want to cite this source, you can copy and paste the citation or click the “Cite this Scribbr article” button to automatically add the citation to our free Citation Generator.

McCombes, S. (2023, July 03). How to Write Your Personal Statement | Strategies & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved July 5, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/graduate-school/personal-statement/

Is this article helpful?

Shona McCombes

Shona McCombes

Other students also liked, how to write a graduate school resume | template & example, how (and who) to ask for a letter of recommendation, master's vs phd | a complete guide to the differences, get unlimited documents corrected.

✔ Free APA citation check included ✔ Unlimited document corrections ✔ Specialized in correcting academic texts

Essay Examples 20 Personal Statement Examples That Stand Out + Why They Work

Essay Examples: Writing Your Personal Statement Essay

This is your ultimate list of Personal Statement examples.

In this post, you'll learn:

  • What makes a successful Personal Statement
  • How to write an irresistible Personal Statement
  • Ivy League personal essay examples

If you're looking to read and write Personal Statement essays, you've found the right place.


In this post, I'm going to share everything you need to go from zero to having a Personal Statement essay you can be proud of.

This guide will help you get started writing an engaging Personal Statement essay. Or if you already have one, how to make it even better.

What is a Personal Statement Essay?

A personal statement, also called a statement of purpose (SOP) or personal essay, is a piece of creative, personal writing.

The purpose of your personal statement is to express yourself and your ideas. Personal statements usually aren't piece of formal writing, but still should be thoughtful and planned out.

Many applications for colleges, graduate schools, and scholarships require you to write a personal statement.

How to Write a Personal Statement Essay

While there are no rules or guidelines for writing a personal statement, the best ones often have these in common:

Have Strong Ideas:

Having compelling and interesting ideas shows you are a strong thinker.

It isn't necessarily about having all the answers, but asking the right questions.

For personal statement essays, the quality of your ideas matters more than your writing level. Writing interestingly is more important than writing beautifully.

I’ve stopped tripping over my own feet, and it’s led to me not being afraid to connect and interact with patients and customers or present in front of large crowds. Life is just one long Carioca – you might stumble at first, but if you keep pushing, the right feet will find themselves in the right place. From an accepted essay to UNC at Chapel Hill →

Be Authentic

Writing authentic essays means writing from the heart.

The best personal statements tend to come naturally, because the writer is excited about the topic.

Choose an idea that makes you feel excited to write about and start writing.

As you begin drafting, ideas will naturally arise related to your original idea. Exploring these tangential ideas is what leads to even better reflections for your essay.

That's why it's so important to be genuinely passionate about your subject. You can't just have an interest "in the topic," but there has to be something deeper you're writing about that moves you.

Use Narratives and Story-Telling:

Humans are naturally drawn to stories.

And often the best insights and ideas come from real life experiences.

Telling a story, or many, is the basis for developing your analysis and ideas. Remember, all stories need conflict in order to work.

It can help to think about the different types of conflict.

  • Character vs. Self
  • Character vs. Character
  • Character vs. Nature
  • Character vs. Society

And so on...

Once you've written a meaningful story, getting insights is as simple as answering the question: What did your experiences teach you?

The sounds of my knife striking kale unnerves my cat asleep in the corner. He quickly runs over to examine the situation but becomes instantly uninterested when he sees green and smells bitterness. Unfortunately, my family has this same reaction every day of every week. From an accepted essay to University of Southern California →

Showcase Your Values and Identity:

The purpose of a personal statement is to tell about who you are.

Personal statements are your opportunity to showcase what your values are, and how you would contribute to the school, scholarship opportunity, etc.

Good writers are those who write authentically. Write about your unique ideas and ask interesting questions, even if you don't know the answers.

How Long Should a Personal Statement Be?

A typical personal statement can range in length from 500 to 650 words or more.

For applying to colleges, the Common Application essay personal statement has a word limit of 650 words.

For graduate school programs, the application essay will vary in length, but most schools require a personal statement essay of at least 500 words.

20 Personal Statement EssaysThatWorked

It can be difficult to understand what makes a great essay without seeing some for yourself.

Here's 20 of our favorite personal statement essays that we've chosen for being unique and high-quality.

There essays were all accepted into some of the most selective schools. And while it isn't the only factor in admissions that matters, having outstanding essays can help tip the scales in your favor.

Table of Contents

Prompt: Background, Identity, or Interest

  • 1. Uncomfortable Truths
  • 2. Romanian Heritage
  • 3. Film and Theater
  • 4. Person of the Woods
  • 5. Beautiful Walks

Prompt: Lessons from Obstacles

  • 6. My Father
  • 7. Self-Determination
  • 8. Game Design Music
  • 9. Speech and Debate

Prompt: Questioned or Challenged a Belief

  • 10. Finding Answers

Prompt: Accomplishment, Event, or Realization

  • 11. Connecting with Others
  • 12. Summer Confidence
  • 13. First Impressions
  • 14. Law Career
  • 15. Growing Up Asian

Prompt: Engaging Topic, Idea, or Concept

  • 16. Secrets of Riddles
  • 17. Rubik's Cube
  • 18. Narrative Diversity

Prompt: Any Topic of Your Choice

  • 19. Search for Dreams
  • 20. Recipe for Success

Personal Statement Example #1: Uncomfortable Truths

This is a personal statement that worked for Princeton . It is outstanding for many reasons, but most of all because of its ideas and the thoughtfulness put into organizing them.

Common App Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (250-650 words)

Why This Essay Works:

Having a unifying idea is key to successful personal statements. Find your deepest idea or realization and focus your essay around that.

Find a way to showcase your achievements while connecting to broader, more universal ideas.

Connecting your ending to your beginning is a powerful way to bring your essay full circle. A great conclusion expands on your ideas introduced earlier, while leaving some room for more to be said.

Personal Statement Example #2: Film and Theater

This student's essay was accepted to USC , among other top schools. It's topic is seemingly simple—taking walks—but the author brilliantly shows how even in the mundane there can be meaningful reflections.

This essay has lots of moments where the author's character comes across vividly. By using conversational language and interjections like "I want to—no, need—to...", the author has a clear "voice" and you can easily imagine them as if they were speaking directly to you. This student also showcases self-awareness and a sense of humor, by using slightly self-deprecating phrases like "some chubby, nerdy girl" and by recognizing how the social approval of sitting with the "popular girls" was enthralling at the time. Self-awareness is a highly valuable trait to portray, because it shows that you're able to reflect on both your strengths and weaknesses, which is a skill needed to be able to grow and develop.

This author manages to tie in their activity of producing films and reference them specifically ("Cardboard Castles") by connecting them to their main point. Instead of listing their activities or referencing them out-of-the-blue, they show how these accomplishments are perfect examples of a greater message. In this case, that message is how meaningful it is to connect with others through storytelling. To write about your activities and achievements without seeming arbitrary or boastful, make them have a specific purpose in your essay: connect to a value, idea, or use them as examples to show something.

In the intro of this essay, there are some descriptions that seem fiction-like and are ultimately unimportant to the main idea. Sentences that describe Mrs. Brewer's appearance or phrases describing how their teacher stood up after talking to them ultimately don't contribute to the story. Although these provide "context," the only context that admissions are interested in is context and details which have a purpose. Avoid writing like fiction books, which describe all the characters and settings, and instead only describe exactly what is needed to "go somewhere" in your essay.

What They Might Improve:

This essay has a strong hook which captivates the reader by making them ask a question: "What are these lunch-time horror stories?" By sparking the reader's imagination early on, you can draw them into your writing and be more engaged. However, ultimately this is somewhat of a letdown because these intriguing "lunch-time horror stories" are never described. Although it may not be completely necessary for the main point, describing one example or hinting at it more closely would be satisfying for the reader and still connect to the main idea of storytelling. One idea is to replace the conclusion with a reference to these "lunch-time horror stories" more vividly, which would be a satisfying ending that also could connect to filmmaking and storytelling. In general, anticipate what the reader will be looking for, and either use that expectation to your advantage by subverting it, or give them what they want as a satisfying, meaningful conclusion.

Although this conclusion could work as is, it could be stronger by seeming less arbitrary and less "fancy for fancy sake." Often, a good strategy is to connect your conclusion to something earlier in your essay such as your introduction or specific wording that you used throughout. In this essay, it could work much better to end by revealing one of those "lunch-time horror stories" in a way that also emphasizes their main point: how storytelling is a powerful tool to connect people.

About This Personal Essay:

Personal statement example #3: romanian heritage.

This personal statement worked for UMichigan , among many other top schools like MIT, Rice, UNC at Chapel Hill , University of Pittsburgh, UW Madison, and more.

This author is able to vividly bring you into their world using cultural references and descriptive writing. You can practically taste and smell Buni's kitchen through her words.

This essay starts off by posing a challenge, which is typical of essays. But rather than showing how they overcame this particular challenge of speaking Romanian without an accent, this reader shows how something unexpected—baking—came to satisfy what was missing all along. By the end, this creates a conclusion that is both surprising, connected to the beginning, and makes perfect sense once you've read it. In other words, the conclusion is inevitable, but also surprising in content.

This student uses Romanian words to help exemplify the culture and language. If you're writing about a culture, using foreign language words can be a compelling way of adding depth to your essay. By including specific terms like "muni" and "cornulete," it shows a depth of knowledge which cannot be faked. Always use specific, tangible language where possible, because it is "evidence" that you know what you're talking about.

This student exhibits strong self-awareness by noting characteristics about themself, even some which may not be the most glamorous ("can be overbearing at times, stubborn in the face of offered help"). Rather than telling the reader flat out about these personal attributes, they are able to discuss them by connecting to another person—their grandmother Buni. Using another person to showcase your own character (through comparison or contrast) is a literary "foil," which can be an effective way of showing your character without stating it outright, which generally is boring and less convincing.

This student doesn't focus on surface-level ideas like "how they got better at speaking Romanian." Instead, they reflect in a creative way by connecting the Romanian language to baking. Revealing unseen connections between topics is a great way to show that you're a thoughtful and clever thinker. Ultimately, having unique ideas that are specific to you is what will create a compelling essay, and this essay is a perfect example of what that could look like.

Learn the Secrets of Successful Top-20 Applications

Join 4,000+ students and parents that already receive our 5-minute free newsletter , packed with T-20 essay examples, writing tips & tricks, and step-by-step guides.


Personal Statement Example #4: Person of the Woods

This essay was accepted into Dartmouth College . It is a brilliant example of showing how any experience, even those which originally may have been unpleasant, can be the topic of meaningful reflection.

Using visuals, like descriptions of scenarios and environments, can help bring the reader into your world. However, make sure that all of your descriptions are relevant to your main point, or else they could be distracting. For example, in this essay it would be unnecessary to describe what they're wearing or the appearance of canoes, but it makes sense to describe the nature as it relates to the main topic.

People are not isolated units. Instead, everyone depends on and is defined by those around them. By showing how you relate and connect with other people, you can provide insights into your character. In this essay, the student does a great job of delving into their strong friendships, particularly what they've learned from their friends.

Admissions officers love to see self-growth. Showing how your perspective on something has changed (in this case, how they went from disliking to loving an activity) conveys a development of your character. Ask yourself: what preconceived notions did I have before, and how did they change? This student reflects in a humble way, by first emphasizing what they've learned from others, before offering up what they might have contributed themselves. Always try to have a tone of gratitude in your essays because it makes you more likeable and shows strong character.

Personal Statement Example #5: Beautiful Walks

Personal statement example #6: my father.

This personal statement was admitted to Michigan in recent years. It is an outstanding example of how you can write about topics that are often cliché if done poorly, such as the death of a family member.

But unlike other essays, this one works because it has a unique take and genuine approach to the topic that makes it come off as heartfelt.

Common App Prompt #2: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (250-650 words)

Writing about a tragedy like a loss of a parent is a tricky topic for college essays. Many students feel obligated to choose that topic if it applies to them, but it can be challenging to not come across as trying to garner sympathy ("sob story"). This student does a graceful job of focusing on positive elements from their father's legacy, particularly the inspiration they draw from him.

This student does a great job of connecting their educational and career aspirations to their background. Admissions officers want to understand why you're pursing what you are, and by explaining the origin of your interests, you can have compelling and genuine reasons why.

In this essay, the student writes from their hypothetical perspective as an infant. This doesn't quite work because they likely wouldn't remember these moments ("I have no conscious memories of him"), but still writes as though they do. By writing about things you haven't seen or experienced yourself, it can come across as "made up" or inauthentic.

Personal Statement Example #7: Self-Determination

Some of the best essay topics are dealing with challenges you've faced, because difficulties make it easier to reflect upon what you've learned. Admissions officers ultimately are looking for self-growth, and showing how you've handled personal challenges can demonstrate your new understandings as a result. However, avoid talking about "tragedy" or difficulty without a clear purpose. Don't write about it because you think "you should," only write about challenges if they are true to yourself and you have something meaningful and unique to say about them. Otherwise, it can come off as trying to garner sympathy (i.e. "sob stories") which admissions officers generally dislike.

More convincing than telling admissions officers, is presenting them with "evidence" and allowing them to come to the conclusion themselves. If you want to show the idea "I couldn't learn due to this condition," it is far more effective to do what this student did and say, "I'd just finished learning complex trig identities, and I now couldn't even count to ten." When drafting, it is normal and okay to start off with more "telling" as you get your ideas on paper. But as your essay progresses, you should transform those moments of "telling" into more powerful and convincing moments of "showing."

Having meaningful reflections is a critical part of having compelling essays. But make sure your takeaways are not surface-level or generic. Each admissions officer has likely read thousands of essays, so they are well aware of the common ideas and tropes. Avoid cliché ideas at all costs, because it comes across as forgettable and unoriginal. Instead, it is okay to start with surface-level ideas, but keep asking yourself probing questions like "Why" and "How" to push your ideas deeper.

This essay tells a nice story of overcoming their physical impediment, but ultimately lacks meaningful reflections in the conclusion. Too much time is spent on "the problem" and not enough on how they overcame it. Your conclusion should have your best, most compelling ideas in your entire essay. Try ending your essay by connecting to the beginning with a new perspective, expanding on your idea with a new takeaway, or connecting to broader, more universal themes. Avoid having a conclusion that "sounds nice," but ultimately is lacking in meaningful content.

Personal Statement Example #8: Game Design Music

This essay was admitted into Cornell University . It discusses a common conflict of ideology that comes with pursuing the arts. What the author does brilliantly is show how that conflict was reconciled, as well as how it changed their perspective.

My mom used to tell me this a lot. She’d always disapproved of my passion for the arts.

In this essay, the author does a fantastic job of showing how they are thoughtful in considering the perspectives of others, even though they may disagree. Showing that you can entertain ideas that you may disagree with is an admirable trait that admissions officers love to see, because intellectual discussion is all about trying to see other people's views. When writing about things that you may disagree with, try to play devil's advocate and see things from their point of view. Doing so will make you come off as thoughtful, understanding, and inquisitive, and it will strengthen your own viewpoint if you can identify arguments against it.

The best essays help admissions officers understand how you think about things. One strategy is to offer up questions to explore. These can be questions that arose during a particular moment or questions that you're reflecting upon right now. By using questions in your essay, you'll also present yourself as a thoughtful and curious thinker. Ultimately, you want to help the reader see things from your perspective by showing your thought process.

A good starting place for reflection can be in comparing and contrasting different topics. This could finding the similarities and differences in an extracurricular and an academic class, or any other number of things. By finding the similarities in things often thought of as "opposing," or finding the differences in things thought of as "similar," you can get to interesting ideas. Comparisons are useful because they force you to think from a different viewpoint. For example in this essay: How does "programming" relate to "song lyrics"?

This essay ends on a note that feels somewhat off-topic and not as interesting as their main idea. The conclusion leaves more to be wanted, as the reader ends up thinking: Are you simply seeking the approval of your parents? Or are you carving your own path in life? Or does the answer lie somewhere in between? Avoid ending your essay with a tangential idea. Instead, a strong conclusion is often closely related to the main point of your essay, but with a slight twist. By planning out your essay before writing, you can make sure that each point (from start to finish) connects the way you want it to and that your conclusion ends on a strong, well-connected note.

Personal Statement Example #9: Speech and Debate

I was still high off the competition, poring over ballots by the soft streetlights as we drove. “Are you sure you want to do this?” My Dad was worried about me. Worried about my world crashing down around me, losing friends, being crushed by hate. Scarred by controversy. I laughed it off, and we rode in silence.

Fast forward to my second or third year in the league. I wanted to have some fun. I emailed the regional coordinator, asking if there’s a rule against a speech advocating for same-sex marriage.

This essay has lots of interesting ideas about having discussions between people of different viewpoints. This student is able to reflect sincerely about what the benefit of that dialogue is ("iron sharpening iron") and able to draw meaningful conclusions ("hope lives in that laughter") that express deeper ideas. By focusing on these compelling reflections, this student shows themself as a brilliant and thoughtful thinker, while demonstrating what they value: discourse between opposing viewpoints. Rather than focusing on the literal happenings (i.e. giving a speech to their club), the student reflects on what that experience represents more broadly, which allows them to connect to deeper ideas.

This essay is full of details, without being wordy or drawn out. Even small details like naming the show "The Daily Show" or giving a number of "40,000+ theologies" makes their writing much more engaging and compelling. By avoiding broad and vague language, this student paints a fascinating picture that allows the reader to enter their world. It is always better to be specific than to be generic, but make sure that the specific details are always relevant to your point. This essay is a great example of how to do both.

This essay does a fantastic job of creating a "voice." That is, you can easily imagine the student as if they were speaking to you while reading it. To craft this voice, this student uses small moments of more informal language and interjecting remarks that show their thought process. Using parentheses can be a good way to show your voice by jumping in when you have a small remark to add. This student also demonstrates a sense of humor and lightheartedness while still discussing meaningful ideas. The sarcastic remark "because controversy has no place in a debate club!" demonstrates their values (of dialogue between differing viewpoints) as well as showing their sense of personality.

This essay's weakest point is its intro or "hook." In fact, it could work much better by excluding the introduction paragraph and starting off with the second paragraph: "Forgive the melodrama: this is a story..." That short phrase is much more captivating and immediately draws the reader in. The introduction paragraph in this essay is too much of a meandering and vague story: you don't know what they're talking about, and ultimately it doesn't matter. Rather than using a fancy story or descriptions to introduce your essay, try jumping into the "meat" of your essay immediately. Consider using a short, declarative sentence or phrase like "Forgive the melodrama" as a hook, which is more impactful and draws the reader immediately into your essay.

Personal Statement Example #10: Finding Answers

Common App Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? (250-650 words)

My grandmother’s concern faded rather quickly as sirens fell distant and time passed.

After about 30 minutes, my grandfather’s friend ran toward the beach. My grandfather was not next to him. He was not there at all. At that moment, my grandma knew.

“Burt...he was with me...he slipped...he fell...I ran down the side of the mountain, off the trail, but I couldn’t find him. The park rangers are looking...” She stopped listening. She could see his lips moving, yet she heard nothing.

This essay repeats a lot of the same ideas or information, just using different words. Rather than "getting to the point," this repetition makes the essay feel meandering and like it is going nowhere ultimately. When drafting your essay, it is okay to have repetition (your drafts shouldn't be perfect, after all). But when editing, ask yourself with each sentence: does this add something new? Is this necessary to my main point? If not, you should exclude those sentences.

This essay starts off with a drawn-out story of the tragedy involving the author's grandfather. Most of this story is unnecessary, because all that really matters for this student's main idea is the fact that their grandfather passed away from a tragic accident. Details about his grandmother or his grandfather's best friend are unnecessary and distracting.

An important "rule" in college essays is to only write from your perspective. That is, don't describe things that you couldn't have seen or experienced. In this essay, the author spends a lot of time describing their grandfather's incident as if they was there to witness it. But we later learn that the author was not even alive at this point, so how could they be describing these things? On a smaller level, don't describe yourself from an outside perspective. For example, instead of, "I grimaced when I heard the news" (how did you see yourself grimace?) you could say, "I felt my stomach pang when I heard the news."

Your ideas are most valuable in your essays. Admissions officers want to see how you think, and having interesting ideas that are unique to you is how you demonstrate that you're thoughtful and insightful. Avoid surface-level ideas at all costs, as it comes off cliché. It is okay to start with more generic ideas, but you should always delve deeper. To get at deeper and more unique ideas, the key is to ask yourself questions. For example: Why is this the case? Why don't things work differently? What does this mean for other people? What does this represent? How can I apply this to other areas of life?

Personal Statement Example #11: Connecting with Others

Common App Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (250-650 words)

It's important to create a "voice" in your personal statement, so that admissions officers can imagine your character and personality. Try to write as you would speak, but refined and polished. In this essay, natural-sounding phrases like "...let me admit, I was awful..." humanizes the author and makes the reader feel like they're being spoken to.

This essay is a perfect example of how effective essays don't need to have a super unusual story to be compelling. What makes this essay's story compelling is not necessarily the topic itself (meeting distant relatives), but instead how the student reflects and makes interesting connections to broader ideas. Even seemingly mundane experiences can make for meaningful personal statements topics.

This conclusion works well by connecting to the main story of the essay. However, certain phrases like "As a global citizen" and "I am hoping to forge relationships" are potentially too generic. Instead, try taking your main idea (in this case forming connections with others) and broaden it or connect to more universal ideas.

Personal Statement Example #12: Summer Confidence

This essay has a heartfelt moment where the author connects deeply with a camper and feels a sense of genuine gratitude. By showing their newfound connection with a person they were mentoring, this creates a sense of humanity and also tells a lot about the author themself. By talking about other people in your life, you create a literary "foil" which in turn describes something about yourself. Showing how you interact with others can be telling into your character, such as showing your empathy, sense of humor, friendliness, or how you draw inspiration from others.

This essay does a good job of expressing vulnerability, specifically the author's fears about the future and "deteriorating friendships" after going to college. By being vulnerable, these moments feel more relatable to the reader. Showing your struggles (especially emotional ones) can also make your later "successes" feel more impactful when you show how you've overcame them or persist in face of those struggles. By recognizing your flaws or insecurities, you also show self-awareness, which is a positive trait because you need to be self-aware in order to improve the areas of yourself you want to fix.

Although this essay does reflect upon the lessons learned during their time at this camp, the takeaways are ultimately surface-level and not delved into. Rather than saying things like "I had more confidence," it would be more engaging to show how that confidence made an effect and what exactly that "confidence" meant. This essay touches upon some meaningful lessons, but ultimately they fall flat because the nuances of these lessons are glossed over. Phrases like "upon further consideration it no longer fills me with...apprehension" don't delve into the most interesting part: How and why did that fear go away? What changed about your perspective and why? Instead, these are explained away with "confidence and maturity," which are too broad of terms and feel meaningless because they are overused in essays.

In your personal statement, it is completely OK to reference people by their first name. Using names makes your essay more vivid and engaging, while showing a deeper connection that you have with others. Rather than saying "other people" or "one of the older campers," it would be more impactful to use their first name. There are some caveats, however. Don't use their name if you're showing them in a negative light (which you probably shouldn't do anyway) or if you're revealing something personal about them. If you are revealing something personal, you can substitute their name for another name, or ask them for their direct permission.

Personal Statement Example #13: First Impressions

It had a nice ring to it, but I wasn’t a fan. Unfortunately, that’s what I imagined everyone saw first, and first impressions stick.

A caveat of my surgery was that the hair would grow, then one-third would fall off. My scar will never be completely gone, but I no longer feel defined by it like I did in elementary school.

An effective hook doesn't need to be complicated. Often, the best hooks are simple, declarative sentences. By using a short sentence, you'll immediately draw the reader into your essay and create a point of emphasis. In general, avoid long and meandering sentences to start your essay, and save those for later in your essay. Clear and succinct phrasing is often the hallmark of a strong hook.

To convey your ideas more strongly, show them using concrete examples. In this essay, the author does a great job of that by not saying "classmates only saw me for my scar," but instead showing that idea through the memorable image of "I learned about my classmates through their lunchbox covers...they saw me as the boy with the scar." Using tangible imagery makes for a compelling way of expressing your ideas, as it allows the reader to come to the conclusions you want them to, without just "telling" them.

Avoid exaggerating or "fluffing up" experiences in your essays. Instead, be realistic and tell them for what they are. This essay does that perfectly by using phrases like "I didn't have a sudden epiphany about my scar." Avoid using phrases like "suddenly, I..." which are often overused and unrealistic. Most new understandings aren't acquired in one moment in particular, but are developed over time.

This essay touches on some compelling ideas, such as how people can distill down other people into their physical attributes or ailments. However, it would be even stronger to delve deeper into these reflections by asking further questions: Why do we gravitate towards "categorizing" people based on surface-level attributes? What is the impact of only be acknowledged for surface-level characteristics by others, but knowing that you have much more depth to your character? This essay has some meaningful ideas, but other ideas such as "I can be whatever I want to be" feel surface-level and somewhat generic.

Personal Statement Example #14: Law Career

One great way to have interesting ideas is to show things that you find fascinating that other people may find boring. This essay describes how a judge mandating "reprimands for speeding tickets might be dull for some," but how they find it interesting. Everything, even the seemingly mundane, has interesting aspects if you're willing to look closely enough. When brainstorming, ask yourself: what do I find fascinating that others find boring? What do I think is "fun" while others may think it is "hard" or boring? By following these threads, you can often find unique and compelling ideas that allow you to bring the reader into your world and show them how you see the world uniquely.

A common trap when writing a personal statement is to use a descriptive, fiction-like story to start your essay. Although this may sound like a good idea, it is often ineffective because it buries what is most interesting (your ideas and reflections) and can easily be long and drawn out. Short, concise stories with a focus can be effective introductions, but in general avoid overly descriptive storytelling to start your essay. Also, avoid describing things that aren't critical to your main point. There is little to no benefit in describing things like "I smoothed my skirt and rose slowly from the chair." Focus on why your stories matter, rather than telling stories in a descriptive manner.

This essay does have some reflections, particularly about how the author discovered their passion for law by joining the Youth Court. However, most of these ideas end there, and there aren't any deep, unique ideas. The closest the author comes to having a unique and compelling idea is the final sentence where they write "the value of prioritizing the common good above individual success." This could be a fascinating topic to explore, but ultimately is cut short because it is tagged onto the ending. Your focus when brainstorming and drafting should be to have specific and original ideas—ideas that are not generic, not cliché, and not surface-level. To get to those ideas, ask yourself probing questions like "Why" and "How" over and over.

Personal Statement Example #15: Growing Up Asian

Personal statement example #16: secrets of riddles.

Common App Prompt #6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? (250-650 words)

As I was going to St. Ives, Upon the road I met seven wives; Every wife had seven sacks, Every sack had seven cats: Cats, sacks, and wives, How many were going to St. Ives?

The riddles of life were not as straightforward as the puzzles in my books and websites. In fact, they were not straightforward at all, like winding mazes of philosophical quandary.

One of the most thought-provoking subjects that preoccupies my mind regards the existence of aliens. Initially, my mind was settled on the possibility of intelligent life. A universe so big could not possibly be lifeless.

As for the solution to the riddle at the start:

How many were going to St. Ives?

This essay does well by having a unique central topic—riddles—which allows the author to draw out interesting ideas related to this theme. Your topic doesn't necessarily need to be profound or hugely significant, because this author shows how you can take a seemingly unimportant topic and use it to make meaningful connections. In this essay, riddles grow to represent something greater than the activity itself, which is something you can do with almost any topic.

One of the most effective ways to "show, not tell" is to use specific and tangible examples. This essay does a great job of exemplifying their ideas. Rather than just saying "I enthralled my friends with questions," the author also shows this: "Over peanut butter and sliced ham, I assumed the role of story teller..." Examples are always more convincing because they are proof, and allow the reader to interpret for themselves. Don't tell the reader what you want them to think. Instead, set up moments that guide the reader to come to those conclusions themselves.

This conclusion connects back to the beginning, which is generally a good idea as it creates a cohesive structure. However, this ending doesn't quite make sense in the context of the riddle. Rather than creating new meaning, it comes off as arbitrary and contrived. Make sure your conclusion isn't creative just for creative-sake, and instead also has significant meaning attached to it.

Personal Statement Example #17: Rubik's Cube

Personal statement example #18: narrative diversity.

If your cultural background or identity is an important part of who you are, then writing about it can make for a compelling essay. Often times in college admissions, Asian-Americans in particular are advised to "hide" their ethnic background, because it can be perceived to hurt their application. This student embraces their Asian heritage by recognizing ways in which they faced societal barriers. As this essay shows, regardless of your identity, there are unique aspects you can delve into that can make for compelling topics.

This essay does a great job of reflecting upon previously held beliefs, such as "I unconsciously succumbed to the 'reserve and quiet' Asian stereotype," and challenging them. Questioning your beliefs and where they came from can often be a good starting point for interesting reflection. Showing your new perspectives over time also conveys self-growth. Ask yourself: what did I once believe (in regards to myself, an activity, other people, etc.), what do I believe now, and how has this changed?

Rather than starting off with an activity and then reflecting upon it, this student takes a different approach. By introducing an interesting idea (the representation of underrepresented groups in media) and then later connecting to their activities, it makes the incorporation of those extracurriculars seem more appropriate and natural. The last thing you want to do is list your activities plainly, but it's still important to reference them. One strategy to naturally talk about your activities and accomplishments is to attach them to interesting ideas, as this essay shows.

Personal Statement Example #19: Search for Dreams

Common App Prompt #7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. (250-650 words)

The diamond leaves of gnarled oak trees throw spectrums of color onto mounds of frosty snow that gleam melancholily under the moonlight. The leaves chime as wind violently rustles them in a haunting melody. I splinter a leaf off its branch and inspect the shard of my illusion, eyes dancing with amusement.

As I dwell in my worries, a cold hand reaches from behind me and taps my shoulder.

I jerk away, fear bubbling in my amygdala as I look into the nonexistent eyes of my intruding visitor.

The moon illuminates a blob of pink squish as it draws back slowly, points its spindly hands towards my drink and asks: “Could I have some of that?”

The blob wipes its invisible mouth with its nonexistent sleeve. I ask: “What are you?”

The blob tells me to stop looking at it so suspiciously. “I can prove it,” It says. I tell it, please, go ahead.

Suddenly we are back in the glowing forest. “Diamonds? Pah!” The blob dismisses them. Instantly, the leaves turn solid gold, the snow melts, and the wintry world is thrown into a blistering summer.

The blob laughs heartlessly. “Your cortex is under my control,” it says smugly.

“I heard you had a question for me?” It taps its invisible ears knowingly.

The blob wriggles its invisible brows as it waits.

It smiles that wicked smile. It laughs that sinful laugh. Then that insufferable blob wakes me up.

As I sit up in the dark and rub my bleary eyes, I am vaguely aware of the deep­set unfulfillment settling itself inside me. I yawn and plop back into bed, the soft red glow of my alarm clock indicating that it is still before midnight.

One thing is for sure about this essay: it has a unique idea that has surely not been written before. Regardless of your topic, you want your essay to be unique in some way, even if it isn't as fantastical as this essay. You can use a unique structure, such as having central symbolism, metaphor, or being structured as a recipe, for example. But this can easily become "gimmicky" if it doesn't have a clear purpose. In general, the most effective way to have a unique essay is to focus on having deep and unique ideas and reflections. By focusing on interesting takeaways and connections that are ultra-specific to you and your experiences, your essay will standout regardless of the structure.

This essay uses a lot of fiction-like writing that is fantastical and "flowery." Although moments of this kind of writing can make your essay more vivid, it is quite easy to end up with dense storytelling and descriptions that ultimately don't share anything interesting about you. The purpose of your essay is ultimately to learn about you: your values, your ideas, your identity, etc. By using dense story-like writing, it can be easy to lose focus of what admissions officers are looking for. In general, avoid writing "fancy" stories like this essay, unless you have a clear and distinct purpose for doing so. Everything in your essay should have a purpose in "going somewhere" (i.e. reaching interesting ideas and takeaways).

This essay is definitely creative, but lacks meaningful takeaways and ideas. By the end of the essay, we don't know much about the author besides the fact that they have an affinity for creative writing and are "on a search." Although the content is unique, the end result comes off as quite generic and surface-level because no interesting thoughts are explored deeply. The most interesting part of this essay is "I open my mouth and ask it my most crucial question," but this is super unsatisfying because the question is never divulged. Instead, the reader is teased by this fantasy story and the essay goes nowhere meaningful, which comes off as gimmicky and "creative for creative's sake," rather than deeply personal and interesting.

This essay ends on the idea of "continuing my search," but for what exactly? It is never explained, elaborated, or even implied (besides one reference to painting earlier). That makes this conclusion comes off as somewhat surface-level and uninteresting. Admissions officers won't care about "your search" unless they have a reason to care. That is, unless it tells something specific about you. On it's own, this idea of "exploring" and "searching" is meaningless because it is too broad and unelaborated.

Personal Statement Example #20: Recipe for Success

Step 1: Collect the ingredients

Step 2: Marinate the meat

Step 3: Wrap the dumplings

Step 4: Boil or pan-fry?

Step 5: Share and enjoy!

This essay has a clearly unique format in that it is structured as a dumpling recipe. By walking the reader through each step of dumpling-making, the student is able to explore various ideas and use the dumpling process as a metaphor for their own self-discovery. Having a creative structure like this can be beneficial, so long as you also have compelling ideas and the structure isn't unique just for the sake of being unique.

This whole essay is one big metaphor: the student compares their self-growth to the process of making dumplings. In doing so, the student introduces their heritage, while also having a creative literary device that they can use to explore various topics. By having a "central theme" such as this essay does, it makes it easier to explore a variety of ideas and activities, without seeming like you're listing them.

Struggles are one of the most defining aspects of self-development, and admissions officers are interested to see how you have overcome challenges. These difficulties don't need to be extreme tragedies or insurmountable obstacles, but everyone has faced difficulties. By reflecting upon those difficulties, you can draw out interesting ideas, showcase vulnerability, and express your personality.

What You Can Learn From These Personal Statement Examples

With these 20 Personal Statement examples, you can get inspired and improve your own essays. If you want to get accepted into selective colleges this year, your essays need to make you stand out.

These 20 examples show how real students got into highly selective schools and teach us several lessons for writing your own successful Personal Statement essay:

  • Write a compelling first sentence that grabs the reader
  • Be specific and reference things by name
  • Tell a meaningful story
  • Reflect on your life and identity. Be self-aware.

If you enjoyed these personal statement examples, check out some of our top Common App Essays , which are also personal statements essays, but for the Common Application.

Which of these personal statement examples was your favorite?

Ryan Chiang , Founder of EssaysThatWorked.com

Want to read more amazing essays that worked for top schools?

Hey! 👋 I'm Ryan Chiang, the founder of Essays That Worked.

Get our 5-minute free newsletter packed with essay tips and college admissions resources, backed by real-life examples from admitted students at top-20 schools.

Meet the Author

Ryan Chiang

I'm Ryan Chiang and I created EssaysThatWorked.com - a website dedicated to helping students and their families apply to college with confident. We publish the best college admissions essays from successful applicants every year to inspire and teach future students.

You might also like:

20 Successful College Essay Examples + Why They Worked (2024)

20 Successful College Essay Examples + Why They Worked (2024)

25 Elite Common App Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)

25 Elite Common App Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)

UCLA Acceptance Rate By Major & Program 2024

UCLA Acceptance Rate By Major & Program 2024

37 Unique "Why This College" Essay Examples for Top-20 Colleges

37 Unique "Why This College" Essay Examples for Top-20 Colleges

23 College Essay Tips to Stand Out

What do outstanding essays have in common? Here are our 23 most effective strategies based on lessons from admitted students.

No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.

By signing up you agree to Terms and Privacy Policy

personal statement of identity

Now available for June 2024 ...

The College Essay Workshop

Join my on-demand step-by-step course for crafting outstanding college admissions essays, plus 1-on-1 help.

Here's everything needed to write essays worthy of Top-20 colleges.

Google Rating

Join our students who have earned acceptances to schools like...

See exactly how students wrote admitted essays for top schools.

Our 231 essay examples show you how ordinary students wrote outstanding essays that helped their applications - all in their own words.

These aren’t just essay examples - but real acceptance stories, from real students who share their most intimate details with you - down to their real essays and exact profiel stats.

How do I find a unique topic? How do I write a great essay? And how do I stand out?

Our 231 essay examples break down these exact questions. Every type of essay prompt, student, and school.

You’ll realize these students are just like you - and that, deep down, you can do it too.

personal statement of identity

Princeton Admitted Essay

People love to ask why. Why do you wear a turban? Why do you have long hair? Why are you playing a guitar with only 3 strings and watching TV at 3 A.M.—where did you get that cat? Why won’t you go back to your country, you terrorist? My answer is... uncomfortable. Many truths of the world are uncomfortable...

personal statement of identity

MIT Admitted Essay

Her baking is not confined to an amalgamation of sugar, butter, and flour. It's an outstretched hand, an open invitation, a makeshift bridge thrown across the divides of age and culture. Thanks to Buni, the reason I bake has evolved. What started as stress relief is now a lifeline to my heritage, a language that allows me to communicate with my family in ways my tongue cannot. By rolling dough for saratele and crushing walnuts for cornulete, my baking speaks more fluently to my Romanian heritage than my broken Romanian ever could....

personal statement of identity

UPenn Admitted Essay

A cow gave birth and I watched. Staring from the window of our stopped car, I experienced two beginnings that day: the small bovine life and my future. Both emerged when I was only 10 years old and cruising along the twisting roads of rural Maryland...

Over 200 more admitted essays like these...

Learn the secrets behind outstanding application essays.

College essays are confusing. And it's not your fault. You're not taught how to write them in school.

How should I structure my essay? Can I use humor? What makes a truly great essay?

There's so much conflicting advice out there.

And with people selling "magic formulas" and "structures" to follow... it's easy to be led astray.

You’ll get access to courses, live events, a dedicated essay coach, and countless resources to help you write your best essays.

You finally have a place where you can ask these questions, get advice, and see exactly how admitted students before you did it.

You’re no longer figuring out everything on your own. You're no longer stuck wondering.

Everything you get

231 essays analyzed

Explore our database of 200+ admitted essays from top-20 colleges. Filter by prompt, school, topic, word count, and more. Get expert insights into why they worked and what you can learn from them.

Exclusive access to essay editing

You'll get access to our essay editing services, which is only offered for members. You can get your essays reviewed personally by me (Ryan). I'll give you detailed feedback on how to improve your essays and make them stand out.

Dedicated essay coach & support

You'll get access to our private community, where you can ask questions and get help from me directly. I'll be there to answer your questions and provide unlimited personalized advice.

44 in-depth video lessons

Learn the secrets behind outstanding essays. We break down the entire process, from brainstorming to writing and editing. You'll learn how to write amazing college essays for any prompt, with step-by-step guides and actionable tips.

26 downloadable guides

Get our best tips and tricks in easy-to-read guides. Learn what makes great essays, how to brainstorm your best topics, and how to write specific parts like a powerful hook and memorable ending.

Tons of bonuses

Get the Ultimate College Application Planner, my 154-Point Essay Checklist, and more. You'll also get a free copy of my eBooks, including 23 College Essay Tips to Stand Out and more.

Don't take our word for it

Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of our students and parents.

" Ryan, I want to express our great appreciation to you for your help on George's application essays. You have provided invaluable resources! P.S. I will certainly recommend you to our friends. "

personal statement of identity

" Ryan—David got into The University of Michigan!!! Only 4 kids got in out of 200 that applied at his school!!! Thank you so so much for everything "

personal statement of identity

" Thank you for the incredible help Ryan - both Hannah and I have said repeatedly that we could not have done it without you! "

personal statement of identity

" Thank you for your help with my essays back in November, including my Yale supplements. Just wanted to let you know I ended up getting into and committing to Yale! "

personal statement of identity

" I feel so much more reassured to press the submit button now. I wish I knew about your site sooner! "

personal statement of identity

" ... Invaluable to me during the college admissions process! It gave me a different perspective to look at my essays. "

personal statement of identity

" Initially I was skeptical about my essay's idea and whether it was properly reflected in my writing. This gave me a clear direction! "

personal statement of identity

Don't miss out on writing your best college essays.

© 2018- 2024 Essays That Worked . All rights reserved.

Registration on or use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms and Conditions , Privacy Policy , and Cookie Policy .

We have no affiliation with any university or colleges on this site. All product names, logos, and brands are the property of their respective owners.

  • For Individuals
  • For Businesses
  • For Universities
  • For Governments
  • Online Degrees
  • Find your New Career
  • Join for Free

How to Write a Personal Statement

A personal statement can be a key part of your college application, and you can really make yours shine by following a few tips.

[Featured Image] A lady with pink hair is holding a piece of paper with a laptop on her lap.

When you're applying to college—either to an undergraduate or graduate program—you may be asked to submit a personal statement. It's an essay that gives you the chance to share more about who you are and why you'd like to attend the university you're applying to.  

The information you provide in your personal statement can help build on your other application materials, like your transcripts and letters of recommendation, and build a more cohesive picture to help the admissions committee understand your goals.

In this article, we'll go over more about personal statements, including why they're important, what to include in one, and tips for strengthening yours.

What is a personal statement?

A personal statement—sometimes known as a college essay —is a brief written essay you submit with other materials when applying to college or university. Personal statements tend to be most common for undergraduate applications, and they're a great opportunity for an admissions committee to hear your voice directly.

Many colleges and universities in the US, especially those using Common App , provide prompts for you to use. For example, "Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea" or "Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time" [ 1 ]. If the school you're interested in attending doesn't require prompts, you will likely want to craft a response that touches on your story, your values, and your goals if possible.

In grad school, personal statements are sometimes known as letters of intent , and go into more detail about your academic and professional background, while expressing interest in attending the particular program you're applying to.

Why is a personal statement important?

Personal statements are important for a number of reasons. Whereas other materials you submit in an application can address your academic abilities (like your transcripts) or how you perform as a student (like your letters of recommendation), a personal statement is a chance to do exactly that: get more personal.

Personal statements typically:

Permit you to share things that don't fit on your resume, such as personal stories, motivations, and values

Offer schools a chance to see why you're interested in a particular field of study and what you hope to accomplish after you graduate 

Provide an opportunity for you to talk about past employment, volunteer experiences, or skills you have that complement your studies 

Allow colleges to evaluate your writing skills 

Bring life to a college application package otherwise filled with facts and figures 

Coursera Plus

Build job-ready skills with a Coursera Plus subscription

  • Get access to 7,000+ learning programs from world-class universities and companies, including Google, Yale, Salesforce, and more
  • Try different courses and find your best fit at no additional cost
  • Earn certificates for learning programs you complete
  • A subscription price of $59/month, cancel anytime

How to write a personal statement.

As we mentioned earlier, you may have to respond to a prompt when drafting your personal statement—or a college or university may invite you to respond however you'd like. In either case, use the steps below to begin building your response.

Create a solid hook .

To capture the attention of an admissions committee member, start your personal statement with a hook that relates to the topic of your essay. A hook tends to be a colorful sentence or two at the very beginning that compels the reader to continue reading.

To create a captivating hook, try one of these methods:

Pose a rhetorical question. 

Provide an interesting statistic. 

Insert a quote from a well-known person.

Challenge the reader with a common misconception. 

Use an anecdote, which is a short story that can be true or imaginary. 

Credibility is crucial when writing a personal statement as part of your college application process. If you choose a statistic, quote, or misconception for your hook, make sure it comes from a reliable source.

Follow a narrative.

The best personal statements typically read like a story: they have a common theme, as well as a beginning, middle, and end. This type of format also helps keep your thoughts organized and improves the flow of your essay.

Common themes to consider for your personal statement include:

Special role models from your past

Life-altering events you've experienced

Unusual challenges you've faced

Accomplishments you're especially proud of

Service to others and why you enjoy it

What you've learned from traveling to a particular place

Unique ways you stand out from other candidates

Be specific.

Admissions committees read thousands of personal statements every year, which is why being specific on yours is important. Back up your statements with examples or anecdotes.

For instance, avoid vague assertions like, "I'm interested in your school counseling program because I care about children." Instead, point out experiences you've had with children that emphasize how much you care. For instance, you might mention your summer job as a day camp counselor or your volunteer experience mentoring younger children.

Don't forget to include detail and vibrancy to keep your statement interesting. The use of detail shows how your unique voice and experiences can add value to the college or university you're applying to.

Stay on topic.

It's natural to want to impress the members of the admissions committee who will read your personal statement. The best way to do this is to lead your readers through a cohesive, informative, and descriptive essay.

If you feel you might be going astray, ensure each paragraph in your essay's body supports your introduction. Here are a few more strategies that can help keep you on track:

Know what you want to say and do research if needed. 

Create an outline listing the key points you want to share.

Read your outline aloud to confirm it makes logical sense before proceeding. 

Read your essay aloud while you're writing to confirm you're staying on topic.

Ask a trusted friend or family member to read your essay and make suggestions.

Be true to your own voice.

Because of the importance of your personal statement, you could be tempted to be very formal with structure and language. However, using a more relaxed tone is better than you would for a classroom writing assignment. 

Remember: admissions committees really want to hear from you . Writing in your own voice will help accomplish this. To ensure your tone isn't too relaxed, write your statement as if you were speaking to an older relative or trusted teacher. This way, you'll come across as respectful, confident, and honest.

Tips for drafting an effective personal statement.

Now that you've learned a little about personal statements and how to craft them, here are a few more tips you can follow to strengthen your essay:

1. Customize your statement.

You don't have to completely rewrite your personal statement every time you apply to a new college, but you want to make sure you tailor it as much as possible. For instance, if you talk about wanting to take a certain class or study a certain subject, make sure you adjust any specifics for each application.

2. Avoid cliches.

Admissions committees are ultimately looking for students who will fit the school, and who the school can help guide toward their larger goals. In that case, cliches can get in the way of a reviewer understanding what it is you want from a college education. Watch out for cliches like "making a difference," "broadening my horizons," or "the best thing that ever happened to me."

3. Stay focused.

Try to avoid getting off-track or including tangents in your personal statement. Stay focused by writing a first draft and then re-reading what you've written. Does every paragraph flow from one point to the next? Are the ideas you're presenting cohesive?

4. Stick to topics that aren't controversial.

It's best not to discuss political beliefs or inappropriate topics in your essay. These can be controversial; ideally, you want to share something goals- or values-driven with an admissions committee.

Polish your writing skills on Coursera.

A stellar personal statement starts with stellar writing skills. Enhance your writing ability with a writing course from a top university, like Good with Words: Writing and Editing from the University of Michigan or Writing a Personal Essay from Wesleyan University. Get started for free to level up your writing.

Article sources

1. Common App. " 2022-2023 Common App Essay Prompts , https://www.commonapp.org/blog/2022-2023-common-app-essay-prompts." Accessed January 9, 2024.

Keep reading

Coursera staff.

Editorial Team

Coursera’s editorial team is comprised of highly experienced professional editors, writers, and fact...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

How to Write a Personal Statement – 5 Personal Statement Examples

How to write a personal statement – introduction.

The personal statement is one of the most important parts of the college application process. For this reason, it’s often also one of the most anxiety-inducing. If you’ve been searching for personal statement examples because writing your personal statement has you worried (or excited), then you’re in the right place. 

In this article, we’ll present five personal statement examples and teach you how to write a personal statement that highlights who you are and demonstrates your full potential to colleges. We’re going to outline what a personal statement is, how colleges use them in the application process, and which topics tend to work best for college applicants. Then, we’ll offer some advice and tools to help you draft, edit, and finalize your own personal statement. Finally, we’ll walk you through five personal essay examples, breaking them down individually, so you can see just what makes them work. 

Writing a personal statement may seem like a daunting task, especially if you aren’t clear on just exactly what a personal statement for college is. After you see your first personal statement example, things may seem clearer. But first, let’s demystify the term “personal statement.” 

What is a personal statement?

Learning how to write a personal statement starts with understanding the term . I’m sure throughout the college application process you’ve heard your counselors, teachers, and classmates talking about the importance of a personal statement. While you may know that the personal statement for a university is extremely important, you still might not be clear on just what it is. You may have never even seen a personal statement example. So, before you attempt to start writing , let’s answer the questions: what is a personal statement for college? And just how do universities use them to evaluate students?

A personal statement for college is your chance to set yourself apart from other students and show admissions who you are. A strong personal statement for a university will describe your unique experiences and background in a first-person narrative. And when done well, it’s your opportunity to catch the right attention of an admission officer. 

No pressure, right? Don’t stress quite yet. The process of writing a personal statement can be fun! It’s an opportunity to write about something you’re passionate about. You’ll be able to see a personal statement example later on (five, actually!), and you’ll notice that it’s not about the perfect topic , but rather, how you tell your story. 

Personal statement basics

Now, let’s talk about personal essay specifics. Generally speaking, a personal statement will be between 400-700 words, depending on the specific university guidelines or application portal. The Common App essay must be 250-650 words. The Coalition App , by contrast, suggests that students write 500-650 words.  Try to aim for the higher end of those ranges, as you’ll be hard pressed to write a compelling personal statement without enticing descriptions. 

Apart from the word count, what’s the personal statement format? The personal statement for a university should be written in a first-person conventional prose format. You may be a wonderful poet or fiction writer but refrain from using those styles in your personal statement. While using those styles in a personal essay could occasionally be a hit with admissions, it’s best to showcase that style of writing elsewhere. If you choose to add your creative writing style to your application, you should do so by submitting a writing portfolio. Generally speaking, the strongest personal statement will be written in first-person prose language. 

General or prompted

When it comes to a personal statement for college, it will generally fall into one of two categories : general, comprehensive personal statement, or a response to a very specific personal essay prompt. In the open-ended option, you’ll want to share a story about something important related to your life. This could be about family, experiences, academics, or extracurriculars . Just be careful not to repeat your entire resume. That’s certainly not the goal of a personal essay.  

Remember, it’s a personal statement. So, share something that you haven’t elsewhere. If given a prompt, it will likely be open-ended so that you can flex your creativity and show off your writing style. You’ll be able to write a story that genuinely matters to you, ideally sharing something that has made you who you are. 

You may also need a personal statement when applying to certain programs, such as business or STEM programs. The basic idea is the same, but you’ll want to connect your experiences to the specific program. Check out the details of writing a personal statement for a specific field . 

That extra push

The college application process can seem rigid at times; the personal statement for college is your chance to show off in a way that has nothing to do with GPA or transcripts. The personal statement is an opportunity for colleges to meet students on their own terms. It’s essentially your written interview . 

At top universities, many students will have similar grades and test scores. A strong personal statement gives students the chance to stand out and show that they’re more than just numbers on a transcript. What’s the extra push that an admissions officer may need to admit a qualified student? A well-written, compelling personal statement can help you gain admittance to competitive schools . 

Having a support system throughout the college admissions process is important. Keep your parents in the loop with this personal statement webinar that offers details about the common app essay and the personal essay for college. 

You are probably wondering the same things as other students about the college application essay or college essay tips. Read an admissions officer’s response to some FAQs and get some useful college essay tips. Then, put your college admissions knowledge to the test with our quiz below!

The CommonApp Essay vs. The Personal Statement

So, we’ve discussed what a personal statement is and why it matters. Now, let’s discuss one common type of personal statement: the Common App essay. While each school may have their own personal statement topics, the Common App essay section has general prompts that will serve as your personal statement. The Common App essay will respond to one of seven prompts.

For the most up-to-date information on the Common App essay, you can check their website .

Common App Essay Questions for 2022-2023:   

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Open-ended prompts

The Common App essay personal statement prompts are intentionally open-ended. They are meant to give you the chance to tell your unique story . However, one requirement is that your Common App essay must be between 250-650 words. 

You can choose to respond to any one of the seven prompts. Remember to choose the best prompt for you. It may seem obvious, but the personal statement for college is your opportunity to share your personal story. You’ll want to choose a topic you can write well about that will show how you’ve grown or changed. It’s also your opportunity to show off your writing style. So, pick a topic you enjoy writing about!

Check out some tips on how to tackle each prompt from the Common App essay blog. You may also want to read this Common App essay overview for juniors . We’ll get into more specific details later on how to write the Common App essay– and other personal statement topics in general– later in this article.

How important is a Personal Statement?

As we’ve mentioned, the personal statement is your chance to stand out in a pool of applicants. It’s an extremely important part of any college application. A personal statement for college will be a requirement of nearly every application you complete. Admissions will use your personal statement to get a sense of who you are beyond your grades and scores. So, if you want to show colleges what makes you unique, your personal statement is the place to do it. Figuring out how to write a personal statement is key to a successful application. 

Seeing what works when it comes to your personal statement for university can be a helpful first step. U.S. News breaks down the process of writing a personal statement and gives some successful personal essay examples. Reading another student’s successful personal statement example will give you an idea of what impresses admissions. It may even get you excited about writing your own personal statement for college! 

While every school will likely require some sort of personal statement, it may actually be used differently in the admissions process. How your personal statement is judged during the admissions process will depend on a school’s size, ranking, acceptance rate , and various other factors. Larger state schools will likely put the most importance on an applicant’s grades and scores while spending little time reviewing a student’s personal statement. 

Especially important at top tier schools

However, at Ivy League schools and other elite institutions, many students have the same impressive grades, scores, and extracurriculars. The personal statement allows these schools to distinguish between high-achieving students. If you’re looking at these types of institutions, then a lot of importance should be placed on writing a personal statement that is unforgettable and impresses admissions. 

So, we know that learning how to write a personal statement is key to many successful applications, but you may be thinking: what’s the difference between a personal statement and supplemental essays? Every school you apply to via the Common App will receive an identical copy of your Common App essay. The Common App essay serves as your personal statement. 

However, each school will have their own supplemental requirements, which may include additional supplemental essays . For schools with many supplemental college essay prompts, your personal essay may not have as much of an impact on your overall application. Admissions officers will see your writing style, and likely your personality, in all of the college essay prompts you submit. 

Additional personal statements

Still, you should always treat your personal essay with the utmost care. It can make a huge difference in the admissions process. You may also need to write other personal statements when applying to scholarships or specific programs . It’s good to get used to the process and the personal statement format during college application season. 

When should I start writing my Personal Statement?

When it comes to all things in the college application process, including any college application essay, it’s best to start early . Don’t leave your personal statement for a university until the last moment. Writing a personal statement will take time. The sooner you start your personal statement for college, the more likely you are to succeed. 

This doesn’t mean that you should start writing your personal statement for university the summer before your sophomore year. High school is a time for development, and colleges want to get to know you at your most mature. It’s just good practice to start thinking about how to write a personal statement early on. 

Review personal statement examples

Think about personal statement format, personal statement topics, and personal statement ideas. Look at other students’ personal statement examples. You can start jotting down potential ideas for your personal essay for college at any time, which may be useful down the line. But, you don’t need to actually start writing your personal statement until the summer before your senior year .

Be open-minded to changing your personal statement topic as you grow and discover new things about yourself. Check out this personal statement webinar on how one student switched her personal essay for college at the last moment. Just like there is no set personal statement format, there are no rules against mixing up your topic as you see fit. But, at least try to allow yourself some time to revise and edit your personal essay for college to perfection.

What do I write in a personal statement?

There’s no one-size-fits-all outline when it comes to how to write a personal statement. Your personal statement for university will depend on your own background, interests, and character. Overall, it’s not the personal statement topics that will catch the eye of admissions officers– it’s how you write your story that will. You need to know how to write a personal statement that not only checks the boxes but is also powerful . 

Important things to keep in mind when writing your personal statement: 

Choose a topic you’re passionate about.

What would you be excited to write about? Chase the personal statement topics that seem fun to write, think about, and talk about. If you’re passionate about your personal statement, your audience will feel it and be engaged. 

Really be you

Authenticity is key when it comes to writing a personal statement. After all, it’s your chance to tell your story and really show admissions who you are. Whatever you write about, make sure it is true, honest, and authentic to your experiences.

Give it some flair

Ok, we don’t mean do something too unconventional like a personal statement haiku. But, you should show off your writing style in your personal statement for college. Admissions officers want to get to know you and your writing. 

Knowing how to start a personal statement or how to start a college essay, in general, is often the most difficult part of the process. You’ll want to brainstorm some personal statement topics to get your creative juices flowing. CollegeAdvisor.com offers a masterclass on brainstorming personal statement topics for the Common App essay in case you need some help with how to start a college essay or a personal statement. 

Still have doubts? Read more on how to write a personal statement and get some college essay tips from CollegeAdvisor.com’s admissions experts. It will also be helpful to look at some successful personal essay examples and understand why they worked . Good personal statement examples can inspire you to tackle writing your own personal essay for college.  

Exploring Personal Statement Topics

It seems logical that when exploring the process of how to write a personal statement, you should start thinking about personal statement ideas. What are the best topics to write about in a personal statement? If you look at various successful personal statement examples, you’ll likely realize the topic isn’t necessarily the most important part. You don’t need to write about something that no one else has ever written about. You just need your personal statement to have its own unique spin. Lean into brainstorming personal statement ideas that show who you are. It’s helpful to read some personal statement examples for inspiration. 

While there is no exact formula for “how to write a personal statement”, there are some basic guidelines that students should follow. The personal statement should be written in first-person nonfiction prose form. Often, a personal statement introduction will include a story or an anecdote and then expand to reveal the impact of that experience on the writer. 

You may be specifically wondering how to start a personal statement. Well, it could be with a moment, a place, or a conversation that spurred some sort of change or growth within you. While this isn’t necessarily a “personal statement format,” it’s a very general format that works. 

Things to avoid

We now know that the personal statement format is fluid, but there are some things to avoid when thinking about how to write a personal statement: 

  • Profanity, explicit content, or crude language. 
  • Lying or misinterpreting events. Keep it authentic. 
  • Sharing overly personal descriptions of troubling life experiences. Remember that applying to college requires professional boundaries. 
  • Writing a narrative that revolves around others. The personal statement is all about you and your experiences. 

If you want to know what a bad personal statement example would look like, imagine one that includes any of the formerly listed items. You don’t want to catch an admissions officer’s attention for the wrong reasons. Good personal statement examples will be engaging, but inoffensive. Check out some more do’s and don’ts when it comes to how to write a personal statement.   

When pondering “how to write a personal statement,” it’s good to know that you don’t need to follow conventional essay guidelines. The best personal statement examples will exude passion and professionalism, while a bad personal statement example will lack soul. If you’re excited about a topic, then that’s a great place to start! Now, let’s get into the actual writing. 

How do you write a good Personal Statement?

To review, in the first part of this series of three articles on how to write a personal statement we answered the question “What is a personal statement?” We also explained how schools use a student’s personal statement for college to evaluate them. We described the Common App essay as an example of a personal statement for a university. Next, let’s dig into how to write a personal statement, including how to start a personal statement, the best tips for writing a personal statement, and some good personal statement examples and personal essay examples to inspire you.

First, you have probably wondered how to write a personal statement that stands out from the rest. It all comes down to one thing: authenticity. The best personal statement examples and personal essay examples show schools what makes the writer unique, and they are written in an authentic voice. When giving advice about how to write a personal statement, admissions officers say that the best personal statement examples tell them who the student is beyond their coursework and grades. They are personal, and they tell a unique and interesting story.

Considering Personal Statement topics

So, as you think about how to write a personal statement, you may also wonder what the best personal statement topics are. When writing a personal statement, including the Common App essay, you don’t have to share an exciting story about the time you wrestled a wild bear or how you discovered a cure for cancer. For example, in their advice on how to write a personal statement, Wellesley College advises , “Tragedy is not a requirement, reflection and depth are.” 

Some of the best personal statement topics focus on insights about common experiences. Begin your brainstorming process by reviewing the list of Common App essay prompts as you think about writing a personal statement, and choose a story that genuinely matters to you. Then, get excited about telling it! Think about writing a personal statement, including the Common App essay and every other personal essay for college, as an opportunity to lean into your quirkiness or to share your unique insights.

What’s more, a good personal statement for a university should be well-written. Consider the advice offered by Purdue Online Writing Lab : “Be specific, write well and correctly, and avoid cliches.” This will take time—writing a good personal statement for a university or a good Common App essay doesn’t happen overnight. The process of writing a personal statement will include multiple sessions between the first phase of brainstorming and the final phase of editing. Be prepared to write and rewrite, and never hesitate to ask for help from an advisor, counselor, parent, or trusted adult. However, remember that your work should always be your own.

Now, let’s discuss how to start a personal statement.

How do you start a personal statement?

So, now you have the basic information on how to write a personal statement, including your Common App essay. Next, you’re probably asking, “But how do you start one?” In this section, we’ll break down the process of exploring personal statement ideas and how to start a personal statement. This information also applies to thinking about how to start a college essay. Then, we’ll discuss how to write a personal statement opening.

Brainstorming is usually the first phase of any writing project to generate personal statement ideas. You may want to read a personal statement example like those here or here for inspiration to help get your personal statement ideas flowing. Next, ask yourself some idea-generating questions : Who have your intellectual influences been?  Which careers are you considering and why? What personal goals do you have? As you think about the answers to these typical college essay prompts, jot down personal statement ideas that occur to you. If you’re still feeling stuck, ask a close friend or family member , “What do you think differentiates me?,” or “What are my quirks?”

Pick a topic that excites you

Then, once you have a few good topics for your personal statement, choose one that you feel most excited to write about. Write a draft of your personal statement introduction and see what other ideas occur to you for later parts of your essay. Choose another topic and do the same thing. Don’t feel like these initial drafts need to be perfect—words on the page are always a great start! The goal right now is to decide which personal statement topics you feel most inspired to write about. Which ideas reflect something interesting about you ? 

Once you have selected which topic you will focus on for your personal statement, Common App essay, or personal essay for college, think about crafting a strong hook. The opening line (or lines) of the best personal statement examples include a “hook” for the reader, grabbing their attention and making them want to keep reading. For example, you could start with a question, an unusual or surprising statement, or an anecdote that will leave readers wondering what comes next. Whichever approach you select when considering how to start a college essay, make sure to use engaging language and vivid imagery.

Remember, start early and write several drafts .

The personal statement is an opportunity to write about a topic that is important to you and that also reflects your personality . Now, let’s discuss the personal statement format.

How do you format a personal statement?

Different applications may require different approaches to your personal statement format. In some cases, you may copy and paste your personal statement into an application and it will format itself automatically. In other situations, you will need to set up your personal statement format yourself. If this is the case, Times New Roman font, 12-point, with conventional margins and double spacing is a safe personal statement format.

When you are submitting your personal statement or Common App essay through the Common App, you may notice that the Common Application text box only allows formatting for bold, italics, and underlining. Therefore, it’s best to write your personal statement in Google Docs or Word and to write your paragraphs with block formatting (not indented). In addition, using Google Docs or Word will also allow you to easily check spelling and word counts before pasting your personal statement into the Common App.

Editing your Personal Statement

Many students wonder what the editing process for their personal statement for college, including the Common App essay and other personal essays for college, should look like. This varies by student and by essay. But, the best personal statements for a university go through at least several rounds of edits.

Firstly, once you have written the first draft of your personal statement for a university or personal essay for college, take a step back for a few hours or even for a day. Then, return with fresh eyes. Is your narrative well organized? Are there sections that seem unclear, ideas that don’t support your main point, or awkward sentences? You may want to reorder your paragraphs or sentences or delete and rework other elements. Revisit a personal statement example and consider how it is organized for comparison. 

Making the cut

In short, don’t be afraid to cut sentences that don’t directly relate to the main focus of the essay or convey some important detail of the story. This will help clarify your narrative. Also, make sure that you have centered your writing around your own experiences—the story should reflect your perspective and insights.

Next, once you are confident that your personal statement is well organized and your main ideas are clear, do another round of detailed editing. Eliminate any typos or repetitive language; make sure you have proper grammar and spelling throughout.

Finally, ask a trusted adult to read your personal statement and provide feedback. Something that you thought was clear may not be to them. Also, ask them how engaging your personal statement is, and if there are sections that seem dry or unimportant. Ask whether your hook is effective, and review tips on how to start a personal statement if necessary. Sometimes feedback can be difficult to hear, but it helps to remember that even professional writers seek input from others. The goal is to create the best personal statement possible!

For more detailed advice on revising your personal statement, check out this CollegeAdvisor personal statement webinar, “ Revising the Personal Statement .”

How do I know when my personal statement is done?

There’s no definitive way to know when your personal statement for a university is done—you can keep editing most writing forever. However, as you revise and edit, you’ll notice that you have fewer things to fix with every new draft. Once you feel like there’s nothing major left to change, get feedback from someone you trust. 

Your College Advisor expert can also provide valuable feedback and guidance at this point. If the notes and suggestions from others are also limited, you may be nearly ready to finalize your personal statement for college and press “submit.”

6 Tips for Writing a Great Personal Statement 

1. be authentic.

Remember, admissions officers want to know about you —your personality, your interests, your goals. A great personal statement is personal . Your personal statement for a university needs to express your unique ideas and insights in your own voice. Nobody can tell your story better than you. So, choose a topic that interests you and let your energy and ideas shine through.

Being personal also means that you should share sensory details and your internal dialogue. What did you see or hear at a critical moment? What were you thinking or feeling during that pivotal conversation? The more personal details you share, the more interesting your personal statement will be.

2. Start early

This is one of the most important tips on how to write a personal statement. You can start brainstorming topics for your personal statement at any time during high school. Some students keep a notebook where they write down personal statement topics and ideas as they occur to them over time. They also begin reading other good personal statement examples and Common App essays for inspiration. 

Regardless, a good plan is to solidify a draft of your personal statement for college the summer before your senior year. This will give you time to work on supplemental essays and other parts of your applications during the fall of your senior year.

3. Brainstorm before you write

Take some time to think and reflect deeply before you begin writing. Don’t feel like you need to jump into a full essay draft as soon as you complete your junior year. Do some writing exercises and brainstorming activities first, including reading other personal statement examples. 

In each personal statement example you read, pay close attention to the personal statement introduction, the narrative arc, and the conclusion. Did the writer incorporate an effective technique for how to start a college essay? Why is the essay interesting? What does it tell you about the writer? 

4. Tell a story

Keep in mind that well-told stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They also engage the reader and arrive at a clear message or point by the end. In short, the best personal statement examples follow a narrative arc. 

Start with an interesting hook and use it as an introduction to a story from your life that addresses the given college essay prompt. Then, use the latter half of your personal statement or Common App essay to show why this story matters and how it reveals a key part of your identity. And always remember: show, don’t tell.

5. Avoid common mistakes

Steer clear of cliches in your writing—they do not help you stand out or demonstrate strong writing skills. Also, do not use your personal statement or Common App essay as an opportunity to rehash your activities or achievements. Remember, these are included in other parts of your application. 

The best personal statement examples show admission officers something about the writer that is not reflected in other parts of the application. They describe first-hand experiences and provide specific examples to illustrate ideas.

6. Edit carefully

Once you’ve written your personal statement for college, look for anything that doesn’t feel right. Eliminate awkward phrasing, delete or replace repeated words and phrases, and work to streamline your language. You might delete entire drafts, and that’s okay! It’s a process, and all the work you do gets you closer to your best work. Also, make sure to ask a few others whom you trust to read your essay and provide suggestions for edits.

Bonus tip: Ask for help

A second set of eyes can make a huge difference. Ask an advisor (like our team at CollegeAdvisor.com), counselor, or parent to look over your work. Don’t let anyone write your sentences for you—instead, use their input to help your voice shine through. 

For more great college essay tips on how to write a personal statement and college essays, check out this advice from college admission experts.

Personal Statement- Frequently Asked Questions

Where can i find a good personal statement example.

There are a variety of websites that offer good personal essay examples as models you can use to inspire you. A good place to begin is here , and there are also examples of personal statements in the next article of this series. As you read these examples, take note of the personal statement introduction, as well as how the writer focuses the essay on a specific topic or idea that reflects their personality.

Is it ever too late to change my personal statement?

While it is much better to begin writing your personal statement early, sometimes students decide later in the writing process that they want to rethink the personal statement topic they have chosen. If you find yourself in this position, you will find some helpful advice in this CommonApplicant.com personal statement webinar . 

My parents didn’t go to college. How do I explain personal statements and how to write a personal statement to them?

CollegeAdvisor.com has created a special personal statement webinar just for parents. In this webinar, we describe personal statements, the specifics of how to write a great college essay, and other college admissions terms.

I’m a high school junior. What should I be doing now to prepare to write my personal statement and college essays?

First, congratulations on thinking ahead! You can begin by reading “ Common App Essay Overview for Juniors .” Then, your CollegeAdvisor admissions expert can help you begin brainstorming and planning for your college application essays. They can provide you with examples of common college essay prompts, as well as helpful college essay tips. Also, they can provide suggestions on how to start a personal statement and share other resources on how to write a great college essay.

How will college admission officers evaluate my personal statement and college application essay?

Admission officers are looking for personal stories that are well told. How closely each of your college application essays is read will vary depending both on the school and the other components of your application. However, as more schools become test-optional, admission officers say that college essays are becoming even more important in the admissions process. So, as you plan your essays keep in mind that admission officers want to learn about you —your experiences, thoughts, and goals. They also want to see that you have solid writing skills, so make sure that you closely edit your essays before you submit them.

If you would like to hear directly from an admission officer and learn more about how to write a great college essay, including specific advice on how to start a college essay, check out this “ 39 Essay Tips ” article.

How is the personal statement for a university different from the Common App essay and personal essay for college? 

The Common App essay asks students to write a personal statement in response to one of seven provided prompts. All types of personal essays for college provide students with an opportunity to introduce themselves to college admission officers on their own terms. For a more detailed description of each of these types of essays, check out the first article in this series, “How to Write a Personal Statement.”

For answers to more frequently asked questions about personal statements for college and college essays, click here .

In the first part of this series discussing how to write a personal statement, we answered the questions “What is a personal statement?” and “How important is the personal statement?” In this second article of the series, we have covered the specifics of how to write a personal statement, including descriptions of the writing phases of the personal statement and personal essay for the college writing process. In the next article, we will examine personal statement examples and highlight key elements of each personal statement example. 

Introducing 5 Personal Statement Examples

By this point, you’ve gone from asking, “What is a personal statement?” to knowing how to write a personal statement. Now, let’s look at some personal statement examples. Reading personal statement examples is great preparation for writing your own personal statement for college.

However, keep in mind that reading about how to write a personal statement is one thing–writing a personal statement is entirely different. By reading these personal statement examples and why they worked, you’ll have a better grasp of how to write a personal statement.

Each of these personal statement examples shows something that isn’t clear in the rest of the application. Top schools accepted all the writers of these personal statement examples. Our guide will walk you through each of these personal essay examples and discuss what makes them work. We hope by reading these, you can learn more about how to write a personal statement.

Personal Statement Example #1: Choosing a Great Topic

The first of our personal statement examples was written by a student who was accepted to Yale, Princeton, and other top schools. Their personal statement discusses the legacy of antisemitic violence in their family. While political and religious topics can be difficult, this student writes a fantastic college application essay about their topic.

Personal Essay Example #1

Across the ocean, there is war. Children mistaking rockets for fireworks, parents too protective—too careful—to correct them.          Back home, there are phone calls. To family, to friends. In English, in Hebrew.          “Are you safe?”         I pray they live far from Jerusalem.          Right here, in my room, there is turmoil.          Furiously swiping through Instagram, I wonder who will betray me next. I wonder which friend will decide that their loosely related, offensive commentary belongs on their profile.          Once the deed is done, I am quick to unfollow. To cut off perpetrators of what Jewish journalists call “the Social Media Pogrom”: when targeting the Jewish people online turns to real antisemitic violence (and a powerful reason to unfollow my friends).          So I flee from my friends’ Instagram accounts. But only because my family fled from much worse.          My grandfather found himself wearing a yellow star, living in a ghetto, and losing everything to the Nazis. One day, he ripped off the star and ran. Even though it meant never seeing his family again.          He did not flee for a better life; he fled for any life.          His son came to marry another refugee: my mother. Her story is a familiar one, shared by many in my hometown: escaping yet another antisemitic regime whose existence threatened her own, my mother fled Revolutionary Iran in 1979. Fortunately, she was reunited years later with all eight of her siblings, who had escaped in various other creative, illegal ways—“on camelback” being a personal favorite.           To this day, she bears a scar on her eyelid from antisemitic violence back home.          My family tree’s roots are settled in the soil of persecution. Swastikas have sawed away at its structure, and Revolutionary Guards have bent its branches. I know too well which winds will threaten the leaves: words wishing my people death, implicitly or explicitly. Calling on my cousins to evacuate their homes, for they are on the Jewish side of the land dispute. Denying the reality that no one deserves to be displaced.         When I hear these words, see them on a screen, I sense a chillingly familiar breeze. Sometimes, the breeze blows away a few leaves: a rabbi is stabbed, a synagogue vandalized.          Suddenly my friends, teetering on the edge of antisemitism with waves of painful posts, are no longer my friends. They are my enemies.          But then I hear a little voice:         “David, what on Earth are you doing?”         And I remember that they are not. They are not Nazis or Revolutionary Guards. I should not shun them or cease to show them love. I cannot wallow in my rage or simply “unfollow”—not on Instagram, not in life.          I soon return those beloved friends to my circle. I “follow” them once again.         Because dialogue is my lifestyle. I ought to be recruiting my friends to Model Congress or engaging them in class. Welcoming the people around me to a world of positive, exciting, and purposeful discourse is the best I can do. It’s also who I am.          My family passed down a sensitive radar for harmful rhetoric, but also gifted me with a powerful belief—a Jewish belief—in informed discussion and coexistence. Holding no hate in their hearts, my ancestors wore lenses of love that did not belong to their oppressors.         Today, I wear those same lenses with pride. Once infuriating Instagram posts no longer cloud my vision. I’ve instead fallen in love with the precious diversity of thought that surrounds me and find myself most at home when I am immersed in political dialogue.          I will face many “enemy” opinions, but I will not shut my eyes and cover my ears, give up a dear human connection, and miss out on a meaningful experience.            I will approach individuals with humanity rather than animosity, acceptance rather than judgement, and love rather than hate.          I will live by the lessons of my ancestors. 

What Worked?

What did this Common App essay do well? Firstly, it covers a great topic. This student writes about their family’s experience with antisemitic violence and its legacy in their life today. When writing a personal statement for college, such sensitive personal statement topics can be challenging. In this case, the writer successfully centers their experiences and thoughts rather than on controversial events.

Moreover, they cut through political tension with a core reality rooted in empathy: “No one deserves to be displaced.” This is a great strategy if you’re wondering how to write a personal statement on a sensitive topic. All personal statement topics have an angle that makes them universally relatable. If your personal essay for college is missing something, try an empathetic approach.

Ask for help revising

Don’t forget to ask other people to revise your personal statement for university. What makes sense to you may not read well to others. Especially with sensitive topics, share your work with someone you can trust to give you feedback. If possible, also include a non-family member like a teacher or guidance counselor who knows how to write a personal statement.

This student connects their family’s troubles with their own worldview. Good personal statement examples offer a look at the author as a person. A strong topic lets you reflect on how your experiences have impacted your engagement with the world and other people. And as shown above, the writer chose a great topic –not necessarily a great college essay prompt. College essay prompts are wide-ranging , and good personal statement ideas can come from any of them. Indeed, whatever your prompt is, personal essay examples are ultimately about you . 

Evocative language and imagery

With this in mind, look at how the writer’s attitude changes throughout their Common App essay. Good personal statement examples contain precise, evocative language and imagery. When you’re writing a personal statement, find the right words—not necessarily the longest ones—and sentence structures you need. This personal statement begins in a panic; the writer “furiously swiping” in the “turmoil” of their room, keenly attuned to betrayal from friends. These words and the short paragraphs bring each thought into sharp focus.

The writer’s passion for their subject shows through their language. Using structural repetition in “Wishing…. Calling…. Denying…” establishes a serious tone and keeps the personal statement fresh. In the latter half, words like “beloved,” “lenses of love,” and “precious diversity” signify a shift to a gentle, loving attitude. The best personal essay examples choose their words precisely. By choosing words carefully in combination with poetic and rhetorical devices, you can write a stellar personal statement for university.

Certainly, family histories can be great personal statement topics. Even so, suffering doesn’t automatically make a strong personal statement for university. If you know how to write a personal statement, even at first mundane personal statement ideas can become good personal statement examples.

Personal Statement Example #2: Finding a Great Hook

The second of our personal statement examples is by a student who was accepted to UC San Diego, Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, and more. In their personal statement for college, this student uses their interest in Rubik’s cubes to frame other parts of their life.

Personal Statement Example #2

My life is as simple as a Rubik’s Cube: a child’s toy that can be solved in 20 moves or less IF and only if enough knowledge is gained. I received one on my 9th birthday and over the following months, I became obsessed with it.  I rotated the rows aimlessly, hoping that eventually the cube would solve itself. I was naive about the complexity of the cube which led me to apply some research. I began looking up tutorials on YouTube about solving the toy and was in awe over the amount of work that had to be done. I forced myself to go step by step until I could arrange a single face, and my progress pushed me forward until I could solve 4 of the 6 faces of the cube. Every night for an hour I would randomize the colors again and work my way back to ⅔ of the cube being complete. Until this point, I lacked the confidence in my everyday life and had never aimed for a difficult goal, especially one without external motivation. However, what I love about solving the cube is that you can follow the steps perfectly and still run into a stalemate based on the arrangement of the squares. This forces you to randomize the cube again and start from step 1. All the hard work and time put into this object can be useless, but it is unavoidable no matter what you do. Multiple times I faced this dilemma of running into a wall, but instead of giving up, my will pushed me forward. I shed many tears over my failures to solve a child’s toy. I needed to push through these failures until I could learn how to arrange the last faces of the cube. And just like that, it was complete! The Rubik’s Cube was arranged correctly. However, I wanted to get faster. I was inspired by the greatest, the individuals who could solve cubes within 5 seconds, and mix up the cube once more. I tried over and over until the point of obsession where I could get the cube arranged in under a minute. Sometimes it is necessary to disarrange a completed face of the cube in order to achieve the end goal of every face being complete. The colors of a cube can be compared to my academics, my athletics, my art, my leadership, my hobbies, and my family life. Though it is a struggle to juggle all these tasks, it is the desire to expand in all these subjects that pushes me forward. I want to learn more and master subjects within my academics, improve my form and get faster within my athletics, grow my skills of digital design within art, become a stronger role model as a leader, volunteer more within my hobbies, and get closer to supporting my family.  This mindset will continue to push me to expand my present knowledge and learn new concepts in order to complete my goals. 43,252,003,274,489,856,000: That is how many combinations there are for a single 3×3 Rubik’s cube, and there are probably even more combinations ahead of me in my journey through college and beyond. I have to struggle to learn how to solve my cube and put in the hard work in order to succeed at this game of life. Once I finish school and solve my cube for the first time, the game is not over. The next steps are to refine my work and ethics until I can get the process of solving my own cube down to 20 moves or less. My life goal is to carve a name for myself among the best and the brightest in the surgical field, yet there is always more knowledge to obtain which will drive me to continue growing.

Take a look at that hook! The classic personal statement format begins with a hook to draw the reader into a story, and this is no different. This personal statement introduction, “My life is as simple as a Rubik’s cube”, is bold, even seemingly contradictory, until you read the rest of the sentence. Either way, it makes you want to keep reading this personal statement example. 

The worst thing a personal statement for a university can be is boring. A good hook starts your reader off on the right foot. While many personal statement examples begin in the middle of a story, making a bold claim is also common. If you’re wondering how to start a personal statement, start thinking about what opening sentence would grab your attention.

Like the first essay’s writer, this student also uses descriptive language to bring their Common App essay to life. They didn’t simply try the Rubik’s cube, but they “rotated the rows aimlessly”. Rather than saying they kept working on the cube, the writer shows us how they scrambled and resolved it every night. When writing a personal statement, do your own experiences justice with the right descriptive language .

Thinking about tone

You may notice the tone of this personal essay example is very different from the first– intensity isn’t everything! In fact, it’s a reflection of the different subject matter of these personal essay examples. When writing your personal statement, your tone should match what you are trying to say. In the same way that one word can make a sentence, another can totally break it. 

From a vivid description of their childhood, the writer expands the scope of their Common App essay to other areas of their life. Good personal statement examples explore subjects that other parts of your application don’t. In this case, this student uses the Rubik’s cube to represent their varied activities and their aspirations for each. They also reflect on life lessons and personal traits: perseverance, ambition, and curiosity.

In other words, the writer creates parallels between their interest in Rubik’s cubes and their personal journey. In the same way that they obsess over speed-solving, the writer works to excel in other subjects. Furthermore, the writer shows us this instead of directly telling — a maneuver fundamental to all good personal statement examples. The writer makes a compelling case as not only an applicant but also as a future member of the campus community. 

Consider chronology

Notice the chronological structure this student uses for their Common App essay. Specifically, see how it follows the writer’s life from their first Rubik’s cube to the present day. This is a simple way to craft a strong Common App essay. Personal essay examples like this make it easy to reflect on your growth, which is crucial for any personal statement for college. Lastly, by ending with the 20 moves needed to solve a cube, the writer neatly ties up this personal statement example.

Personal Statement Example #3: The Value of a Great Ending

The third of our personal statement examples is by a student who got into the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Southern California. The writer talks about how being on the swim team helped them cultivate confidence.

Personal Essay Example #3

When I joined the high school swim team, I never expected to go to school dressed as Shrek. Yet as Freshman Friday approached, I learned it was team tradition for upperclassmen swimmers to dress freshmen teammates in ridiculous costumes. Against my will, my teammates splotched green paint on my face, styled my hair into pigtails covered in green paper, and stuffed a pillow under my sweatshirt. Attending my classes was mortifying. With every stare, I buried my head further into my textbook and shifted my hand to cover my green and now bright red face; with every chuckle, I sank deeper into my seat, attempting to hide my massive pillow stomach. The frown on my face felt like a permanent fixture, and after dealing with the humiliation for a class period, I was done. I yanked the pillow out of my sweatshirt and ripped the paper from my hair. The only hint of swamp ogre that remained was the green face paint. When confronted about my lack of Shrek-ness at the end of the day, I claimed I was overheating and that the paper had fallen apart.  I lied. I was just embarrassed. I always knew I was shy — the “too-timid-to-signal-the-waiter” type of shy — but until Freshman Friday, I hadn’t realized the extent to which it affected the social and academic aspects of my life. Ever since I was young, my jaw would clench at the thought of humiliating myself by deviating from the norm and bringing attention to myself. I often closed myself off from friends by diverting conversations to trivial topics like gym class when they probed me about deeper subjects like my mental health. I even avoided participating in class by scouring Google for hours for physics help to circumvent admitting to my classmates that I was confused by asking questions. By hiding in the shadows to avoid embarrassment, I hindered my ability to cherish the humor in being Shrek, and, more broadly, my comfort in freely expressing myself.  However, I loved swimming and wanted to make my high school team’s environment as wonderful for me as my love for the sport. I slowly started creeping out of my shell, meeting the team, and participating in more voluntary dress-up days. Freshman year, I wore a dragon onesie on pajama day; sophomore year, I wore a Hawaiian shirt, a lei, and sunscreen for tacky tourist day. Junior year, I wore my swimsuit over leggings, goggles, medals, pigtails with award ribbons, and a towel cape, finally surpassing the ridiculousness of the Shrek costume. For the first time, I finally felt confident enough to prance around the school, laughing about my costume with my classmates. I felt like a true part of my team, joking with teammates, taking pictures, and letting the whole school know that I swam. With each year and its dress-up days, I gradually felt more of the sense of community, team spirit, and fun that I had craved.  Dressing up unleashed my confidence. This, in turn, made me happier and more involved in my school community. Most surprisingly, though, was how dressing up eventually better prepared me to enter engineering. Hispanic women are severely underrepresented in engineering, so I used to fear that I would be incapable of establishing a strong enough presence and earning my peers’ respect for my ideas. However, with every group discussion I initiated, every question I asked, and every club meeting I hosted, I saw myself making a place for my input and noticed that my teachers and peers actually valued it. I realized that I had found my voice and even enjoyed sharing my opinions. I’m now ready to take on the challenge of expressing my thoughts in a male-dominated field. In the meantime, I’m just looking forward to my swim team’s next dress-up day.

Like our last essay, this personal statement has an awesome hook. In fact, the writer drops us right into the action. This technique, known as in media res , is great for a Common App essay. You can immediately set the scene for your reader, then build context from there. Not only does the writer bring us right in, but they also expertly use language for tone. “Ridiculous,” “against my will,” and “splotched” all illustrate the writer’s opposition to what’s about to happen. This is an effective technique in personal statement examples.

Following the anecdote, the writer reflects on their intense shyness. They show self-awareness by recounting specific instances where fear got the better of them. Yet again, we can see the importance of showing rather than telling in a personal statement. Each sentence provides an example of how the writer’s shyness had a negative impact on their social and academic success. Thus, we see the true conflict in this personal statement isn’t the costume, but the writer overcoming their lifelong shyness. 

Personal growth and development

Ask anyone how to write a personal statement and they’ll tell you about growth. When writing a personal statement for university, demonstrating personal growth and an ability to reflect on it is key. Across college essay prompts, you should explore how your experiences have shaped or changed you. Being able to indicate specific causes and effects is part of all good personal statement examples.

From there, the writer clearly illustrates their journey from insecurity to confidence. They show us the ways that their shyness manifested before. Then, the writer shows us the increasingly ridiculous costumes they wore. Of course, the language changes, too—the writer goes from “creeping” to “prancing”! Yet another example of how small changes to wording can have a huge impact on your personal statement for college.

Finally, the writer provides a sound conclusion. They mention the numerous benefits of their newfound confidence and, more importantly, look forward. In the final paragraph, the writer takes the lessons they’ve learned and discusses how they will use them to accomplish their goals. Like both of the personal essay examples we’ve already seen, the writer closes by talking about the doors they want to open.

Circling back to your hook

We saw the effectiveness of linking the hook and closing paragraph in previous personal statement examples. Similarly, this personal statement example ends with the idea of dress-up day once again. This kind of personal statement format helps bring everything full circle. In learning about how to write a personal statement, the conclusion is one of the most important parts. Especially in chronologically structured personal statements, closing the loop in this way makes your personal statement feel complete .

The best personal statement examples have a well-written conclusion. Taking your personal statement ideas and addressing them neatly in the conclusion is important. Whether you explain particular future goals or simply affirm your personal values, you should have a future-facing closer. Colleges want to know not only how you’ve grown, but also how you will bring that growth to campus. 

Personal Statement Example #4: Why This Essay Worked

Fourth on our list of personal statement examples is by a writer who applied to performing arts programs. This student wrote about their love for the performing arts and their heritage. They were accepted to schools like NYU Tisch, Point Park, and Roosevelt University. Look for the college essay tips we already mentioned in the personal statement below.

Common App Essay Example #4

At six years old, most kids I know get excited to help Blue find clues or recite Elmo’s songs on Sesame Street. So you can imagine my family’s surprise when they saw me ignoring the other kids to go belt alongside my grandfather’s mariachi trio in the backyard. Growing up, I had always loved performing for people. But my passion for performing in front of a packed house never compared to performing for my favorite audience: my great grandmother. From age seven to twelve, my dad would take our family on a three-hour road trip to visit my great grandmother’s nursing home every single weekend. I remember the clean, antiseptic smell, and the beeping of her oxygen concentrator as I perched myself next to her bed and sang all types of songs from romantic boleros to earwormy Disney tunes. Even as she began failing to recognize her loved ones due to her worsening Alzheimer’s, she would always remember me, her “palomita blanca,” or white dove. But as I got older, singing what once were innocent songs, like “Edelweiss” or “Almost There,” started to make me feel like an imposter. I knew I belonged on stage, but I never saw any Mexican representation in any of my favorite musicals and animated cartoons. By seventh grade, I was plucking away at my full eyebrows for community theatre the night before auditions because I was told it would give me a better chance at landing a lead role. When my great grandmother passed away, I had lost the person who constantly reminded me how powerful staying true to your identity is. Without her, I questioned whether I had a chance at pursuing the thing that lights my soul aflame. But I stuck through the late nights, sprained ankles, and endless sweating under stage lights, because I loved theatre more than anything else in the world. In my freshman year, I joined the Conservatory of the Arts program for dance and drama at my high school. After my first show, I remember feeling so comforted by the fact that I finally felt that I belonged in the theatre kid community. In sophomore year, I finally got my first lead role as Gertrude in my high school’s production of Seussical. At last! All of my hard work had paid off and I was going to be a lead after six years of ensembles. I was so excited to get the chance to show myself and the world that my identity was my power. I didn’t want to be any old Gertrude. I’d stay up until 2 a.m. on weekends coming up with ways to make her more memorable. Inspired by Juan Gabriel’s emotional ballads, I added vocal cry to Gertrude’s solos to better portray her insecurities. Instead of sticking to just belting in “All For You,” I sang runs similar to the high energy mariachi songs I grew up with to show off my character’s passion and newfound confidence. But in March 2020, the world stopped, and the show couldn’t go on. Distanced learning made the performing arts programs nowhere near as fun or educational as they used to be. Still though, as president of the drama program in 2021, I am determined to rebuild a community that was torn apart by a worldwide pandemic. I want to be the mentor I never had. My confidence in my identity has been an important tool in teaching others that practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes progress. I work hard encouraging others not to be afraid to show the world what they have. Musical theatre is an art that thrives with innovation, so I’d like to bring the creative spice which my culture has enriched me with to the world’s stage. Maybe someday I can be that actress on stage or TV that’ll get a little Latina girl enthralled by the arts.

In this personal essay example, the writer uses vivid storytelling to show how they became the person they are today. Firstly, the hook tells us how the writer values both performance and her family. This light, fun personal statement introduction quickly goes for the heartstrings by introducing the writer’s great-grandmother. Personal statement examples sometimes avoid talking about family, because it’s easy to lose focus on the writer. But this writer never loses sight of their own memories, emotions, and experiences.

Equally important, those experiences are well-illustrated with rich imagery that clearly conveys the writer’s passion for their topic. Details like the smell and sound of the nursing home bring us into the moment. The writer also provides some examples of what they endured in theatre: “late nights” and “sprained ankles.” Use concrete images to get your personal statement ideas across with impact .

Also, the writer makes a point to explore the intersections of their Hispanic heritage and their passion for theatre. Particularly, the writer discusses their difficulty in putting them together, as shown by plucking their eyebrows. By establishing this conflict in the middle of her personal statement, the writer indicates their awareness of the wider world and their place in it. Many good personal statement examples will create context like this, showing the author thinking beyond themselves.

Show commitment to your topic

Broadly, the writer discusses their twin passions with powerful language and imagery. Exhibiting genuine enthusiasm for your personal statement topics is key. This personal statement shows that the writer has always been moved by their family and by the arts. Their triumph in combining the two feels huge precisely because we understand how much each of these things mean to them. Even if your personal statement topics aren’t as deep-seeded as this writer’s, you should show commitment to what you’re writing about.

If you’re reading this, COVID probably disrupted your school life at some point, as it did for this student. However, be careful not to linger on it more than necessary. This writer doesn’t completely gloss over the pandemic, but they keep their own journey at the center of the personal statement. The writer’s experience with distanced learning propelled them forward. Ideally, your personal statement for the university should keep a tight focus on you. The narrative personal statement format should show not only your experiences but also what you’ve learned from them.

Personal Statement Example #5: Pulling It All Together

The fifth and last of our personal statement examples is by another student who got into several top schools. They write about their participation and leadership at a club event. Keep an eye out for all the tips we’ve mentioned, from a good hook to showing-not-telling.

Personal Statement #5

One hundred and fifty bagels, all completely frozen. I couldn’t believe it. My school’s Model UN Conference was to start in thirty minutes, and breakfast for the delegates was nowhere near ready. I looked with dismay at my friends’ concerned faces peering out from behind piles of frozen bagels. As Secretary-General, it was my job to ensure that this conference went smoothly. However, it seemed that was not going to be the case. I took a moment to weigh my options before instructing Hannah, our “logistics coordinator,” to heat up the frozen circles of doom in the home-ec room. I knew Hannah enjoyed baking, so I trusted her to find a way into the locked room and thaw the assortment of bagels.  Cold bagels were not the only thing weighing heavily on my mind that morning. As I walked from classroom to classroom helping set up committees, I couldn’t help but feel nervous. Our conference wasn’t going to be like those of the private schools- there were no engraved pens or stylish water bottles. Instead, people got post-it notes and whatever pens we could steal from the supply closet. Forcing myself to stop worrying, I chose instead to think of why we made that choice. Since most of the food was donated, and all of the supplies had been “borrowed” from the supply closet, we could afford to charge only a nominal fee to everyone attending. Making Model UN accessible was one of my top priorities as Secretary-General; the same desire motivated me to begin including middle school students in the club. I hurried back down to the cafeteria, and was relieved to see that all the bagels looked warm and ready to eat.  The bagels would not be the sole crisis that day. As debates were about to start, one of the Chairs sent me a panic stricken text: “We only have 5 people in our committee! We can’t reenact the creation of the Treaty of Versailles!” I hurried to where his debate was taking place, and sure enough, only five people were there. I quickly considered my options- cancel the committee?  Convince some delegates to switch into this debate through bagel bribery? Or maybe, come up with a completely new topic?  I settled on idea number three. But what topic could a committee of only five people spend a day discussing? I mulled it over until an idea began to form. I explained to the room, “Each one of you will represent one of the five major Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. The chair will guide you as you tweet, make campaign videos, and debate the most important political issues.” I spent a few minutes figuring out how to go about moderating such an unconventional committee, before heading off to check in on the other debates.  As I walked from committee to committee, fixing problems and helping move debates along, I felt a sense of pride. I had spent months working on this conference, along with the other members of my team. At times, I worried I could never pull it off. A part of me had wished our faculty advisor would just organize the whole thing for us. After all, I’m just a high schooler, how could I put together such a big event? But as the day went by, I realized that with the help of my peers, I had done it. All the little crises that cropped up weren’t because I was doing a bad job; they were inevitable. The fact that I could find solutions to such a wide variety of problems was a testament to my leadership skills, and my level-headedness. I didn’t just feel like a leader—I felt like an adult. As I look towards my future in college and later the workforce, I know that I can succeed, even if my obstacles seem as insurmountable as a mountain of frozen bagels. 

This writer has a great example of how to start a college essay. Their strong hook makes us curious – why are there so many? What’s going on, and can the writer fix it? The essay’s tone is clear from the outset, and we’re drawn in by the conflict. Moreover, the writer establishes themselves as a leader and problem-solver.

Like a short story character, this writer encounters various obstacles. Throughout this personal statement, the writer shows off their resourcefulness, leadership skills, and quick thinking. While other people are in this personal statement example, the focus never wavers from the writer’s thoughts and actions. Additionally, the writer details the thought process behind each of their solutions.

As we’ve mentioned, a good personal statement for a university shows information, rather than telling it. This writer walks through various aspects of the conference in the second paragraph, then explains their reasoning. Instead of just saying they wanted to make the conference accessible, the writer shows us how they made it possible by organizing food donations and only charging a small fee. This Common App essay shows us what the writer is like through actions as well as words.

A narrative of learning and growth

As with our other personal statement examples, the writer wraps up with a strong conclusion that recalls the hook. They recount their personal growth throughout this process. In addition, the writer elaborates on the lessons they have taken from this experience. As shown above, introspection on personal growth and values is part of any good personal essay for college. This Common App essay makes a solid case for its writer as a future student and community member.

In sum, this writer takes a seemingly insignificant anecdote and uses it to reveal something critical about their experiences. By highlighting particular, telling moments, the writer shows us their personality and capability. What’s more, by using engaging language and a clear structure, the writer makes a lasting impact on the reader. For these reasons, this is a superb example of a personal statement for college.

CollegeAdvisor Resources on Writing a Great Personal Statement

By now, you’ve seen several personal statement examples and confidently say you know how to write a personal statement. But maybe you feel you need a little more information. A good personal statement for college starts with early preparation. Getting a head start on writing your personal essay for college is a great idea.

We at CollegeAdvisor have no shortage of guides on how to write a personal statement. We’ve got quick college essay tips from our admissions experts . If you have some more time, here are some frequently asked questions answered by an Admissions Officer. If you’re more of a watcher than a reader, check out a personal statement webinar from CollegeAdvisor.

How to Write a Personal Statement: Final Thoughts

You made it to the end! Now you know how to write a great college essay. Let’s briefly recap what we covered in this “How to Write a Personal Statement” guide.

Firstly, we answered the question, “What is a personal statement?” We outlined the expected length, personal statement format, and how important they are in the application process. Then, we explored some of the most common and effective personal statement topics.

Next, we looked at how to write a personal statement. We gave advice and tips on drafting, editing, and finalizing your personal essay for college. Specifically, we talked about the value of strong hooks, your unique voice, and editing.

Finally, we reviewed five personal statement examples and discussed what made them work. Each of our personal essay examples had effective language, structure, and other techniques that may inspire your writing.

Still a little stuck on how to write a personal statement for college? Aside from college essay tips and personal statement webinars, CollegeAdvisor also offers one-on-one support. We have hundreds of Admissions Experts and former Admissions Officers available to support you. Our Admissions Experts can work with you to help you craft a college application essay that highlights your potential.

This guide was written by Sarah Kaminski , Lori Dunlap , and Gina Goosby . No matter what stage you are at in your college search, CollegeAdvisor.com is here to help. We’ve created a wide range of guides, to help you navigate the college admissions process from building your school list all the way to packing for your freshman fall. For more specialized guidance on writing a personal statement, click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.

Personalized and effective college advising for high school students.

  • Advisor Application
  • Popular Colleges
  • Privacy Policy and Cookie Notice
  • Student Login
  • California Privacy Notice
  • Terms and Conditions
  • Your Privacy Choices

By using the College Advisor site and/or working with College Advisor, you agree to our updated Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy , including an arbitration clause that covers any disputes relating to our policies and your use of our products and services.

personal statement of identity

What are your chances of acceptance?

Calculate for all schools, your chance of acceptance.

Duke University

Your chancing factors


personal statement of identity

How to Write a Personal Statement That Wows Colleges

← What Is an Application Theme and Why Is It Important?

10 Personal Statement Examples That Work →

personal statement of identity

  Most of the college applications process is fairly cut and dry. You’ll submit information about your classes and grades, standardized test scores, and various other accomplishments and honors. On much of the application, your accomplishments must speak for themselves. 

The personal statement is different though, and it’s your chance to let your voice be heard. To learn more about the personal statement, how to choose a topic, and how to write one that wows colleges, don’t miss this post.

What is the Personal Statement?

Personal statements are used in both undergraduate and graduate admissions. For undergrad admissions, personal statements are any essays students must write to submit their main application. For example, the Common App Essay and Coalition Application Essay are examples of personal statements. Similarly, the ApplyTexas Essays and University of California Essays are also good examples .

Personal statements in college admissions are generally not school-specific (those are called “supplemental essays”). Instead, they’re sent to a wide range of schools, usually every school you apply to. 

What is the Purpose of the Personal Statement?

The personal statement is generally your opportunity to speak to your unique experiences, qualities, or beliefs that aren’t elsewhere represented on the application. It is a chance to break away from the data that defines you on paper, and provide a glimpse into who you really are. In short, it’s the admissions committee’s chance to get to know the real you.

So, what are colleges looking for in your personal statement? They are looking for something that sets you apart. They are asking themselves: do you write about something truly unique? Do you write about something common, in a new and interesting way? Do you write about an aspect of your application that needed further explanation? All of these are great ways to impress with your personal statement.

Beyond getting to know you, admissions committees are also evaluating your writing skills. Are you able to write clearly and succinctly? Can you tell an engaging story? Writing effectively is an important skill in both college and life, so be sure to also fine-tune your actual writing (grammar and syntax), not just the content of your essay.

Is your personal statement strong enough? Get a free review of your personal statement with CollegeVine’s Peer Essay Review.

How To a Choose A Topic For Your Personal Statement

Most of the time, you’re given a handful of prompts to choose from. Common personal statement prompts include:

  • Central aspect of your identity (activity, interest, talent, background)
  • Overcoming a failure
  • Time you rose to a challenge or showed leadership
  • Experience that changed your beliefs
  • Problem you’d like to solve
  • Subject or idea that captivates you

One of the questions that we hear most often about the personal statement is, “How do I choose what to write about?” For some students, the personal statement prompt triggers an immediate and strong idea. For many more, there is at least initially some uncertainty.

We often encourage students to think less about the exact prompt and more about what aspects of themselves they think are most worthy of highlighting. This is especially helpful if you’re offered a “topic of your choice” prompt, as the best essay topic for you might actually be one you make up!

For students with an interesting story or a defining background, these can serve as the perfect catalyst to shape your approach. For students with a unique voice or different perspective, simple topics written in a new way can be engaging and insightful.

Finally, you need to consider the rest of your application when you choose a topic for your personal statement. If you are returning from a gap year, failed a single class during sophomore year, or participated extensively in something you’re passionate about that isn’t elsewhere on your application, you might attempt to address one of these topics in your statement. After all, the admissions committee wants to get to know you and understand who you really are, and these are all things that will give them a deeper understanding of that.

Still, tons of students have a decent amount of writer’s block when it comes to choosing a topic. This is understandable since the personal statement tends to be considered rather high stakes. To help you get the ball rolling, we recommend the post What If I Don’t Have Anything Interesting To Write About In My College Essay?

Tips for Writing a Personal Statement for College

1. approach this as a creative writing assignment..

Personal statements are difficult for many students because they’ve never had to do this type of writing. High schoolers are used to writing academic reports or analytical papers, but not creative storytelling pieces.

The point of creative writing is to have fun with it, and to share a meaningful story. Choose a topic that inspires you so that you’ll enjoy writing your essay. It doesn’t have to be intellectual or impressive at all. You have your transcript and test scores to prove your academic skills, so the point of the personal statement is to give you free rein to showcase your personality. This will result in a more engaging essay and reading experience for admissions officers. 

As you’re writing, there’s no need to follow the traditional five-paragraph format with an explicit thesis. Your story should have an overarching message, but it doesn’t need to be explicitly stated—it should shine through organically. 

Your writing should also feel natural. While it will be more refined than a conversation with your best friend, it shouldn’t feel stuffy or contrived when it comes off your tongue. This balance can be difficult to strike, but a tone that would feel natural when talking with an admired teacher or a longtime mentor is usually a good fit.

2. Show, don’t tell.

One of the biggest mistakes students make is to simply state everything that happened, instead of actually bringing the reader to the moment it happened, and telling a story. It’s boring to read: “I was overjoyed and felt empowered when I finished my first half marathon.” It’s much more interesting when the writing actually shows you what happened and what the writer felt in that moment: “As I rounded the final bend before the finish line, my heart fluttered in excitement. The adrenaline drowned out my burning legs and gasping lungs. I was going to finish my first half marathon! This was almost incomprehensible to me, as someone who could barely run a mile just a year ago.”

If you find yourself starting to write your essay like a report, and are having trouble going beyond “telling,” envision yourself in the moment you want to write about. What did you feel, emotionally and physically? Why was this moment meaningful? What did you see or hear? What were your thoughts?

For inspiration, read some memoirs or personal essays, like The New York Times Modern Love Column . You could also listen to podcasts of personal stories, like The Moth . What do these writers and storytellers do that make their stories engaging? If you didn’t enjoy a particular story, what was it that you didn’t like? Analyzing real stories can help you identify techniques that you personally resonate with.

3. Use dialogue.

A great way to keep your writing engaging is to include some dialogue. Instead of writing: “My brothers taunted me,” consider sharing what they actually said. It’s more powerful to read something like:

“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame. 

Having dialogue can break up longer paragraphs of text, and bring some action and immediacy to your story. That being said, don’t overdo it. It’s important to strike a balance between relying too much on dialogue, and using it occasionally as an effective writing tool. You don’t want your essay to read like a script for a movie (unless, of course, that’s intentional and you want to showcase your screenwriting skills!).

Want free essay feedback? Submit your essay to CollegeVine’s Peer Essay Review and get fast, actionable edits on your essay. 

Common Mistakes to Avoid in Personal Statements

1. giving a recap or report of all the events..

Your essay isn’t a play-by-play of everything that happened in that time frame. Only include relevant details that enrich the story, instead of making your personal statement a report of the events. Remember that the goal is to share your voice, what’s important to you, and who you are. 

2. Writing about too many events or experiences. 

Similarly, another common mistake is to make your personal statement a resume or recap of all your high school accomplishments. The Activities Section of the Common App is the place for listing out your achievements, not your personal statement. Focus on one specific experience or a few related experiences, and go into detail on those. 

3. Using cliche language.

Try to avoid overdone quotes from famous people like Gandhi or Thoreau. Better yet, try to avoid quotes from other people in general, unless it’s a message from someone you personally know. Adding these famous quotes won’t make your essay unique, and it takes up valuable space for you to share your voice.

You should also steer away from broad language or lavish claims like “It was the best day of my life.” Since they’re so cliche, these statements also obscure your message, and it’s hard to understand what you actually mean. If it was actually the best day of your life, show us why, rather than just telling us.

If you want to learn more about personal statements, see our post of 11 Common App Essay Examples .

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.

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

personal statement of identity


Choose Your Test

Sat / act prep online guides and tips, what is a personal statement everything you need to know about the college essay.

College Admissions , College Essays


In addition to standardized test scores and transcripts, a personal statement or essay is a required part of many college applications. The personal statement can be one of the most stressful parts of the application process because it's the most open ended.

In this guide, I'll answer the question, "What is a personal statement?" I'll talk through common college essay topics and what makes for an effective personal statement.

College Essay Glossary

Even the terminology can be confusing if you aren't familiar with it, so let's start by defining some terms:

Personal statement —an essay you write to show a college admissions committee who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their school. It's worth noting that, unlike "college essay," this term is used for application essays for graduate school as well.

College essay —basically the same as a personal statement (I'll be using the terms interchangeably).

Essay prompt —a question or statement that your college essay is meant to respond to.

Supplemental essay —an extra school or program-specific essay beyond the basic personal statement.

Many colleges ask for only one essay. However, some schools do ask you to respond to multiple prompts or to provide supplemental essays in addition to a primary personal statement.

Either way, don't let it stress you out! This guide will cover everything you need to know about the different types of college essays and get you started thinking about how to write a great one:

  • Why colleges ask for an essay
  • What kinds of essay questions you'll see
  • What sets great essays apart
  • Tips for writing your own essay

Why Do Colleges Ask For an Essay?

There are a couple of reasons that colleges ask applicants to submit an essay, but the basic idea is that it gives them more information about you, especially who you are beyond grades and test scores.

#1: Insight Into Your Personality

The most important role of the essay is to give admissions committees a sense of your personality and what kind of addition you'd be to their school's community . Are you inquisitive? Ambitious? Caring? These kinds of qualities will have a profound impact on your college experience, but they're hard to determine based on a high school transcript.

Basically, the essay contextualizes your application and shows what kind of person you are outside of your grades and test scores . Imagine two students, Jane and Tim: they both have 3.5 GPAs and 1200s on the SAT. Jane lives in Colorado and is the captain of her track team; Tim lives in Vermont and regularly contributes to the school paper. They both want to be doctors, and they both volunteer at the local hospital.

As similar as Jane and Tim seem on paper, in reality, they're actually quite different, and their unique perspectives come through in their essays. Jane writes about how looking into her family history for a school project made her realize how the discovery of modern medical treatments like antibiotics and vaccines had changed the world and drove her to pursue a career as a medical researcher. Tim, meanwhile, recounts a story about how a kind doctor helped him overcome his fear of needles, an interaction that reminded him of the value of empathy and inspired him to become a family practitioner. These two students may seem outwardly similar but their motivations and personalities are very different.

Without an essay, your application is essentially a series of numbers: a GPA, SAT scores, the number of hours spent preparing for quiz bowl competitions. The personal statement is your chance to stand out as an individual.

#2: Evidence of Writing Skills

A secondary purpose of the essay is to serve as a writing sample and help colleges see that you have the skills needed to succeed in college classes. The personal statement is your best chance to show off your writing , so take the time to craft a piece you're really proud of.

That said, don't panic if you aren't a strong writer. Admissions officers aren't expecting you to write like Joan Didion; they just want to see that you can express your ideas clearly.

No matter what, your essay should absolutely not include any errors or typos .

#3: Explanation of Extenuating Circumstances

For some students, the essay is also a chance to explain factors affecting their high school record. Did your grades drop sophomore year because you were dealing with a family emergency? Did you miss out on extracurriculars junior year because of an extended medical absence? Colleges want to know if you struggled with a serious issue that affected your high school record , so make sure to indicate any relevant circumstances on your application.

Keep in mind that in some cases there will be a separate section for you to address these types of issues, as well as any black marks on your record like expulsions or criminal charges.

#4: Your Reasons for Applying to the School

Many colleges ask you to write an essay or paragraph about why you're applying to their school specifically . In asking these questions, admissions officers are trying to determine if you're genuinely excited about the school and whether you're likely to attend if accepted .

I'll talk more about this type of essay below.

Want to write the perfect college application essay?   We can help.   Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will help you craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay to proudly submit to colleges.   Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

What Kind of Questions Do Colleges Ask?

Thankfully, applications don't simply say, "Please include an essay about yourself"; they include a question or prompt that you're asked to respond to . These prompts are generally pretty open-ended and can be approached in a lot of different ways .

Nonetheless, most questions fall into a few main categories. Let's go through each common type of prompt, with examples from the Common Application, the University of California application, and a few individual schools.

Prompt Type 1: Your Personal History

This sort of question asks you to write about a formative experience, important event, or key relationship from your life . Admissions officers want to understand what is important to you and how your background has shaped you as a person.

These questions are both common and tricky. The most common pit students fall into is trying to tell their entire life stories. It's better to focus in on a very specific point in time and explain why it was meaningful to you.

Common App 1

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

Common App 5

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

University of California 2

Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

University of California 6

Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

Prompt Type 2: Facing a Problem

A lot of prompts deal with how you solve problems, how you cope with failure, and how you respond to conflict. College can be difficult, both personally and academically, and admissions committees want to see that you're equipped to face those challenges .

The key to these types of questions is to identify a real problem, failure, or conflict ( not a success in disguise) and show how you adapted and grew from addressing the issue.

Common App 2

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Harvard University 7

The Harvard College Honor Code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.

Prompt Type 3: Diversity

Most colleges are pretty diverse, with students from a wide range of backgrounds. Essay questions about diversity are designed to help admissions committees understand how you interact with people who are different from you .

In addressing these prompts, you want to show that you're capable of engaging with new ideas and relating to people who may have different beliefs than you.

Common App 3

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Johns Hopkins University

Tell us about an aspect of your identity (e.g., race, gender, sexuality, religion, community) or a life experience that has shaped you as an individual and how that influenced what you’d like to pursue in college at Hopkins.  This can be a future goal or experience that is either [sic] academic, extracurricular, or social.

Duke University Optional 1

We believe a wide range of personal perspectives, beliefs, and lived experiences are essential to making Duke a vibrant and meaningful living and learning community. Feel free to share with us anything in this context that might help us better understand you and what you might bring to our community. 


Prompt Type 4: Your Future Goals

This type of prompt asks about what you want to do in the future: sometimes simply what you'd like to study, sometimes longer-term career goals. Colleges want to understand what you're interested in and how you plan to work towards your goals.

You'll mostly see these prompts if you're applying for a specialized program (like pre-med or engineering) or applying as a transfer student. Some schools also ask for supplementary essays along these lines. 

University of Southern California (Architecture)

Princeton Supplement 1

Prompt Type 5: Why This School

The most common style of supplemental essay is the "why us?" essay, although a few schools with their own application use this type of question as their main prompt. In these essays, you're meant to address the specific reasons you want to go to the school you're applying to .

Whatever you do, don't ever recycle these essays for more than one school.

Chapman University

There are thousands of universities and colleges. Why are you interested in attending Chapman?

Columbia University

Why are you interested in attending Columbia University? We encourage you to consider the aspect(s) that you find unique and compelling about Columbia.

Rice University

Based upon your exploration of Rice University, what elements of the Rice experience appeal to you?

Princeton University

Princeton has a longstanding commitment to understanding our responsibility to society through service and civic engagement. How does your own story intersect with these ideals?

Prompt Type 6: Creative Prompts

More selective schools often have supplemental essays with stranger or more unique questions. University of Chicago is notorious for its weird prompts, but it's not the only school that will ask you to think outside the box in addressing its questions.

University of Chicago

“Vlog,” “Labradoodle,” and “Fauxmage.” Language is filled with portmanteaus. Create a new portmanteau and explain why those two things are a “patch” (perfect match).

University of Vermont

Established in Burlington, VT, Ben & Jerry’s is synonymous with both ice cream and social change. The “Save Our Swirled” flavor raises awareness of climate change, and “I Dough, I Dough” celebrates marriage equality. If you worked alongside Ben & Jerry, what charitable flavor would you develop and why?


What Makes a Strong Personal Statement?

OK , so you're clear on what a college essay is, but you're still not sure how to write a good one . To help you get started, I'm going to explain the main things admissions officers look for in students' essays: an engaging perspective, genuine moments, and lively writing .

I've touched on these ideas already, but here, I'll go into more depth about how the best essays stand out from the pack.

Showing Who You Are

A lot of students panic about finding a unique topic, and certainly writing about something unusual like a successful dating app you developed with your friends or your time working as a mall Santa can't hurt you. But what's really important isn't so much what you write about as how you write about it . You need to use your subject to show something deeper about yourself.

Look at the prompts above: you'll notice that they almost all ask you what you learned or how the experience affected you. Whatever topic you pick, you must be able to specifically address how or why it matters to you .

Say a student, Will, was writing about the mall Santa in response to Common App prompt number 2 (the one about failure): Will was a terrible mall Santa. He was way too skinny to be convincing and the kids would always step on his feet. He could easily write 600 very entertaining words describing this experience, but they wouldn't necessarily add up to an effective college essay.

To do that, he'll need to talk about his motivations and his feelings: why he took such a job in the first place and what he did (and didn't) get out of it. Maybe Will took the job because he needed to make some money to go on a school trip and it was the only one he could find. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for screaming children, he kept doing it because he knew if he persevered through the whole holiday season he would have enough money for his trip. Would you rather read "I failed at being a mall Santa" or "Failing as a mall Santa taught me how to persevere no matter what"? Admissions officers definitely prefer the latter.

Ultimately, the best topics are ones that allow you to explain something surprising about yourself .

Since the main point of the essay is to give schools a sense of who you are, you have to open up enough to let them see your personality . Writing a good college essay means being honest about your feelings and experiences even when they aren't entirely positive.

In this context, honesty doesn't mean going on at length about the time you broke into the local pool at night and nearly got arrested, but it does mean acknowledging when something was difficult or upsetting for you. Think about the mall Santa example above. The essay won't work unless the writer genuinely acknowledges that he was a bad Santa and explains why.

Want to build the best possible college application?   We can help.   PrepScholar Admissions combines world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've guided thousands of students to get into their top choice schools, from state colleges to the Ivy League. We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit and are driven to get you admitted to your dream schools. Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in:

Eloquent Writing

As I mentioned above, colleges want to know that you are a strong enough writer to survive in college classes . Can you express your ideas clearly and concisely? Can you employ specific details appropriately and avoid clichés and generalizations? These kinds of skills will serve you well in college (and in life!).

Nonetheless, admissions officers recognize that different students have different strengths. They aren't looking for a poetic magnum opus from someone who wants to be a math major. (Honestly, they aren't expecting a masterwork from anyone , but the basic point stands.) Focus on making sure that your thoughts and personality come through, and don't worry about using fancy vocabulary or complex rhetorical devices.

Above all, make sure that you have zero grammar or spelling errors . Typos indicate carelessness, which will hurt your cause with admissions officers.

Top Five Essay-Writing Tips

Now that you have a sense of what colleges are looking for, let's talk about how you can put this new knowledge into practice as you approach your own essay. Below, I've collected my five best tips from years as a college essay counselor.

#1: Start Early!

No matter how much you want to avoid writing your essay, don't leave it until the last minute . One of the most important parts of the essay writing process is editing, and editing takes a lot of time. You want to be able to put your draft in a drawer for a week and come back to it with fresh eyes. You don't want to be stuck with an essay you don't really like because you have to submit your application tomorrow.

You need plenty of time to experiment and rewrite, so I would recommend starting your essays at least two months before the application deadline . For most students, that means starting around Halloween, but if you're applying early, you'll need to get going closer to Labor Day.

Of course, it's even better to get a head start and begin your planning earlier. Many students like to work on their essays over the summer, when they have more free time, but you should keep in mind that each year's application isn't usually released until August or September. Essay questions often stay the same from year to year, however. If you are looking to get a jump on writing, you can try to confirm with the school (or the Common App) whether the essay questions will be the same as the previous year's.

#2: Pick a Topic You're Genuinely Excited About

One of the biggest mistakes students make is trying to write what they think the committee wants to hear. The truth is that there's no "right answer" when it comes to college essays . T he best topics aren't limited to specific categories like volunteer experiences or winning a tournament. Instead, they're topics that actually matter to the writer .

"OK," you're thinking, "but what does she mean by 'a topic that matters to you'? Because to be perfectly honest, right now, what really matters to me is that fall TV starts up this week, and I have a feeling I shouldn't write about that."

You're not wrong (although some great essays have been written about television ). A great topic isn't just something that you're excited about or that you talk to your friends about; it's something that has had a real, describable effect on your perspective .

This doesn't mean that you should overemphasize how something absolutely changed your life , especially if it really didn't. Instead, try to be as specific and honest as you can about how the experience affected you, what it taught you, or what you got out of it.

Let's go back to the TV idea. Sure, writing an essay about how excited you are for the new season of Stranger Things  probably isn't the quickest way to get yourself into college, but you could write a solid essay (in response to the first type of prompt) about how SpongeBob SquarePants was an integral part of your childhood. However, it's not enough to just explain how much you loved SpongeBob—you must also explain why and how watching the show every day after school affected your life. For example, maybe it was a ritual you shared with your brother, which showed you how even seemingly silly pieces of pop culture can bring people together. Dig beneath the surface to show who you are and how you see the world.

When you write about something you don't really care about, your writing will come out clichéd and uninteresting, and you'll likely struggle to motivate yourself. When you instead write about something that is genuinely important to you, you can make even the most ordinary experiences—learning to swim, eating a meal, or watching TV—engaging .


#3: Focus on Specifics

But how do you write an interesting essay? Focus.

Don't try to tell your entire life story or even the story of an entire weekend; 500–650 words may seem like a lot, but you'll reach that limit quickly if you try to pack every single thing that has happened to you into your essay. If, however, you just touch on a wide range of topics, you'll end up with an essay that reads more like a résumé.

Instead, narrow in on one specific event or idea, and talk about it in more depth . The narrower your topic, the better. For example, writing about your role as Mercutio in your school's production of Romeo and Juliet is too general, but writing about opening night, when everything went wrong, could be a great topic.

Whatever your topic, use details to help draw the reader in and express your unique perspective. But keep in mind that you don't have to include every detail of what you did or thought; stick to the important and illustrative ones.

#4: Use Your Own Voice

College essays aren't academic assignments; you don't need to be super formal. Instead, try to be yourself. The best writing sounds like a more eloquent version of the way you talk .

Focus on using clear, simple language that effectively explains a point or evokes a feeling. To do so, avoid the urge to use fancy-sounding synonyms when you don't really know what they mean. Contractions are fine; slang, generally, is not. Don't hesitate to write in the first person.

A final note: you don't need to be relentlessly positive. It's OK to acknowledge that sometimes things don't go how you want—just show how you grew from that.

#5: Be Ruthless

Many students want to call it a day after writing a first draft, but editing is a key part of writing a truly great essay. To be clear, editing doesn't mean just making a few minor wording tweaks and cleaning up typos; it means reading your essay carefully and objectively and thinking about how you could improve it .

Ask yourself questions as you read: is the progression of the essay clear? Do you make a lot of vague, sweeping statements that could be replaced with more interesting specifics? Do your sentences flow together nicely? Do you show something about yourself beyond the surface level?

You will have to delete and rewrite (potentially large) parts of your essay, and no matter how attached you feel to something you wrote, you might have to let it go . If you've ever heard the phrase "kill your darlings," know that it is 100% applicable to college essay writing.

At some point, you might even need to rewrite the whole essay. Even though it's annoying, starting over is sometimes the best way to get an essay that you're really proud of.


What's Next?

Make sure to check out our other posts on college essays , including our step-by-step guide to how to write your college essay , our analysis of the Common App Prompts , and our collection of example essays .

If you're in need of guidance on other parts of the application process , take a look at our guides to choosing the right college for you , writing about extracurriculars , deciding to double major , and requesting teacher recommendations .

Last but not least, if you're planning on taking the SAT one last time , check out our ultimate guide to studying for the SAT and make sure you're as prepared as possible.

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points?   We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download them for free now:

Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.

Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!

Improve With Our Famous Guides

  • For All Students

The 5 Strategies You Must Be Using to Improve 160+ SAT Points

How to Get a Perfect 1600, by a Perfect Scorer

Series: How to Get 800 on Each SAT Section:

Score 800 on SAT Math

Score 800 on SAT Reading

Score 800 on SAT Writing

Series: How to Get to 600 on Each SAT Section:

Score 600 on SAT Math

Score 600 on SAT Reading

Score 600 on SAT Writing

Free Complete Official SAT Practice Tests

What SAT Target Score Should You Be Aiming For?

15 Strategies to Improve Your SAT Essay

The 5 Strategies You Must Be Using to Improve 4+ ACT Points

How to Get a Perfect 36 ACT, by a Perfect Scorer

Series: How to Get 36 on Each ACT Section:

36 on ACT English

36 on ACT Math

36 on ACT Reading

36 on ACT Science

Series: How to Get to 24 on Each ACT Section:

24 on ACT English

24 on ACT Math

24 on ACT Reading

24 on ACT Science

What ACT target score should you be aiming for?

ACT Vocabulary You Must Know

ACT Writing: 15 Tips to Raise Your Essay Score

How to Get Into Harvard and the Ivy League

How to Get a Perfect 4.0 GPA

How to Write an Amazing College Essay

What Exactly Are Colleges Looking For?

Is the ACT easier than the SAT? A Comprehensive Guide

Should you retake your SAT or ACT?

When should you take the SAT or ACT?

Stay Informed

Get the latest articles and test prep tips!

Follow us on Facebook (icon)

Looking for Graduate School Test Prep?

Check out our top-rated graduate blogs here:

GRE Online Prep Blog

GMAT Online Prep Blog

TOEFL Online Prep Blog

Holly R. "I am absolutely overjoyed and cannot thank you enough for helping me!”

helpful professor logo

65 Personal Identity Examples

65 Personal Identity Examples

Chris Drew (PhD)

Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

Learn about our Editorial Process

personal identity examples and definition, explained below

Personal identity refers to a sense of self that a person develops over their life. Your personal identity is a mix of how you see yourself and how others perceive you.

Key examples of personal identity include your personality, achievements, gender, ethnicity, nationality , social status, social class, beliefs, values, and culture. Combined, these features (along with others – see below) make us all unique individuals.

Personal Identity Examples

  • Ability and Disability
  • Achieved Status
  • Ascribed Status (Born Status Features)
  • Aspirations
  • Awards and Recognition from Society (See Also: Achieved Status)
  • Birth Order
  • Career and Profession
  • Citizenship Status
  • Childhood Experiences
  • Cultural Practices
  • Cultural Values
  • Current Occupation
  • Educational Level
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Family Role
  • Family Traditions
  • Friend Groups
  • Geographical Identification (Rural, Ocean, City, etc.)
  • Group Memberships
  • Health Status
  • Hopes and Dreams
  • Immigrant Status
  • Indigenous Status
  • Intelligence
  • Languages Spoken
  • Nationality
  • Optimism (or Pesimism)
  • Parental Status
  • Past Occupations
  • Personal Achievements
  • Personal Preferences
  • Personality
  • Philosopical Beliefs
  • Physical Characteristics (Appearance)
  • Professional Achievements
  • Relationship Status
  • Sociability (e.g Introvert vs Extravert)
  • Social Class
  • Social Expectations
  • Social Roles
  • Social Status
  • Spirituality
  • Sporting Skills and Interests
  • Subcultural Idenficiation
  • Personal Values

Get a Pdf of this article for class

Enjoy subscriber-only access to this article’s pdf

Real Life Personal Identity Analysis: Queen Elizabeth II

As the longest-serving ruler of England, Queen Elizabeth II will be a character remembered through the history books for many hundreds of years.

There are some interesting aspects of the Queen’s personal identity that make her a good case study. No one is quite like her.

She has some features that overlap with many other people. But she has some that are remarkably unique.

Let’s start with the more common identity features of the Queen

Personal Identity of the Queen

The Queen was assigned female at birth and accepted this as her gender identity throughout her life.

Her gender affected her life profoundly. For one thing, she would only have been able to become the Queen because she did not have any brothers who, at the time, would have overriden her claim to the throne because they were male.

In smaller ways, her gender affected her personal identity. For example, the way she would dress was normal only for women and not men (she wore many famous flowing dresses, for example).

2. Race/Ethnicity

The Queen is of a white Western European ethnicity. She has Germanic, English, Scottish, Hungarian, French, and Irish blood.

Clearly, the Queen was of privileged social status. Her family’s race would, in history, have been a prerequisite for them ruling England. Today, the white European British ethnicity remains an ethnicity of privilege in Europe.

3. Social Class

The Queen was at the very tip of the social class hierarchy. Born into wealth and high social status, she was seen as being of the upper class.

This influenced her personal identity from a very young age. The Queen’s posh accent, for example, developed from her cultural surroundings. Similarly, she never experienced financial hardship or the need to go out and seek a trade (although, interestingly, she did serve as a mechanic during the 1940s).

4. Marital Status

The Queen was married to Prince Phillip. Her marital status would likely have been central to her sense of self.

The Queen would not only have seen herself as a wife, but also a mother. Like most married parents, these two identity features were probably at the core of her sense of self.

Most people’s status as a husband, wife, or parent, can affect how they think (always keeping their loved ones in their thoughts when they make decisions) and act (for example, many people insist they can’t quit their job because they have family who rely on them!).

5. Ascribed Status

Ascribed status refers to a social status that you were given at your time of birth. Of course, for Queen Elizabeth, she was ascribed her royal status by birthright.

In fact, the queen almost had to become the queen. She could have abdicated her right, like her uncle did, but this is highly frowned upon in Royal circles. Her uncle left Britain and moved to the United States to get away from his ascribed status!

6. Achieved Status

Achieved status refers to your personal accomplishments in life.

For the Queen, this includes being the longest ruling British monarch in history. She wasn’t born with this status, she achieved it through her life.

Similarly, the Queen might claim her ability to unite England, Wales, and Scotland under her for over 70 years as an accomplishment of sorts.

Normal people would often identify things like a university degree or their profession as their personal accomplishments.

7. Family Role

The Queen also has a very interesting family role which underpins her personal identity.

In Western Europe, women did not traditionally take the family role of decision maker and authority figure. But the Queen’s unique status as Queen meant that she became the matriarch of her family.

Famously, all family decisions had to be passed through her, and she even had the authority to decide which family members could (and couldn’t) use the royal title and get money from her personal trust fund.

Definition of Personal Identity

A personal identity is the collection of unique identifying factors that a person develops over time that make up who they are.

Your personal identity is unique to you because no one has the exact same mix of features , memories, habits, emotional dispositions, and knowledge that you have.

Personal identity is similar to social identity, but personal identities are about all of your unique features whereas your social identity usually only counts your sociological categorizations ( social identity examples include: gender, race, social class).

How we Develop a Personal Identity

Your personal identity begins to be formed even before you were born.

Everyone is born with a history: who their parents are, genetic factors, and socially ascribed status features that are assigned at birth (e.g. gender).

As we enter middle childhood , our sense of self emerges in ernest. We start learning about our personal tastes, preferences, and hobbies.

As children, we also get feedback from our surroundings (other children’s reactions to us, our parents disciplining us) which shape who we are as well. Some children meet these identity challenges and develop self-confidence and independence, while others may be scarred by their early rebukes and setbacks.

Into adolescence , we start to develop aspects of our identities like mindsets, ideologies, philosophies, and romantic relationships that will underpin our futures. Adolescents often explore different subcultural and countercultural identities to ‘try on’ ways of behaving.

The identity features that resonate with any individual may become a lifelong identity feature (e.g. ‘a lover of rap music’ or ‘a long-distance runner’).

In adulthood , our personal identities come to revolve around career and family status. We become concerned with creating a legacy and making a sustainable and happy life for ourselves and our loved ones.

Why is Personal Identity Important?

Developing a sense of who we are is essential for developing self-efficacy, morality, and happiness.

Self-efficacy refers to belief in yourself. People who grow up to be competent, optimistic, and self-reliant have high self-efficacy. These people can navigate challenges and obstacles they face in everyday life. It sets them up well for success, builds resilience,  and prevents burnout or social withdrawal.

Our morality refers to our sense of right and wrong. When you know who you are and what your personal standards are, then you’re able to set boundaries about what you will and will not do. Morality comes in part from our family and culture, but it’s also developed through our own thought processes as we move through adolescence and adulthood.

Happiness will often come from having a clear sense of who we are, what we want out of life, and whether we have achieved it. People who don’t know who they are and don’t have purpose in life will often be unhappy. This is because they don’t have a clear moral core. By contrast, people with a clear sense of their own personal identity will often be able to find happiness by taking up pursuits that fulfil their sense of purpose.

There are countless factors that influence our personal identity. Above, I’ve outlined some of the most important elements that people might point to when trying to define what’s unique about themselves.

Developing a personal identity can make you confident and self-assured. When you know who you are and are comfortable with that, you can begin to develop happiness and contentment.


  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd-2/ 21 Cozy Classroom Reading Corners
  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd-2/ 25 Math Center Ideas for Teachers
  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd-2/ 25 Student-Centered Learning Activity Ideas
  • Chris Drew (PhD) https://helpfulprofessor.com/author/chris-drew-phd-2/ 25 Game-Based Learning Activities for the Classroom

2 thoughts on “65 Personal Identity Examples”

' src=

I struggle to understand Identity and how to change that what your not happy with. How do you actually change identity, obvs we can’t change race, gender, etc., but if you wanted to change beliefs, how you see yourself etc? how do you change it without an experience? I say that because some experiences changes our way of thinking, but how to change without an experience ?

' src=

It’s hard. I would probably start with reading books and listening to podcasts about mindset, exploring new hobbies, going out of your comfort zone – in other words, manufacturing the experiences that are required to create those identity changes.

Leave a Comment Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

personal statement of identity

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Personal identity.

What does being the person that you are, from one day to the next, necessarily consist in? This is the question of personal identity, and it is literally a question of life and death, as the correct answer to it determines which types of changes a person can undergo without ceasing to exist. Personal identity theory is the philosophical confrontation with the most ultimate questions of our own existence: who are we, and is there a life after death? In distinguishing those changes in a person that constitute survival from those changes in a person that constitute death, a criterion of personal identity through time is given. Such a criterion specifies, insofar as that is possible, the necessary and sufficient conditions for the survival of persons.

One popular criterion, associated with Plato , Descartes and a number of world religions, is that persons are immaterial souls or pure egos. On this view, persons have bodies only contingently, not necessarily; so they can live after bodily death. Even though this so-called Simple View satisfies certain religious or spiritual predilections, it faces metaphysical and epistemological obstacles, as we shall see.

Another intuitively appealing view, championed by John Locke , holds that personal identity is a matter of psychological continuity . According to this view, in order for a person X to survive a particular adventure, it is necessary and sufficient that there exists, at a time after the adventure, a person Y who psychologically evolved out of X. This idea is typically cashed out in terms of overlapping chains of direct psychological connections, as those causal and cognitive connections between beliefs, desires, intentions, experiential memories, character traits, and so forth. This Lockean view is well suited for thought experiments conducted from first-person points of view, such as body swaps or tele-transportation, but it, too, faces obstacles. For example, on this view, it appears to be possible for two future persons to be psychologically continuous with a presently existing person. Can one really become two? In response to this problem, some commentators have suggested that, although our beliefs, memories, and intentions are of utmost importance to us, they are not necessary for our identity, our persistence through time.

A third criterion of personal identity is that we are our bodies, that is to say, that personal identity is constituted by some brute physical relation between, for example, different bodies or different life-sustaining systems at different times. Although this view is still somewhat unpopular, developments about personal identity theory in the 1990s promise an ideological change, as versions of the so-called somatic criterion, associated with Eric Olson and Paul Snowdon, attract a continuously growing number of adherents.

The aim of this article is to (1) add precision to the problem of personal identity, (2) state a number of theories of personal identity and give arguments for and against them, (3) formulate “the paradox of identity,” which proposes to show that posing the persistence question, in conjunction with a number of plausible assumptions, leads to a contradiction, and (4) explain how Derek Parfit’s theory of persons attempts to answer this paradox.

Table of Contents

  • Criteria and the Identity Relation
  • The Simple View
  • Reductionism (1): General Features
  • Reductionism (2): Psychological Approaches
  • Quasi-Psychology
  • Reductionism (3): Physiological Approaches
  • The Paradox
  • Parfit and the Unimportance of Personal Identity
  • References and Further Reading

1. Understanding the Problem of Personal Identity

The persistence question, the question of what personal identity over time consists in, is literally a question of life and death: answers to it determine, insofar as that is possible, the conditions under which we survive, or cease to exist in the course of, certain adventures. These adventures do not have to be theoretically as fancy as the cases, to be discussed later, of human fission or brain swaps: a theory of personal identity tells us whether we can live through the acquisition of complex cognitive capacities in our development from fetus to person, or whether we have survived car accidents if we find ourselves in a persistent vegetative state. Furthermore, theories of personal identity have ethical and metaphysical implications of considerable magnitude: in conjunction with certain normative premises they may support the justification or condemnation of infanticide or euthanasia, or they could prove or falsify certain aspects of our religious outlook, in deciding the questions of how and whether we can be resurrected and whether we are possessors of souls whose existence conditions are identical with ours. It is not surprising, therefore, that most great philosophers have attempted to solve the problem of personal identity, or have committed themselves to metaphysical systems that have substantial implications with regards to the problem, and that most religious belief systems give explicit answers to the persistence question. Neither is it surprising that virtually everybody holds a pre-theoretical theory of personal identity, if only in the sense of having beliefs about afterlives and the meaning of death. The task of solving the metaphysical problem of personal identity essentially involves answering the question of how the phenomenon or principle in virtue of which “entities like us” persist through time is to be specified, under the widely but not universally accepted premises that there is such a phenomenon or principle and that it can be specified. We are concerned, in other words, with the truth-makers of personal identity statements: what makes it true that our statement that an entity X at time t 1 and an entity Y at time t 2 are identical, if X and Y are entities like us?

a. Criteria and the Identity Relation

Answers to the persistence question often provide a criterion of personal identity. A criterion is a set of non-trivial necessary and sufficient conditions that determines, insofar as that is possible, whether distinct temporally indexed person-stages are stages of one and the same continuant person. (A temporally indexed person-stage is a slice of a continuant person that extends in three spatial dimensions but has no temporal extension.) To say that C is a necessary condition for E is to say that if E is the case, then C is the case as well, and to say that C is a sufficient condition for E is to say that if C is the case, then E is the case as well. Consequently, to specify such a criterion is to give an account of what personal identity necessarily consists in.

Let us distinguish between numerical identity and qualitative identity (exact similarity): X and Y are numerically identical iff X and Y are one thing rather than two, while X and Y are qualitatively identical iff, for the set of non-relational properties F 1 …F n of X, Y only possesses F 1 …F n . (A property may be called “non-relational” if its being borne by a substance is independent of the relations in which property or substance stand to other properties or substances.) Personal identity is an instance of the relation of numerical identity; investigations into the nature of the former, therefore, must respect the formal properties that govern the latter. The concept of identity is uniquely defined by (a) the logical laws of congruence: if X is identical with Y, then all non-relational properties borne by X are borne by Y, or formally “∀( x , y )[( x = y ) → (F x = F y )]; and (b) reflexivity: every X is identical with itself, or formally “∀ x ( x = x ). (Note that congruence and reflexivity entail that identity is symmetric, “∀( x , y )[( x = y ) → ( y = x )], and transitive, “∀( x , y , z )[(( x = y ) & ( y = z )) → ( x = z )]). [Note: ∀( x ,  y ) is an abbreviation of (∀ x)( ∀ y ).]

Grasp of the notion of numerical identity, to be sure, is essential to our ability to distinguish between the events of picking out one thing more often than once and picking out more than one thing. Although exact similarity is, by congruence, a necessary condition for synchronic personal identity, it is neither necessary nor sufficient for diachronic personal identity, that is to say, the persistence of a person over time: two person-slices at different times could be qualitatively identical slices of different people or qualitatively distinct slices of the same person. This is not to say, however, that it is ruled out that lack of similarity over time may obliterate numerical personal identity: depending on what personal identity consists in, certain qualitative changes in a person’s psychology or physiology may kill the person. The question a criterion of personal identity answers is: what kind of changes does a person survive?

This gives a distinctive sense to the claim that a criterion of personal identity is to be constitutive, not merely evidential: in order for a relation R to be constitutive for personal identity, it must be the case that, necessarily, if some past or future Y stands in an R -relation to X, then X is identical with Y. Hence, many elements of our successful everyday reidentification practices, such as physical appearance, fingerprints, or signatures, are inadequate if considered as constituting ingredients of personal identity relations: for example, if the man in the crowd is wearing a Yankees jacket, this might be sufficient evidence for you to conclude that he is your friend Larry. However, wearing a Yankees jacket is not what it is for Larry to persist through time: neither did Larry come into existence when he wore the jacket for the first time nor does he die when he takes it off.

Does the logic of the concept of identity impose further restraints on the concept of personal identity? Some commentators believe that identity is an intrinsic relation, that is, that if two person-stages at different times are stages of one and the same person, that will be true only in virtue of the intrinsic relation between these two stages (cf. Noonan 1989; Wiggins 2001). Others hold identity to be necessarily determinate, that is, that it is necessarily false that sometimes there is no answer to the question of whether X is identical with Y. These commentators typically reason as follows: suppose that it is indeterminate that X is identical with Y. Since it is determinate that X is identical with X, under the assumption that congruence and predicate logic apply, X must be determinately identical with Y. Therefore, by modus tollens , if X is not determinately identical with Y, X is not identical with Y (cf. Evans 1985; Wiggins 2001). Consequently, the question does in fact have an answer, and the claim that identity is indeterminate is self-contradictory. This conclusion is strengthened, in the case of personal identity, by the widely shared intuition that even if the identity of some objects might be indeterminate, this could not be true of the identity of persons: one cannot, it seems, be a bit dead and a bit alive in the same way in which one cannot be a bit pregnant. As it turns out, however, there may be good reasons to deny both the intrinsicness and the determinacy of personal identity (cf. 3.a.; 3.b.).

b. Personhood

While the formal properties of the concept of identity are necessary constraints on our discussion, the truth of our identity judgments is subject to material conditions of correctness, which these formal properties cannot provide. These material conditions must be supplied by the nature of the relata judged to stand in an identity relation. The obvious suggestion is that, given that we are dealing with personal identity, these relata are person-stages located at different times. This proposal, however, violates the requirement that the persistence question ought to specify its relata without presupposing an answer: should we choose to accept a definition in the vicinity of Locke’s characterization of a person as a “thinking, intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places” (1689, II.xxvii.9), then those criteria of personal identity that sanction the identity of a person at one time with a non-person at another time are categorically ruled out. Fetuses, infants, or human beings in a persistent vegetative state, for example, plainly do not fulfill the criteria envisaged by Locke. As a result, since these beings do not possess cognitive capacities, if they do at all, that qualitatively attain those of thinking beings, couching the persistence question in terms of persons entails that none of us has ever been a fetus or infant or ever will be a human vegetable (Olson 1997a; Mackie 1999). To be sure, these initially baffling claims could be true. However, since these are clearly substantial questions about our persistence, we should not consider ourselves justified to settle the matter by definition. Consequently, we should prefer vagueness over chauvinism and pose the persistence question in terms of the wider notion of human being, postponing the question of whether and in what sense the notions of person and human being ought to be distinguished: for any person X and any human being Y at different times t 1 and t 2 , if X at t 1 is numerically identical with Y at t 2 , what makes this claim necessarily true?

2. Theories of Personal Identity

In order to discover what your pre-philosophical attitude towards this question is, ask yourself the following: what does a supernatural being have to do in order to resurrect you after you die? Collect a few possible answers and ask yourself whether the resulting being, the freshly created being that is now a candidate for being identical with you before you died, is in fact you. For example, do you believe that

  • …the supernatural being could have given you a body which bears no physical continuity or causal relation to the one you possessed before your death, or that it could have resurrected you, in some sense or other, as a bodiless being?
  • …it could have given a new form or content to your psychology, that is, that it is not necessary or sufficient for the “resurrected you” to remember your actions or experiences and that there do not have to be any causal connections between the actions and experiences of you before you died and the”resurrected you”?
  • …the question of whether or not the resulting person is you depends on the existence, in the resurrected person, of something that one might call “a soul”?

If you believe any of these options, then you must also believe, respectively, that

  • …a physiological criterion of personal identity is false.
  • …a psychological criterion of personal identity is false.
  • …the Simple View of personal identity is true.

Let us discuss these theories of personal identity in more detail.

a. The Simple View

Some commentators believe that there are no informative, non-trivial persistence conditions for people, that is, that personal persistence is an ultimate and unanalyzable fact (cf. Chisholm 1976; Lowe 1996; Merricks 1998; Shoemaker & Swinburne 1984). While psychological and physiological continuities are evidential criteria, these do not constitute necessary and/or sufficient conditions for personal identity. We must distinguish between two versions of this view. One version is that personal identity is non-reductive and wholly non-informative, denying that personal identity follows from anything other than itself. This makes the label Identity Mysticism (“ IM “) most appropriate (cf. Zimmerman 1998):

IM : X at t 1 is identical to Y at t 2 iff X at t 1 is identical to Y at t 2 ,

Identity Mysticism plays only an indirect role in contemporary personal identity theory. Although it may be poorly understood, due to limitations of space this article will disregard the view. IM is to be distinguished from a more popular version of the simple view, according to which personal identity relations are weakly reductive ( WR ) and in independence non-informative ( INI ):

WR-INI : X at t 1 is identical to Y at t 2 iff there is some fact F 1 about X at t 1 , and some fact F 2 about Y at t 2 , and F 1 and F 2 are irreducible to facts about the subjects’ psychology or physiology, and X at t 1 is identical with Y at t 2 in virtue of the fact that the propositions stating F 1 and F 2 differ only insofar as that “X” and “t 1 ” occur in the former where “Y” and “t 2 ” occur in the latter.

WR-INI is weakly reductive in the sense that, while the identity relation in question can be reduced to a further domain, the further domain itself typically exhibits elements of non-reducibility and/or resistance to full physical explanation. In their most prominent variants, these elements are due to references to souls, Cartesian Egos or other spiritual or immaterial substances and/or properties. Initially the idea underlying this claim may appear prejudicial; ultimately it is based on a number of widespread but not universally accepted beliefs about the naturalness of the world and the nature, validity and theoretical implications of physicalism. According to this general stance, either both psychological and physiological continuity relations are fully reducible to a domain in which physical explanations are couched, perhaps in terms of the basic elements of a final and unified theory of physics, or they belong themselves to such a domain.

WR-INI may entail IM but does not so necessarily: it is conceivable that personal identity relations consist in something which is itself neither identical with nor reducible to a spiritual substance nor identical with nor reducible to aggregates or parts of psychologies and physiologies. In fact, Descartes’ own view that personal identity is determined by “vital union” relations between pure Egos and bodies, with the persistence of the Ego being regarded as sufficient for the persistence of the person but the person not being wholly identifiable with the Ego, could be a weakly reductive view of persons. It is merely weakly reductive, however, because the identity of the phenomenon that specifies the necessary and sufficient conditions for personal identity does not itself follow from anything other than itself. While a weakly reductive criterion of personal identity relations is explicable in terms of the identities of phenomena other than persons, the identities of these phenomena themselves are not explicable in other terms: their identity may be, as we would suppose “soul identity” to be, “strict and philosophical”, and not merely “loose and popular” (Butler 1736).

Nowadays, the Simple View is disparaged as a theory only maintained by thinkers whose religious or spiritual commitments outweigh the reasons that speak against their views on personal identity. This is due to the fact that it is assumed that a theory of personal identity cannot be weakly reductive without involving appeal to discredited spiritual substances or committing itself either to the acknowledgment of yet unrecognized physical entities or to an Identity Mysticism on the level of persons. As a consequence, many philosophers think that the problems that infiltrate dualism and Cartesian theories of the soul, such as the alleged impossibilities to circumscribe the ontological status of souls and to explain how a soul can interact with a body, render the Simple View equally problematic. Although the options mentioned are exceedingly difficult to defend, why should they have to be regarded as the only options available to the Simple Theorist? Arguably, many respectable philosophical ideologies, such as conceptualism or Neo-Kantianism, may issue in theories of personal identity along Simple lines without appeal to Cartesian Egos. (Note, however, that these ideologies, with regards to the problem of the persistence of people, may also be, and in fact have been, construed along physiological or psychological lines). This suggests that we do not only need a better understanding, and above all more promising articulations, of the Simple View, but also a new taxonomy of theories of personal identity: the traditional division of theories into Simple, Psychological and Physical, even if maintained here by the author of this entry, may not be the best way of viewing the matter.

b. Reductionism (1): General Features

Modern day personal identity theory takes place mainly within reductionist assumptions, concentrating on the relative merits of different criteria of identity and related methodological questions. Reductionist theories of personal identity share the contention that…

Reduction : Facts about personal identity stand in an adequate reduction-relation to sets of sub-personal facts SF 1 … SF n about psychological and/or physiological continuities in such a way as to issue in biconditionals of the form “X at t 1 is identical to Y at t 2 iff X at t 1 and Y at t 2 stand in a continuity-relation fully describable by SF x .”

Thus, any given set of sub-personal facts will impose demands, in forms of necessary and sufficient conditions, upon the kinds of adventures a subject can survive in persisting from t 1 to t 2 . The sets of necessary and sufficient conditions determined by these sets of sub-personal facts constitute the various criteria of personal identity. It must be noted that the biconditionals in question need not to be understood in such a way as that circularity is an objection to them: provided that concepts other than “person” feature in the analysans , these biconditionals, by exhibiting connections with collateral and independently intelligible concepts, may be genuinely elucidatory even if the concept to be analyzed features on both sides of the equation (cf. McDowell 1997; Wittgenstein 1922, 3.263).

Only when the concepts “person” and “personal identity” become the target of what may be referred to as an authentic reduction circularities become vicious. The need for the distinction between authentic and inauthentic reductions arises due to an equivocation that ought not to confuse the present discussion: reductionisms in personal identity theory often take forms, if regarded for example as sets of supervenience claims, that are deemed, in other areas of analytic philosophy, as distinctively non-reductionist. Let us speak of authentic reductions if the ontological status of members of the reduced category is, in a way to be made precise, diminished in favor of the allegedly “more fundamental” existence-status of members of the reducing category. The question of whether an authentic reductionism about persons must claim that it is not only able to give a criterion of personal identity without presupposing personal identity but also that facts about persons are describable without using the concept “person” is a matter of current controversy (cf. Behrendt 2003; Cassam 1989; 1992; Johnston 1997; McDowell 1997; Parfit 1984; 1999; forthcoming; cf. also 2.d.).

In a search for the necessary and sufficient conditions for the sustenance of personal identity relations between subjects, which type of continuity-relations could SF describe? There are two main contenders, physiological continuity-relations and psychological continuity-relations, which will be discussed in turn.

c. Reductionism (2): Psychological Approaches

Psychological Criteria of personal identity hold that psychological continuity relations, that is, overlapping chains of direct psychological connections, as those causal and cognitive connections between beliefs, desires, intentions, experiential memories, character traits and so forth, constitute personal identity (cf. Locke 1689, II.xxvii.9-29; Parfit 1971a; 1984; Perry 1972; Shoemaker 1970; Shoemaker & Swinburne 1984).

Two apparently physiological theories of personal identity are at bottom psychological, namely (i) the Brain Criterion , which holds that the spatiotemporal continuity of a single functioning brain constitutes personal identity; and (ii) the Physical Criterion , which holds that, necessarily, the spatiotemporal continuity of that which sustains the continuous psychological life of a human being over time, which is, contingently, a sufficient part of the brain that must remain in order to be the brain of a living person, constitutes personal identity (cf. Nagel 1971). These approaches are at bottom psychological because they single out, as the constituting factors of personal identity, the psychological continuity of the subject. Consider a test case. Imagine there to be a tribe of beings who are in all respects like human beings, except for the fact that their brains and livers have swapped bodily functions: their brains regulate, synthesize, store, secrete, transform, and break down many different substances in the body, while their livers are responsible for their cognitive capacities, basic integrated postural and locomotor movement sequences, perception, instincts, emotions, thinking, and other integrative activities. Imagine the brain criterion to be true for human beings. Would we have sufficient reason to believe the brain criterion to be true for members of the tribe in question as well, if we were aware of all facts about their physiologies? No,  precisely because the brain criterion is true for human beings, a liver criterion would have to be true for members of this tribe. There is nothing special about the 1.3 kilograms of grey mass that we carry around in our skulls, except for the fact that this mass is the seat of our cognitive capacities.

We can further distinguish between three versions of the psychological criterion: the Narrow version demands psychological continuity to be caused “normally,” the Wide version permits any reliable cause, and the Widest version allows any cause to be sufficient to secure psychological continuity (cf. Parfit 1984). The Narrow version, we may note, is logically equivalent to the Physical Criterion.

One might think that brain criterion and physical criterion, to varying degrees, combine the best of both worlds: both acknowledge the vital function psychological continuity plays in our identity judgments while at the same time admitting of the importance of physiological instantiation. In fact, however, the opposite is the case: the appeal to physiology introduces an unacceptable element of contingency into the answers to the persistence question envisaged by defenders of these criteria. A criterion of personal identity tells us what our persistence necessarily consists in, which means that it must be able to deliver a verdict in possible scenarios that is consistent with its verdicts in ordinary cases. One scenario that has been widely debated is the following:

Teletransportation At t 1 , X enters a teletransporter, which, before destroying X, creates an exact blueprint of X’s physical and psychological states. The information is sent to a replicator device on Mars, which at t 2 creates a qualitatively identical duplicate, Y (cf. Parfit 1984). Our alleged intuition : since Y at t 2 shares with X at t 1 all memories, character traits, and other psychological characteristics, X and Y are identical. Alleged conclusion : should teletransportation be reliable, all proposed criteria but the Wide and Widest versions of the Psychological Criterion are false.

Should teletransportation be unreliable, all criteria of personal identity but the Widest version of the Psychological Criterion are false. Consequently, should appeal to such scenarios as Teletransportation be acceptable and should the intuition above be widely shared, the brain criterion and physical criterion are false.

d. Quasi-Psychology

Many people regard the idea that our persistence is intrinsically related to our psychology as obvious. The problem of cashing out this conviction in theoretical terms, however, is notoriously difficult. Psychological continuity relations are to be understood in terms of overlapping chains of direct psychological connections, that is, those causal and cognitive connections between beliefs, desires, intentions, experiential memories, character traits and so forth. This statement avoids two obvious problems.

First, some attempts to cash out personal identity relations in psychological terms appeal exclusively to direct psychological connections. These accounts face the problem that identity is a transitive relation (see 1.a.) while many psychological connections are not. Take memory as an example: suppose that Paul broke the neighbor’s window as a kid, an incident he remembers vividly when he starts working as a primary school teacher in his late 20s. As an old man, Paul remembers his early years as a teacher, but has forgotten ever having broken the neighbor’s window. Assume, for reductio , that personal identity consists in direct memory connections. In that case the kid is identical with the primary school teacher and the primary school teacher is identical with the old man; the old man, however, is not identical with the kid. Since this conclusion violates the transitivity of identity (which states that if an X is identical with a Y, and the Y is identical with a Z, then the X must be identical with the Z), personal identity relations cannot consist in direct memory connections. Appeal to overlapping layers or chains of psychological connections avoids the problem by permitting indirect relations: according to this view, the old man is identical with the kid precisely because they are related to each other by those causal and cognitive relations that connect kid and teacher and teacher and old man.

Second, memory alone is not necessary for personal identity, as lack of memory through periods of sleep or coma do not obliterate one’s survival of these states. Appeal to causal and cognitive connections which relate not only memory but other psychological aspects is sufficient to eradicate the problem. Let us say that we are dealing with psychological connectedness if the relations in question are direct causal or cognitive relations, and that we are dealing with psychological continuity if overlapping layers of psychological connections are appealed to (cf. Parfit 1984).

One of the main problems a psychological approach faces is overcoming an alleged circularity associated with explicating personal identity relations in terms of psychological notions. Consider memory as an example. It seems that if John remembers having repaired the bike, then it is necessarily the case that John repaired the bike: saying that a person remembers having carried out an action which the person did not in fact carry out may be regarded as a misapplication of the verb “to remember.” To be sure, one can remember that an action was carried out by somebody else; it seems to be a matter of necessity, however, that one can only have first-person memories of experiences one had or actions one carried out. Consequently, the objection goes, if memory and other psychological predicates are not impartial with regards to identity judgments, a theory that involves these predicates and that at the same time proposes to explicate such identity judgments is straightforwardly circular: it plainly assumes what it intends to prove.

To make things clearer, consider the case of Teletransportation above: if at t 2 Y on Mars remembers having had at t 1 X’s experience on earth that the coffee is too hot, then, necessarily, X at t 1 is identical with Y at t 2 . The dialectic of such thought experiments, however, requires that a description of the scenario is possible that does not presuppose the identity of the participants in question. We would wish to say that since X and Y share all psychological features, it is reasonable or intuitive to judge that X and Y are identical, and precisely not that since we describe the case as one in which there is a continuity between X’s and Y’s psychologies, X and Y are necessarily identical. If some psychological predicates presuppose personal identity in this way, an account of personal identity which constitutively appeals to such predicates is viciously circular.

In response, defenders of the psychological approach have created psychological concepts that share with our ordinary psychological predicates all features except presumptions of personal identity: for example, the concept of “quasi-memory” is exactly like ordinary memory apart from the fact that “memory” is judgmental with regards to personal identity whereas “quasi-memory” is not (cf. Shoemaker 1970). While many commentators regard the appeal to quasi-memory, and ultimately “quasi-psychology,” as sufficient to solve the circularity problem, some commentators think that personal concepts infiltrate extensionally articulated psychological concept-systems so deeply that any reductionist programme in personal identity is doomed from the start (cf. Evans 1982; McDowell 1997).

e. Reductionism (3): Physiological Approaches

Opponents of the psychological criterion typically favour a physiological approach. There are at least two of them: (i) the Bodily Criterion holds that the spatiotemporal continuity of a functioning human body constitutes personal identity (cf. Williams 1956-7; 1970; Thompson 1997); and (ii) the Somatic Criterion holds that the spatiotemporal continuity of the metabolic and other life-sustaining organs of a functioning human animal constitutes personal identity (cf. Mackie 1999; Olson 1997a; 1997b; Snowdon 1991; 1995; 1996). It is not obvious that there is a straightforward relation between them, for everything depends on how the notions of “functioning human body” and “life-sustaining organs” are understood. If these notions are understood similarly, the views are (close to) equivalent; the other extreme, even if unlikely to be held, is that the notions are understood differently, to the effect that they are incompatible (if, for example, a functioning human body and its life-sustaining organs could come apart). Physiological approaches have consequences many of us feel uncomfortable with. Consider the following thought experiment:

Body Swap X’s brain is transplanted into Y’s body. X’s body and Y’s brain are destroyed, the resulting person is Z. Our alleged intuition : since Z shares with X all memories, character traits, and other psychological characteristics, X is identical with Z. Alleged conclusion : the Bodily and the Somatic Criteria are false (cf. Locke 1689, II.xxvii.15; Shoemaker 1963).

Defenders of bodily criterion and somatic criterion typically bite the bullet and argue that it is not the case that X and Y have swapped bodies, but that Y falsely believes to be X, and therefore that Z is identical with Y.

Since the psychological and physiological approaches are mutually exclusive and, we may suppose in the current context, as candidates for an adequate theory of personal identity jointly exhaustive, any objection against the psychological approach is equally an argument for the physiological approach. The initial implausibility of the physiological approach is due to thought experiments that traditionally permeate the personal identity debate and often favour psychological considerations. Defenders of the somatic approach, most notably Olson and Snowdon, have tried to shift the focus to real-life cases in which descriptions along physiological lines look much more promising. Consider:

Human Vegetable X has at t 1 a motor bicycle accident. The being Y that is transported to the hospital is at t 2 in a persistent vegetative state. Our alleged intuition : X at t 1 is identical with Y at t 2 . Alleged conclusion : all views which postulate psychological continuity as a necessary condition are false.
Fetus Since a fetus does not possess the cognitive capacities necessary to satisfy the demands of the Psychological Criterion, if the latter is true, no person can be identical with a past fetus. Our alleged intuition : Each of us is identical with a past fetus. Alleged conclusion : all views which postulate psychological continuity as a necessary condition are false.

A third problem for the psychological approach is that it implies, supposedly, that we are not human animals (Ayers 1990; Snowdon 1990; Olson 1997a; 2002a). The argument is simple:

Premise 1: Psychological continuity is neither necessary nor sufficient for the persistence of a human animal. Premise 2: The psychological approach claims that psychological continuity is necessary and/or sufficient for our persistence. A: for reductio: The psychological approach is true. B: from 2, A: Psychological continuity is necessary and/or sufficient for our persistence. Premise 3: Psychological continuity cannot at the same time be (i) necessary and/or sufficient for a thing’s persistence and (ii) neither necessary nor sufficient for the same thing’s persistence. C: from 1, B, 3: None of us is identical with a human animal.

Premise 2 is implied by the psychological approach. The thought experiments that support premise 1 have already been given: since the human animal each of us is has been a fetus and could end up as a human vegetable, the thought experiments Fetus and Human Vegetable above demonstrate that psychological continuity is not necessary for human animal identity. A variant of Body Swap shows that psychological continuity is not sufficient for human animal identity. Suppose X’s brain to be transplanted into Y’s skull and X’s body and Y’s brain are destroyed. Suppose further that the resulting being Z is psychologically continuous with X. In this case, it does not seem to be the case that the surgeons transplant the human animal X from one head to another. Rather, it seems, the human animal Y receives a new organ, namely a brain. Consequently, psychological continuity is not sufficient for human animal identity and premise 1 holds. Premise 3 seems to be obvious, because its being false would entail that one and the same being can outlive itself, which is absurd. The defender of the physiological approach now argues that

Premise 4: We are human animals. C: from B, 4: The psychological approach is false. Premise 5: Physiological and psychological answers to the persistence question are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. Conclusion: The physiological approach is true.

It may be argued that premise 4 is not a matter of metaphysics but of biological classification. The underlying problem, however, is that it seems undeniable that there is a human animal located where each of us is. If this human animal has persistence conditions different from those that determine our persistence, then there must be two things wherever each of us is located. This conclusion raises important questions and problems a psychological approach must address.

3. The Paradox of Personal Identity

One of the most influential thought experiments in recent personal identity theory is the case of fission.

Fission X’s brain is removed from X’s body and X’s body is destroyed. X’s brain’s corpus callosum, the bundle of fibres responsible for retaining the capacity of information-transfer between the two brain hemispheres, is severed, leaving two (potentially) equipollent brain hemispheres. The single lower brain is divided and each hemisphere is transplanted into one of two qualitatively identical bodies of the fission outcomes Y 1 and Y 2 . Our alleged intuition : since both Y 1 and Y 2 share with X all psychological characteristics, both are candidates for being identical with X: either, in the absence of the other, would have been identical with X. Alleged conclusion : either, on pain of violating the transitivity of identity, the Psychological Criterion is false or the question of whether two person-stages X at t 1 and Y 1 at t 2 are temporal parts of the same person depends on facts concerning not only X and Y 1 but also, in this case, Y 2 . In the latter case, a “closest continuer” clause and/or a “no-branching” proviso must complement a psychological continuity analysis (For a development of this case, see Nozick 1981; Parfit 1984; and Wiggins 1967).

Fission scenarios emphasise the difficulty of deciding whether a thought experiment is acceptable or not. They assume the possibility of commissurotomy or brain bisection, that is, the perforation of the corpus callosum, and hemispherectomy, that is, the surgical removal of the cerebral cortex of one brain hemisphere. Commissurotomy was used in epilepsy treatment in the 50’s (cf. Nagel 1971) and hemispherectomies too have been performed in the past. However, fission cases additionally assume the possibility, in some sense or other, of dividing the subcortical regions, and in particular the single lower brain. This is not physically possible without damaging the upper brain functions (cf. Parfit 1984). Many commentators regard fission to be an acceptable challenge to theories of personal identity. Wilkes disagrees: she thinks that our ignorance about what actually happens in these cases jeopardises the theoretical relevance of fission scenarios (cf. 1988). The question of whether or not physically impossible but logically possible scenarios are acceptable remains to be answered.

Should fission be an acceptable scenario, it presents problems for the the psychological approach in particular. The fission outcomes Y 1 and Y 2 are both psychologically continuous with X. According to the psychological approach, therefore, they are both identical with X. By congruence, however, they are not identical with each other: Y 1 and Y 2 share many properties, but even at the very time the fission operation is completed differ with regards to others, such as spatio-temporal location. Consequently, fission cases seem to show that the psychological approach entails that a thing could be identical with two non-identical things, which of course violates the transitivity of identity. Some commentators have attempted to save the psychological approach by appeal to the so-called “multiple occupancy view,” that is, the claim that, despite appearances, X was two people, namely Y 1 and Y 2 , all along (cf. Lewis 1976; Noonan 1989; Perry 1972). Combined with a four-dimensionalist or temporal part ontology, this view is not as absurd as it initially seems, but it is certainly controversial.

Others have acknowledged, as a consequence of fission scenarios, that psychological continuity is not sufficient for personal identity. These commentators typically complement their psychological theory with a non-branching proviso and/or a closest continuer clause. The former states that even though X would survive as Y 1 or Y 2 if the other did not exist, given that the other does exist, X ceases to exist. This proviso avoids the problem of violating the transitivity of identity. It is hard to believe, however, because it entails that I can kill you without you ever noticing: if I knock you unconscious, transplant one of your brain hemispheres into a different body, and drop you off at home before you wake up, then, if the transplant is successful and the psychological approach with non-branching proviso is true, you are dead. We could avoid this problem by adding a closest-continuer or best candidate clause, stating roughly that the best candidate for survival in a fission scenario, that is, the fission outcome which bears the most or the most important resemblances to the original person X, is identical with X. One of the problems with this suggestion is that it assumes that personal identity is an extrinsic relation. It thereby violates another important principle, namely the so-called “only X and Y rule,” which states, roughly, that if two person-stages at different times are stages of one and the same person, that will be true only in virtue of the intrinsic relation between these two stages (cf. Noonan 1989; Wiggins 2001). While this principle is not necessarily sacrosanct, it is desirable to avoid violating it.

b. The Paradox

The upshot of the preceding discussion is that we find ourselves in a perplexing situation. Let the underlying assumption be that there is a criterion of personal identity. The starting point of the debate has been that

Premise 1: A criterion of personal identity captures all those aspects of our existence that are necessary and sufficient for our persistence. Premise 2: Our persistence is determinate. A: from 1, 2: A criterion of personal identity determines for every possible past event e 0 and future event e 2 , within the boundaries of an adequate delineation of the modality in question, whether a person X at t 1 is identical with the being that has participated in e 0 and the being that will participated in e 2 . Premise 3: Personal identity relations are factual : criteria of personal identity are determined neither by conventions, norms, or other social or personal preferences, however basic, nor by analytic matters about the meaning of concepts. Their truth is, literally, a matter of life and death. B: from A, 3: There is a factual relation R between a person X at t 1 and a being Y at t 0 /t 2 which, for every possible scenario, determines whether X at t 1 is identical with Y at t 0 /t 2 .

Now, if we agree with the tentative conclusion that there is, at present, no satisfactory simple view of personal identity, then we assent to the claims that

Premise 4: IM and WR – INI are, with respect to a specification of the necessary and sufficient conditions for personal identity, inadequate. Premise 5: The distinction between IM and WR – INI on the one hand and the reductionist views sketched in I.A.4 on the other is exclusive. C: from 4, 5: The only feasible candidates for R are relations of physiological and/or psychological continuity.

Since B demands that R holds for every possible scenario, within the limits of an adequate delineation of the modality in question, a criterion of personal identity must deliver compatible judgments on the thought experiments sketched above. However, since these thought experiments deliver conflicting intuitions about which criterion is true, it cannot be the case that more than one such criterion is true. From this it follows that

Premise 6: Physiological and psychological criteria of personal identity are incompatible, that is, R cannot be a conjunction of physiological and psychological relations as well as issuing in determinate and compatible solutions to each thought experiment.

Now, if we are also prepared to accept the

Big Assumption : A criterion of identity must accept all alleged conclusions of the thought experiments sketched in I.A.5

then we must conclude that

D: from B, 6A: Neither physiological nor psychological continuity is both necessary and sufficient for personal identity.

The problem with D is that, in conjunction with premises 2, 4, and 5, it reduces the underlying assumption that there can be an informative criterion of personal identity ad absurdum . This argument may be referred to as the Paradox of Personal Identity .

One should refrain from drawing precipitate conclusions from its defining characteristic as a paradox, that is, the fact that denying any of its premises leads to a conclusion that either violates our intuitions or, in the case of 4, 5, and C, commits one to a philosophically disreputable stance. Rather, the Paradox should be regarded as the starting point of any discussion of personal identity, in the sense that taking a stand on its individual premises bestows the various criteria of personal identity with their distinctive features. However, given that the paradox obliges us, in one way or other, to revise our pre-philosophical beliefs, a theory of personal identity should aim at meeting what will be referred to as the Adequacy Constraint AC on theories of personal identity, which demands that

AC: We ought to sanction a substantial revision of our pre-philosophical views of our metaphysical nature only on the conditions that (i) we receive an explanation of the unreliability of our intuiting faculties that in this domain outweighs our grounds for, and in other domains is compatible with, believing in their reliability; (ii) we receive an approximate demarcation of the extents to which we have to abandon our pre-philosophical beliefs and to which we can and we cannot have knowledge about ourselves.

How is the Paradox to be resolved? A, B, C, and D are deductions, and premise 1 is plausible on independent grounds. If identity is determinate, then premise 1 is true. Consequently, those arguments that deny the possibility of vague objects and indeterminate identity, in addition to our intuition that our own identity must be determinate, work in favor of 1. Note that, should personal identity be indeterminate, we might still be able to give a criterion of personal identity, even though such a criterion would then fall short of giving full necessary and sufficient conditions, since in some imaginary case it does not apply.

The denial of premise 3 seems to entail that we have, in a deep sense, an influence on whether we survive a given adventure, namely by possessing a particular normative, experiential, or attitudinal background. This contention may contradict our intuitions more than any thought experiment could. Since we assumed premises 4 and 5, only premises 2 and 6 and the Big Assumption remain. Could one deny premise 6? Given that the determinacy and factuality premises are accepted, It is hard to believe that we could: if a hybrid view were determinately true, a human being could die twice, once when her psychological and once when her physiological capacities cease to function. As a result, most commentators accept 6 but choose to accept a particular criterion in the vicinity of either side of the psychology-physiology divide. This implies that the Big Assumption must either not entail D or be rejected, which can be argued, always assuming that AC is being met, in three ways:

(a) One could define “adequacy of modality” in such a way as to exclude precisely those thought experiments which are problematic for a given criterion. There are two problems with this proposal: first, it is difficult to see how such a definition of adequacy of modality could not be ad hoc . And secondly, the suggestion is insufficient, for some thought experiments circumscribing physically possible scenarios, such as Human Vegetable , trigger incompatible intuitions as well. While some commentators think that Y is identical with X despite X’s loss of cognitive capacities, others regard Y as a living grave stone, nurtured merely for sentimental reasons, in commemoration of the deceased X.

(b) One could deny premise 2 instead, arguing that if personal identity is indeterminate, then our preferred criterion of personal identity does not have to deliver verdicts in all thought-experimental scenarios. This move has the further benefit that we do not have to quarrel with the alleged conclusion of another thought experiment, the combined spectrum:

Combined Spectrum A spectrum of possible cases is imagined: at the near end, the normal case, X at t 1 is fully psychologically and physiologically continuous with Y at t 2 , while at the far end X at t 1 is neither psychologically nor physiologically continuous with Y at t 2 . In the intermediate cases, X at t 1 is approximately halfway psychologically and physiologically continuous with Y at t2. Our alleged intuition : towards the near end of the spectrum X at t 1 is identical with Y at t 2 and towards the far end of the spectrum X at t 1 is not identical with Y at t 2 . There could not even in principle be evidence for the existence of a sharp borderline between the cases in which X at t 1 is and the cases in which X at t 1 is not identical with Y at t 2 . Hence, it is implausible to believe that such a borderline exists. Alleged conclusion : personal identity is indeterminate.

Epistemicists like Timothy Williamson (cf. 1994) deny that we should render it implausible that there is such a sharp borderline merely because we are necessarily ignorant of its existence. Vagueness, according to epistemicism, consists precisely in our necessary ignorance of such sharp boundaries. The other problem is that even if personal identity is indeterminate, the claim cannot by itself establish one criterion over others: in order to do so, it would have to exclude those thought experiments that challenge opposing criteria while leaving untouched those that supposedly establish the preferred criterion. It is doubtful, however, that the indeterminacy of personal identity can be exploited selectively, for physiological and psychological continuity relations are equally indeterminate in a particular range of cases (cf. Parfit 1984). Furthermore, in those cases in which they are not, for example Body Swap , Human Vegetable , and Fetus , appeal to indeterminacy does little to remove the contradictory intuitions that these cases trigger. Consequently, unless one holds that personal identity is categorically indeterminate whenever the physiological and psychological features of a human being come apart, appeal to indeterminacy cannot establish the rejection of the Big Assumption in such a way as to avoid the Paradox’s conclusion.

(c) The most common strategy is to bite the bullet and some or other allegedly absurd conclusion of the thought experiments. The defender of the Psychological Criterion must hold that we are not identical with a past fetus or infant, and that we will not have survived if fallen into a persistent vegetative state. Defenders of a Physiological Criterion, on the other hand, must commit to the consequence that if X’s head is grafted onto Y’s body, then the resulting person is Y and not X, even though this person shares all psychological features with X before the operation.

The problem with this strategy is that, if accepted, we seem to be unable to decide on a criterion of personal identity on the basis of intuitions at all, on pain of unjustifiably favoring one’s own over other people’s intuitions. On the assumption that we are unable to hierarchically structure these conflicting intuitions, we have a classical stand-off: there are two sides to the coin of personal identity and appeal to intuition plainly underdetermines preferring one side over the other. The problem is that human beings are organic material objects, the persistence of which is determined by these objects’ following a continuous trajectory between space-time points. The further question of whether or not human beings are essentially organic material objects depends on the question of whether psychological properties render human beings to be sufficiently dissimilar from such objects so as to “deserve” their own identity criterion. The fear underlying the Paradox of Personal Identity, then, is that there may be no metaphysical fact to the matter as to whether the antecedently specifiable differences between human beings and other organic or inorganic material objects count as sufficient in order for us to have persistence conditions different from these objects. It does not seem as if any possible thought experiment, irrespectively of how unequivocal our intuitions about it, could redeem this fear. Personal identity theorists, therefore, ought to offer a more comprehensive account of the ontological status of persons and their relation to the constituents that make them up.

4. Parfit and the Unimportance of Personal Identity

Derek Parfit proposes a theory of the ontological status of persons, which promises to answer the problem of fission and the paradox of personal identity. While this article cannot do justice to the complexities of Parfit’s theory, which has been the focal point of debate since 1970, it is worth mentioning its main features.

Although Parfit affirms the existence of persons, their special ontological status as non-separately-existing substances can be expressed by the claim that persons do not have to be listed separately on an inventory of what exists. In particular, persons themselves are distinct from their bodies and psychologies, but the existence of a person consists in nothing over and above the existence of a brain and body and the occurrence of an interrelated series of mental and physical events. These are the foundational claims of Parfit’s constitutive reductionism. Consider an analogy: Cellini’s Venus is made of bronze. Although the lump of bronze and the statue itself surely exist, these objects have different persistence conditions: if melted down, Venus ceases to exist while the lump of bronze does not. Therefore, they are not identical; rather, so the suggestion, the lump of bronze constitutes the statue. The same is true of persons, who are constituted by, but not identical with, a physiology, a psychology, and the occurrence of an interrelated series of causal and cognitive relations.

Now, how does this relate to the fission case? We must first note that Parfit believes (i) that our persistence consists in physical and/or psychological continuity; (ii) that personal identity is indeterminate in some cases, that is, that sometimes there is no right-or-wrong answer to the question of whether somebody has ceased to exist in the course of a certain adventure (see 3.b.); (iii) that what prudentially matters in survival is psychological continuity; (iv) that personal identity relations must respect the remaining formal properties of identity. This means that in the fission case Y 1 and Y 2 cannot be identical with X because the transitivity of identity is violated: therefore, X dies in the fission case. It further means, however, that X has two Parfitian survivors, Y 1 and Y 2 , which is, according to Parfit, as good (or even better) than being identical with Y 1 and/or Y 2 . This is the upshot of Parfit’s claim that what prudentially matters is psychological continuity: for all we should care, from a purely rational point of view, it is good enough for us to be psychologically continuous with one or more future persons and consequently it would be irrational for us to prefer our own continued existence to death by fission. Generally, according to Parfit, psychological continuity with any reliable cause matters in survival, and since personal identity does not consist merely in psychological continuity with any reliable cause, personal identity is not what matters in survival.

5. References and Further Reading


  • Bermúdez, Jos‚ Luis; Marcel, Anthony & Eilan, Naomi eds. (1995), The Body and the Self (Cambridge, MA & London: The MIT Press)
  • Blakemore, Colin & Greenfield, Susan eds. (1987), Mindwaves (Oxford: Blackwell)
  • Charles, David & Lennon, Kathleen eds. (1992), Reduction, Explanation, and Realism (Oxford: Clarendon)
  • Cockburn, David ed. (1991), Human Beings , Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement , Vol. 29 (Cambridge University Press)
  • Dancy, Jonathan ed. (1997), Reading Parfit (Oxford: Blackwell)
  • Davies, Martin & Stone, Tony eds. (1995), Folk Psychology: The Theory of Mind Debate (Oxford: Blackwell)
  • Harris, Henry ed. (1995), Identity (Oxford: Clarendon)
  • Lovibond, Sabina & Williams, Stephen G. eds. (1996), Essays for David Wiggins: Identity, Truth, and Value (Oxford: Blackwell)
  • Macdonald, Graham F. ed. (1979), Perception and Identity: Essays Presented to A. J. Ayer, with His Replies (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press)
  • Martin, Raymond & Barresi, John eds. (2003), Personal Identity (Oxford: Blackwell)
  • Perry, John ed. (1975), Personal Identity (Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press)
  • Rorty, Amelie O. ed. (1976), The Identities of Persons (Berkeley & Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press)


  • Ayers, Michael (1991), Locke: Epistemology and Ontology , 2 vols. (London & New York: Routledge)
  • Baker, Lynne Rudder (1997), “Why Constitution Is Not Identity,” The Journal of Philosophy , Vol. 94, No. 12, 599-621
  • Baillie, James (1993), “Recent Work on Personal Identity,” Philosophical Books , Vol. 34, No. 4, 193-206
  • Behrendt, Kathy (2003), “The New Neo-Kantian and Reductionist Debate,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 84, No. 4, 331-50
  • Blackburn, Simon W. (1984), “Has Kant Refuted Parfit?,” in Dancy ed. (1997), pp. 180-201
  • Butler, Joseph (1736), “Of Personal Identity,” First Dissertation to The Analogy of Religion (reprinted in Perry ed. (1975), pp. 99-105)
  • Campbell, John (1992), “The First Person: The Reductionist View of the Self,” in Charles & Lennon eds. (1992), pp. 381-419
  • Cassam, Quassim (1989), “Kant and Reductionism,” Review of Metaphysics , Vol. 43, No. 1, 72-106
  • Cassam, Quassim (1992), “Reductionism and First-Person Thinking,” in Charles & Lennon eds. (1992), pp. 361-80
  • Cassam, Quassim (1993), “Parfit on Persons,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society , Vol. 93, 17-37
  • Cassam, Quassim (1997), Self and World (Oxford University Press)
  • Chisholm, Roderick M. (1976), Person and Object (Chicago & La Salle, IL: Open Court)
  • Crane, Tim (2001), Elements of Mind (Oxford University Press)
  • Doepke, Frederick C. (1996), The Kinds of Things: A Theory of Personal Identity Based on Transcendental Argument (Chicago & La Salle, IL: Open Court)
  • Evans, Gareth M. (1982), The Varieties of Reference , ed. John McDowell (New York: Oxford University Press)
  • Evans, Gareth M. (1985), Collected Papers , ed. Antonia Phillips (Oxford: Clarendon)
  • Garrett, Brian (1991), “Personal Identity and Reductionism,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research , Vol. 51, No. 2, 361-73
  • Garrett, Brian (1995), “Wittgenstein and the First Person,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy , Vol. 73, No. 3, 347-55
  • Garrett, Brian (1998), Personal Identity and Self-Consciousness (London: Routledge)
  • Geach, Peter (1967), “Identity,” Review of Metaphysics , Vol. 21, No.1 (reprinted in his (1972), Logic Matters (Oxford: Blackwell), pp. 238-47)
  • Gordon, Robert M. (1995), “Folk Psychology as Simulation,” in Davies & Stone eds. (1995), pp. 59-73
  • Heal, Jane (1995), “Replication and Functionalism,” in Davies & Stone eds. (1995), pp. 45-59
  • Hirsch, Eli (1991), “Divided Minds,” The Philosophical Review , Vol. 100, No. 1, 3-30
  • Hume, David (1739), A Treatise on Human Nature , ed. Norton, David F. & Norton, Mary J. (Oxford University Press)
  • Johnston, Mark (1992), “Constitution Is Not Identity,” Mind , Vol. 101, No. 401, 89-105
  • Johnston, Mark (1997), “Human Concerns Without Superlative Selves,” in Dancy ed. (1997), pp. 149-79
  • Locke, John (1689), An Essay Concerning Human Understanding , ed. Woolhouse, Roger (London: Penguin, 1997)
  • Lowe, E. Jonathan (1991), “Real Selves: Persons as Substantial Kinds,” in Cockburn ed. (1991), pp. 87-108
  • Lowe, E. Jonathan (1996), Subjects of Experience (Cambridge University Press)
  • Martin, Raymond (1998), Self-Concern: An Experiential Approach to What Matters in Survival (Cambridge University Press)
  • McDowell, John (1997), “Reductionism and the First Person,” in Dancy ed. (1997), pp. 230-50
  • Merricks, Trenton (1998), “There Are No Criteria of Identity Over Time,” No–s , Vol. 32, No.1, 106-124
  • Moore, Adrian W. (1997), Points of View (Oxford: Clarendon)
  • Nagel, Thomas (1971), “Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness,” Synthese , Vol. 22, 396-413
  • Nagel, Thomas (1986), The View From Nowhere (Oxford: Clarendon)
  • Noonan, Harold W. (1989), Personal Identity (London: Routledge)
  • Noonan, Harold (1993), “Constitution Is Identity,” Mind , Vol. 102, No. 405, 133-46
  • Nozick, Robert (1981), Philosophical Explanations (Oxford: Clarendon)
  • Olson, Eric T. (1997a), The Human Animal: Personal Identity Without Psychology (Oxford University Press)
  • Olson, Eric T. (1997b), “Relativism and Persistence,” Philosophical Studies , Vol. 88, No. 2, 141-62
  • Parfit, Derek A. (1971a), “Personal Identity,” The Philosophical Review , Vol. 80, No. 1, 3-27
  • Parfit, Derek A. (1971b), On “The Importance of Self-Identity”,” The Journal of Philosophy , Vol. 68, No. 20, 683-90
  • Parfit, Derek A. (1976), “Lewis, Perry, and What Matters,” in Rorty ed. (1976), pp. 91-107
  • Parfit, Derek A. (1982), “Personal Identity and Rationality,” Synthese , Vol. 53, 227-41
  • Parfit, Derek A. (1984), Reasons and Persons (Oxford University Press; revised reprint, Oxford: Clarendon, 1987)
  • Parfit, Derek A. (1986), “Comments,” Ethics , Vol. 96, No. 4, 832-872
  • Parfit, Derek A. (1987), “Divided Minds and the Nature of Persons,” in Blakemore & Greenfield eds. (1987), pp. 19-26
  • Parfit, Derek A. (1995), “The Unimportance of Identity,” in Harris ed. (1995), pp. 13-45 (reprinted in Martin & Barresi eds. (2003), pp. 292-318)
  • Parfit, Derek A. (1999), “Experiences, Subjects, and Conceptual Schemes,” Philosophical Topics , Vol. 26, Nos. 1-2, 217-70
  • Peacocke, Christopher (1983), Sense and Content: Experience, Thought, and Their Relations (Oxford: Clarendon)
  • Perry, John (1972), “Can the Self Divide?,” The Journal of Philosophy , Vol. 69, No. 16, 463-88
  • Shoemaker, Sydney (1963), Self-Knowledge and Self-Identity (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press)
  • Shoemaker, Sydney (1970), “Persons and Their Past,” American Philosophical Quarterly , Vol. 7, No. 4, 269-85 (reprinted in Shoemaker (1984), pp. 19-48)
  • Shoemaker, Sydney (1984), Identity, Cause, and Mind (Cambridge University Press; expanded edition, Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • Shoemaker, Sydney (1985), “Critical Notice of Reasons and Persons ,” Mind , Vol. 94, No. 375, 443-53
  • Shoemaker, Sydney (1997), “Parfit on Identity,” in Dancy ed. (1997), pp. 135-48 (revised version of his 1985)
  • Shoemaker, Sydney (1999), “Self, Body, and Coincidence,” Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 73, 287-306
  • Shoemaker, Sidney & Swinburne, Richard (1984), Personal Identity (Oxford: Blackwell)
  • Snowdon, Paul F. (1991), “Personal Identity and Brain Transplants,” in Cockburn ed. (1991), pp. 109-26
  • Snowdon, Paul F (1995), “Persons, Animals, and Bodies,” in Bermúdez, Marcel & Eilan eds. (1995), pp. 71-86
  • Snowdon, Paul F (1996), “Persons and Personal Identity,” in Lovibond & Williams (1996), pp. 33-48
  • Strawson, Peter F. (1959), Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysic (London & New York: Methuen)
  • Strawson, Galen (1999), “Self, Body, and Experience,” Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 73, 307-32
  • Swinburne, Richard G. (1973-4), “Personal Identity,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society , Vol. 74, 231-47
  • Thompson, Judith J. (1997), “People and Their Bodies,” in Dancy ed. (1997), pp. 202-29
  • Unger, Peter (1979), “I Do Not Exist,” in Macdonald ed. (1979), pp. 235-51
  • Van Inwagen, Peter (1990), Material Beings (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press)
  • Wiggins, David R. P. (2001), Sameness and Substance Renewed (Oxford University Press)
  • Wilkes, Kathleen V. (1988), Real People: Personal Identity Without Thought Experiments (Oxford: Clarendon)
  • Williams, Bernard A. O. (1956-7), “Personal Identity and Individuation,” Proceedings to the Aristotelian Society , Vol. 57, 229-52 (my references are to reprint in Williams (1973), pp. 1-18)
  • Williams, Bernard A. O. (1970), “The Self and the Future,” Philosophical Review , Vol. 79, No. 2, 161-80 (reprinted in Williams (1973), pp. 46-63)
  • Williams, Bernard A. O. (1973), Problems of the Self: Philosophical Papers 1956-1972 (Cambridge University Press)
  • Williams, Bernard A. O. (1978), Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry (Hardmondsworth: Penguin Books)
  • Williamson, Timothy (1994), Vagueness (London & New York: Routledge)
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1922), Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus , transl. D.F. Pears & B.F. McGuiness (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961)
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953), Philosophical Investigations , transl. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell)
  • Wright, Crispin (1983), Frege’s Conception of Numbers as Objects (Aberdeen University Press)
  • Zimmerman, Dean W. (1998), “Criteria of Identity and the “Identity Mystics”,” Erkenntnis , Vol. 48, Nos. 2-3, 281-301

Author Information

Carsten Korfmacher Email: C.Korfmacher.99 (at) cantab.net Linacre College, Oxford University United Kingdom

An encyclopedia of philosophy articles written by professional philosophers.

At home, abroad, working, interning?  Wherever you are this summer, contact OCS or make an appointment for a virtual advising session. We are available all summer! 

  • Undergraduates
  • Ph.Ds & Postdocs
  • Prospective Students & Guests
  • What is a Community?
  • Student Athletes
  • First Generation and/or Low Income Students
  • International Students
  • LGBTQ Students
  • Students of Color
  • Students with Disabilities
  • Student Veterans
  • Exploring Careers
  • Advertising, Marketing & PR
  • Finance, Insurance & Real Estate
  • General Management & Leadership Development Programs
  • Law & Legal Services
  • Startups, Entrepreneurship & Freelance Work
  • Environment, Sustainability & Energy
  • Media & Communications
  • Policy & Think Tanks
  • Engineering
  • Healthcare, Biotech & Global Public Health
  • Life & Physical Sciences
  • Programming & Data Science
  • Graduate School
  • Health Professions
  • Business School
  • Meet with OCS
  • Student Organizations Workshop Request
  • OCS Podcast Series
  • Office of Fellowships
  • Navigating AI in the Job Search Process
  • Cover Letters & Correspondence
  • Job Market Insights
  • Professional Conduct & Etiquette
  • Professional Online Identity
  • Interview Preparation
  • Resource Database
  • Yale Career Link
  • Jobs, Internships & Other Experiences
  • Gap Year & Short-Term Opportunities
  • Planning an International Internship
  • Funding Your Experience
  • Career Fairs/Networking Events
  • On-Campus Recruiting
  • Job Offers & Salary Negotiation
  • Informational Interviewing
  • Peer Networking Lists
  • Building Your LinkedIn Profile
  • YC First Destinations
  • YC Four-Year Out
  • GSAS Program Statistics
  • Statistics & Reports
  • Contact OCS
  • OCS Mission & Policies
  • Additional Yale Career Offices
  • Design Your Career
  • Faculty & Staff

Writing Personal Statements for Graduate School

  • Share This: Share Writing Personal Statements for Graduate School on Facebook Share Writing Personal Statements for Graduate School on LinkedIn Share Writing Personal Statements for Graduate School on X

Personal Statements

Preparing a well-written and effective personal statement (sometimes referred to as statements of purpose or personal essays) that clearly articulates your preparation, goals, and motivation for pursuing that specific graduate degree is critically important. You will need to spend a considerable amount of time and effort in crafting these statements. The focus, structure, and length of personal statements vary from program to program. Some will have prompts or questions you need to answer, while others will leave the topic open-ended. The length varies widely as well. Read instructions carefully and make sure to adhere to all parameters laid out in the application guidelines.

Clear writing is the result of clear thinking. The first and most important task is to decide on a message. Consider carefully which two or three points you wish to impress upon the reader, remembering that your audience is composed of academics who are experts in their fields. Your statement should show that you are able to think logically and express your thoughts in a clear and concise manner. Remember that the reader already has a record of your activities and your transcript; avoid simply restating your resume and transcript. Writing your statement will take time; start early and give yourself more than enough time for revisions. If no prompts are given, you can use the questions below to begin brainstorming content to include in your statement; for more information, see our Writing Personal Statement presentation Prezi  and our three-minute video on Writing Personal Statements .

  • What experiences and academic preparation do you have that are relevant to the degree you’re seeking?
  • Why are you choosing to pursue a graduate degree at this time?
  • Why do you want to pursue this particular degree and how will this degree and the specific program fit into your career plans and your long-term goals?
  • What specific topics are you aiming to explore and what does the current literature say about those topics?

After you’ve written a first draft, start the work of editing, refining, simplifying, and polishing. Provide specific examples that will help illustrate your points and convey your interests, intentions, and motivations. Is any section, sentence, or word superfluous, ambiguous, apologetic, or awkward? Are your verbs strong and active? Have you removed most of the qualifiers? Are you sure that each activity or interest you mention supports one of your main ideas? Spelling and grammatical errors are inexcusable. Don’t rely on spell-check to catch all errors; read your statement aloud and have it reviewed by multiple people whose opinion you trust. If possible, have your statement reviewed by a writing tutor. For individual assistance with writing your personal statement, consult with the writing tutor in your residential college  or the Writing Center within the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning .

' src=

Office of Career Strategy

Visiting yale.

A guide to writing the best personal statement for your college application (with template and examples!)

Why is boasting about a best friend SO much easier than writing about yourself? Unfortunately, writing about yourself is exactly what a personal statement essay requires you to do–whether it’s for your college admissions application, or for a scholarship application to pay for college . Here’s our guide, to ensure you’re well-equipped to write a killer personal statement!

Student writing personal statement

First off, what’s the purpose of a personal statement?

What topics can i write about, how do i decide what to focus on, in my college essay, okay, i’ve got my personal statement topic. but now i have to actually write it. 😱what do i do .

  • Do you have personal statement examples? 

Now it’s your turn.

Your personal statement should share something about who you are, something that can’t be found in your resume or transcript.

For colleges:

  • It should paint a picture for colleges to understand who we are and what we bring to the table. This is why it’s often better to tell a story, or give examples, rather than just list accomplishments.
  • It should complement the other parts of your application. Consider your college application as a whole. Your personal statement, application short answers, and supporting documentation should together tell a story about who you are. This also means not being super repetitive with your personal statement and your short essays. (For instance, if you have to answer 3 questions AND submit a personal statement, maybe they shouldn’t ALL focus on music.)

For scholarship applications:

  • It should indicate why you’re deserving of the scholarship. This often means making sure your essay relates to the scholarship provider’s goals. (Get more help on writing a killer scholarship essay here , and then make sure you’re applying as efficiently as possible. )
  • It should showcase your strengths. This doesn’t mean it can’t acknowledge any weaknesses, but it surely shouldn’t only focus on negative aspects!

Student writing personal statement draft

It can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. First, figure out what your choices are. Some colleges may have very specific college essay prompts. That said, many students apply using the Common App, which this year offers these 7 topics to choose from : 

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? ( Psst – If you choose this topic, you can sign up for Going Merry and apply for a scholarship bundle : one essay, multiple scholarships! )
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

You’ll notice that #7 is a catch-all that allows you to submit any personal statement about anything at all . 

So maybe that doesn’t help you narrow it down. 

Here’s a 3-step solution:

STEP 1. Brainstorm about your life

Dedicate 5-10 minutes each to brainstorming about these 4 sets of questions.

You can do this by yourself (writing down your thoughts), or do this exercise out loud with a friend or family member, and then jot down notes as you’re talking. If you “think out loud” better than you do on paper, brainstorming with someone else may be the way to go! 

(A) What were defining moments in your life?

How did these moments in your life changed you, what did you learn from it, and how has it shaped your future plans? Some topics might include:

  • An accident or injury
  • A best friend you made (or lost)
  • A defining talk with a peer
  • Something new you tried for the first time
  • Revealing a sexual or gender identity, to friends or family
  • Discovering something about your family ( e.g., see Jesus’s story )
  • Moving to a new city
  • Traveling somewhere, or learning about a new culture ( e.g., see Gabby’s story )
  • Your first pet (new responsibilities as a fur mom or dad)

(B) What have you chosen to spend time on?

Remember to focus not just on the what , but also the why – What were your motivations? How did you feel? What have you learned? Some topics on this might include: 

  • The moment you joined band, color guard, or the soccer team. 
  • A time you struggled with that activity – e.g., Maybe you got passed over for captain of the soccer? Or maybe you got an injury and had to sit out on the sidelines? 
  • Maybe a moment you really fell in love with that activity – e.g. Maybe the first time you investigated a story for the school newspaper and realized journalism was your calling?

(C) Whom or what are you inspired by?

How did you find out about this person or thing? Why are you inspired? In what ways are you inspired? Is there anything that inspiration has made you do (e.g. join a club, do an activity or internship on the topic)? Some topics on this might include: 

  • Technology – Maybe a specific App made you inspired to learn to code? 
  • Person in your life – Maybe meeting someone (or knowing someone in your family) has affected you? 
  • A show, movie, book, or podcast that inspired you to look at life differently
  • A dance or song that has made you interested in performing arts

(D) What are you proud of?

Make a list of all the things you’re proud of. These can be milestones, hobbies, qualities, or quirks that are what make you, you. Topics to consider might be:

  • Times you saved the day – like that epic left-handed catch you made on the field
  • Personal qualities – Maybe you’re really funny, or amazingly calm under pressure. What are some examples of times when you showed those qualities?
  • Random life things you’re amazing at – Baking a mean chocolate brownie. Guessing how many gumballs are in a jar. Tell a story when that amazing talent was handy!

Don’t worry if some of your ideas repeat between sections. This is just a way to get ideas flowing! 

College student writing

STEP 2. Shortlist your ideas

Identify your strongest ideas out of the bunch. This should probably be very few (2-4).

STEP 3. Freewrite about your possible essay topics.

Once you’ve brainstormed some ideas and identified 2-4 winners, we agree with Find the Right College – just start freewriting! Start by writing a few sentences or paragraphs about any of your shortlisted topics, and let the words flow. Write for about 15 minutes, on each shortlisted topic. Don’t worry about structure or organization – this is just an exercise so you feel comfortable getting the thoughts out of your head and onto paper. 

It will also allow you to see which of the topics seems to have the most “legs” — often, you’ll notice that your best topic will:

  • Be the easiest to write about (those 15 minutes flew by!)
  • Lead you to tell at least one interesting story
  • Feel like it genuinely reveals something important about who you are
  • Not be captured easily by other parts of your application (you’ll need a full 500 words to really be able to tackle this meaty topic)

Student reviewing personal statement template

Well, let’s start here: What makes a personal statement good or even great ?

Here are some things to keep in mind: 

1. Get personal.

Remember the “personal” in personal statement. We all have a story to tell, and we all have a different journey that led us to where we are today. We might think “someone already wrote about this” or we might think our story isn’t unique, but IT IS.

2. Speak like you.

Write your personal statement in a genuine tone that reflects who you are . There’s no right or wrong tone – just make sure your tone represents YOU. This means, in particular, not using big words just to show off. Often, this just seems like you’re trying to hard. (Or, even worse, you accidentally use the word incorrectly!)

3. Think about your audience.

Who will you be writing your personal statement for? What message do you want to convey? If it’s for to the college admissions committee, how do you show you’ll align well with the culture of the school? If it’s for a scholarship provider, how do you show you support their mission?

4. Hit the big three: Story, Implication, Connection to college/major.

Most successful college essays do at least 3 things: 

  • Mention at least one anecdote or story. (“Show, don’t tell.”)
  • Explain why that anecdote or story is important to who you are.
  • End (or begin) by connecting this information, to why you are applying to this specific college. This may include information about the major (why you think their department/program is great), or more general information about what attracts you to the school (e.g., location, sports, extracurricular activities, Greek life). Get specific so the school knows you’re really interested in them! This is the one piece of your personal statement that probably shouldn’t be cut & paste.

Here’s an example of how to use that personal essay template:

  • Story: When I was 11, my family traveled to Italy and visited museums — one specific painting made me fall in love with art. ( 1-2 paragraphs )
  • Why important: After that trip, I did lots of art and studied lots of art. Mention specific extracurriculars. ( 3 paragraphs )
  • Why this college: I want to apply to X college because of its excellent art program, which I can also complement by joining Y and Z clubs. Since it’s in New York, it’ll also offer my the opportunity to visit the countless art museums like MOMA. ( 1 paragraph )

5. Hit the length.

Make sure you keep within the required length. Normally if you aim for 500 words, you’re golden. Some college or scholarship applications will allow you to write up to 600 or 650 words.

6. Edit your work.

Once you’ve written your personal statement, step away from it. There was a time when we used to rely on pencil and paper to write down all of our ideas and information (including first-draft college essays). Now, we mainly rely on screens, so our eyes grow tired, causing us to miss typos and grammar mistakes.

So save that document in an easy-to-find folder on your computer. Then stepping away from your computer and taking a break helps relax your mind and body and then refocus when you come back to edit the document.

( Psst – If you’re applying for scholarships with Going Merry, we’ve got built-in spellcheck, and we allow you to save essays in your documents folder, so no work will get lost! )

We can’t stress this one enough: Don’t submit your personal statement without checking your spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc.! All the grammar things! Your personal statement reflects who you are, from the topic you choose to the style you write it in, so impress colleges (or scholarship providers) with excellent structure and great grammar!

7. Then, ask someone else to edit it too.

We recommend asking a friend, counselor, or parent to read your personal statement before you submit the document. One more set of eyes will really help you get a second opinion on the tone, writing quality, and overall representation of who you are in your personal statement.

8. Be brave, and hit that “submit” button on your personal statement!

Finally, when everything is completed, click submit! Don’t hold back!

9. Remember, personal statements for your college app, can also be reused as scholarship essays.

Get double-use out of your personal statement. Going Merry is your home for all things scholarships–fill out a profile, get matched to eligible scholarships, and apply. You can even save essays so that you can easily upload the same one for multiple scholarship applications. (We were inspired by the Common App to make applying for scholarships easier.)

Register for an account here , get the full lowdown on how it works , or just sign up for the newsletter below (to get 20 scholarship opportunities delivered to our inbox each each week!).

High school student writing personal statement

Do you have personal statement examples ? 

Oh yes we do. First, here are some excerpts of personal statements from members of our very own Going Merry team!

Charlie Maynard, Going Merry CEO – wrote about what matters most to him and why, for his grad school application.

  • The open paragraph read: “Being open to new ideas and able to take advantage of opportunities is what is most important to me. The most extraordinary times in my life have come as a result of moments when I’ve seized opportunities. This has been evident in my educational life, my travels around the world and my professional career.”
  • This anchored the main topic of his essay. He then went on to explain examples.

Charlotte Lau, Going Merry Head of Growth – wrote for her college Common App personal statement:

“As a child, I was never close with my father, though we were always on good terms. He made me laugh and taught me all the things that made me into a young tomboy: what an RBI is, how to correctly hook a fish when I feel it biting, what to bring on a camping trip. But whenever I was upset, he wouldn’t know how to comfort me. He is a man of jokes and words, not of comforting motions.

But as I grew older and I too became infatuated with words—albeit in written form—our topics of conversation became more diverse and often more profound. We continued to watch sports games together, but during commercials, we’d have epistemological and ethical discussions more fitting for a philosophy class than a chat during a Knicks’ time-out. During these talks, my father would insert stories about his youth. They’d always be transitory or anecdotal, told as if they were beside the point. Still, I’d eagerly commit them to memory, and, over time, I began to get a sense of who my father was—and, in turn, who I am.”

Now, here are some excerpts from other sample personal statements:

These 3 are college essays about personal characteristics:

Essay 1: Humorous essay about getting a D and learning a lesson

“Getting a D probably isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s not something anyone wants to see, let alone put, on a college application. It came back to me, scrawled in red, on the first big history test of the year. The one the teacher had assured us was a third of our grade. I could already see my chances of a four-year college going up in smoke and my school year hadn’t even started yet.

What happened? I’m not a D student. I’ll get the occasional C as well as the occasional A. D’s are out of character for me, and enough of a stomach punch to really get my attention. The short version is, I didn’t study, and I don’t remember precisely why. There is always a reason not to study, isn’t there? I didn’t study and I went into a test woefully unprepared and got beaten up.

I had two options here. I could accept that I was in fact a D student despite what I had thought. Or I could study hard for the next test and try to bring my grade up by the force of the average.”

Essay 2: Why a talent (in this case, one at football) is also a responsibility

“Talent is not remarkable. It’s usually the first thing anyone compliments. “You’re so talented.” It doesn’t mean what they think it means. It doesn’t mean I worked hard. It means I was lucky, or blessed, or anything else you want to call it.

I have talent. I’ve known since I was old enough to hold a football. The game just makes intuitive sense to me. The pathways of the players, both my team and the others, where the ball has to go, and what I’m doing. In the silence before a snap, I’m already playing out what is going to happen, watching the holes in my lines, tracing the route of my receivers. […]

It is far too easy to view talent as an excuse. For me, it is a motivator. For my talent, I will accept nothing less than a dream that only a tiny percentage of people ever get to experience. To get there, I’m willing to work hard and wring every last accomplishment from myself.

Talent is a responsibility. Because you had nothing to do with acquiring it, you are compelled to achieve every last bit you can with it. While I had grown used to thinking varsity would be it, that was not the case. Now, I can focus on the goal while I accomplish the steps.”

Essay 3: On living with depression

“Before I was diagnosed, I had been told it was a normal part of growing up. I was told that teens are moody. I would grow out of it. I couldn’t imagine anyone growing out of what I was feeling. I couldn’t imagine anyone surviving.

Diagnosis and medication have saved my life, allowing me to see the world as people without my brain chemistry would. […] what I found was a place of tiny kindnesses.

It might sound bad—as though kindness can only exist in the smallest forms. This is not what I mean. There are extraordinary people out there who devote their lives to doing very large, very important things for others. I’m not talking about them, partially because they are extraordinary. They are not the norm.

What is normal are the tiny kindnesses. These do not cost a person much of anything. A slice of time, a moment of openness, and little else. They are a smile when you’re feeling down, a comforting hand on the shoulder, a moment to talk.”

And here are 3 college personal statements, about what drove their interest in their intended major: 

Essay 4: On why this applicant wants to study music

“My great-great-uncle Giacomo Ferrari was born in 1912 in Neverland, NY, the youngest of four sons. His parents had emigrated from Italy with his two eldest brothers in the early 1900s in search of a better life in America. Their struggles as immigrants are in themselves inspiring, but the challenges they faced are undoubtedly similar to those that many other immigrant families had to overcome; because of this, the actions that my relatives embarked upon are that much more extraordinary. Giacomo’s oldest brother Antonio, my great-grandfather, decided to take a correspondence course in violin, and to teach his youngest brother Giacomo how to play as well. Giacomo Ferrari eventually became an accomplished violinist and started a free “Lunchtime Strings” program for all the elementary schools in the Neverland area, giving free violin lessons and monthly concerts.

As a native English speaker who has had the privilege of studying viola and violin with trained, private teachers, I can only imagine the perseverance it took for my great-grandfather and great-great uncle to learn an instrument like the violin out of booklets and lessons that were not even written in their native language. Their passion and dedication to learning something new, something not part of their lives as blue-collar, immigrant workers, and their desire to share it with others, has inspired me as a musician and a person. It is this spirit that has motivated me to pursue an MA at Composition at the University of XXX.”

Essay 5: On why this applicant wants to be an allergy specialist

“Suddenly I started scratching my neck, feeling the hives that had started to form. I rushed to the restroom to throw up because my throat was itchy and I felt a weight on my chest. I was experiencing anaphylactic shock, which prevented me from taking anything but shallow breaths. I was fighting the one thing that is meant to protect me and keep me alive – my own body.

[…] After that incident, I began to fear. I became scared of death, eating, and even my own body. As I grew older, I became paranoid about checking food labels and I avoided eating if I didn’t know what was in the food. I knew what could happen if I ate one wrong thing, and I wasn’t willing to risk it for a snack. Ultimately, that fear turned into resentment; I resented my body for making me an outsider.

In the years that followed, this experience and my regular visits to my allergy specialist inspired me to become an allergy specialist. Even though I was probably only ten at the time, I wanted to find a way to help kids like me. I wanted to find a solution so that nobody would have to feel the way I did; nobody deserved to feel that pain, fear, and resentment. As I learned more about the medical world, I became more fascinated with the body’s immune responses, specifically, how a body reacts to allergens.”

Essay 6 : On why this applicant wants to study medicine  

“My passion for teaching others and sharing knowledge emanates from my curiosity and love for learning. My shadowing experiences in particular have stimulated my curiosity and desire to learn more about the world around me. How does platelet rich plasma stimulate tissue growth? How does diabetes affect the proximal convoluted tubule? My questions never stopped. I wanted to know everything and it felt very satisfying to apply my knowledge to clinical problems. distinct concepts together to form a coherent picture truly attracts me to medicine.

It is hard to separate science from medicine; in fact, medicine is science. However, medicine is also about people—their feelings, struggles and concerns. Humans are not pre-programmed robots that all face the same problems. Humans deserve sensitive and understanding physicians. Humans deserve doctors who are infinitely curious, constantly questioning new advents in medicine. They deserve someone who loves the challenge of problem solving and coming up with innovative individualized solutions. I want to be that physician. I want to be able to approach each case as a unique entity and incorporate my strengths into providing personalized care for my patients. Until that time, I may be found Friday mornings in the operating room, peering over shoulders, dreaming about the day I get to hold the drill.”

Students writing personal statements

You made it this far. Now, it’s time to write your personal statement!

Ready to reuse your personal statement for scholarship applications? Sign up for Going Merry today for free to keep track of your scholarship applications and essays. We’re your one-stop shop for scholarship searches and applications.

  • Recent Posts

Kelly Lamano

  • Scholarships for Students in Pennsylvania for 2024 - November 11, 2020
  • Counselor Starter Guide: How to Use Going Merry’s Scholarship Platform - September 9, 2020
  • How to write a financial need statement for your scholarship application (with examples!) - August 13, 2020

Ready to find scholarships that are a match for you?

SEP home page

  • Table of Contents
  • Random Entry
  • Chronological
  • Editorial Information
  • About the SEP
  • Editorial Board
  • How to Cite the SEP
  • Special Characters
  • Advanced Tools
  • Support the SEP
  • PDFs for SEP Friends
  • Make a Donation
  • SEPIA for Libraries
  • Entry Contents


Academic tools.

  • Friends PDF Preview
  • Author and Citation Info
  • Back to Top

Much of the debate about identity in recent decades has been about personal identity, and specifically about personal identity over time, but identity generally, and the identity of things of other kinds, have also attracted attention. Various interrelated problems have been at the centre of discussion, but it is fair to say that recent work has focussed particularly on the following areas: the notion of a criterion of identity; the correct analysis of identity over time, and, in particular, the disagreement between advocates of perdurance and advocates of endurance as analyses of identity over time; the notion of identity across possible worlds and the question of its relevance to the correct analysis of de re modal discourse; the notion of contingent identity; the question of whether the identity relation is, or is similar to, the composition relation; and the notion of vague identity. A radical position, advocated by Peter Geach, is that these debates, as usually conducted, are void for lack of a subject matter: the notion of absolute identity they presuppose has no application; there is only relative identity. Another increasingly popular view is the one advocated by David Lewis: although the debates make sense they cannot genuinely be debates about identity, since there are no philosophical problems about identity. Identity is an utterly unproblematic notion. What there are, are genuine problems which can be stated using the language of identity. But since these can be restated without the language of identity they are not problems about identity. (For example, it is a puzzle, an aspect of the so-called “problem of personal identity”, whether the same person can have different bodies at different times. But this is just the puzzle whether a person can have different bodies at different times. So since it can be stated without the language of personal “identity”, it is not a problem about personal identity , but about personhood.) This article provides an overview of the topics indicated above, some assessment of the debates and suggestions for further reading.

1. Introduction

2. the logic of identity, 3. relative identity, 4. criteria of identity, 5. identity over time, 6. identity across possible worlds, 7. contingent identity, 8. composition as identity, 9. vague identity, 10. are there philosophical problems about identity, other internet resources, related entries.

To say that things are identical is to say that they are the same. “Identity” and “sameness” mean the same; their meanings are identical. However, they have more than one meaning. A distinction is customarily drawn between qualitative and numerical identity or sameness. Things with qualitative identity share properties, so things can be more or less qualitatively identical. Poodles and Great Danes are qualitatively identical because they share the property of being a dog, and such properties as go along with that, but two poodles will (very likely) have greater qualitative identity. Numerical identity requires absolute, or total, qualitative identity, and can only hold between a thing and itself. Its name implies the controversial view that it is the only identity relation in accordance with which we can properly count (or number) things: x and y are to be properly counted as one just in case they are numerically identical (Geach 1973).

Numerical identity is our topic. As noted, it is at the centre of several philosophical debates, but to many seems in itself wholly unproblematic, for it is just that relation everything has to itself and nothing else – and what could be less problematic than that? Moreover, if the notion is problematic it is difficult to see how the problems could be resolved, since it is difficult to see how a thinker could have the conceptual resources with which to explain the concept of identity whilst lacking that concept itself. The basicness of the notion of identity in our conceptual scheme, and, in particular, the link between identity and quantification has been particularly noted by Quine (1964).

Numerical identity can be characterised, as just done, as the relation everything has to itself and to nothing else. But this is circular, since “nothing else” just means “no numerically non-identical thing”. It can be defined, equally circularly (because quantifying over all equivalence relations including itself), as the smallest equivalence relation (an equivalence relation being one which is reflexive, symmetric and transitive, for example, having the same shape). Other circular definitions are available. Usually it is defined as the equivalence relation (or: the reflexive relation) satisfying Leibniz’s Law, the principle of the indiscernibility of identicals, that if x is identical with y then everything true of x is true of y . Intuitively this is right, but only picks out identity uniquely if “what is true of x ” is understood to include “being identical with x ”; otherwise it is too weak. Circularity is thus not avoided. Nevertheless, Leibniz’s Law appears to be crucial to our understanding of identity, and, more particularly, to our understanding of distinctness: we exhibit our commitment to it whenever we infer from “ Fa ” and “ Not-Fb ” that a is not identical with b . Strictly, what is being employed in such inferences is the contrapositive of Leibniz’s Law (if something true of a is false of b , a is not identical with b ), which some (in the context of the discussion of vague identity) have questioned, but it appears as indispensable to our grip on the concept of identity as Leibniz’s Law itself.

The converse of Leibniz’s Law, the principle of the identity of indiscernibles, that if everything true of x is true of y , x is identical with y , is correspondingly trivial if “what is true of x ” is understood to include “being identical with x ” (as required if Leibniz’s Law is to characterise identity uniquely among equivalence relations). But often it is read with “what is true of x ” restricted, e.g., to qualitative, non-relational, properties of x . It then becomes philosophically controversial. Thus it is debated whether a symmetrical universe is possible, e.g., a universe containing two qualitatively indistinguishable spheres and nothing else (Black 1952).

Leibniz’s Law has itself been subject to controversy in the sense that the correct explanation of apparent counter-examples has been debated. Leibniz’s Law must be clearly distinguished from the substitutivity principle, that if “ a ” and “ b ” are codesignators (if “ a = b ” is a true sentence of English) they are everywhere substitutable salva veritate . This principle is trivially false. “Hesperus” contains eight letters, “Phosphorus” contains ten, but Hesperus (the Evening Star) is Phosphorus (the Morning Star). Again, despite the identity, it is informative to be told that Hesperus is Phosphorus, but not to be told that Hesperus is Hesperus (“On Sense and Reference” in Frege 1969). Giorgione was so-called because of his size, Barbarelli was not, but Giorgione was Barbarelli (Quine, “Reference and Modality”, in 1963) . It is a necessary truth that 9 is greater than 7, it is not a necessary truth that the number of planets is greater than 7, although 9 is the number of planets. The explanation of the failure of the substitutivity principle can differ from case to case. In the first example, it is plausible to say that “‘Hesperus’ contains eight letters” is not about Hesperus, but about the name, and the same is true, mutatis mutandis , of “‘Phosphorus’ contains ten letters”. Thus the names do not have the same referents in the identity statement and the predications. In the Giorgione/Barbarelli example this seems less plausible. Here the correct explanation is plausibly that “is so-called because of his size” expresses different properties depending on the name it is attached to, and so expresses the property of being called “Barbarelli” because of his size when attached to “Barbarelli” and being called “Giorgione” because of his size when attached to “Giorgione”. It is more controversial how to explain the Hesperus/Phosphorus and 9/the number of planets examples. Frege’s own explanation of the former was to assimilate it to the “Hesperus”/“Phosphorus” case: in “It is informative to be told that Hesperus is Phosphorus” the names do not stand for their customary referent but for their senses. A Fregean explanation of the 9/number of planets example may also be offered: “it is necessary that” creates a context in which numerical designators stand for senses rather than numbers.

For present purposes the important point to recognise is that, however these counter-examples to the substitutivity principle are explained, they are not counter-examples to Leibniz’s Law, which says nothing about substitutivity of codesignators in any language.

The view of identity just put forward (henceforth “the classical view”) characterises it as the equivalence relation which everything has to itself and to nothing else and which satisfies Leibniz’s Law. These formal properties ensure that, within any theory expressible by means of a fixed stock of one- or many-place predicates, quantifiers and truth-functional connectives, any two predicates which can be regarded as expressing identity (i.e., any predicates satisfying the two schemata “for all x , Rxx ” and “for all x , for all y , Rxy → ( Fx → Fy )” for any one-place predicate in place of “ F ”) will be extensionally equivalent. They do not, however, ensure that any two-place predicate does express identity within a particular theory, for it may simply be that the descriptive resources of the theory are insufficiently rich to distinguish items between which the equivalence relation expressed by the predicate holds (“Identity” in Geach 1972).

Following Geach, call a two-place predicate with these properties in a theory an “I-predicate” in that theory. Relative to another, richer, theory the same predicate, interpreted in the same way, may not be an I-predicate. If so it will not, and did not even in the poorer theory, express identity. For example, “having the same income as” will be an I-predicate in a theory in which persons with the same income are indistinguishable, but not in a richer theory.

Quine (1950) has suggested that when a predicate is an I-predicate in a theory only because the language in which the theory is expressed does not allow one to distinguish items between which it holds, one can reinterpret the sentences of the theory so that the I-predicate in the newly interpreted theory does express identity. Every sentence will have just the same truth-conditions under the new interpretation and the old, but the references of its subsentential parts will be different. Thus, Quine suggests, if one has a language in which one speaks of persons and in which persons of the same income are indistinguishable the predicates of the language may be reinterpreted so that the predicate which previously expressed having the same income comes now to express identity. The universe of discourse now consists of income groups, not people. The extensions of the monadic predicates are classes of income groups, and, in general, the extension of an n -place predicate is a class of n -member sequences of income groups (Quine 1963: 65–79). Any two-place predicate expressing an equivalence relation could be an I-predicate relative to some sufficiently impoverished theory, and Quine’s suggestion will be applicable to any such predicate if it is applicable at all.

But it remains that it is not guaranteed that a two-place predicate that is an I-predicate in the theory to which it belongs expresses identity. In fact, no condition can be stated in a first-order language for a predicate to express identity, rather than mere indiscernibility by the resources of the language. However, in a second-order language, in which quantification over all properties (not just those for which the language contains predicates) is possible and Leibniz’s Law is therefore statable, identity can be uniquely characterised. Identity is thus not first-order, but only second-order definable.

This situation provides the basis for Geach’s radical contention that the notion of absolute identity has no application and that there is only relative identity. This section contains a brief discussion of Geach’s complex view. (For more details see the entry on relative identity , Deutsch 1997, Dummett 1981 and 1991, Hawthorne 2003 and Noonan 2017.) Geach maintains that since no criterion can be given by which a predicate expressing an I-predicate may be determined to express, not merely indiscernibility relative to the language to which it belongs, but also absolute indiscernibility, we should jettison the classical notion of identity (1991). He dismisses the possibility of defining identity in a second-order language on the ground of the paradoxical nature of unrestricted quantification over properties and aims his fire particularly at Quine’s proposal that an I-predicate in a first-order theory may always be interpreted as expressing absolute identity (even if such an interpretation is not required ). Geach objects that Quine’s suggestion leads to a “Baroque Meinongian ontology” and is inconsistent with Quine’s own expressed preference for “desert landscapes” (“Identity” in Geach 1972: 245).

We may usefully state Geach’s thesis using the terminology of absolute and relative equivalence relations. Let us say that an equivalence relation R is absolute if and only if, if x stands in it to y , there cannot be some other equivalence relation S , holding between anything and either x or y , but not holding between x and y . If an equivalence relation is not absolute it is relative. Classical identity is an absolute equivalence relation. Geach’s main contention is that any expression for an absolute equivalence relation in any possible language will have the null class as its extension, and so there can be no expression for classical identity in any possible language. This is the thesis he argues against Quine.

Geach also maintains the sortal relativity of identity statements, that “ x is the same A as y ” does not “split up” into “ x is an A and y is an A and x = y ”. More precisely stated, what Geach denies is that whenever a term “ A ” is interpretable as a sortal term in a language L (a term which makes (independent) sense following “the same”) the expression (interpretable as) “ x is the same A as y ” in language L will be satisfied by a pair < x , y > only if the I-predicate of L is satisfied by < x , y >. Geach’s thesis of the sortal relativity of identity thus neither entails nor is entailed by his thesis of the inexpressibility of identity. It is the sortal relativity thesis that is the central issue between Geach and Wiggins (1967 and 1980). It entails that a relation expressible in the form “ x is the same A as y ” in a language L , where “ A ” is a sortal term in L , need not entail indiscernibility even by the resources of L .

Geach’s argument against Quine exists in two versions, an earlier and a later.

In its earlier version the argument is merely that following Quine’s suggestion to interpret a language in which some expression is an I-predicate so that the I-predicate expresses classical identity sins against a highly intuitive methodological programme enunciated by Quine himself, namely that as our knowledge expands we should unhesitatingly expand our ideology, our stock of predicables, but should be much more wary about altering our ontology, the interpretation of our bound name variables (1972: 243).

Geach’s argument is that in view of the mere possibility of carving out of a language L , in which the relational expressions, E 1 , E 2 , E 3 … are not I-predicates, sub-languages L 1 , L 2 , L 3 … in which these expressions are I-predicates, if Quine’s suggested proposal of reinterpretation is possible for each L n , the user of L will be committed to any number of entities not quantified over in L , namely, for each L n , those entities for which the I-predicate of L n ( E n ) gives a criterion of absolute identity. This will be so because any sentence of L will retain its truth conditions in any L n to which it belongs, reinterpreted as Quine proposes, but “of course, it is flatly inconsistent to say that as a member of a large theory a sentence retains its truth-conditions but not its ontological commitment” (1973:299).

The crucial premiss of this argument is thus that sameness of truth-conditions entails sameness of ontological commitment. But this is not true. The ontological commitments of a theory (according to Quine, whose notion this is) are those entities that must lie within the domain of quantification of the theory if the theory is to be true; or, the entities the predicates of the theory have to be true of if the theory is to be true. A theory is not ontologically committed, we may say, to whatever has to be in the universe for it to be true, but only to whatever has to be in its universe for it to be true. Thus there is no argument from sameness of truth-conditions to sameness of ontological commitments.

The later version of Geach’s argument needs a different response. The difference between the earlier version and the later one is that in the later (to be found in Geach 1973) Geach’s claim is not merely that Quine’s thesis about possible reinterpretation has a consequence which is unpalatable, but that it leads to an out-and-out logical absurdity, the existence of what he calls “absolute surmen” (entities for which having the same surname constitutes a criterion of absolute identity, i.e., entails indiscernibility in all respects). Because Geach is now making this stronger claim, the objection that his argument depends upon the incorrect assumption that sameness of truth-conditions entails sameness of ontological commitment is no longer relevant. In order to make out his case Geach has to establish just two points. First, that there are sentences of English supplemented by the predicate “is the same surman as” (explained to mean “is a man and has the same surname as”), which are evidently true and which, considered as sentences of that fragment of English in which “is the same surman as” is an I-predicate, when this is interpreted in the way Quine suggests, can be true only if absolute surmen exist. And secondly, that the existence of absolute surmen is absurd.

But in the end Geach fails to establish these two points. Quine would say that, for the fragment of English in question, the domain of the variables can be considered to consist of classes of men with the same surname and the predicates interpreted as holding of such classes. Thus, the predicate “is the same surman as” will no longer be true of pairs of men if we adopt Quine’s suggestion (I am writing, remember in English, not in the fragment of English under discussion), but rather of pairs of classes of men with the same surname – these then will be Geach’s “absolute surmen”. Now, Geach attempts to rule this out by the argument that “whatever is a surman is by definition a man.” But this argument fails. The predicate “is a man” will also be in the language-fragment in which “is the same surman as” is the I-predicate; and so it, too, will, be reinterpreted, if we follow Quine’s suggestion, as holding of classes of men with the same surname. Thus the sentence “Whatever is a surman is a man” will be true in the language fragment interpreted in Quine’s way, just as it is in English as a whole. What will not be true, however, is that whatever the predicate “is a surman” is true of, as it occurs in the language-fragment reinterpreted in Quine’s way , is a thing of which “is a man”, as it occurs in English as a whole , is true of. But Geach has no right to demand that this should be the case. Even so, this demand can be met. For the domain of the interpretation of the language fragment in which “is the same surman as” is the I-predicate can, in fact, be taken to consist of men, namely, to be a class containing exactly one representative man for each class of men with the same surname. Thus, as Geach says, absolute surmen will be just some among men (1973, 100). Geach goes on, “there will, for example, be just one surman with the surname ‘Jones’, but if this is an absolute surman, and he is a certain man, then which of the Jones boys is he?” But this question, which is, of course, only answerable using predicates which belong to the part of English not included in the language fragment in which “is the same surman as” is the I-predicate, is not an impossible one to answer. It is merely that the answer will depend upon the particular interpretation that the language fragment has, in fact, been given. Geach is, therefore not entitled to go on, “Surely we have run into an absurdity.” It thus seems that his argument for the non-existence of absolute identity fails.

Geach’s argument for his second thesis, that of the sortal relativity of identity, is that it provides the best solution to a variety of well known puzzles about identity and counting at a time and over time. The most well known puzzle is that of the cat on the mat, which comes in two versions.

The first version goes like this. (Wiggins 1968 contains the first appearance of this version in present-day philosophical literature; an equivalent puzzle is that of Dion and Theon, see Burke 1995.) Suppose a cat, Tibbles, is sitting on a mat. Now consider that portion of Tibbles that includes everything except its tail – its “tail complement” – and call it “Tib”. Tib is smaller than Tibbles so they are not identical. But what if we now amputate the cat’s tail? (A time-reversed, or “growing”, version can be considered in which a tail is grafted on to a tailless cat; the same responses considered below will be available, but may differ in relative plausibility.) Tibbles and Tib will now coincide. If Tibbles is still a cat, it is hard to see by what criterion one could deny that Tib is a cat. Yet they are distinct individuals, since they have different histories. But there is just one cat on the mat. So they cannot be distinct cats. They must be the same cat, even though they are distinct individuals; and so identity under the sortal concept cat must be a relative identity relation.

The second version (presented in Geach 1980, compare Unger 1980) goes as follows. Tibbles is sitting on the mat and is the only cat sitting on the mat. But Tibbles has at least 1,000 hairs. Geach continues:

Now let c be the largest continuous mass of feline tissue on the mat. Then for any of our 1,000 cat-hairs, say h n , there is a proper part c n of c which contains precisely all of c except the hair h n ; and every such part c n differs in a describable way both from any other such part say c m , and from c as a whole. Moreover, fuzzy as the concept cat may be, it is clear that not only is c a cat, but also any part c n is a cat: c n would clearly be a cat were the hair h n to be plucked out, and we cannot reasonably suppose that plucking out a hair generates a cat, so c n must already have been a cat. (Geach 1980, 215)

The conclusion, of course, is the same as in the previous version of the argument: there is only one cat on the mat so all the distinct entities that qualify as cats must be the same cat.

This version of the argument can be resisted by insisting that the concept of a cat is maximal, i.e. no proper part of a cat is a cat. The first version may be resisted in a variety of ways. Some deny the existence of the tail-complement at all (van Inwagen 1981, Olson 1995); others deny that the tail-complement survives the amputation (Burke 1995). Another possibility is to say that certain of the historical and/or modal predicates possessed by Tibbles and not Tib are essential to being a cat, so that Tib is not (predicatively) a cat (Wiggins 1980). Again, it can be accepted that both Tib and Tibbles are cats, but deny that in counting them as one we are counting by identity, rather, we are counting by “almost identity” (Lewis 1993). Another possibility is to accept that both Tib and Tibbles are cats, but deny that they are distinct: rather “Tib” and “Tibbles” are two names of the same cat-stage (Hawley 2001, Sider 2001).

There is, then, no very compelling argument for Geach’s sortal relativity thesis to be based on such examples, given the variety of responses available, some of which will be returned to below. On the other hand, no alternative solution to the puzzle of the cat on the mat stands out as clearly superior to the rest, or clearly superior to the sortal relativity thesis as a solution. We should conclude that this component of Geach’s position, though not proven, is not refuted either, and, possibly, that the linguistic data provide no basis for a decision for or against.

A notion that Geach deploys extensively, and which is also in common use by his opponents, is that of a criterion of identity, a standard by which identity is to be judged. This section will attempt to untangle some of the complexities this notion involves.

The notion of a criterion of identity was introduced into philosophical terminology by Frege (1884) and strongly emphasised by Wittgenstein (1958). Exactly how it is to be interpreted and the extent of its applicability are still matters of debate.

A considerable obstacle to understanding contemporary philosophical usage of the term, however, is that the notion does not seem to be a unitary one. In the case of abstract objects (the case discussed by Frege) the criterion of identity for F s is thought of as an equivalence relation holding between objects distinct from F s. Thus the criterion of identity for directions is parallelism of lines , that is, the direction of line a is identical with the direction of line b if and only if line a is parallel to line b . The criterion of identity for numbers is equinumerosity of concepts , that is, the number of A s is identical with the number of B s if and only if there are exactly as many A s as B s. The relation between the criterion of identity for F s and the criterion of application for the concept F (the standard for the application of the concept to an individual) is then said by some (Wright and Hale 2001) to be that to be an F is just to be something for which questions of identity and distinctness are to settled by appeal to the criterion of identity for F s. (Thus, when Frege went on to give an explicit definition of numbers as extensions of concepts he appealed to it only to deduce what has come to be called Hume’s Principle – his statement of his criterion of identity for numbers in terms of equinumerosity of concepts, and emphasised that he regarded the appeal to extensions as inessential.) In the case of concrete objects, however, things seem to stand differently. Often the criterion of identity for a concrete object of type F is said to be a relation R such that for any F s, x and y , x = y if and only if Rxy . In this case the criterion of identity for F s is not stated as a relation between entities distinct from F s and the criterion of identity cannot plausibly be thought of as determining the criterion of application. Another example of the lack of uniformity in the notion of a criterion of identity in contemporary philosophy is, in the case of concrete objects, a distinction customarily made between a criterion of diachronic identity and a criterion of synchronic identity; the former taking the form “ x is at t the same F as y is at t ′ if and only if…”, where what fills the gap is some statement of a relation holding between objects x and y and times t and t ′. (In the case of persons, for example, a candidate criterion of diachronic identity is: x is at t the same person as y is at t ′ if and only if x at t is psychologically continuous with y at t ′.) A criterion of synchronic identity, by contrast, will typically specify how the parts of an F -thing existing at a time must be related, or how one F at a time is marked off from another.

One way of bringing system into the discussion of criteria of identity is to make use of the distinction between one-level and two-level criteria of identity (Williamson 1990, Lowe 2012). The Fregean criteria of identity for directions and numbers are two-level. The objects for which the criterion is given are distinct from, and can be pictured as at a higher level than, the entities between which the relation specified holds. A two-level criterion for the F s takes the form (restricting ourselves to examples in which the criterial relation holds between objects):

If x is a G and y is a G then d ( x ) = d ( y ) iff Rxy

e.g., If x and y are lines then the direction of x is identical with the direction of y iff x and y are parallel.

A two-level criterion of identity is thus in the first place an implicit definition of a function “ d ( )” (e.g., “the direction of”) in terms of which the sortal predicate “is an F ” can be defined (“is a direction” can be defined as “is the direction of some line”). Consistently with the two-level criterion of identity stated several distinct functions may be the reference of the functor “ d ”. Hence, as emphasised by Lowe (1997: section 6), two-level criteria of identity are neither definitions of identity, nor of identity restricted to a certain sort (for identity is universal), nor even of the sortal terms denoting the sorts for which they provide criteria. They merely constrain, but not to uniqueness, the possible referents of the functor “d” they implicitly define and they thus give a merely necessary condition for falling under the sortal predicate “is an F ” (where “ x is an F ” is explained to mean “for some y , x is identical with d ( y )”).

On the other hand, the criterion of identity for sets given by the Axiom of Extensionality (sets are the same iff they have the same members), unlike the criterion of identity for numbers given by Hume’s Principle, and Davidson’s criterion of event identity (events are the same iff they have the same causes and effects (“The Individuation of Events” in his 1980)) are one-level: the objects for which the criterion of identity is stated are the same as those between which the criterial relation obtains. In general, a one-level criterion for objects of sort F takes the form:

If x is an F and y is an F then x = y iff Rxy

Not all criteria of identity can be two-level (on pain of infinite regress), and it is tempting to think that the distinction between objects for which a two-level criterion is possible and those for which only a one-level criterion is possible coincides with that between abstract and concrete objects (and so, that a two-level criterion for sets must be possible).

However, a more general application of the two-level notion is possible. In fact, it can be applied to any type of object K , such that the criterion of identity for K s can be thought of as an equivalence relation between a distinct type of object, K *s, but some such objects may intuitively be regarded as concrete.

How general this makes its application is a matter of controversy. In particular, if persisting things are thought of as composed of (instantaneous) temporal parts (see discussion below), the problem of supplying a diachronic criterion of identity for persisting concrete objects can be regarded as the problem of providing a two-level criterion. But if persisting things are not thought of in this way then not all persisting things can be provided with two-level criteria. (Though some can. For example, it is quite plausible that the criterion of identity over time for persons should be thought of as given by a relation between bodies.)

As noted by Lowe (1997) and Wright and Hale (2001) any two-level criterion can be restated in a one-level form (though, of course, not conversely). For example, to say that the direction of line a is identical with the direction of line b if and only if line a is parallel to line b is to say that directions are the same if and only if the lines they are of are parallel, which is the form of a one-level criterion. A way of unifying the various different ways of talking of criteria of identity is thus to take as the paradigmatic form of a statement of a criterion of identity a statement of the form: for any x , for any y , if x is an F and y is an F then x = y if and only if Rxy (Lowe 1989, 1997).

If the notion is interpreted in this way then the relation between the criterion of identity and the criterion of application will be that of one-way determination. The criterion of identity will be determined by, but not determine, the criterion of application.

For, in general, a one-level criterion of identity for F s as explained above is equivalent to the conjunction of:

If x is an F then Rxx
If x is an F then if y is an F and Rxy then x = y

Each of these gives a merely necessary condition for being an F . And the second says something about F s which is not true of everything only if “ Rxy ” does not entail “ x = y ”

Together these are equivalent to the proposition that every F is the F “ R -related” to it. By its form this states a merely necessary condition for being a thing of sort “ F ”. The one-level criterion of identity thus again merely specifies a necessary condition of being an object of sort “ F ”.

Hence, once the necessary and sufficient conditions of being an “ F ” are laid down, no further stipulation is required of a criterion of “ F ”-identity, whether one-level or two-level.

This conclusion is, of course, in agreement with Lewis’s view that there are no genuine problems about identity as such (Lewis 1986, Ch. 4), but it is in tension with the thought that sortal concepts, as distinct from adjectival concepts, are to be characterised by their involvement of criteria of identity as well as criteria of application.

A conception of identity criteria which allows this characterisation of the notion of a sortal concept, and which has so far not been mentioned, is that of Dummett (1981). Dummett denies that a criterion of identity must always be regarded as a criterion of identity for a type of object . There is a basic level, he suggests, at which what a criterion of identity is a criterion of, is the truth of a statement in which no objects are referred to. Such a statement can be expressed using demonstratives and pointing gestures, for instance, by saying “This is the same cat as that”, pointing first to a head and then a tail. In such a statement, which he calls a statement of identification, in Dummett’s view, there need be no reference to objects made by the use of the demonstratives, any more than reference is made to any object in a feature-placing sentence like “It’s hot here”. A statement of identification is merely, as it were, a feature-placing relational statement, like “This is darker than that”. A grasp of a sortal concept F involves both grasp of the truth-conditions of such statements of identification involving “ F ” and also grasp of the truth-conditions of what Dummett calls “crude predications” involving “ F ”, statements of the form “this is F ”, in which the demonstrative again does not serve to refer to any object. Adjectival terms, which have only a criterion of application and no criterion of identity, are ones which have a use in such crude predications, but no use in statements of identification. Sortal terms, as just noted, have a use in both contexts, and sortal terms may share their criteria of application but differ in their criteria of identity since grasp of the truth-conditions of the crude predication “This is F ” does not determine grasp of the truth-conditions of the statement of identification “This is the same F as that” (thus I can know when it is right to say “This is a book” without knowing when it is right to say “This is the same book as that”).

On Dummett’s account, then, it may be possible to accept that whenever a criterion of identity for a type of object is to be given it must be (expressible as) a two-level criterion, which implicitly defines a functor. Essentially one-level criteria (one-level criteria not expressible in a two-level form) are redundant, determined by specifications of necessary and sufficient conditions for being objects of the sorts in question.

As noted in the last section, another source of apparent disunity in the concept of a criterion of identity is the distinction made between synchronic criteria of identity and diachronic criteria of identity. Criteria of identity can be employed synchronically, as in the examples just given, to determine whether two coexistent objects are parts of the same object of a sort, or diachronically, to determine identity over time. But as Lowe notes (2012: 137), it is an error to suppose that diachronic identity and synchronic identity are different kinds of identity and so demand different kinds of identity criteria. What then is a criterion of identity over time?

Identity over time is itself a controversial notion, however, because time involves change. Heraclitus argued that one could not bathe in the same river twice because new waters were ever flowing in. Hume argued that identity over time was a fiction we substitute for a collection of related objects. Such views can be seen as based on a misunderstanding of Leibniz’s Law: if a thing changes something is true of it at the later time that is not true of it at the earlier, so it is not the same. The answer is that what is true of it at the later time is, say, “being muddy at the later time”, which was always true of it; similarly, what is true of it at the earlier time, suitably expressed, remains true of it. But the question remains how to characterise identity through time and across change given that there is such a thing.

One topic which has always loomed large in this debate has been the issue (in the terminology of Lewis 1986, Ch. 4) of perdurance versus endurance . (Others, for which there is no space for discussion here, include the debate over Ship of Theseus and reduplication or fission problems and associated issues about “best candidate” or “no rival candidate” accounts of identity over time, and the debate over Humean supervenience – see articles on relative identity, personal identity, Hawley 2001 and Sider 2001.)

According to one view, material objects persist by having temporal parts or stages, which exist at different times and are to be distinguished by the times at which they exist – this is known as the view that material objects perdure. Other philosophers deny that this is so; according to them, when a material object exists at different times, it is wholly present at those times, for it has no temporal parts, but only spatial parts, which likewise are wholly present at the different times they exist. This is known as the view that material objects endure.

Perdurance theorists, as Quine puts it, reject the point of view inherent in the tenses of our natural language. From that point of view persisting things endure and change through time, but do not extend through time, but only through space. Thus persisting things are to be sharply distinguished from events or processes, which precisely do extend through time. One way of describing the position of the perdurance theorist, then, is to say that he denies the existence of a distinct ontological category of persisting things , or substances. Thus, Quine writes, “physical objects, conceived thus four-dimensionally in space-time, are not to be distinguished from events, or, in the concrete sense of the term, processes. Each comprises simply the content, however heterogeneous, of some portion of space-time, however disconnected and gerrymandered” (1960:171).

In recent controversy two arguments have been at the centre of the endurance/perdurance debate, one employed by perdurance theorists and the other by endurance theorists (for other arguments and issues see the separate article on temporal parts, Hawley 2001 and Sider 2001).

An argument for perdurance which has been hotly debated is due to David Lewis (1986). If perdurance is rejected, the ascription of dated or tensed properties to objects must be regarded as assertions of irreducible relations between objects and times. If Tabby is fat on Monday, that is a relation between Tabby and Monday, and if perdurance is rejected it is an irreducible relation between Tabby and Monday. According to perdurance theory, however, while it is still, of course, a relation between Tabby and Monday it is not irreducible; it holds between Tabby and Monday because the temporal part of Tabby on Monday, Tabby-on-Monday, is intrinsically fat. If perdurance is rejected, however, no such intrinsic possessor of the property of fatness can be recognised: Tabby’s fatness on Monday must be regarded as an irreducible state of affairs.

According to Lewis, this consequence of the rejection of the perdurance theory is incredible. Whether he is right about this is the subject of intense debate (Haslanger 2003).

Even if Lewis is right, however, the perdurance theory may still be found wanting, since it does not secure the most commonsensical position: that fatness is a property of a cat (Haslanger 2003). According to perdurance theory, rather, it is a property of a (temporal) cat part. Those known as stage theorists (Hawley 2001, Sider 2001), accepting the ontology of perdurance theory, but modifying its semantics, offer a way to secure this desirable result. Every temporal part of a cat is a cat, they say, so Tabby-on-Monday (which is what we refer to by “Tabby”, on Monday) is a cat and is fat, just as we would like. Stage theorists have to pay a price for this advantage over perdurance theory, however. For they must accept either that our reports of the cross-temporal number of cats are not always reports of the counting of cats (as when I say, truly, that I have only ever owned three cats) or that two cat-stages (cats) may be counted as one and the same cat, so that counting cats is not always counting in accordance with absolute identity.

An argument against the perdurance theory that has been the focus of interest is one presented in various guises by a number of writers, including Wiggins (1980), Thomson (1983) and van Inwagen (1990). Applied to persons (it can equally well be applied to other persisting things), it asserts that persons have different properties, in particular, different modal properties, from the summations of person-stages with which the perdurance theory identifies them. Thus, by Leibniz’s Law, this identification must be mistaken. As David Wiggins states the argument: “Anything that is a part of a Lesniewskian sum [a mereological whole defined by its parts] is necessarily part of it…But no person or normal material object is necessarily in the total state that will correspond to the person- or object-moment postulated by the theory under discussion” (1980: 168).

To elaborate a little. I might have died when I was five years old. But that maximal summation of person-stages which, according to perdurance theory, is me and has a temporal extent of at least fifty years, could not have had a temporal extent of a mere five years. So I cannot be such a summation of stages.

This argument illustrates the interdependence of the various topics discussed under the rubric of identity. Whether it is valid, of course, depends on the correct analysis of modal predication, and, in particular, on whether it should be analysed in terms of “identity across possible worlds” or in terms of Lewisian counterpart theory. This is the topic of the next section.

In the interpretation of modal discourse recourse is often made to the idea of “identity across possible worlds”. If modal discourse is interpreted in this way it becomes natural to regard a statement ascribing a modal property to an individual as asserting the identity of that individual across worlds: “Sarah might have been a millionaire”, on this view, asserts that there is a possible world in which an individual identical with Sarah is a millionaire. “Sarah could not have been a millionaire” asserts that in any world in which an individual identical with Sarah exists that individual is not a millionaire.

However, though this is perhaps the most natural way to interpret de re modal statements (once it has been accepted that the apparatus of possible worlds is to be used as an interpretative tool), there are well-known difficulties that make the approach problematic.

For example, it seems reasonable to suppose that a complex artefact like a bicycle could have been made of different parts. On the other hand, it does not seem right that the same bicycle could have been constructed out of completely different parts.

But now consider a series of possible worlds, beginning with the actual world, each containing a bicycle just slightly different from the one in the previous world, the last world in the sequence being one in which there is a bicycle composed of completely different parts from the one in the actual world. One cannot say that each bicycle is identical with the one in the neighbouring world, but not identical with the corresponding bicycle in distant worlds, since identity is transitive. Hence it seems one must either adopt an extreme mereological essentialism, according to which no difference of parts is possible for an individual, or reject the interpretation of de re modal discourse as asserting identity across possible worlds.

This and other problems with cross-world identity suggest that some other weaker relation, of similarity or what David Lewis calls counterparthood, should be employed in a possible world analysis of modal discourse. Since similarity is not transitive this allows us to say that the bicycle might have had some different parts without having to say that it might have been wholly different. On the other hand, such a substitution does not seem unproblematic, for a claim about what I might have done hardly seems, at first sight, to be correctly interpretable as a claim about what someone else (however similar to me) does in another possible world (Kripke 1972 [1980], note 13).

An assessment of the counterpart theoretic analysis is vital not just to understanding modal discourse, however, but also to getting to the correct account of identity over time. For, as we saw, the argument against perdurance theory outlined at the end of the last section depends on the correct interpretation of modal discourse. In fact, it is invalid on a counterpart theoretic analysis which allows different counterpart relations (different similarity relations) to be invoked according to the sense of the singular term which is the subject of the de re modal predication (Lewis 1986, Ch. 4), since the counterpart relation relevant to the assessment of a de re modal predication with a singular term whose sense determines that it refers to a person will be different from that relevant to the assessment of a de re modal predication with a singular term whose sense determines that it refers to a sum of person-stages. “I might have existed for only five years” means on the Lewisian account “There is a person in some possible world similar to me in those respects important to personhood who exists for only five years”; “The maximal summation of person stages of which this current stage is a stage might have existed for only five years” means “There is a summation of person stages similar to this one in those respects important to the status of an entity as a summation of stages which exists for only five years”. Since the two similarity relations in question are distinct the first modal statement may be true and the second false even if I am identical with the sum of stages in question.

Counterpart theory is also significant to the topic of identity over time in another way, since it provides the analogy to which the stage theorist (who regards all everyday reference as reference to momentary stages rather than to perdurers) appeals to explain de re temporal predication. Thus, according to the stage theorist, just as “I might have been fat” does not require the existence of a possible world in which an object identical with me is fat, but only the existence of a world in which a (modal) counterpart of me is fat, so “I used to be fat” does not require the existence of a past time at which someone identical with (the present momentary stage which is) me was fat, but only the existence of a past time at which a (temporal) counterpart of me was fat. The problem of identity over time for things of a kind, for stage theorists, is just the problem of characterizing the appropriate temporal counterpart relation for things of that kind.

For a more detailed discussion of the topic, see the entry transworld identity . Whether de re modal discourse is to be interpreted in terms of identity across possible worlds or counterpart theoretically (or in some other way entirely) is also relevant to our next topic, that of contingent identity.

Before Kripke’s writings (1972 [1980]), it seemed a platitude that statements of identity could be contingent – when they contained two terms differing in sense but identical in reference and so were not analytic. Kripke challenged this platitude, though, of course, he did not reject the possibility of contingent statements of identity. But he argued that when the terms flanking the sign of identity were what he called rigid designators, an identity statement, if true at all, had to be necessarily true, but need not be knowable a priori , as an analytic truth would be. Connectedly, Kripke argued that identity and distinctness were themselves necessary relations: if an object is identical with itself it is necessarily so, and if it is distinct from another it is necessarily so.

Kripke’s arguments were very persuasive, but there are examples that suggest that his conclusion is too sweeping – that even identity statements containing rigid designators can be, in a sense, contingent. The debate over contingent identity is concerned with the assessment and proper analysis of these examples.

One of the earliest examples is provided by Gibbard (1975). Consider a statue, Goliath, and the clay, Lumpl, from which it is composed. Imagine that Lumpl and Goliath coincide in their spatiotemporal extent. It is tempting to conclude that they are identical. But they might not have been. Goliath might have been rolled into a ball and destroyed; Lumpl would have continued to exist. The two would have been distinct. Thus it seems that the identity of Lumpl and Goliath, if admitted, must be acknowledged as merely contingent.

One reaction to this argument available to the convinced Kripkean is simply to deny that Lumpl and Goliath are identical. But to accept this is to accept that purely material entities, like statues and lumps of clay, of admittedly identical material constitution at all times, may nonetheless be distinct, though distinguished only by modal, dispositional or counterfactual properties. To many, however, this seems highly implausible, which provides the strength of the argument for contingent identity. Another way of thinking of this matter is in terms of the failure of the supervenience of the macroscopic on the microscopic. If Lumpl is distinct from Goliath then a far distant duplicate of Lumpl, Lumpl*, coincident with a statue Goliath*, though numerically distinct from Goliath will be microscopically indistinguishable from Goliath in all general respects, relational as well as non-relational, past and future as well as present, even modal and dispositional as well as categorical, but will be macroscopically distinguishable in general respects, since it will not be a statue, and will have modal properties, such as the capacity to survive radical deformation in shape, which no statue possesses.

David Lewis (in “Counterparts of Persons and their Bodies”, 1971) suggests that the identity of a person with his body (assuming the person and the body, like Goliath and Lumpl, are at all times coincident) is contingent, since bodily interchange is a possibility. He appeals to counterpart theory, modified to allow a variety of counterpart relations, to explain this. Contingent identity then makes sense, since “I and my body might not have been identical” now translates into counterpart theory as “There is a possible world, w , a unique personal counterpart x in w of me and a unique bodily counterpart y in w of my body, such that x and y are not identical”.

What is crucial to making sense of contingent identity is an acceptance that modal predicates are inconstant in denotation (that is, stand for different properties when attached to different singular terms or different quantifying expressions). Counterpart theory provides one way of explaining this inconstancy, but is not necessarily the only way (Gibbard 1975, Noonan 1991, 1993). However, whether the examples of contingent identity in the literature are persuasive enough to make it reasonable to accept the certainly initially surprising idea that modal predications are inconstant in denotation is still a matter of considerable controversy.

Finally, in this section, it is worth noting explicitly the interdependence of the topics under discussion: only if the possibility of contingent identity is secured, by counterpart theory or some other account of de re modality which does not straightforwardly analyse de re modal predication in terms of identity across possible worlds, can perdurance theory (or stage theory) as an account of identity across time be sustained against the modal arguments of Wiggins, Thomson and van Inwagen.

A thesis that has a long pedigree but has only recently been gathering attention in the contemporary literature is the “Composition as Identity” thesis. The thesis comes in a weak and a strong form. In its weak form the thesis is that the mereological composition relation is analogous in a number of important ways to the identity relation and so deserves to be called a kind of identity. In its strong form the thesis is that the composition relation is strictly identical with the identity relation, viz. that the parts of a whole are literally (collectively) identical with the whole itself. The strong thesis was considered by Plato in Parmenides and versions of the thesis have been discussed by many historical figures since (Harte 2002, Normore and Brown 2014). The progenitor of the modern version of the thesis is Baxter (1988a, 1988b, 2001) but it is most often discussed under the formulation of it given by Lewis (1991), who first considers the strong thesis before rejecting it in favour of the weak thesis.

Both the strong and the weak versions of the thesis are motivated by the fact that there is an especially intimate relation between a whole and its parts (a whole is “nothing over and above” its parts), buttressed by claims that identity and composition are alike in various ways. Lewis (1991: 85) makes five likeness claims:

  • Ontological Innocence. If one believes that some object x exists, one does not gain a commitment to a further object by believing that something identical with x exists. Likewise, if one believes that some objects x 1 , x 2 , …, x n exist, one does not gain a commitment to a further object by claiming that something composed of x 1 , x 2 , …, x n exists.
  • Automatic Existence. If some object x exists, then it automatically follows that something identical with x exists. Likewise, if some objects x 1 , x 2 , …, x n exist, then it automatically follows that something composed of x 1 , x 2 , …, x n exists.
  • Unique Composition. If something y is identical with x , then anything identical with x is identical with y , and anything identical with y is identical with x . Likewise, if some things y 1 , y 2 , …, y n compose x , then any things that compose x are identical with y 1 , y 2 , …, y n , and anything identical with x is composed of y 1 , y 2 , …, y n .
  • Exhaustive Description. If y is identical with x , then an exhaustive description of y is an exhaustive description of x , and vice versa. Likewise, if y 1 , y 2 , …, y n compose x , then an exhaustive description of y 1 , y 2 , …, y n is an exhaustive description of x , and vice versa.
  • Same Location. If y is identical with x , then necessarily, x and y fill the same region of spacetime. Likewise, if y 1 , y 2 , …, y n compose x , then necessarily, y 1 , y 2 , …, y n and x fill the same region of spacetime.

Clearly not all will agree with each of Lewis’s likeness claims. Anyone who denies unrestricted mereological composition, for example, will deny 2. And the defender of strong pluralism in the material constitution debate (i.e. one who defends the view that there can be all-time coincident entities) will deny 3. And some endurantists who think that ordinary material objects can have distinct parts at distinct times will deny 5. But there is a more general problem with 1, as van Inwagen has made clear (1994: 213). Consider a world w1 that contains just two simples s1 and s2. Now consider the difference between someone p1 who believes that s1 and s2 compose something and someone p2 who does not. Ask: how many objects do p1 and p2 believe there to be in w1? The answer, it seems, is that p1 believes that there are three things and p2 only two. So how can a commitment to the existence of fusions be ontologically innocent? One recent suggestion is that although a commitment to the existence of fusions is not ontologically innocent, it almost is: to commit oneself to fusions is to commit oneself to further entities, but because they are not fundamental entities they are not ones that matter for the purpose of theory choice (Cameron 2014, Schaffer 2008, Williams 2010, and see also Hawley 2014).

If one believes Lewis’s likeness claims one will be tempted by at least the weak Composition as Identity thesis. If composition is a type of identity this gives some kind of explanation of why the parallels between the two hold. But the strong thesis, that the composition relation is the identity relation, gives a fuller explanation. So why not hold the strong thesis? Because, many think, there are additional challenges that face anyone who wishes to defend the strong thesis.

The classical identity relation is one that can only have single objects as relata (as in: “Billie Holiday = Eleanora Fagan”). If we adopt a language that allows the formation of plural terms we can unproblematically define a plural identity relation that holds between pluralities of objects too. Plural identity statements such as “the hunters are identical with the gatherers” are understood to mean that for all x , x is one of the hunters iff x is one of the gatherers. But, according to the strong Composition as Identity thesis, there can also be true hybrid identity statements that relate pluralities and single objects. That is, sentences such as “the bricks = the wall” are taken by the defender of strong Composition as Identity to be well-formed sentences that express strict identities.

The first challenge facing the defender of the strong thesis is the least troublesome. It is the syntactic problem that hybrid identity statements are ungrammatical in English (Van Inwagen, 1994: 211). Whilst “Billie Holiday is identical with Eleanora Fagan” and “the hunters are identical with the gatherers” are well-formed, it seems that “the bricks are identical with the wall” is not. However, there is in fact some doubt about whether hybrid identity statements are ungrammatical in English, and some have pointed out that this is anyway a mere grammatical artefact of English that is not present in other languages (e.g. Norwegian and Hungarian). So it seems that the most this challenge calls for is a mild form of grammatical revisionism. And we have, at any rate, formal languages that allow hybrid constructions to be made in which to express the claims made by the defender of the strong Composition as Identity thesis. (Sider 2007, Cotnoir 2013) (NB The claims regarding Norwegian and Hungarian are to be found in these two papers.)

The second challenge is more troublesome. It is the semantic problem of providing coherent truth-conditions for hybrid identity statements. The standard way to provide the truth-conditions for the classical identity relation is to say that an identity statement of the form “ a = b ” is true iff “ a ” and “ b ” have the same referents. But this account clearly does not work for hybrid identity statements, for there is no (single) referent for a plural term. Moreover, the standard way of giving the truth-conditions for plural identity statements (mentioned above) does not work for hybrid identity statements either. To say that “ x is one of the y s” is to say that x is (classically) identical with one of the things in the plurality, i.e., that x is identical with y 1 , or identical with y 2 … or identical with y n . But then “the bricks = the wall” is true only if the wall is (classically) identical with one of the bricks, i.e. with b 1 , or with b 2 … or with b n , which it isn’t.

The third challenge is the most troublesome of all. In section 2 it was noted that Leibniz’s Law (and its contrapositive) appear to be crucial to our understanding of identity and distinctness. But it seems that the defender of strong Composition as Identity must deny this. After all, the bricks are many, but the wall is one. The onus is thus on the defender of strong Composition as Identity to explain why we should think the “are” in hybrid identity statements really expresses the relation of identity.

The second and the third challenges have been thought by many to be insurmountable (Lewis, for example, rejects strong Composition as Identity on the basis of them). But, in recent semantic work in this area, accounts have emerged that promise to answer both challenges. (Wallace 2011a, 2011b, Cotnoir 2013). Whether they do so, however, remains to be seen.

Like the impossibility of contingent identity, the impossibility of vague identity appears to be a straightforward consequence of the classical concept of identity (Evans 1978, see also Salmon 1982). For if a is only vaguely identical with b , something is true of it – that it is only vaguely identical with b – that is not true of b , so, by Leibniz’s Law, it is not identical with b at all. Of course, there are vague statements of identity – “Princeton is Princeton Borough” (Lewis 1988) – but the conclusion appears to follow that such vagueness is only possible when one or both of the terms flanking the sign of identity is an imprecise designator. Relatedly, it appears to follow that identity itself must be a determinate relation.

But some examples suggest that this conclusion is too sweeping – that even identity statements containing precise designators may be, in some sense, indeterminate. Consider Everest and some precisely defined hunk of rock, ice and snow, Rock, of which it is indeterminate whether its boundaries coincide with those of Everest. It is tempting to think that “Everest” and “Rock” are both precise designators (if “Everest” is not, is anything? (Tye 2000)) and that “Everest is Rock” is nonetheless in some sense indeterminate.

Those who take this view have to respond to Evans’s original argument, about which there has been intense debate (see separate article on vagueness, Edgington 2000, Lewis 1988, Parsons 2000, van Inwagen 1990, Williamson 2002 and 2003), but also to more recent variants. There is no space to go into these matters here, but one particular variant of the Evans argument worth briefly noting is given by Hawley (2001). Alpha and Omega are (two?) people, the first of whom steps into van Inwagen’s (1990) fiendish cabinet which disrupts whatever features are relevant to personal identity, and the second of whom then steps out:

(1) It is indeterminate whether Alpha steps out of the cabinet (2) Alpha is such that it is indeterminate whether she steps out of the cabinet (3) It is not indeterminate whether Omega steps out of the cabinet (4) Omega is not such that it is indeterminate whether she steps out of the cabinet (5) Alpha is not identical to Omega.

This argument differs from the standard version of Evans’s argument by not depending upon identity-involving properties (e.g. being such that it is indeterminate whether she is Omega) to establish distinctness, and this removes some sources of controversy. Others, of course, remain.

The debate over vague identity is too vast to survey here, but to finish this section we can relate this debate to the previously discussed debate about identity over time.

For some putative cases of vagueness in synchronic identity it seems reasonable to accept the conclusion of Evans’s argument and locate the indeterminacy in language (see the “Reply” by Shoemaker in Shoemaker and Swinburne 1984 for the following example). A structure consists of two halls, Alpha Hall and Beta Hall, linked by a flimsy walkway, Smith is located in Alpha Hall, Jones in Beta Hall. The nature of the structure is such that the identity statement “The building in which Smith is located is the building in which Jones is located” is neither true nor false because it is indeterminate whether Alpha Hall and Beta Hall count as two distinct buildings or merely as two parts of one and the same building. Here it is absolutely clear what is going on. The term “building” is vague in a way that makes it indeterminate whether it applies to the whole structure or just to the two halls. Consequently, it is indeterminate what “the building in which Smith is located” and “the building in which Jones is located” denote.

Perdurance theorists, who assimilate identity over time to identity over space, can accommodate vagueness in identity over time in the same way. In Hawley’s example they can say that there are several entities present: one that exists before and after the identity-obscuring occurrences in the cabinet, one that exists only before, and one that exists only after. It is indeterminate which of these is a person and so it is indeterminate what the singular terms “Alpha” and “Omega” refer to.

This involves taking on an ontology that is larger than we ordinarily recognise, but that is not uncongenial to the perdurance theorist, who is happy to regard any, however spatiotemporally disconnected, region as containing a physical object (Quine 1960:171).

But what of endurance theorists?

One option for them is to adopt the same response and to accept a multiplicity of entities partially coinciding in space and time where to common sense there seems to be only one. But this is to give up on one of the major advantages claimed by the endurance theorist, his consonance with common sense.

The endurance theorist has several other options. He may simply deny the existence of the relevant entities and restrict his ontology to entities which are not complex; he may insist that any change destroys identity so that in a strict and philosophical sense Alpha is distinct from Omega; or he may reject the case as one of vagueness, insisting that, though we do not know the answer, either Alpha is Omega or she is not.

However, the most tempting option for the endurance theorist, which keeps closest to common sense, is to accept that the case is one of vagueness, deny the multiplicity of entities embraced by the perdurance theorist and reject Evans’s argument against vague identity.

That this is so highlights the fact that there is no easy solution to the problem consonant in every respect with common sense. Locating the vagueness in language requires us to acknowledge a multiplicity of entities of which we would apparently otherwise have to take no notice. Whilst locating it in the world requires an explanation of how, contrary to Evans’s argument, the impossibility of vague identity is not a straightforward consequence of the classical conception of identity, or else the abandonment of that conception.

Finally in this entry we return briefly to the idea mentioned in the introduction that although the debates about identity make sense they cannot genuinely be debates about identity, since there are no philosophical problems about identity. This view has recently been receiving increasing attention. Lewis is the most cited defender of this view. In the context of discussing the putative “problem” of trans-world identity he says:

[W]e should not suppose that we have here any problem about identity . We never have. Identity is utterly simple and unproblematic. Everything is identical to itself; nothing is ever identical to anything except itself. There is never any problem about what makes something identical to itself; nothing can ever fail to be. (Lewis 1986: 192–93)

Lewis’s argument here might be expanded as follows: Consider any putative problem about the conditions under which a thing x is identical with a thing y . There are only two cases: either (i) x is identical with y , or (ii) x is not identical with y . Consider case (i). In this case the putative problem is about the conditions under which x is identical with itself. But there cannot be any such problem, because it is a conceptual truth that everything is identical with itself, and so x is identical with itself under all conditions. To ask for the conditions under which something is identical with itself is like asking ‘Under what conditions is one thing one thing, and not two things?’ There can be no informative answer because necessarily, if something is one thing then it is one thing, and not two things, and nothing more can be said. Now consider case (ii). The putative problem is now about the conditions under which a thing x is identical with a different thing y . But there cannot be any such problem, because it is a conceptual truth that one thing and a different thing are not identical, and so there are no conditions under which x and y are identical. To ask for the conditions under which one thing and a different thing are identical is like asking ‘Under what conditions are two things one thing, and not two things?’ There can be no informative answer because necessarily, if two things are two things, then they are two things, and not one thing, and nothing more can be said. And so, whether case (i) or case (ii) holds, there can be no problem about the conditions under which a thing x is identical with a thing y .

The argument seems persuasive, but anyone who accepts it is committed to it being possible to state problems that seem to be about identity (such as the “problem” of trans-world identity) in terms that make it clear that such problems are not in fact about identity. Furthermore, it seems that we do very often use the concept of identity, and an explanation of how and why we use it so often seems to be required if the argument above is sound.

Most seem to have accepted Lewis’s view (see, e.g., Akiba 2000, Hawthorne 2003, Noonan 2007, Noonan and Curtis 2018), but there are some who dissent (Gallois 2005, Shumener 2020, Azzano and Carrara 2021). The question of how and why we use the concept of identity was a central concern of Wittgenstein (see Fogelin 1983 for an overview), and has recently received attention from others (Burgess 2018).

  • Akiba, K., 2000. “Identity is Simple”, American Philosophical Quarterly , 37(4): 389–404.
  • Azzano, L. & Carrara, M., 2021. “The Grounding of Identities”, Philosophia , 49(5): 1943–1952.
  • Baxter, D. L. M., 1988a. “Identity in the Loose and Popular Sense”, Mind , 97: 576–582.
  • –––, 1988b. “Many-One Identity ”, Philosophical Papers , 17: 193–216.
  • –––, 2001. “Instantiation as Partial Identity”, The Australasian Journal of Philosophy , 79(4): 449–464.
  • Black, M., 1952. “The Identity of Indiscernibles”, Mind , 61(242): 153–164.
  • Burgess, A., 2018. “The Things We Do with Identity”, Mind , 127(505): 105–128.
  • Burke, M., 1995. “Dion and Theon: an essentialist solution to an ancient problem”, The Journal of Philosophy , 91: 129–139.
  • Cameron, R., 2014. “Parts Generate the Whole, but They are Not Identical to It”, in A. J. Cotnoir and D. L. M. Baxter (eds.), Composition as Identity , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 90–109.
  • Cotnoir, A. J., 2013. “Composition as General Identity”, Oxford Studies in Metaphysics , 8: 294–322.
  • Curtis, B and Noonan, H.W., 2015. “Identity over time, constitution and the problem of personal identity”, in S. Miller (ed.), The Constitution of Phenomenal Consciousness: Toward a science and theory , Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 348–371.
  • Davidson, D., 1980. Essays on Actions and Events , Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Deutsch, H., 1997. “Identity and General Similarity”, Philosophical Perspectives , 12: 177–200.
  • Dummett, M., 1981. The Interpretation of Frege’s Philosophy , Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • –––, 1991. “Does Quantification involve Identity?” in H.A. Lewis (ed.), Peter Geach: Philosophical encounters , Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 161–184.
  • Edgington, D., 2000. “Indeterminacy De Re ”, Philosophical Topics , 28: 27–43.
  • Evans, G., 1978. “Can there be vague objects?”, Analysis , 38: 208.
  • Fogelin, R. J., 1983. “Wittgenstein on identity”, Synthese , 56(2): 141–154.
  • Frege, G., 1884, The foundations of arithmetic , Trans. J.L Austin. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1950.
  • –––, 1969. Translations from the philosophical writings of Gottlob Frege , Trans. P. Geach and M. Black, Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Gallois, A., 2005. “The Simplicity of Identity”, Journal of Philosophy , 102(6): 273–302.
  • Geach, P., 1972. Logic Matters , Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • –––, 1973. “Ontological relativity and relative identity”, in M.K. Munitz (ed.), Logic and Ontology , New York: New York University Press, 298–302.
  • –––, 1980. Reference and Generality , 3 rd edition, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • –––, 1991. “Replies”, in H.A. Lewis (ed.), Peter Geach: Philosophical encounters , Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers: 247–306.
  • Gibbard, A., 1975. “Contingent identity”, Journal of Philosophical Logic , 4: 187–221.
  • Harte, V., 2002. Plato on parts and wholes: The metaphysics of structure , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Haslanger, S., 2003. “Persistence through time”, in M.J. Loux and D.W. Zimmerman (eds.), The Oxford handbook of metaphysics , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 315–354.
  • Hawley, K., 2001. How things persist , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • –––, 2014. “Ontological Innocence”, in Composition as Identity , A. J. Cotnoir and D. L. M. Baxter (eds.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hawthorne, J., 2003. “Identity”, in M.J. Loux and D.W. Zimmerman (eds.), The Oxford handbook of metaphysics , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 99–130.
  • Kripke, S., 1972 [1980]. “Naming and Necessity”, in Davidson, Donald and Harman, Gilbert (eds.), Semantics of Natural Language , Dordrecht: Reidel: 253–355, 763–769; reprinted, Naming and Necessity , Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980.
  • Lewis, D., 1971. “Counterparts of Persons and Their Bodies”, Journal of Philosophy , 68(7): 203–211; reprinted in Lewis 1983, 47–54.
  • Lewis, D., 1983. Philosophical Papers (Volume 1), Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • –––, 1986. On the plurality of worlds , Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • –––, 1988. “Vague identity: Evans misunderstood”, Analysis , 48: 128–30.
  • –––, 1991. Parts of Classes , Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • –––, 1993. “Many but almost one”, in J. Bacon et al ., (eds.), Ontology, Causality and Mind , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 23–42.
  • Lowe, E.J., 1989. “What is a criterion of identity?”, Philosophical Quarterly , 39: 1–29.
  • –––, 1997. “Objects and criteria of identity”, in B. Hale and C. Wright (eds.), A Companion to the Philosophy of Language , Oxford: Blackwell, 613–633.
  • –––, 2012. “The probable simplicity of personal identity”, in G. Gasser and M. Stefan (eds.), Personal Identity: Complex or Simple? , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 137–155.
  • Mackie, P., 2006. How Things Might Have Been: Individuals, Kinds and Essential Properties , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Noonan, H.W., 1991. “Indeterminate Identity, Contingent Identity and Abelardian Predicates”, The Philosophical Quarterly , 41: 183–193.
  • –––, 1993. “Constitution is Identity”, Mind , 102: 133–146.
  • –––, 2007. “Identity Eliminated”, Analysis , 67(2): 122–127.
  • –––, 2017. “Relative Identity”, in B. Hale, C. Wright and A. Miller (eds.), A Companion to the Philosophy of Language , 2nd edition, Oxford: Blackwell, 1013–1032.
  • Noonan, H. and Curtis, B. L., 2018. “The Simple and Complex Views of Personal Identity Distinguished”, in Buonomo (ed.), The Persistence of Persons , Germany: Editiones Scholasticae, 21–40.
  • Normore, C. G., and D. J. Brown., 2014. “On Bits and Pieces in the History of Philosophy”, in A. J. Cotnoir and D. L. M. Baxter (eds.), Composition as Identity , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 24–43.
  • Olson, E., 1995. “Why I have no hands”, Theoria , 61: 182–97.
  • –––, 2007. What are We? , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Parsons, T., 2000. Indeterminate Identity: Metaphysics and Semantics , Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Quine, W.V.O., 1950, “Identity, Ostension, and Hypostasis”, Journal of Philosophy , 47(22): 621–633; reprinted in Quine 1963, 65–79.
  • –––, 1960. Word and Object , Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • –––, 1963. From a Logical Point of View , New York: Harper and Row.
  • –––, 1964. “Review of P.T. Geach, Reference and Generality ”, Philosophical Review , 73: 100–104.
  • Salmon, N., 1982. Reference and Essence , Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Schaffer, J., 2008. “Truthmaker Commitments”, Philosophical Studies , 141: 7–19.
  • Shoemaker, S. and Swinburne, R., 1984. Personal Identity , Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Shumener, E., 2020. “Explaining Identity and Distinctness”, Philosophical Studies , 177(7): 2073–2096
  • Sider, T., 2001. Four-dimensionalism: An Ontology of Persistence and Time , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • –––, 2007. “Parthood”, The Philosophical Review , 116: 51–91.
  • Thomson, J., 1983. “Parthood and Identity across Time”, Journal of Philosophy , 80: 201–220.
  • Tye, M., 2000. “Vagueness and reality”, Philosophical Topics , 28: 195–209.
  • Unger, P., 1980. “The Problem of the Many”, Midwest Studies in Philosophy , 5: 411–67.
  • van Inwagen, P., 1981. “The Doctrine of Arbitrary Undetached Parts”, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly , 62: 123–37.
  • –––, 1990. Material Beings , Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • –––, 1994. “Composition as Identity”, Philosophical Perspectives , 8(1): 207–220.
  • Wallace, M., 2011a. “Composition as Identity: Part 1”, Philosophy Compass , 6(11): 804–816.
  • –––, 2011b. “Composition as Identity: Part 2”, Philosophy Compass , 6(11): 817–827.
  • Wiggins, D., 1967. Identity and Spatiotemporal Continuity , Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • –––, 1968. “On being in the same place at the same time”, Philosophical Review , 77: 90–5.
  • –––, 1980. Sameness and Substance , Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Williams, J. R. G., 2010. “Fundamental and Derivative Truths”, Mind , 119: 103–141.
  • Williamson, T., 1990. Identity and discrimination , Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • –––, 2002. “Vagueness, Identity and Leibniz’s Law”, in P. Giaretta, A. Bottani and M. Carrara (eds.), Individuals, Essence and Identity: Themes of Analytic Metaphysics , Dordrecht: Kluwer, 273–303.
  • –––, 2003. “Vagueness in Reality”, in M.J. Loux and D.W. Zimmerman (eds.), The Oxford handbook of metaphysics , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 690–715.
  • Wittgenstein, L., 1958. Philosophical Investigations , 2 nd edition, G.E.M. Anscombe and R. Rhees (eds.), trans. by G.E.M. Anscombe, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
  • Wright, C. and Hale, B., 2001. “To Bury Caesar…”, in C. Wright and B. Hale, The Reason’s Proper Study: Essays towards a neo-Fregean Philosophy of Mathematics , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 335–396.
How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • Formal Ontology
  • Bibliography on Persistence, etc. (maintained by Ted Sider, Rutgers University)

identity: of indiscernibles | identity: relative | identity: transworld | many, problem of | personal identity | temporal parts | vagueness

Copyright © 2022 by Harold Noonan < Harold . Noonan @ nottingham . ac . uk > Ben Curtis < benjamin . curtis @ ntu . ac . uk >

  • Accessibility

Support SEP

Mirror sites.

View this site from another server:

  • Info about mirror sites

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is copyright © 2023 by The Metaphysics Research Lab , Department of Philosophy, Stanford University

Library of Congress Catalog Data: ISSN 1095-5054

  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Therapy Center
  • When To See a Therapist
  • Types of Therapy
  • Best Online Therapy
  • Best Couples Therapy
  • Best Family Therapy
  • Managing Stress
  • Sleep and Dreaming
  • Understanding Emotions
  • Self-Improvement
  • Healthy Relationships
  • Student Resources
  • Personality Types
  • Guided Meditations
  • Verywell Mind Insights
  • 2024 Verywell Mind 25
  • Mental Health in the Classroom
  • Editorial Process
  • Meet Our Review Board
  • Crisis Support

Why Identity Matters and How It Shapes Us

Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.

personal statement of identity

Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and a professor at Yeshiva University’s clinical psychology doctoral program.

personal statement of identity

Verywell / Zoe Hansen

Defining Identity

  • What Makes Up a Person's Identity?

Identity Development Across the Lifespan

The importance of identity, tips for reflecting on your identity.

Your identity is a set of physical, mental, emotional, social, and interpersonal characteristics that are unique to you.

It encapsulates your core personal values and your beliefs about the world, says Asfia Qaadir , DO, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at PrairieCare.

In this article, we explore the concept of identity, its importance, factors that contribute to its development , and some strategies that can help you reflect upon your identity.

Your identity gives you your sense of self. It is a set of traits that distinguishes you from other people, because while you might have some things in common with others, no one else has the exact same combination of traits as you.

Your identity also gives you a sense of continuity, i.e. the feeling that you are the same person you were two years ago and you will be the same person two days from now.

Asfia Qaadir, DO, Psychiatrist

Your identity plays an important role in how you treat others and how you carry yourself in the world.

What Makes Up a Person's Identity?

These are some of the factors that can contribute to your identity:

  • Physical appearance
  • Physical sensations
  • Emotional traits
  • Life experiences
  • Genetics 
  • Health conditions
  • Nationality
  • Race  
  • Social community 
  • Peer group 
  • Political environment
  • Spirituality
  • Sexuality 
  • Personality
  • Beliefs 
  • Finances 

We all have layers and dimensions that contribute to who we are and how we express our identity.

All of these factors interact together and influence you in unique and complex ways, shaping who you are. Identity formation is a subjective and deeply personal experience.

Identity development is a lifelong process that begins in childhood, starts to solidify in adolescence, and continues through adulthood.

Childhood is when we first start to develop a self-concept and form an identity.

As children, we are highly dependent on our families for our physical and emotional needs. Our early interactions with family members play a critical role in the formation of our identities.

During this stage, we learn about our families and communities, and what values are important to them, says Dr. Qaadir. 

The information and values we absorb in childhood are like little seeds that are planted years before we can really intentionally reflect upon them as adults, says Dr. Qaadir.

Traumatic or abusive experiences during childhood can disrupt identity formation and have lasting effects on the psyche.


Adolescence is a critical period of identity formation.

As teenagers, we start to intentionally develop a sense of self based on how the values we’re learning show up in our relationships with ourselves, our friends, family members, and in different scenarios that challenge us, Dr. Qaadir explains.

Adolescence is a time of discovering ourselves, learning to express ourselves, figuring out where we fit in socially (and where we don’t), developing relationships, and pursuing interests, says Dr. Qaadir.

This is the period where we start to become independent and form life goals. It can also be a period of storm and stress , as we experience mood disruptions, challenge authority figures, and take risks as we try to work out who we are.

As adults, we begin building our public or professional identities and deepen our personal relationships, says Dr. Qaadir.

These stages are not set in stone, rather they are fluid, and we get the rest of our lives to continue experiencing life and evolving our identities, says Dr. Qaadir.

Having a strong sense of identity is important because it:

  • Creates self-awareness: A strong sense of identity can give you a deep sense of awareness of who you are as a person. It can help you understand your likes, dislikes, actions, motivations, and relationships.
  • Provides direction and motivation: Having a strong sense of identity can give you a clear understanding of your values and interests, which can help provide clarity, direction, and motivation when it comes to setting goals and working toward them.
  • Enables healthy relationships: When you know and accept yourself, you can form meaningful connections with people who appreciate and respect you for who you are. A strong sense of identity also helps you communicate effectively, establish healthy boundaries, and engage in authentic and fulfilling interactions.
  • Keeps you grounded: Our identities give us roots when things around us feel chaotic or uncertain, says Dr. Qaadir. “Our roots keep us grounded and help us remember what truly matters at the end of the day.”
  • Improves decision-making: Understanding yourself well can help you make choices that are consistent with your values, beliefs, and long-term goals. This clarity reduces confusion, indecision, and the tendency to conform to others' expectations, which may lead to poor decision-making .
  • Fosters community participation: Identity is often shaped by cultural, social, political, spiritual, and historical contexts. Having a strong sense of identity allows you to understand, appreciate, and take pride in your cultural heritage. This can empower you to participate actively in society, express your unique perspective, and contribute to positive societal change.

On the other hand, a weak sense of identity can make it more difficult to ground yourself emotionally in times of stress and more confusing when you’re trying to navigate major life decisions, says Dr. Qaadir.

Dr. Qaadir suggests some strategies that can help you reflect on your identity:

  • Art: Art is an incredible medium that can help you process and reflect on your identity. It can help you express yourself in creative and unique ways.
  • Reading: Reading peoples’ stories through narrative is an excellent way to broaden your horizons, determine how you feel about the world around you, and reflect on your place in it.
  • Journaling: Journaling can also be very useful for self-reflection . It can help you understand your feelings and motivations better.
  • Conversation: Conversations with people can expose you to diverse perspectives, and help you form and represent your own.
  • Nature: Being in nature can give you a chance to reflect undisturbed. Spending time in nature often has a way of putting things in perspective.
  • Relationships: You can especially strengthen your sense of identity through the relationships around you. It is valuable to surround yourself with people who reflect your core values but may be different from you in other aspects of identity such as personality styles, cultural backgrounds, passions, professions, or spiritual paths because that provides perspective and learning from others.

American Psychological Association. Identity .

Pfeifer JH, Berkman ET. The development of self and identity in adolescence: neural evidence and implications for a value-based choice perspective on motivated behavior . Child Dev Perspect . 2018;12(3):158-164. doi:10.1111/cdep.12279

Hasanah U, Susanti H, Panjaitan RU. Family experience in facilitating adolescents during self-identity development . BMC Nurs . 2019;18(Suppl 1):35. doi:10.1186/s12912-019-0358-7

Dereboy Ç, Şahin Demirkapı E, et al. The relationship between childhood traumas, identity development, difficulties in emotion regulation and psychopathology . Turk Psikiyatri Derg . 2018;29(4):269-278.

Branje S, de Moor EL, Spitzer J, Becht AI. Dynamics of identity development in adolescence: a decade in review . J Res Adolesc . 2021;31(4):908-927. doi:10.1111/jora.12678

Stirrups R.  The storm and stress in the adolescent brain .  The Lancet Neurology . 2018;17(5):404. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(18)30112-1

Fitzgerald A. Professional identity: A concept analysis . Nurs Forum . 2020;55(3):447-472. doi:10.1111/nuf.12450

National Institute of Standards and Technology. Identity .

By Sanjana Gupta Sanjana is a health writer and editor. Her work spans various health-related topics, including mental health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness.

How to Format Your Personal Statement (&amp; Example Essays)

How to Format Your Personal Statement (& Example Essays)

personal statement of identity

Admissions committee members who are reading personal statements all expect an essay to flow logically from one section to the next. 

But this can be a challenge when core aspects of our lives often don’t occur to us in straightforward or linear ways. And some of those aspects may feel fundamentally disconnected: Is it even possible, for example, to write a personal statement that includes your career goals following a step by step approach in a way that is still personal ?

We think so. Most stories have some kind of arc: a satisfying sense of conflict, growth and change, and resolution. The personal statement format, structure, and content tips below can help you select an approach that helps you find and express the arc in your life, whether you’re working on undergraduate college admissions, law school, medical school, or other graduate schools.

What is the Correct Personal Statement Format?

There’s no single required format for the Common App or Coalition , but we’d generally recommend keeping it simple and standard. Regarding font choice, things like Times New Roman or Georgia (what this is written in) won’t fail you. Just avoid things like Comic Sans or other informal/casual fonts that will be distracting or show poor taste.

What about size? 11- or 12-point is fine.

And color? Black. 

Going with something other than the above could be a risk, possibly a big one, for fairly little gain. Things like a wacky font or text color could easily feel gimmicky to a reader.

To stand out with your writing, instead of risks with basic format, take some risks in what you write about and the connections and insights you make .

Can I use things like italics and bold?

Possibly: keep in mind that if you’re pasting text into a box online, it may wipe out your formatting. So if you were hoping to rely on italics or bold for some kind of emphasis, double check whether you’ll be able to. (And as a general guideline, try to use sentence structure and phrasing to create that kind of emphasis anyway, rather than relying on bold or italics—doing so will make you a better writer.)

What if I’m attaching a document (rather than pasting)?

If you are attaching a document rather than pasting into a text box, all the above still applies. Again, we’d recommend sticking with standard fonts and sizes—Times New Roman, 12-point is a standard workhorse. You can probably go with 1.5 or double spacing. Standard one inch margins.

Basically, show them you’re ready to write in college by using the formatting you’ll normally use in college.

Learn more format tips here .

How Long Should a Personal Statement Be?

Fortunately, colleges and application systems usually give you specific personal statement word counts. The Common Application and Coalition Application, which are the most prevalent applications, will give you a word count of 650 words for your main personal statement, but will usually give a smaller word count for school-specific supplemental essays . Other application programs or schools will usually give the specific word count maximum—for example, the UC PIQs are 350 words max. If the application or college doesn’t specify how long your essay should be clearly in the application directors or on the site (and make sure to do your research), you can email them to ask! They don’t bite.

Some people have asked us: Should I use all of my allotted space in an essay? 

As a general guideline, yes, we think it can be smart to use most of it. You likely have a lot to say about yourself, so not using all the space offered might be a missed opportunity to tell your story. While you don’t have to use every single word allowed, shoot to use most of what they give you. But fair warning: Don’t just fill space if what you’re writing doesn’t provide more insight into the story you’re telling.

There are also some applications or supplementals with recommended word counts or lengths. For example, Georgetown says things like “approx. 1 page,” and UChicago doesn’t have a limit, but recommends aiming for 650ish for the extended essay, and 250-500 for the “Why us?” 

You can generally apply UChicago’s recommendations to other schools that don’t give you a limit: If it’s a “Why Major” or “Why Us” supplement, 650 is probably plenty (and shorter is generally fine), and for other supplements, 250-500 is a good target to shoot for. If you go over those, that can be ok—just be sure you’re earning that word count (as in, not rambling or being overly verbose). Your readers are humans. If you send them a tome, their attention could drift.

How to Find Your Topic

To clarify at the outset, your topic is always you —you’re showing the admissions readers who you are and what you value. So what we’re exploring here is how best to do so.

And because we have other posts that offer a step by step approach to writing a personal statement , we’ll give the shorter version here.

We think there are two structural approaches that can work for anyone writing a personal statement for college admissions:

Montage Structure —a series of experiences and insights that are connected thematically (so, for example, 5 pairs of socks that connect to 5 different sides of who you are).

Narrative Structure —classic western culture story structure, focusing roughly equally on a) Challenges You Faced, b) What You Did About Them, and c) What You Learned. Paragraphs and events are connected causally.

Which approach may work best for you depends on whether you have a clear, significant challenge you’d want to write about, or not. (And to make sure it’s clear: you don’t have to write about a challenge, even if you have experienced one.) Narrative works well for challenge-based essays; montage offers a great way to demonstrate who you are without (primarily) focusing on challenges you’ve faced.

We’ve found these brainstorming exercises can be great for building content for a montage or a narrative:

Essence Objects Exercise : 12 min.

Values Exercise : 4 min.

21 Details Exercise: 20 min. 

Everything I Want Colleges to Know About Me Exercise : 20 min.

The Feelings and Needs Exercise : 15-20 min. 

How to Start Your Personal Statement

We’ve seen plenty of strong essays that don’t use a hook, so don’t stress out or spend more time on this than on other, generally more important parts of your essay. But an interesting opening can be a nice way to intrigue your reader and show them that you’ve worked on your ability to write. To that end, here are three (of many) ways to start a personal statement :

Begin with information that creates certain expectations before taking us in a surprising direction.

Growing up, my world was basketball. My summers were spent between the two solid black lines. My skin was consistently tan in splotches and ridden with random scratches. My wardrobe consisted mainly of track shorts, Nike shoes, and tournament t-shirts. Gatorade and Fun Dip were my pre-game snacks. The cacophony of rowdy crowds, ref whistles, squeaky shoes, and scoreboard buzzers was a familiar sound. I was the team captain of almost every team I played on—familiar with the Xs and Os of plays, commander of the court, and the coach’s right hand girl. But that was only me on the surface. Deep down I was an East-Asian influenced bibliophile and a Young Adult fiction writer.

Why It Works: We’re introduced to the author as a basketball superstar, the queen of the court, a sports fanatic—and at this point the reader may even be making assumptions about this author’s identity based on her initial description of herself. However, in one sentence, the writer takes us in a completely unexpected direction. This plays with audience expectations and demonstrates that she has a good degree of self awareness about the layers of her identity. After having our expectations thrown for a loop, we can’t help but wonder more about who exactly this person is (and if you want to know like I did, read the rest of this essay here ).

Another example: 

I am on Oxford Academy’s Speech and Debate Team, in both the Parliamentary Debate division and the Lincoln-Douglass debate division. I write screenplays, short stories, and opinionated blogs and am a regular contributor to my school literary magazine, The Gluestick. I have accumulated over 300 community service hours that includes work at homeless shelters, libraries, and special education youth camps. I have been evaluated by the College Board and have placed within the top percentile. But I am not any of these things. I am not a test score, nor a debater, nor a writer. I am an anti-nihilist punk rock philosopher. And I became so when I realized three things:

Why It Works: He basically tears up his (impressive) resume from the first few sentences and says, “That’s not me! Here’s the real me…” and as a result we wonder, “How does one become an anti-nihilist punk rock philosopher? And what are the three things??” (Read the rest here .)


Ask a question that you won’t (and probably can’t) answer in your essay. This gives you a chance to show how your brilliant brain works, plus keeps us hooked as you explore possible answers/solutions. 


Does every life matter? Because it seems like certain lives matter more than others, especially when it comes to money.

Why it Works: This question raises a controversial and troubling idea: that we treat some lives as though they matter more than others. We wonder: “Is that true? Could it be? Say more…” Heads-up: This one can veer into the “Overly Grand Ambiguous Statement” opening if you’re not careful. Click here to read the rest of the essay mentioned above, which by the way took him a long time to refine—as this approach is not easy to pull off.


Begin by admitting something you might be judged (or judge yourself) for. 


I have been pooped on many times. I mean this in the most literal sense possible. I have been pooped on by pigeons and possums, house finches and hawks, egrets and eastern grays. (Read the rest here .)

Why it Works: Shows vulnerability, but also in many cases intrigues us to learn more. 

Here is a secret that no one in my family knows: I shot my brother when I was six. Luckily, it was a BB gun. But to this day, my older brother Jonathan does not know who shot him. And I have finally promised myself to confess this eleven year old secret to him after I write this essay.

Why It Works: This is super vulnerable to admit and raises all sorts of questions for us: Why did he shoot his brother? Why hasn’t he confessed it to him? What will his brother say once he tells him? (Fun fact: This essay actually breaks the “don’t start with a quote” rule. Here’s the rest if you wanna’ read it.)

Learn about six more ways to start a personal statement .

Showcase your Values, Skills, Qualities, and Insights

The personal statement is one of the primary ways a college gets to know who you are, through seeing the values, skills, qualities, and insights you’ll bring to that community. Both montage and narrative offer you a chance to demonstrate those aspects to your reader.

In a narrative, you’ll explore actions you took in response to the challenge you faced, and what you learned from those choices and experiences.

In a montage, you’ll explore different moments and experiences that demonstrate different core values through your actions and insights.

The in-depth guide we mentioned above can help you develop and revise those elements.

Build a Strong Ending 

A great ending often has two qualities: surprise and inevitability . H/T Aristotle

Think about a great film ending—usually you feel some combination of “Whoa, I totally didn’t see that coming,” and “Ah, right, it probably had to end like that.”

We’re talking about The Sixth Sense , Inception , or Titanic . And totally j/k re: Titanic because that was a TERRIBLE ending—both Jack and Rose could’ve totally fit on that door. The boat sinking was a shocker, though, right?

Does every great movie have both those qualities? No. And must you have both those qualities to get into a great college? No. But these are two good qualities to keep in mind as you read this post and write your essay.


This one is one of the easiest. It basically works like this: Look back through your essay and ask yourself, “What values am I showing?” 

Then don’t name those values too much in the body of your essay, but do name them explicitly in your conclusion. 

Here’s an example (note the values in bold ): 

Upon reflection, I found that my answer didn’t exist in books or research, but somewhere very close from the beginning—my intuition. In other words, I didn’t need an elaborate and intricate reason to prove to myself that health is an inalienable right for every human being—I needed self-reflection. So I ask again, “Does every life matter?” Yes. “Do I have solid, written proof?” No. Paul Farmer once said, “The thing about rights is that in the end you can’t prove what is a right.” To me, global health is not merely a study. It’s an attitude—a lens I use to look at the world—and it’s a statement about my commitment to health as a fundamental quality of liberty and equity .

To read the entire Does Every Life Matter essay, click here. 

Why This Ending Works:

If you read the entire essay (at link above), you’ll see the author touches on a few different themes in his essay—heritage, community, moral behavior, etc.—but he doesn’t make them super explicit until the end. Once he names them at the end, we (as readers) go, “Ah, that’s what we thought you were talking about.” 

Ending with values is also a pretty good idea because a) it shows your ability to self-reflect, and b) highlights some qualities that, oh, by the way, will be useful in college and beyond. 

Heads-up that this doesn’t work quite as well if you’ve already clearly named the values earlier in the essay—in fact, it can feel repetitive. So, if you’re trying this approach, a) make sure you didn’t already explicitly name the values earlier and, if you did, b) delete or rephrase those parts of your essay so that when you name the values at the end, it won’t feel as repetitive. 

And by the way—did you notice how the whole paragraph above felt repetitive? That’s because, if you were reading carefully, we already wrote before the example, “Then don’t name those values too much in the body of your essay, but do name them explicitly in your conclusion.” So, to edit, we should cut that sentence (and that’s what we’d have you do in your essay).

You’ll find another example of this type of ending in the Makeup essay (check out the mentions of “scientific inquiry,” “voice,” “connect me with others,” and more in those last lines).


Bookending involves referring to something you’ve set up earlier in the essay. It’s something comedians do a lot and refer to as a “callback.” For a few examples, check out How Dave Chappelle Delivers a Callback starting at 1:05. (Trigger warning: There’s some adult language in that video. If you prefer, here’s the Wikipedia link explaining the same concept.)

Here’s an example of a callback in a personal statement: 

The essay begins ... 

I have been pooped on many times. I mean this in the most literal sense possible. I have been pooped on by pigeons and possums, house finches and hawks, egrets and eastern grays.

And the essay ends ... 

The upshot is that I simply cannot walk away from injustice, however uncomfortable it is to confront it. I choose to act, taking a stand and exposing the truth in the most effective manner that I think is possible. And while I’m sure I will be dumped on many times, both literally and metaphorically, I won’t do the same to others.

To read the entire “Poop, Animals, and the Environment” essay, click here.

What We Like about This Ending/Why It Works:

This one is great because, on the one hand, the ending catches the reader by surprise (we didn’t see that coming!). But it also feels inevitable (because she’s calling back to something she set up at the start). That’s that surprise + inevitability we mentioned a minute ago. (Thanks, Aristotle.)

One thing that’s cool about this tactic is that you can do this once the rest of your essay is already written. And, if you do it well, it’ll feel like you planned it all along. 

Learn about 8 other ways to end your personal statement .

Example #1 of a Good Format

Montage essay: settlers of catan.

Sprinting home from school and bursting through the door, I exclaimed, “Want to solve a puzzle today, Pati?” My grandmother looked up from her favorite TV show, saying in reluctant Tamil and broken English, “Maybe just one. You must have homework today. I heard fourth grade is quite demanding.” I yanked the thousand-page crossword book off the shelf and sat beside her. While shopping the day before, the book had caught my eye; it seemed like the perfect way for me to teach her English. Slowly, we solved the first problem, and came across one clue that read “Person who cuts men’s hair.” I taught her how to pronounce the word “barber” and described what the typical American barbershop looked like. She paused, committing the definition to memory, and once again reminded me to not cut my hair at night. When I asked why, she responded, “you never know where pieces of your hair might fall. It may even fall into your food!” As we continued day after day with these crossword puzzles, I came to understand that the meaning behind our time together was much deeper than my desire to teach her. It was about exchange. I taught her English; she taught me about my heritage. With every crossword, our shared sense of joy and belonging grew.  The two-way street of teaching and learning brought us closer and deepened our respect for one another. Six years later, I was teaching advanced math to a third-grade class. I took great care to explain new principles, and all of my students were doing well; I felt proud of them and of myself. Then, we reached the long division section. Despite my methodical descriptions, one student often stared back at me with a glazed-over look of confusion. I took her aside, trying yet again to explain the steps of long division, to no avail. Exasperated, I thought to myself, “This is my last try before kicking her out of the advanced class.” Taking a deep breath, I asked myself if I really was describing it in the best way. Realizing that mere repetition was futile, this time I explained it to her by connecting division to the basics of addition and subtraction. The glaze over her eyes disappeared, and in a small voice she exclaimed, “Oh!” My student mastered long division and scored excellently on the test - and I witnessed how patience allowed me to learn from my student and become a better teacher. While crosswords with my grandma illuminated the two-way nature of teaching and learning, this experience enriched my understanding of exchange with patience. This young girl also changed my view of patience: it isn’t only about waiting quietly for something to happen out of the blue, but can also be an act of service that I do for others. Now, I mentor elementary and middle schoolers in robotics and lead the programming committee on my high school’s robotics team. I’m constantly answering questions from both the younger students and my peers like, “How do I code a follow-the-line program?” or “How do I get data from an accelerometer?” Rather than simply answering, I contextualize their questions in the relevant theory and explain how the hardware and software bring that theory to life. Although it would be faster to explain the steps, I practice patience and engage them in an exchange. This way, they arrive at an answer on their own, allowing them to ingrain the new information in their memory. Mentoring robotics has solidified my notion that teaching is an exchange, and that patience is an integral part of that exchange. But most significantly, I understand that the dynamic pair of teaching and learning must come hand in hand for it to be effective. And the only way to have this kind of relationship is by helping each other solve our respective crossword puzzles. — — —

We think a strong personal statement demonstrates values, insight, vulnerability, and craft , so those are the aspects of these two sample essays we’ll focus on.

Values —This montage allows the author to illustrate many of the values that have shaped her: family, growth (her own and others’), heritage, connection, teaching, patience, curiosity…

Insight —There are several moments that show the author has worked on the ability to reflect. For example, “The two-way street of teaching and learning brought us closer and deepened our respect for one another.” demonstrates insight she has gained into how to develop strong supportive relationships

Vulnerability —Moments like “I asked myself if I really was describing it in the best way” in which we acknowledge when we may have failed at something or lacked understanding can be a nice way to demonstrate maturity

Craft —The author has clearly spent several drafts revising and thinking through their choices. The clarity of phrasing and sentence structure demonstrate that this author is ready to write in college.

Example #2 of a Good Format

Narrative essay: figuring out what really mattered.

"Perfect as the wing of a bird may be, it will never enable the bird to fly if unsupported by the air." —Ivan Pavlov  Upon graduation, I will be able to analyze medieval Spanish poems using literary terms and cultural context, describe the electronegativity trends on the periodic table, and identify when to use logarithmic differentiation to simplify a derivative problem. Despite knowing how to execute these very particular tasks, I currently fail to understand how to change a tire, how to do my taxes efficiently, or how to obtain a good insurance policy. A factory-model school system that has been left essentially unchanged for nearly a century has been the driving force in my educational development. I have been conditioned to complete tasks quickly, efficiently, and with an advanced understanding. I measured my self-worth as my ability to outdo my peers academically, thinking my scores were the only aspect that defined me; and they were. I was getting everything right. Then, I ran for Student Government and failed. Rejection. I didn’t even make it past the first round of cuts. How could that be? I was statistically a smart kid with a good head on my shoulders, right? Surely someone had to have made a mistake. Little did I know, this was my first exposure to meaning beyond numbers. As I was rejected from StuGo for the second year in a row, I discovered I had been wrongfully measuring my life through numbers--my football statistics, my test scores, my age, my height (I’m short). I had the epiphany that oh wait, maybe it was my fault that I had never prioritized communication skills, or open-mindedness (qualities my fellow candidates possessed). Maybe it was me. That must be why I always had to be the one to approach people during my volunteer hours at the public library to offer help--no one ever asked me for it. I resolved to alter my mindset, taking a new approach to the way I lived. From now on I would emphasize qualitative experiences over quantitative skills.  I had never been more uncomfortable. I forced myself to learn to be vulnerable by asking questions even if I was terrified of being wrong. My proficiency in using data evidence could not teach me how to communicate with young children at church, nor could my test scores show me how to be more open to criticism. The key to all of these skills, I was to discover, happened to be learning from those around me. Turns out, I couldn’t do everything by myself. The process of achieving this new mindset came through the cultivation of relationships. I became fascinated by the new perspectives each person in my life could offer if I really took the time to connect. Not only did I improve my listening skills, but I began to consider the big-picture consequences my engagements could have. People interpret situations differently due to their own cultural contexts, so I had to learn to pay more attention to detail to understand every point of view. I took on the state of what I like to call collaborative independence, and to my delight, I was elected to StuGo after my third year of trying. Not long ago, I would have fallen apart at the presence of any uncertainty. As I further accept and advance new life skills, the more I realize how much remains uncertain in the world. After all, it is quite possible my future job doesn’t exist yet, and that’s okay. I can’t conceivably plan out my entire life at the age of 17, but what I can do is prepare myself to take on the unknown, doing my best to accompany others. Hopefully, my wings continue enabling me to fly, but it is going to take more than just me and my wings; I have to continue putting my faith in the air around me. — — —

Values —Again, we get a bunch of core values threaded throughout the essay: intellectual curiosity, perspective, growth, relationships…

Insight —There are several nice moments of reflection in here. One example: “I discovered I had been wrongfully measuring my life through numbers--my football statistics, my test scores, my age, my height (I’m short). I had the epiphany that oh wait, maybe it was my fault that I had never prioritized communication skills, or open-mindedness (qualities my fellow candidates possessed).” demonstrates an ability to step back and reflect, to understand where he may have gone wrong, and to grow.

Vulnerability —Moments like “I currently fail to understand how to change a tire, how to do my taxes efficiently, or how to obtain a good insurance policy” add a bit of humor to the essay while also being vulnerable—it can be a little scary to acknowledge what others might perceive as weakness or shortcomings. But doing so actually demonstrates strength on the author’s part.

And there are a few of these: losing the election, realizing they had been measuring their life incorrectly, “Maybe it was me”…

Craft —The author does a nice job demonstrating their ability to write. The hook is interesting and effective, and is bookended nicely at the end. There’s a clear structure and flow to the essay. And there are nice little metaphorical turns of phrase like “I have to continue putting my faith in the air around me.”

Special thanks to Andy for contributing to this post.

personal statement of identity

Andrew has worked as an educator, consultant, and curriculum writer for the past 15 years, and earned degrees from Stanford in Political Science and Drama. He feels most at home on mountain tops and in oceans.

Top Values:  Insight/Growth | Truth | Integrity

personal statement of identity

Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.

Personal and Social Identity: Who Are You Through Others’ Eyes

There’s a reason folks judge others by the company they keep..

Posted October 15, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills

  • Personal identity is about how you see yourself as “different” from those around you.
  • Social identities tell how you are like others—they connote similarity rather than difference.
  • Some identities carry a different “privilege valance” or “oppression valance” than others.

Let’s talk about identity —the pieces of ourselves that tell us who we are and what we like and the pieces of ourselves that others use to decide who they think we are and what we are actually like. There are basically two types of identities that we possess: a personal identity and our social identity.

Personal identities

Let’s focus first on personal identities. Take a few moments and think about who you are and your personal traits. Personal identity is about how you see yourself as “different” from those around you. Hobbies, education , interests, personality traits, and so on. Favorite foods, the roles you hold—“I’m the oldest in my family.” These are the things that make you unique from other people.

We might dislike a quality of one of our friends, perhaps, but that might not keep us from enjoying their company and valuing the friendship . For instance, If someone doesn’t like piano music, and you’re a pianist, they might not ever care to hear you play, but they may look beyond that one trait to appreciate you as a whole person.

Social identities

Social identities are the identities that you share with similar group members. They tell how you are like others—they connote similarity rather than difference. Our social identities, though, are the categories that create entities such as “ingroups” and “outgroups,” those “us” versus “them” groups.

These include categories such as social class, race, gender identity , political affinity, and of course, religion and sexual orientation . Not only does falling into a specific category give you a feeling of “belongingness” and “community,” but it also sets up the possibility of being seen as “one of those,” which can lead to a sense of internalized stigmatization or shame for openly claiming membership in a particular group.

Social identities may bestow or withdraw power and privilege

While personal identities are how we see our own unique individuality, our social identities are internally constructed but also externally applied—simultaneously. Social identities have three important characteristics that describe their role in how others are perceived:

  • Social identities are designed to award power and its benefits or to disadvantage others through the lack of access to power.
  • These group identities are often used to justify the differences in outcomes, abilities, or the endeavors taken to achieve particular goals .
  • Once categorized into a particular group, social identities are nearly impossible to shift due to the difficulty, the cost, or the danger involved in transforming self and others’ perceptions.

The “Big 8” social identities: Where outcomes are decided

What are your social identities? Take a few moments and think about who you are and the groups to which you feel you belong. Social identity is about how you see yourself as “alike” with those with whom you identify: “fathers,” “French Canadians,” “Gen Zers,” “Republicans,” “Northsiders,” etc. If someone doesn’t like Southerners, and you’re from NC, they won’t like you because of what you represent.

There are a group of social identities that are considered “The Big 8.” These include age, race, gender, ability, religion, class, immigration status, and sexual orientation. Each of these represents a value metric in that power is awarded to those who represent the majority groups in a space. Oppression is exerted upon those who represent a marginalized identity group, such as women, non-Christians, or older or younger persons.

personal statement of identity

Thinking about your own social identities, which of these identities is most salient to you? Your race? Your sexual orientation? Your religion or faith?

Now, think about what that identity means to you—what does it say to others about you? Often, it is the ones that you do not think about that represent the privileges you hold. It is also the social identities that carry a significant weight that often represent the identities that have less privilege or carry a sense of oppression with them.

All of us are equal, but...

Some identities carry a different “privilege valance” or “oppression valance” than others. What are the identities in your neighborhood, community, social groups, workplaces that carry privilege? What are the identities that we might be slower to acknowledge with others in order to avoid risking the loss of some amount of privilege? It is those identities and alliances that we fear others might “see” and make judgments about who we are, as individuals, based on group membership. Being straight, white, and Catholic when all of your friends are straight, white, and Catholic is probably not a social identity that you think about much—it carries privilege that being Hispanic, trans, and Buddhist might not. If you’re the only Jewish person in the room, you may be much more aware of your religious beliefs than you are of your race, education, or gender.

It is essential that we look inside ourselves and see which social identities we may be implicitly biased against. Who are the people that we give less credence or respect than others? Think long and hard about the implicit biases you may hold and the damage you may be doing to others based on your own limited experiences and perspective. Then do the inner work to combat this often automatic thinking that limits your ability to grow as a person and be a part of an expanding array of relational networks that would bring depth and diversity to your world.

Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D.

Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D. , is a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University.

  • Find a Therapist
  • Find a Treatment Center
  • Find a Psychiatrist
  • Find a Support Group
  • Find Online Therapy
  • United States
  • Brooklyn, NY
  • Chicago, IL
  • Houston, TX
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • New York, NY
  • Portland, OR
  • San Diego, CA
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Seattle, WA
  • Washington, DC
  • Asperger's
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Chronic Pain
  • Eating Disorders
  • Passive Aggression
  • Personality
  • Goal Setting
  • Positive Psychology
  • Stopping Smoking
  • Low Sexual Desire
  • Relationships
  • Child Development
  • Self Tests NEW
  • Therapy Center
  • Diagnosis Dictionary
  • Types of Therapy

July 2024 magazine cover

Sticking up for yourself is no easy task. But there are concrete skills you can use to hone your assertiveness and advocate for yourself.

  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Gaslighting
  • Affective Forecasting
  • Neuroscience

Basics by Becca

personal statement of identity

50 "I Am" Statement Examples to Describe Yourself

"I am" statements are powerful affirmations that can shape our self-perception and how we interact with the world. Not only are they useful in self-reflection, but they can also be used to make clear statements when introducing yourself to acquaintances or potential employers.

Here are 50 "I am" statements that can be used to describe oneself:

I am statements to describe yourself

1. I am passionate about making a positive impact on the world.

2. I am driven by my ambition and strive for excellence in whatever I do.

3. I am a creative problem solver who loves learning new things and finding innovative solutions.

4. I am a great listener and an excellent communicator.

5. I am organized, dependable, and able to handle multiple tasks at once.

6. I am an empathetic person who takes the time to understand different perspectives before making decisions.

7. I am passionate about my work and will always strive to exceed expectations.

8. I am a strong leader and team player who can work with others to achieve common goals.

9. I am a lifelong learner, always willing to take on new challenges and expand my knowledge.

10. I am an independent thinker and capable of making decisions without relying on anyone else for advice.

11. I am open minded and able to adapt to changing circumstances.

12. I am confident in my abilities and always strive for the best results.

13. I am a positive person who radiates positivity and joy wherever I go.

14. I am goal-oriented and never give up until I reach my desired outcome.

I am an inspired individual who seeks out opportunities to innovate and grow.

I am a focused individual who is able to stay on task and make progress towards my goals.

I am an ambitious person who is always looking for ways to better myself and reach the next level of success.

I am determined and never back down from a challenge or obstacle in my path. 5. I am reliable and can be depended upon to complete tasks in a timely manner.

I am organized and able to manage my time efficiently to maximize productivity.

I am a strategic thinker who takes the time to analyze situations before making decisions.

I am an enthusiast for life, eager to explore new experiences and take on challenges.

I am compassionate and understand the importance of treating people with dignity and respect.

I am a team player who values collaboration over individual success.

I am passionate about what I do and always strive to exceed expectations with my work.

I am a self-motivated individual who takes initiative tomake things happen.

I am open to feedback and always looking for ways to improve myself and my work.

I am confident in my abilities to make a difference in any situation.

I am an enthusiastic learner who loves discovering new ideas and knowledge.

I am committed to making a positive impact on theworld.

I am an effective communicator who can articulate my ideas in a clear and concise manner.

I am reliable and take responsibility for my actions, both good and bad.

I am flexible and able to adjust my approach to suit different circumstances as needed.

I am fair-minded and make decisionsin an impartial manner.

I am a passionate and driven individual with an unstoppable work ethic.

I am resilient, often bouncing back stronger from any adversity I face.

I am an empathetic listener, always there to lend an ear to those who need it.

I am a detail-oriented person, leaving no stone unturned in my pursuit of excellence.

I am a patient individual, understanding that good things often take time to materialize.

I am a joyful spirit, spreading positivity and smiles wherever I go.

I am a proactive person, taking action before a situation becomes a problem.

I am a visionary, always looking ahead to anticipate opportunities and challenges.

I am a determined individual, undeterred by obstacles on my path to success.

I am a generous person, always ready to share my resources to help others.

I am a dynamic individual, capable of adapting quickly to new environments and situations.

I am a person of grit, relentlessly pursuing my goals despite difficulties.

I am a skilled negotiator, able to find mutual ground in any dispute.

I am a punctual individual, always respecting other people's time.

I am an inspiring person, able to motivate others towards achieving their own potential.

I am a humble individual, always giving credit where it's due.

I am an environmentally conscious person, committed to sustainable living practices.

These "I am" statements can be used to help you become more aware of your strengths and weaknesses, as well as cultivate a positive attitude that will ultimately enable you to achieve success. They are also great for introducing yourself to others in a professional setting, giving potential employers an insight into who you are and the qualities you bring to the table. No matter what journey life

Powered by Squarespace .

  • Statement of Purpose, Personal Statement, and Writing Sample

Details about submitting a statement of purpose, personal statement, and a writing sample as part of your degree program application

  • Dissertation
  • Fellowships
  • Maximizing Your Degree
  • Before You Arrive
  • First Weeks at Harvard
  • Harvard Speak
  • Pre-Arrival Resources for New International Students
  • Alumni Council
  • Student Engagement
  • English Proficiency
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Transcripts
  • After Application Submission
  • Applying to the Visiting Students Program
  • Admissions Policies
  • Cost of Attendance
  • Express Interest
  • Campus Safety
  • Commencement
  • Diversity & Inclusion Fellows
  • Student Affinity Groups
  • Recruitment and Outreach
  • Budget Calculator
  • Find Your Financial Aid Officer
  • Funding and Aid
  • Regulations Regarding Employment
  • Financial Wellness
  • Consumer Information
  • Life Sciences
  • Policies (Student Handbook)
  • Student Center
  • Title IX and Gender Equity

Statement of Purpose 

The statement of purpose is very important to programs when deciding whether to admit a candidate. Your statement should be focused, informative, and convey your research interests and qualifications. You should describe your reasons and motivations for pursuing a graduate degree in your chosen degree program, noting the experiences that shaped your research ambitions, indicating briefly your career objectives, and concisely stating your past work in your intended field of study and in related fields. Your degree program of interest may have specific guidance or requirements for the statement of purpose, so be sure to review the degree program page for more information. Unless otherwise noted, your statement should not exceed 1,000 words. 

Personal Statement

Please describe the personal experiences that led you to pursue graduate education and how these experiences will contribute to the academic environment and/or community in your program or Harvard Griffin GSAS. These may include social and cultural experiences, leadership positions, community engagement, equity and inclusion efforts, other opportunities, or challenges. Your statement should be no longer than 500 words.

Please note that there is no expectation to share detailed sensitive information and you should refrain from including anything that you would not feel at ease sharing. Please also note that the Personal Statement should complement rather than duplicate the content provided in the Statement of Purpose. 

Visit Degree Programs and navigate to your degree program of interest to determine if a Personal Statement is required. The degree program pages will be updated by early September indicating if the Personal Statement is required for your program.

Writing Sample 

Please visit Degree Programs and navigate to your degree program of interest to determine if a writing sample is required. When preparing your writing sample, be sure to follow program requirements, which may include format, topic, or length. 

Share this page

Explore events.

Find Info For

  • Current Students
  • Prospective Students
  • Alumni and Friends
  • Engage with Purdue
  • Research and Innovation

Quick Links

  • Report a Concern
  • Calendar of Events, Dates, and Deadlines
  • Current Graduate Students
  • Alumni and Giving
  • Rankings and Recognition
  • All Graduate Programs at our Campuses
  • Graduate Degree Programs
  • Certificate Programs
  • Interdisciplinary Graduate Programs (OIGP)
  • University Academic Catalog
  • Course Information
  • Publications
  • Graduate Programs Office
  • Office of Graduate Assistance (OGA)
  • Guidelines for Graduate Student Mentoring and Advising
  • Preparing for Graduate School
  • Graduate Program Requirements
  • Why Choose Purdue?
  • Tuition & Fees
  • How to Apply
  • Check Application Status
  • Transcript Upload Tips
  • Admitted Students
  • Visit Campus
  • Global Ambassadors
  • Purdue Graduate Student Center
  • International Students
  • Request Information
  • Fellowships
  • Professional Development
  • Information Management and Analysis
  • Data Requests
  • Database Project

personal statement of identity

  • Personal History Statement

The Personal History Statement helps reviewers learn more about you as a whole person and as a potential graduate student. This may include relevant details on community service, leadership roles, participation in diverse teams, and significant barriers that you overcame to pursue graduate studies.

The Purdue University graduate application allows applicants to select up to two campuses and/or graduate majors per application.  If you are applying to a 2nd choice program, you are only required to submit one personal history statement with your application. Be sure your personal history statement is is all-inclusive, and supports your suitability for your enrollment in all the graduate programs listed on your application. 

Required of all applicants:

  • Describe how your background and life experiences contribute to your ability to be both persistent and resourceful in your graduate studies.
  • Describe how your life experiences have prepared you to contribute to an academic community where scholars with diverse research interests, abilities, backgrounds, and experiences are supported, respected, and valued.
  • Please address concerns that you may have that your academic record does not reflect your true capabilities and discuss mitigating factors that have affected your academic record. Reviewers will be interested in understanding your accomplishments relative to your opportunities.

The Academic Statement of Purpose and the Personal History Statement are two of the most important documents in your graduate application. The documents should be concise, clear, and free of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. You should have others review your document for content, organization, and to ensure that there are no errors. Information in the Personal History Statement should complement but not duplicate information in the Academic Statement of Purpose.

  • Application Deadlines
  • Application Fee
  • Application Fee - Foreign Currency
  • Documents Required by Country
  • English Proficiency Requirements
  • GRE Requirements
  • Recommendation Letters
  • Academic Statement of Purpose
  • Submitting Transcripts
  • Technical Help Questions
  • Testing Information


  • OneCampus Portal
  • Brightspace
  • BoilerConnect
  • Faculty and Staff
  • Human Resources
  • Colleges and Schools
  • Find Workshops
  • Funding Support
  • Purdue Graduate Student Government
  • Staff Directory
  • OGSPS Toolkit
  • Catalogs, Manuals, Policies

Ernest C. Young Hall, Room 170 | 155  S. Grant Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907-2114 | 765-494-2600

Contact OGSPS at [email protected] for accessibility issues with this page.

Is my personal information on the dark web?

How this can lead to identity theft, what can you do if your personal data is on the dark web, how to report identity theft or a fraud case, 5 signs your personal data is on the dark web -- and what you can do about it.

Your private info is now in the creepiest corners of the internet. Here’s how to lower your chances of becoming a victim.

Geoff  Williams

Geoff Williams


Geoff Williams is a journalist and author. His byline has appeared in numerous publications, including U.S. News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, LIFE magazine, CNNMoney.com, The Wall Street Journal's Buy Side and Consumer Reports. He is also the author of several books, including "C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race" (Tantor Media) and "Washed Away" (Pegasus Books).

Danni Santana

Danni Santana has spent seven years as an editor and business journalist covering industries like sports, retail, restaurants, and now personal finance. Most recently he worked as a retail editor at Business Insider. He is a graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY. His biggest loves outside of the newsroom include, running, cooking, playing video games and collecting sneakers.

CNET staff -- not advertisers, partners or business interests -- determine how we review the products and services we cover. If you buy through our links, we may get paid.

Cybercriminals can use your personal data from the dark web to access your financial accounts and potentially steal your identity. But how would you even know if your credit card information or Social Security number is living there?

You’re unlikely to hop on the dark web and check for yourself. The dark web is the part of the internet that you can’t find through conventional search engines. It wants to be hidden. To get there, you need what’s called an anonymizing browser and a specialized search engine.

“It is very scary down there,” said Rajiv Kohli, a business professor at William & Mary . Kohli specializes in cybersecurity research and the dark web -- and, yes, he’s been on it.

Signing up for an identity theft protection service is one of the best ways to find out if your sensitive data is on the dark web. You might want to consider an identity protection plan if you don’t already have one. Roughly 23.9 million people were victims of identity theft in 2021, according to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics . That’s 9% of the population (of US residents 16 years old and older), according to the study released in Oct. 2023. 

But even identity theft protection has its limitations. The truth is, you can never really be sure whether your private data is in the hands of cybercriminals. But there are some giveaways that your personal information may be available to identity thieves.


Aura can let you know if your data’s on the dark web

So how can you tell if your personal data is on the dark web? There are several signs you’ll want to look for. 

Random emails, texts and phone calls

Everyone gets these, and they’re not automatically a sign that your information is on the dark web. Still, it’s a possibility. Kohil says that if you’re getting a lot of unwanted junk emails, calls and texts, “it’s probably because someone purchased a list to run some sort of financial scam, and your information was on it.”

Unfamiliar purchases on your credit card 

Your Spidey senses should start tingling if this happens to you. “Even if they are small, it could be because someone has purchased your credit card number from a list of hundreds of credit card accounts which are sold for as low as just five cents apiece on the dark web,” Kohil says. Your bank will normally send you a new card after suspicious purchases are identified or reported. 

You’re locked out of your bank account

It’s one thing if you forgot your password and guessed too many times for your bank’s comfort. But if that isn’t the case, and you find yourself locked out, it’s possible that someone else has tried to log in to your account too many times.

Odd health insurance claims

If you’re getting medical bills for procedures you never underwent, get you on the phone with the healthcare provider or your insurer immediately. If medical claims that should have been accepted are rejected due to benefits being used, that, too, might be an ominous sign. Medical identity theft is a real problem, though it is rare (less than 1% of identity thefts are medical, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics ). 

Unauthorized login or password changes 

If you just changed your bank password, you’ll get an alert. But if you get an alert that your bank password has been changed, and you know you didn’t do it, that’s a major red flag. The same goes for any emails you receive about unrecognized login activity with your account.

If your personal data, like your name, phone number or email address, is on the dark web, you’ll be more vulnerable to identity theft, cyberattacks and online scams. If a cybercriminal has some of your personal information, they’re going to be able to craft a believable con more easily than if they are approaching a complete stranger. 

Most commonly, identity thieves will find passwords and log in credentials on the dark web. There are many dark-web sites with lists of usernames, emails and matching passwords for various sites. Cybercriminals use these for credential stuffing, where they try your password from one site on a bunch of other sites, according to Andrew Wolfe, director of the cybersecurity program at Loyola University New Orleans .

It’s less common for your credit-card or government ID info to be openly published on the dark web, he said. So if your driver’s license was stolen, that information probably won’t be openly available on the dark web, for your run of the mill identity thief to see.

But don’t exhale yet. Your stolen driver’s license or Social Security number isn’t likely to be openly available on the dark web because it’s more valuable, Wolfe said. “Cybercriminals will offer these for sale on dark web sales sites.”

At the same time, you probably don’t want to be too fearful when you think about the dark web. Not all of your information found on the dark web is too useful to bad actors. 

“We typically worry that extremely sensitive information has been disclosed, and that cybercriminals are intent on using your particular information to destroy your life. This is an exaggeration,” said Wolfe. “The dark web has tanker loads of data like your 2013 password for a yoga bulletin board. That is to say, most of this is trivial.”

If you discover that your personal data is on the dark web, there’s not much you can do. It’s out there and may have already been sold numerous times.

Still, there are preventative measures you can take to try to keep personal data off of the dark web or at least minimize the consequences.

Sign up for ID theft monitoring

With data breaches happening more often, it’s difficult to keep your information from getting into the wrong hands. But you can keep a pulse on your data with an identity theft monitoring service.

“It is extremely valuable to have some kind of dark-web monitoring service,” Wolfe said. “Many banks, credit unions, and other financial-service companies offer these.” 

For instance, Chase Credit Journey and Capital One’s CreditWise offer dark web surveillance absolutely free. So too does the credit bureau Experian . However, these free services lack the digital security tools and advanced monitoring and restoration services many paid services offer. 

Paid services like Aura and Lifelock provide more comprehensive coverage and typically range from $7 to $15 per month for individual accounts.

If your identity theft protection service tells you an account has been compromised, Wolfe suggests closing the account, or at least changing your password.

Freeze your credit

You can freeze your credit, so nobody can open loans, credit cards and other credit-based accounts in your name. But it also prevents you from opening a new account, unless you temporarily or permanently unfreeze your credit.

Credit freezes always sound good in theory, but they can be a time-consuming hassle to manage. But if your information is on the dark web and freezing your credit offers you peace of mind, you can do so online at each of the credit bureaus’ websites.

A credit freeze is also not a complete solution for identity theft. For instance, if you put a freeze on your credit, they won’t be able to take out a new loan, but if they already have your current credit card number, they could still go on an unauthorized shopping spree. And, since banks don’t always run a credit check when you open a new bank account, someone could still open a checking or savings account in your name.

Change your passwords regularly

The best passwords are complicated. “Any password easy for you to remember is easy for a cybercriminal to guess.” Wolfe said.

He adds that “with such hard passwords, nobody can memorize and reliably use more than a handful. But no realistic person expects you to. Basically, everyone needs a password manager.”

He also warns against answering your password recovery questions correctly. Hackers likely know your former street, teacher and pet names, Wolfe said. So you’ll want to answer these questions differently to prevent anyone other than you from logging in.

Review your bank statements

It may seem like a routine solution but going through your bank statements every month can help you keep an eye on potential red flags, according to Robin Chataut, assistant professor of cybersecurity and computer science at Quinnipiac University.

“Regular monitoring of your financial statements and credit reports can help you spot any unauthorized activity early,” he says.

Look for any charges you don’t recognize or even deposits that haven’t come from sources you know.

If a data breach does lead to fraud or identity theft, contact the credit card company, bank or lender as well as the three major credit bureaus. 

If you signed up for identity theft protection with white glove service restoration, the company should also assist you with these steps and help you fight any wrongful charges.

You’ll also want to notify the Federal Trade Commission. 

“If identity theft is suspected, it’s important to report it to the relevant authorities, such as the Federal Trade Commission in the US, to not only protect yourself but also help prevent further occurrences,” Chataut said. To report a fraud or identity theft case to the FTC, visit IdentityTheft.gov or call 1-877-438-4338.

CNET editors independently choose every product and service we cover. Though we can’t review every available financial company or offer, we strive to make comprehensive, rigorous comparisons in order to highlight the best of them. For many of these products and services, we earn a commission. The compensation we receive may impact how products and links appear on our site.

Writers and editors and produce editorial content with the objective to provide accurate and unbiased information. A separate team is responsible for placing paid links and advertisements, creating a firewall between our affiliate partners and our editorial team. Our editorial team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers.

CNET Money is an advertising-supported publisher and comparison service. We’re compensated in exchange for placement of sponsored products and services, or when you click on certain links posted on our site. Therefore, this compensation may impact where and in what order affiliate links appear within advertising units. While we strive to provide a wide range of products and services, CNET Money does not include information about every financial or credit product or service.

Our Companies

Online safety and cybersecurity.

Time to read: 10 minutes

Person entering personal information into their mobile device.

At a glance

personal statement of identity

Understand the different ways fraudsters try to access your information —including phishing, malware, and account takeover schemes.

personal statement of identity

Get tips and tools on protecting your data in your T‑Mobile account or other accounts online.

personal statement of identity

Stop and think before engaging with anything that seems suspicious—it’s one of the best ways to protect yourself online.

Get ahead of fraud

You’ve probably heard terms like “identity theft” and “online fraud,” which are shorthand ways to describe when someone attempts to gain access to or misuse a person’s information—like opening new credit accounts or taking over an existing account. 

Along with using the tools we offer at T-Mobile to protect you and your data, we recommend familiarizing yourself with common fraud types, simple steps you can take to protect your online security, and how to get additional help if you need it.

Common types of data breaches

Fraudsters have many ways to try to access your information. They might try to log in to an online account (such as a T-Mobile , bank, or email account) using passwords they obtained illegally. Or, they might try to get the password directly from the potential victim or the account provider through techniques such as: 

personal statement of identity

Phishing, SMShing, & vishing

Fraudsters send an e-mail or text message or make a phone call to con someone into providing personal information (e.g., email address, passwords, etc.) directly or by visiting a bogus website.

T-Mobile will never ask you to confirm or verify your sensitive personal information in an unsolicited e-mail, text, or inbound call. Read this Avoiding phone scams article to learn more.

personal statement of identity

Malware & ransomware

Fraudsters con someone into visiting a website or downloading an app, malware software, or file that appears to be from a legitimate source. Once the malware is on the device, it collects personal data. And when the fraudster demands a ransom payment for the release of that data, it’s then called ransomware.

personal statement of identity

Man-in-the-middle attacks

A technique involving interception of information intended for someone else. This might happen in connection with other techniques. For instance, the interception might occur through malware the fraudster placed on your device, or as a result of a phishing effort that leads you to a fake website that captures information you intended to enter on a legitimate site.

personal statement of identity

A person poses as someone else to gain access to account information. One common pretexting scheme involves impersonation based on information the fraudster knows about the potential victim. 

personal statement of identity

Account takeover schemes

A fraudster impersonates you and transfers your phone number to a device they control. They do this either by switching your phone number to another carrier or swapping the SIM card assigned to your phone number without your permission. 

Customers have legitimate reasons to do both—for example, you may choose to switch carriers or need to replace your SIM card if you lose your phone. But fraudsters try to misuse these functions to gain control of your phone number and gain access to your online accounts (like email and online banking). Read How T-Mobile helps customers fight account takeover fraud to learn more. 


Cybersecurity is the practice of protecting systems, networks, programs, and technologies from digital attacks. At T-Mobile , we work hard to keep your information safe with state-of-the-art cybersecurity technology, rigorous monitoring and response operations, and strict compliance to global industry standards.

Like any corporation, T-Mobile isn’t immune to criminal attacks. As the privacy and security landscape rapidly shifts, standards are continually evolving. We’re committed to meeting those standards and being transparent about them. You deserve to know how your data is used, how you can control it, and what we’re doing to protect it.

Safety tips

There are simple steps you can take to help protect yourself online—whether in your T‑Mobile account or other accounts. One of the best ways is to remain vigilant and monitor your online accounts, bank statements, and credit reports regularly for unauthorized activity.

Learn how your online accounts work and manage your security settings. For example, understand how the applications and online platforms you use authenticate your identity and what choices you have for authentication.

There's no way to completely ensure online safety, but here are some considerations:

Password security

Use strong passwords with a combination of letters, numbers, and special characters for your T‑Mobile ID and other accounts. Change your passwords periodically and anytime there’s any sign of misuse. Don’t reuse passwords you’ve used for other sites. Don’t give others your passwords or provide them via phone or email.

Reset your T‑Mobile ID password .

Reset your Customer Care Pin/Passcode . 

Reset your Voicemail password .

Password managers

Remembering a lot of passwords can be difficult and even risky—that’s where password managers come in. These tools help you generate strong passwords and store them in an encrypted place—all while only having to remember one password to access them. A few password managers we recommend are  1Password ,  Apple's iCloud Keychain ,  KeePass , and  LastPass .   

Run regular software updates

Keep your home computers and mobile devices safe by running regular software updates and security patches. Consider changing your software update option to "Auto Update" for all software on your computers and mobile devices.  

Two-step verification

Apply two types of identification on accounts where you can, including on your T‑Mobile.com account. For other accounts, review the security options offered by the account provider. Add two-step verification to your T‑Mobile.com account .  

Account notifications

Have your notifications turned on for logins from other devices on all the accounts you use. Getting notified of suspicious behavior right away is one of the best ways to get ahead of fraud. You can turn on notifications in the settings of the accounts you use, including your T-Mobile account.  

Biometric sign-in

Biometric data is electronic information about your physical or biological characteristics—like a face or fingerprint scan—that is used to identify you. We recommend enabling Face ID, Touch ID, or Fingerprint ID on your devices. It’s actually safer than a password because it’s unique to you and can’t be misplaced or forgotten.

Scans of your face and fingerprints are not stored on your personal device in the same way that a photo might be. Instead, your biometric data is converted into a unique mathematical representation that can’t be stolen, shared, or copied.

At T-Mobile , we don’t collect or store the biometric authentication data on your device, even when you log in to your T-Mobile account or sign in to the T-Mobile app. 

To learn more about biometric data, read our  Cookies and tracking article . 

It’s easy to set up this feature by following the steps at the links below. Once you’ve enrolled, you can quickly and securely unlock your phone, sign in to apps and accounts, and even authenticate purchases.

How to set up Face or Fingerprint ID on an Android device.

How to set up Face ID on an iPhone or iPad Pro.  

How to manage Face or Fingerprint ID in the T-Mobile app .

Protect your SIM

Your phone’s Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card stores information, like your phone numbers, service details, and, in some cases, text messages. Most phones still use a removable SIM card, but some have a permanent, electronic eSIM chip. There are ways to protect both from scammers.

Set a security PIN If your device is lost or stolen, you can prevent someone else from re-using your SIM by setting a strong PIN code that’s hard to guess—for example, don’t use 1234 or 1111. Visit this tutorial to learn how to set your confidential PIN .

Enable SIM Protection We make it easy and free to lock your SIM card so changes can’t be made to your phone without your permission. To activate your SIM Protection, log in to your T-Mobile account and find the settings under My account > Profile > Privacy and Notification . You can turn SIM Protection on or off for each line on your account using the toggles. Visit our SIM Protection page for more information.

Report lost or stolen devices

If your T-Mobile device is lost or stolen, prevent unauthorized access by suspending your account right away. Log into My. T-Mobile .com or call Customer Care by dialing 1-800-937-8997 from any device. Then use Android Device Manager, Find My iPhone, iCloud, or Lookout to remotely lock, locate, or wipe your device.

Get lost or stolen device help .

For worry-free phone protection and support, you can  enroll in Protection<360> ® from T-Mobile .  It provides coverage for accidental damage, loss, theft, hardware service issues, and more.

It’s also a good idea to review the details of your wireless service plan to see if you have a benefit called “Lost or stolen protection.”

Report digital scams, spam, and fraud

Never confirm your sensitive personal data or account information in response to an unsolicited email, text, or inbound call. T-Mobile will never send you a request for such information, and you should only provide that information to T-Mobile or any other account provider when you have initiated contact to a known, reliable number or address. If our company name or brand is used in efforts to fraudulently obtain personal information, we’ll work aggressively to halt those activities.

SMS phishing or SMShing If you’re a T-Mobile or Metro customer, report suspicious SMS messages by forwarding the text to 7726. You can also block the sender or opt out of subscriptions. Email phishing If you receive a suspicious email, please report it to your email service provider as spam or a phishing attempt.

Voice phishing or vishing If you’re unsure who’s calling, it’s best to let the call go directly to voicemail. With our free Scam Shield ™ app, you can see who’s calling, block calls that are likely scams, and report unwanted calls. 

Learn more in our Help with scams, spam, and fraud support page.

Anti-malware software

Use anti-malware software from a trusted source and always keep it up to date by letting the software update its file of known issues, called signatures. 

For worry-free phone protection and support, you can enroll in Protection<360> from T-Mobile . This plan includes software to help keep your devices secure from online threats including viruses and malware. It’s also a good idea to review the details of your wireless service plan to see if your benefits include McAfee ® Security. It can help you stay safer online by protecting your identity and privacy.

Avoid suspicious links

Protect yourself by not clicking links or opening attachments from unknown senders. Suspicious links can contain malware or ransomware—a type of malware that encrypts or locks your computer files and demands payment to a fraudster to get them unlocked. Stop and think before you click on something from an unknown or suspicious sender.  

Wi-Fi security

Be cautious when using public Wi-Fi . Most public Wi-Fi hotspots aren’t secure enough and don’t encrypt the information you send over the internet. Avoid sending passwords, credit card numbers, or other financial information over a public Wi-Fi network and only visit secure websites containing a URL that starts with “HTTPS://”.

If you’re using your smartphone, tablet, or PC as an access point for other devices to connect to the internet, always enable Wi-Fi Protected Access.

At home, consider encrypting your home network by updating your router settings to either WPA3 or WPA2 Personal.  

Do Not Call

The national Do Not Call registry gives you the choice about whether you receive telemarketing calls. Once your number is on the registry, commercial telemarketers are not allowed to call you. Other types of organizations may still call you, like charities, political groups, and debt collectors.

Add your number to the National Do Not Call Registry .  

Person holds phone with Security Dashboard open.

Safety tools

We also offer additional ways to protect yourself and keep your personal data secure. Safety tools provided by  T-Mobile help you check your account security, guard against account takeovers, and reduce the likelihood of spam calls.

Security Dashboard

Take simple steps to better secure your T-Mobile ID account with our free and easy-to-use Security Dashboard. It quickly checks your account settings, password strength, and other factors to rate the security of your account. If you have room for improvement, we’ll share tips to boost your security—like turning on 2-step verification and biometric authentication. Log in to your T-Mobile ID account to try it.

Account takeover protection

Account Takeover Protection, a free feature for T‑Mobile Postpaid and T‑Mobile for Business customers, adds protection steps before your phone number can be ported to another carrier.

Scam Shield ™

Prevention is key in protecting yourself from scams. T-Mobile ’s Scam Shield gives you the tools to stop scammers from ever contacting you with protections that include Scam Likely, Scam Block, and Caller ID.


PROXY gives you an extra number to use when you don’t want to share your private phone number. Calls, voicemails, and texts are accessible any time in the DIGITS app.

Number Change

You can change your phone number—for any reason—up to one time per year at no extra charge.

Help & resources

If you believe you’ve been impacted by any form of online fraud—including an identity theft incident or a breach of your personal information—you should:

File initial reports

Call your account providers , including your financial institutions and wireless provider, change your passwords, and take additional steps they may recommend.

File a report with the FTC .

File a police report with your local authorities.

Check with your state Attorney General for resources particular to your state.

Place a fraud alert on your credit report

Contact one of the three credit bureaus— Equifax , Experian , or TransUnion . Whichever bureau you alert will notify the other bureaus of your fraud alert. Also consider placing a credit freeze—which requires you to contact all three bureaus separately—or a credit lock. Both prevent others from taking out credit in your name without your knowledge.

How to place a fraud alert .

Report unauthorized account activity

Report directly to the companies where you believe fraud has occurred. To report unauthorized T‑Mobile activity, immediately contact Customer Care by dialing 611 from your T‑Mobile phone or 1-800-937-8997 from any other device.

T‑Mobile will fully cooperate with any investigation undertaken by law enforcement. For legal document requests, please forward a subpoena or court order to: T‑Mobile Law Enforcement Relations Group, 4 Sylvan Way, Parsippany, NJ 07054. Fax: 973-292-8697

File a FACTA request

Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), you have a right to access and receive information related to suspected identity theft. To obtain this information from T‑Mobile, you must send us the following items:

  • A copy of a police report that has been filed regarding the identity theft
  • A completed FTC affidavit
  • A copy of a state-issued picture ID or driver’s license
  • A letter requesting the specific documentation in writing

Most frequent requests include copies of bills, credit applications, or shipping requests. Please note, copies of video surveillance require a legal document request. Please mail or fax a copy of each of these to the following address or fax number:

 Attn: Fraud Management/FACT
 PO Box 90880
 Allentown, PA 18109 Fax: 813-353-6262

Additional resources

There’s a lot of great information available from government agencies and others about identity theft protection and online safety. We recommend:

  • FTC: Privacy, Identity & Online Security
  • FTC: OnGuard Online: Tips to Help You Stay Safe and Secure Online
  • CTIA: Protecting Your Data
  • Global online safety awareness campaign: Stop, Think, Connect

Related links

A parent and child looking at the SyncUP KIDS Watch together.

Family Controls and privacy

Learn how we handle data use and collection for children. And how you can control your kids’ data with a T-Mobile Kids' Line.

A couple looking at phone together.

Your privacy around the web

Take control of your privacy on websites outside of T-Mobile .

Young man sitting at a desk with headphones around his neck and looking at phone.

About personal data requests

How you can access, delete, or correct the personal data we have about you.

  • Patient Portal
  • Classes and Events
  • Find a Doctor
  • Schedule Appointment

United States Treasury form

Safeguarding Your Health and Wealth: Protecting Yourself from Medicare Fraud

As of March 2023 , over 65 million people are enrolled in Medicare. As that number grows, the threat of Medicare fraud increases as well. Understanding the common issues people face and learning to spot fraudulent activities will help protect yourself if fraud comes knocking at your door.

Understanding Medicare fraud

Medicare fraud takes various forms, including identity theft, billing scams and prescription fraud. Fraudsters often target unsuspecting individuals, exploiting their trust in the health care system for financial gain. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Medicare fraud costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year , making it imperative for individuals to stay vigilant.

Medicare fraud is a pervasive issue that requires proactive measures from beneficiaries. Being informed and vigilant is the first line of defense.

Common issues Medicare beneficiaries face

1. phantom billing.

One common fraud tactic involves health care providers billing Medicare for services that were never provided. Beneficiaries may receive statements for treatments or medications they never received, resulting in financial loss and potential harm to their medical records.

2. Identity theft

Fraudsters may steal Medicare numbers, leading to unauthorized billing or even the creation of fake services. Victims of identity theft can face financial repercussions and the risk of incorrect medical information being added to their records.

3. Unsolicited offers

Scammers often use unsolicited phone calls, emails or door-to-door visits to offer fake services, such as free health check-ups or equipment. Falling for these schemes can result in providing personal information or being enrolled in unnecessary programs.

Seniors are particularly vulnerable to these scams due to their reliance on health care services. You should always be skeptical of unsolicited offers and verify the legitimacy of communications.

Spotting Medicare fraud

1. review statements regularly.

Check your Medicare statements regularly for any unfamiliar charges or services. If you notice discrepancies, report them immediately to Medicare. Refuse delivery of medical items you did not order.

2. Guard personal information

Be cautious about sharing your Medicare number and other personal information. Don’t give your information to people who ask for payment over the phone or the Internet. Only provide it to trusted health care providers; never disclose it to unknown individuals or entities.

3. Verify providers

Before receiving any services, confirm the legitimacy of health care providers and check their credentials. Contact Medicare to ensure they are authorized. Coordinate your medical care through your primary care provider when possible and do not respond to advertisements offering medical services for free or with no out-of-pocket cost.

The best defense against Medicare fraud is an informed and vigilant beneficiary. Regularly reviewing statements and safeguarding personal information are simple yet effective practices.

Protecting yourself from Medicare fraud requires awareness, vigilance and proactive measures. You can safeguard your health and financial well-being by understanding common issues, spotting potential scams and promptly reporting any suspicions. Stay informed, stay vigilant and empower yourself against the threat of Medicare fraud.

Reporting suspected fraud

If you suspect Medicare fraud, report it promptly. Contact Medicare at 1-800-MEDICARE (800-633-4227) or report online through the official Medicare website . You can also notify the FTC through their website or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP. Inspira’s compliance hotline is 1-888-413-4313.

Inspira Health is a high reliability organization (HRO), which means safety is the top priority for patients and staff. To make an appointment, call 1-800-INSPIRA .

News From Inspira

Table clock and fork on empty plate

Recent studies show that intermittent fasting can increase your risk of cardiovascular death. Here’s...

Small Girl With Chickenpox Measles on Her Body

The recent outbreak of highly contagious Measles among children in the Philadelphia area highlights...

Close up of person testing their blood sugar.

Discover how high blood sugar impacts your body, from dental complications to kidney damage, and...


  1. 65 Personal Identity Examples (2024)

    personal statement of identity

  2. Statement Of Identity

    personal statement of identity

  3. Free Forms Affidavit Of Identity 2024

    personal statement of identity

  4. Verification of Identity and Statement of Educational Purpose

    personal statement of identity

  5. Identity Who Am I

    personal statement of identity

  6. Best Personal Statement Examples in 2023 + Why Do They Work?

    personal statement of identity


  1. Statement of Identity #equitytitleofwashington

  2. Tips for writing a PGCE Personal statement

  3. Great Statement, Identity not confused #motivation #inspiration #viral

  4. How To Change Our Negative "I AM" Statements

  5. Professional Identity Statement

  6. A Question of Identity (Our Mission Statement Unpacked


  1. How to Write Your Personal Statement

    A personal statement is a short essay of around 500-1,000 words, in which you tell a compelling story about who you are, what drives you, and why you're applying. ... For example, you might be asked to focus on the development of your personal identity; challenges you have faced in your life; or your career motivations. ...

  2. 20 Brilliant Personal Statement Examples + Why They Work

    A typical personal statement can range in length from 500 to 650 words or more. For applying to colleges, the Common Application essay personal statement has a word limit of 650 words. For graduate school programs, the application essay will vary in length, but most schools require a personal statement essay of at least 500 words.


    The Free Guide to Writing the Personal Statement. Kick things off with the two greatest brainstorming exercises ever, learn about options for structuring a personal statement + example outlines, check out some amazing example personal statements, and get on your way to writing your own killer personal statement for university applications.

  4. 12 Outstanding Personal Statement Examples + Why They Work 2024

    Example #7 - Entoptic Phenomena. Example #8 - The Builder & Problem Solver. Example #10 - The Little Porch and a Dog (With Spanish Translation) Example #10 - Life As an Undocumented Student. Example #11 - Umbra. Example #12 - Angry brown girl, feminist, singer, meme lover.

  5. 12 Winning Personal Statement Examples (With Tips)

    10. Teacher personal statement. "Elementary school teacher with 5+ years of experience managing classrooms of 20-30 students. Adept at using positive reinforcement teaching techniques to encourage student behavior and development. Looking to use my creativity and experience to engage at-risk students.".

  6. How to Write a Personal Statement

    Insert a quote from a well-known person. Challenge the reader with a common misconception. Use an anecdote, which is a short story that can be true or imaginary. Credibility is crucial when writing a personal statement as part of your college application process. If you choose a statistic, quote, or misconception for your hook, make sure it ...

  7. How to Write a Personal Statement (Tips + Essay Examples)

    In a great personal statement, we should be able to get a sense of what fulfills, motivates, or excites the author. These can be things like humor, beauty, community, and autonomy, just to name a few. So when you read back through your essay, you should be able to detect at least 4-5 different values throughout.

  8. How To Write a Good Personal Statement (With Examples)

    Include information that describes more about you than the details in your transcript. 5. Identify your plans for the future. Part of your personal statement can include future goals and ambitions. Explain what can happen if you gain acceptance to the university of your choice or you receive the job you want.

  9. How to Write a Personal Statement

    If you know how to write a personal statement, even at first mundane personal statement ideas can become good personal statement examples. Personal Statement Example #2: Finding a Great Hook The second of our personal statement examples is by a student who was accepted to UC San Diego, Johns Hopkins, the University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt ...

  10. How to Write a Personal Statement That Wows Colleges

    Tips for Writing a Personal Statement for College. 1. Approach this as a creative writing assignment. Personal statements are difficult for many students because they've never had to do this type of writing. High schoolers are used to writing academic reports or analytical papers, but not creative storytelling pieces.

  11. 9 winning personal statement examples for a job

    7. Professional statement for a graphic designer. 'I'm an award-winning freelance graphic designer who has delivered creative and engaging solutions across brand identity, print, packaging and digital media. My work has been featured in various publications, including Pape, Travel Now and Ocean Magazine.'. 8.

  12. What Is a Personal Statement? Everything You Need to Know About the

    Personal statement —an essay you write to show a college admissions committee who you are and why you deserve to be admitted to their school. It's worth noting that, unlike "college essay," this term is used for application essays for graduate school as well. College essay —basically the same as a personal statement (I'll be using the terms ...

  13. Personal Identity

    Personal Identity. Personal identity deals with philosophical questions that arise about ourselves by virtue of our being people (or as lawyers and philosophers like to say, persons ). This contrasts with questions about ourselves that arise by virtue of our being living things, conscious beings, moral agents, or material objects.

  14. 65 Personal Identity Examples (2024)

    65 Personal Identity Examples. Personal identity refers to a sense of self that a person develops over their life. Your personal identity is a mix of how you see yourself and how others perceive you. Key examples of personal identity include your personality, achievements, gender, ethnicity, nationality, social status, social class, beliefs ...

  15. Personal Identity

    We are concerned, in other words, with the truth-makers of personal identity statements: what makes it true that our statement that an entity X at time t 1 and an entity Y at time t 2 are identical, if X and Y are entities like us? a. Criteria and the Identity Relation. Answers to the persistence question often provide a criterion of personal ...

  16. Writing Personal Statements for Graduate School

    Personal Statements. Preparing a well-written and effective personal statement (sometimes referred to as statements of purpose or personal essays) that clearly articulates your preparation, goals, and motivation for pursuing that specific graduate degree is critically important. You will need to spend a considerable amount of time and effort in ...

  17. How to write the best personal statement, with examples

    Here's a 3-step solution: STEP 1. Brainstorm about your life. Dedicate 5-10 minutes each to brainstorming about these 4 sets of questions. You can do this by yourself (writing down your thoughts), or do this exercise out loud with a friend or family member, and then jot down notes as you're talking.

  18. Identity

    Identity encompasses the memories, experiences, relationships, and values that create one's sense of self. This amalgamation creates a steady sense of who one is over time, even as new facets ...

  19. Identity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    Identity. First published Wed Dec 15, 2004; substantive revision Wed Jul 20, 2022. Much of the debate about identity in recent decades has been about personal identity, and specifically about personal identity over time, but identity generally, and the identity of things of other kinds, have also attracted attention.

  20. Why Identity Matters and How It Shapes Us

    The Importance of Identity. Having a strong sense of identity is important because it: Creates self-awareness: A strong sense of identity can give you a deep sense of awareness of who you are as a person. It can help you understand your likes, dislikes, actions, motivations, and relationships. Provides direction and motivation: Having a strong ...

  21. Personal Statement Format + Examples

    Getting your personal statement right is a crucial part of the application process. Learn how to format your personal statement, and find examples. ... a sports fanatic—and at this point the reader may even be making assumptions about this author's identity based on her initial description of herself. However, in one sentence, the writer ...

  22. Personal and Social Identity: Who Are You Through Others' Eyes

    Social identities are the identities that you share with similar group members. They tell how you are like others—they connote similarity rather than difference. Our social identities, though ...

  23. 50 "I Am" Statements to Describe Yourself

    1. I am passionate about making a positive impact on the world. 2. I am driven by my ambition and strive for excellence in whatever I do. 3. I am a creative problem solver who loves learning new things and finding innovative solutions. 4. I am a great listener and an excellent communicator. 5.

  24. Statement of Purpose, Personal Statement, and Writing Sample

    Please also note that the Personal Statement should complement rather than duplicate the content provided in the Statement of Purpose. Visit Degree Programs and navigate to your degree program of interest to determine if a Personal Statement is required. The degree program pages will be updated by early September indicating if the Personal ...

  25. Personal History Statement

    Tips for writing your Personal History Statement. Personal History Statement. The Personal History Statement helps reviewers learn more about you as a whole person and as a potential graduate student. This may include relevant details on community service, leadership roles, participation in diverse teams, and significant barriers that you overcame to pursue graduate studies.

  26. 5 Signs Your Personal Data Is on the Dark Web

    Geoff Williams is a journalist and author. His byline has appeared in numerous publications, including U.S. News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, Entertainment Weekly, The Washington Post, LIFE ...

  27. Online Safety Resources

    If you believe you've been impacted by any form of online fraud—including an identity theft incident or a breach of your personal information—you should: File initial reports Call your account providers , including your financial institutions and wireless provider, change your passwords, and take additional steps they may recommend.

  28. 7 Tips to Guard Against Medical Identity Theft

    Medical identity theft occurs when someone uses your personal information to obtain health care or submit claims to your insurance company. This type of identity theft could hurt you financially ...

  29. Safeguarding Your Health and Wealth: Protecting Yourself from Medicare

    Victims of identity theft can face financial repercussions and the risk of incorrect medical information being added to their records. 3. Unsolicited offers ... Regularly reviewing statements and safeguarding personal information are simple yet effective practices. Protecting yourself from Medicare fraud requires awareness, vigilance and ...

  30. Doing, being, becoming and belonging in forging professional identity

    Professional identity is a multifaceted conceptual term combining behaviours, knowledge, skills, values, beliefs, contextual and socio-cultural factors with personal and group identity. The historical underpinning of occupational therapy is partly attributed to the difficulties occupational therapists face articulating their unique identity and ...