Grad School Personal Statement Tips For College

Writing the Personal Statement

Summary:

This handout provides information about writing personal statements for academic and other positions.

Contributors:Jo Doran, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-03-07 02:18:40

The personal statement, your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process, generally falls into one of two categories:

1. The general, comprehensive personal statement:

This allows you maximum freedom in terms of what you write and is the type of statement often prepared for standard medical or law school application forms.

2. The response to very specific questions:

Often, business and graduate school applications ask specific questions, and your statement should respond specifically to the question being asked. Some business school applications favor multiple essays, typically asking for responses to three or more questions.

Questions to ask yourself before you write:

  • What's special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?
  • What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
  • When did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
  • How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
  • If you have worked a lot during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed to your growth?
  • What are your career goals?
  • Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
  • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
  • What personal characteristics (for example, integrity, compassion, and/or persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
  • What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
  • Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school—and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?
  • What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?

General advice

Answer the questions that are asked

  • If you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar.
  • Don't be tempted to use the same statement for all applications. It is important to answer each question being asked, and if slightly different answers are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.

Tell a story

  • Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. One of the worst things you can do is to bore the admissions committee. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you'll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.

Be specific

  • Don't, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer, or whatever should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.

Find an angle

  • If you're like most people, your life story lacks drama, so figuring out a way to make it interesting becomes the big challenge. Finding an angle or a "hook" is vital.

Concentrate on your opening paragraph

  • The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader's attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.

Tell what you know

  • The middle section of your essay might detail your interest and experience in your particular field, as well as some of your knowledge of the field. Too many people graduate with little or no knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the profession or field they hope to enter. Be as specific as you can in relating what you know about the field and use the language professionals use in conveying this information. Refer to experiences (work, research, etc.), classes, conversations with people in the field, books you've read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of specific information about the career you want and why you're suited to it. Since you will have to select what you include in your statement, the choices you make are often an indication of your judgment.

Don't include some subjects

  • There are certain things best left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally not a good idea. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (for example, controversial religious or political issues).

Do some research, if needed

  • If a school wants to know why you're applying to it rather than another school, do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.

Write well and correctly

  • Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good written skills and command of correct use of language are important to them as they read these statements. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.

Avoid clichés

  • A medical school applicant who writes that he is good at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away from often-repeated or tired statements.

For more information on writing a personal statement, see the personal statement vidcast.

Remember when you sat down to write your undergrad application essays? It was your chance to show colleges the real you—and the world was your oyster! You could talk about your favorite book character, a beloved hobby, or a cause near to your heart.

Now you’re ready to apply to grad schools, with another application essay (or 10) to write. Like so much of the application process, grad school essays are similar to undergrad…but not quite the same. You need to take a more strategic approach. Here’s how, plus an awesome real-world graduate admission essay example.

The grad school application essay—aka letter of intent, personal statement, statement of purpose, etc.—is your chance to breathe some life and personality into your application. But unlike your undergraduate essay, where you might’ve offered a quippy story, your grad school application essay should be more focused on your academic and professional goals, and why grad school is essential to achieving them. Oh, and it should also give the admission committee a good sense of who you are and what you value at the same time. (No big deal, right?)

All that being said, a lot of the advice that helped you write your undergrad essay still applies: tell a unique story, use vivid examples, be genuine, and, perhaps most importantly, explain why you’d be an asset to the program—and why the program would be an asset to you.

Essay requirements will vary from school to school, but you will likely be asked to write 250–750 words. Common graduate application essay prompts include the following:

  • Describe a situation where you overcame adversity/exhibited leadership/learned from failure/experienced an ethical dilemma.
  • Why do you need this degree at this juncture in your life?
  • What are your short- and long-term career goals?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • And the big one: why this school? 

Regardless of the prompt you choose, the graduate admission committee should come away from your application essay knowing these three things:

  • What you want to study in grad school
  • Why you want to study it
  • Why their institution is the best place for you

Dedicate a paragraph to each one of those ideas, add an attention-grabbing opener and a tidy conclusion, and you’re almost there! The following best practices will take you the rest of the way to a winning grad school application essay.

Be specific

Stay focused on your academic field and use specific, discrete examples. Was there a clear moment when you knew you had found your calling? Did a particular class assignment, volunteer experience, or work project solidify your interest? Why exactly do you need grad school to achieve your goals? 

Demonstrate passion

You’re trying to give the graduate admission committee a sense of who you are and what you value. Show them your passion for your field of study. Why do you love it? Why do you want to contribute to it? What about it challenges and excites you?

Know your audience

Thoroughly research your potential graduate programs (if you haven’t already!), and tailor your essay to each school. Admission counselors want to know why you want to enroll in their program, and you can’t speak to the merits of their program if you don’t know what their program is all about! What specifically attracted you to the school? What would you contribute to the program as a graduate student and eventual alumnus? Take a look at press releases, blog posts, and big events on campus to get to know the school’s personality and what it values.

Stand out

In a crowd of candidates who also love this field (presumably), what sets you apart? As you consider possible graduate admission essay topics, look for the story only you can tell. Just remember, even some personally meaningful experiences, like the loss of a loved one or a life-changing volunteer experience, don’t really stand out in graduate admission—they’re too common. So if you are considering a potentially well-tread topic, try to approach it in a unique way.

Show, don’t tell

Whenever possible, use stories to illustrate your interest. You shouldn’t fill your graduate personal statement with anecdotes, but you can be straightforward and still infuse some personality into your writing. After all, what’s more engaging: “I frequently left the campus CAD lab just as the sun was rising—and long after I had completed my architecture assignments. I got hooked on experimenting with laser cutting and hardly noticed as the hours passed” or “I really love working with Auto CAD”? No contest.

Be relevant

You can talk about special skills, like a foreign language, computer programming, and especially research in your essay. And you can talk about your academic achievements, internships, published work, and even study abroad experiences. They all make great graduate personal statement fodder. But relevancy is also key. Before stuffing your application essay with every accomplishment and experience from your time as an undergrad, make sure you’re only highlighting those that pertain to your intended graduate studies and future goals.

Explain any gaps

Your grad school application essay is also an opportunity to explain anything in your academic record that might raise an eyebrow among the admission committee, like a semester of poor grades, time off in your schooling, or a less-than-perfect GRE score. For example, if you worked part or full time to help fund your undergrad education, that lends some important context to your experience and achievements; maybe your undergrad GPA isn’t quite as high as it might’ve been otherwise, but graduate admission counselors will likely appreciate your hard work and dedication.

You can also use the essay to own your mistakes; perhaps you didn’t take college as seriously as you should have freshman and sophomore year, but you got your act together junior year. But whatever you do, don’t use your essay to make excuses or blame others.  

Strike the right tone

You’ll have four (or more) years of collegiate writing under your belt, and your grad school statement needs to reflect that. Use active language, smooth transitions, an attention-grabbing opening, and a strong conclusion. And even though your graduate personal statement should be focused on your academic goals, it’s not a research paper—and it shouldn’t be full of jargon. Your essay’s tone will ultimately depend on the prompt you choose, but don’t be afraid to infuse it with personality, even humor. People relate to stories; tell yours and tell it well.

Edit—and have others edit too

Set aside time to edit your graduate application essay, checking for style, tone, and clarity as well as grammatical mistakes. (Here are my copyediting tips!) Is your graduate personal statement clear, concise, and well organized? Also revisit the essay prompt to make doubly sure you’ve answered it fully and accurately. Then have other people read your essay to check for these things too. Undergrad professors or mentors are great for this, but you can ask trusted friends too. And don’t forget about any career, writing, and/or tutoring centers at your undergraduate institution; they may be able to review your essay and application, and their services are often available long after you graduate.

Final tips

For a truly polished graduate essay, remember the little things too, like making sure your files have easily identifiable names. And it might go without saying, but make sure you follow the directions! If the word limit is 600, don’t send in 750. And last but never least: don’t forget that the essay is about you! Any examples or experiences you cite should relate back to you and why you want to go to grad school.

BONUS! Grad school personal statement don’ts

Beyond following the advice above—all do’s, by the way—keep these grad school personal statement don’ts in mind.

  • Don’t volunteer potentially damaging information. If you were suspended, arrested, etc., you probably don’t need to discuss it. Why cast aspersions on your character?
  • Don’t repeat other parts of your application. Your GPA, test scores, and most activities are covered sufficiently in the rest of your application.
  • Don’t be negative. You want the admission committee to see you as an enthusiastic addition to their program, not a grouch.
  • Don’t write about controversial topics. You don’t want to risk offending the admission committee. And touchy subjects rarely make good personal statement essays anyway.
  • Don’t go for gimmicks. Even though you want to stand out, a gimmicky essay isn’t the way to do it. (For example, submitting a song instead of a personal statement…when you’re not studying music.)
  • Don’t stuff your essay with big “smart” words, and don’t use flowery language either. Use clear language to tell a compelling story.
  • Don’t lift your personal statement from an existing academic essay or—worse—from someone else entirely. Besides plagiarizing being, you know, wrong, if you can’t get through your personal statement, you definitely aren’t cut out for the writing demands of grad school. Fact.

PS You can apply these tips to scholarship and grant application essays too...

Graduate letter of intent: a real-world example

Danielle Dulchinos
Master of Education in Instructional Design
University of Massachusetts, Boston

Danielle completed her master’s in 2016. Her studies in Instructional Design were heavily influenced by one of her life’s great passions: Girl Scouts. In fact, while in the midst of earning her graduate degree, she accepted an offer to join the Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts full time as their Associate Director of Volunteer Support—a role that distinctly benefits from her graduate studies.

BTW: you'll find even more great grad school application essay examples here.

I wish to pursue graduate study to build a stronger foundation in a skill set I love. I have been using Instructional Design in my volunteer role with Girl Scouts as a Council Facilitator for nearly four years. However, I am only mimicking the best practices set forth by the organization. Working toward a graduate degree in Instructional Design will give me the background knowledge to answer the “why” of creating and delivering adult trainings. I am also interested in UMass Boston’s program specifically because of the strong media and technology focus. Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts (GSEM) volunteers would benefit from greater variety and flexibility in our training offerings, and I would like to help bring that to them. One key area that I would like to work on is creating and delivering more online webinars or hybrid trainings, which would meet the growing demand for more diverse and accessible content.

Aside from my volunteer interests, I believe that an MEd in Instructional Design will also help my current job. I work full time for a small independent financial research company. In addition to research reports, we offer daylong training sessions to our clients in our proprietary analysis methodology. My company’s account management team has expressed interest in modifying some of our core training sessions into an online format. With the skills and knowledge I will acquire through this program, I will be able to help my company expand and diversify our training business line while reducing our capacity constraints.

However, my passion for adult learning truly blossomed through my work with GSEM. As a lifelong Girl Scout, I knew I wanted to stay involved after I graduated from Northeastern University, where I was the President of Campus Girl Scouts and a troop leader. I became involved as a Council Facilitator because I knew each adult I got excited about and prepared to volunteer with Girl Scouts could reach five or 10 more girls.

I remember the day I realized I truly loved this work. After a particularly long day in my office reading reports, I had to deliver a three-hour course on leadership essentials. As I took the subway across town to the training location, all I could think about was how I’d rather be doing anything else. But after I got there and the attendees filed in, I could feel my energy rising. Sharing my knowledge of Girl Scouts with them and watching their enthusiasm to help their girls recharged me. I left the training with 10 times more energy than when I started. I’m looking forward to following this passion and developing a more robust understanding of how adults learn and what makes the content “sticky” so it stays with them when they go back to their girls.

This year I was also selected for a national-level Girl Scout committee, Girl Scouts University Leadership Cadre. The Cadre is comprised of some of the most talented Girl Scout facilitators nationwide and charged with creating personal, professional, and career development learning opportunities for Girl Scouts’ staff and volunteers across the United States, especially online learning assets. We recently had a weeklong conference where I was able to take some video production and storyboarding for webinar sessions that whet my appetite for more learning in this field.

When I chose my undergraduate major, I picked journalism because it was practical. Now that I have more life and career experience, I am ready to go back to school for something else, something I love. I have a passion for learning and sharing that learning with others, as I’ve demonstrated by volunteering my time doing it. There’s nothing more rewarding than helping someone have an “aha” moment or rekindle a lost spark. I know in my heart that adult training and development is my calling because nothing makes me happier than helping others get excited about learning.

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