How To Write a Personal Statement for Graduate School

Writing a graduate school personal statement can be a daunting and difficult task. In a graduate school personal statement, you are selling yourself and trying to let the admissions representatives know WHY you should be chosen over other qualified applicants. This can be even more daunting when you realize that between two to five people at the school will be reviewing your statement – YOURS needs to stand out from the crowd while also addressing the criteria and questions the school has outlined.

If you are applying to several different schools, using one generic statement will be easily recognized and just as easily dismissed. WHY? Because you will be seen as not making an effort sell yourself to this particular school--low effort equals low interest to admissions representatives. Remember, the admission committee will likely view thousands of these statements from qualified candidates and they will spot a weakness, flaw or lack of attention to the process in a heartbeat. What you don’t want to do is give this committee an easy excuse to dismiss your statement and application.

In talking to Admissions Representatives across the country, there is one aspect of a personal statement they all agree on – BE YOURSELF and let them get a feel for the type of person you really are. This includes your motivations and the ability to evaluate your personal experiences and the effect they had on you. If you can understand that 8 out of 10 personal statements fail to do this, then you are well on your way to being 1 of the 2 applicants in every 10 that stands out.

Step 1

The first step in preparing your Graduate School personal statement. Take the time to research and understand the doctrine and mission of the school, as this will be intrinsically reflected in your writing and prove you are addressing your statement to this particular school. However, do not parrot their own information back to them – they already know it and this leads away from helping understand YOU. Understanding the audience for your statement will help you to develop compelling content that grabs their attention.

Next, ensure that you understand the requirements for your statement or essay including:

  • Format
  • Word limit
  • Questions to be answered

If you miss any of the above, your application will already be short-changed. Word limits are fixed and if you can imagine yourself with the job of reading thousands of applications, you can understand why. Not answering any of the questions will give your application a one-way ticket to the rejection pile. This will also help with the next step--planning.

Step 2

Plan your personal statement. Planning not only gives you an outline to work to--it also helps avoided the dreaded writer's block. Chances are you have already had to plan and write many essays to get to this point: Don’t be complacent and skip this step, as it may lead to omitting either required or useful information. Planning can also ensure that you don’t give yourself room to babble or write a novel instead of a 500-word essay.

Planning Part A. Flesh out the information you can provide, including your experience/motivations. Writing prompts will give you cues for the content when you hit the writing stage. Here are some questions that you could use to formulate information:

  • Who do I really think I am?
  • Who do others think I am? (include characteristics and skills, e.g. loyal, hardworking, born leader, attention to detail)
  • What has caused changes to who I am over the years?
  • How have I grown as a person and what caused these changes or growth?
  • How did these experiences affect me?
  • What makes me unique? This is an extremely hard question to ask ourselves without filling in clichés. This is a great time for honesty and self-reflection to kick in. You may in reality be like a lot of other people; however, no two people experience the same thing in the same way with the same results. Here is one of the great answers I have enjoyed in the past: “Yes, I am unique, just like everybody else.” Add a BUT on to that, and I am sure it will get you thinking. If you’re really stuck, it is time to do the trusted colleagues, friends and family survey – you might be surprised with what comes up.
  • What in my past did I have to overcome to be where I am today? Can I relate these experiences to my goals for the future or my motivation?
  • Who are my influencers and role models and why? Remember, these don’t have to be famous people; they could be a neighbor, sibling or your parents. What are my career goals?
  • Why do I want to continue my studies?
  • When and why am I interested in my chosen field of study? How has this shaped me so far and what has it taught me about myself?
  • Are there weaknesses in my application? Do I have gaps or inconsistencies on my academic records that I can explain?
  • What are the strengths of my application?
  • Do I have awards, recommendations or honors that are relevant which I should mention? Internships and jobs relevant to my field of study, including skills learned and experience gained.
  • Has my field experience prepared me for my future career – how so?
  • What social services/volunteer programs have I been involved in? What did these teach me in general and about myself? Did these relate to my field of study?
  • What extracurricular activities have I been involved in and have they contributed to my studies or professional goals?

These seem like a lot of questions--in essence, they develop the background to the information you will actually put in your statement and answers to any questions. Answering these questions keep you on track to keeping your personal statement PERSONAL. Look for common denominators in the answers you have written, this may help formulate a theme or connection you can build into your personal statement.

Planning Part B and launching into your first draft. Planning the structure of your essay and allotting your own word limits to each part give you a framework in which to develop the content. Naturally, there are three main parts--introduction, body and conclusion. From the notes you have made previously, along with the questions you need to answer, this is where you condense your prompts to fit each of the three sections--relevance, power to support your application and evidence of who you are is what you are looking for.

  • Introduction. Your introduction and even your first sentence are the most important part of your personal statement. This is where you can grab the attention of the admissions representative. Make your first sentence unique and compelling. It is recommended that you state in a creative way WHY you want to undertake this field of study in your first sentence. The rest of your introduction should provide a brief explanation that supports this first statement. Divide the word limit by the three parts of your personal statement by allocating your introduction around 30%.
  • Body. The body of your personal statement is going to be hard work – you need to use around 50% of your word limit to give the admission representatives concrete evidence of why you stand out from the crowd in this application process. The body is also where you will be answering questions and giving examples of experience and effects of experience. Answers and evidence need to keep reflecting who YOU really are. If you’re struggling to keep under the word limit, allocate each question a word limit as well.
  • Conclusion. Now you are looking at the remaining 20% of your word limit being your conclusion. Percentages may vary if larger word limits are being offered. Ensure you state why you are interested in this field of study; state the key points from the body of your essay (e.g. accomplishments, experience and interest).Ensure that you keep it brief, to the point and leave out the clichés.  Just as you started your personal statement with an attention grabber, make sure you finish your personal statement with one or two sentences that are positive and leave the reader remembering your statement while they are reading the next few. TIP: As this is a personal statement, it is acceptable to write in the first person

Step 3

Review your Graduate School personal statement. Skip this stage and you are heading for rejection. Very few people write perfectly the first time and if you run out of time to do this stage, then you are leaving your application short.

  • Check for grammar, punctuation and spelling. If you're not confident about these aspects, then ask someone you can trust or hire a professional to check the personal statement.
  • Review your statement and ask these questions:
    • Have I answered the questions required?
    • Have I put forward the best examples of experiences and effects that are relevant to my field of study or who I am?
    • Have I effectively answered the main question here - Why should the Graduate School accept me over my fellow applicant?
    • Does this statement reflect who I really am or do I sound like a "too good to be true" parrot?
    • Would I fall asleep if I had to read this or would it grab my attention?
    • Have I let my sense of humor get carried away?
    • Do I sound too opinionated or extreme in my views?
    • Have I addressed any weaknesses I have e.g. low GPA or LSAT?
  • Check for logical flow and paragraph transition, which make the statement strong and easy to read.
  • Read the personal statement over - if you need to read any of the sentences twice, then re-structure them. Have I left myself too short on an important area and too long in another? Cut and chop away until you know that this statement is strong, logical and captures the attention of the reader. If you step over a platitude or cliché, remove and find another way. At the same time, give yourself a limit of how many reviews you will do; otherwise you will keep chopping and changing losing the essence of what you are writing.
  • Lastly, peer review - a person or people you can trust to be brutally honest and who knows you well. Preferably someone who also understands that this personal statement is for admission to graduate school. Get several people to give you a boredom rating along with a rating of whether or not you have truly reflected who you are.

Finally, remember to do review steps 1, 2 and 3 after each revision to ensure you have not lost your way. Making your graduate school personal statement interesting and stand out from the crowd is a matter of understanding what you can really offer and who you really are. If there are weaknesses to your application at least ensure that you try to explain them as well as stating your strengths and experience.

Jason Kay recommends utilizing a sample personal statement to begin your graduate school personal statement writing.

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