Difference Between Common App Essay And Personal Statement

I’m an international student living in India and will be applying to universities in both the UK and the US. The UCAS application requires a personal statement, which I’ve already written. Is it okay if I use that personal statement for my main Common Application essay?

—It’s Raining Essays in Mumbai

My best guess is you’ll more than likely have to write another essay. There are significant enough differences between the Common App and UCAS applications that make cross essay submissions problematic.

The purpose of the UCAS application is to convince a UK university you’re prepared to tackle a particular course of study, which will end up being your chief academic focus. And so the UCAS personal statement serves to convince a university that your academic and intellectual bent, history, and goals are aligned with your prospective course—it’s more akin to a US graduate school’s statement of purpose than a US undergraduate personal statement. And because UCAS doesn’t have an additional activities list that accompanies its personal statement, you can take a little more liberty describing your extracurricular activities, as they relate to your prospective course of study, into your UCAS essay.

Students in the US often don’t pick a major until the second year of college and usually need to take core requirements outside their discipline. As a result, US schools don’t expect you to write about your intended major within the Common Application essay. And because the Common Application essay is accompanied by a detailed activities list, you’re also not expected to describe any of your activities within the essay either.

Stylistically speaking, UCAS and Common App essays are dissimilar. There are some schools in the US, however, that might require a “Why this college?” essay. You can probably incorporate some elements of your UCAS essay here, particularly for those schools that ask students to tie their experiences and goals to a university’s offerings—think a student’s intended major.

The UCAS personal statement really has no corresponding one-to-one Common App equivalent. It’s almost a combination of a personal statement, “Why this college?” essay, and activities list all in one. Because its US counterpart is divvied up into three distinct entities, I’ve never seen a student successfully able to use it on this side of the pond.


Now that application deadlines are just around the corner, today we’ll take a look at the main types of admissions writing. These terms get thrown around a lot at this time of year, so it may be helpful to dissect each and provide a bit more in-depth information.

Application Essay, Admissions Essay, and Admission Essay

These three terms are often used interchangeably when describing an essay featured as part of an application. These essays can range from 100 to 1,000 words in length and almost always have a very specific prompt or question, which vary widely depending on the specific school:

- Why do you want to attend our school?

- Write page 273 of your autobiography.

- Describe a time when you failed at something. What did you learn?

Admissions essays are most commonly found on college and MBA applications.

Tip: When writing an admissions essay, make sure that you read the prompt or question carefully and fully. Many have multiple parts, and you need to address everything in your response.

Personal Statement

A personal statement is a general type of admissions essay, most commonly found on applications to medical schools, residencies, graduate programs, and law schools. The average personal statement is 500-1,000 words in length and is meant to provide a fairly broad overview of the applicant. Topics covered include where an interest in the field of choice developed, how skill and experience have been built in that field, and goals/plans for the future.

Tip: Avoid covering information in your personal statement that is included elsewhere in your application. Things like grades, employment history, and test scores should not be included unless you are elaborating on them.

Statement of Purpose

While the terms “personal statement” and “statement of purpose” are sometimes used interchangeably, there is technically a difference between these types of admissions writing. While a personal statement provides a fairly broad overview of an applicant, covering elements from the past, present, and future, a statement of purpose is usually more tightly focused on the future. In a statement of purpose, applicants have the chance to detail their plans for study in a given field along with their short- and long-term career goals. Length, as with a personal statement, is most typically in the 500-1,000 word range.

Tip: When writing about goals, use language that emphasizes your readiness to accomplish those things. Instead of saying, “I hope to do X” or “I plan to do X,” pick a specific skill that you have or will earn and use it to present the goal: “With the finance abilities I build through my internship, I will be ready to do X.”

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Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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