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How to Write a Personal Statement for Graduate School

You’ve put tremendous effort into organizing transcripts, studying and preparing to take the next step in your education and career. One key component to your graduate school admissions process is preparing your personal statement, which is often required for college admissions. As you sit down to draft this, you may wonder, “What should I write in a personal statement?” or “How do you format a personal statement?” You may even ponder how to write a compelling personal statement or how to format a personal statement.

Here, we examine what a personal statement is, and how to approach it, including the brainstorming and writing process, and some best practices to consider.

What is a Personal Statement?

Graduate school programs require personal statements to outline your history and clarify your personal goals.

“The personal statement gives insight as to why the student is pursuing the requested major and how they believe that it will enhance their career,” says Carolyn Farrior, Director of Graduate Admissions. “In addition, it also provides a writing sample that assists in determining the student’s ability to write at the graduate level.”

This narrative essay may be written in response to a specific prompt, or simply anchored by guidelines, and should simply tell a compelling story about who you are. A personal statement enables you to set yourself apart from other candidates, particularly if the program you’re pursuing is very competitive, and applicants are very similar in terms of GPAs and test scores.

The Brainstorming Process

Before you put pen to paper – or more likely, fingers to a keyboard – it’s important to brainstorm what makes your story unique.

Examine the Prompt/Requirements

Think specifically about the questions that are asked in the prompt, and any specific requirements. If you’re applying to multiple schools, you should examine and brainstorm for each set of questions individually, and avoid re-issuing the same statement.

Ask Yourself Questions

Jarin Eisenberg, Business Instructor and Major Gift Officer at Florida Tech, states that the personal statement is “an opportunity to communicate who you are, your character.” She advises that you ask yourself:  “What example can you provide that highlights who you are as a person, and why do those characteristics make you a good fit for graduate school?”

Other questions to ask yourself include:

  • What is unique about you and your experience?
  • What in your life has prepared you for this program?
  • When did your first become interested in this field, and what have you learned?
  • What are you goals?
  • Is there anything in your portfolio that could be seen as a gap or discrepancy you should explain?
  • What are your career goals?
  • What skills do you possess?
  • What other experiences, like work or family responsibilities, have shaped your skills and knowledge?

Consider What Makes You Different

The best personal statements are specific. Instead of saying you want to pursue healthcare administration because you like helping people (since it’s likely many of your competing peers feel the same), highlight how your experience incaring for your cousin after an injury highlighted ways healthcare systems can improve and how you’re passionate about changing that experience at a system level.

Research the Program

Eisenberg also advises that students tailor their personal statements to the program being applied for. Understand what sets the program, or school, apart from other similar schools and why that makes it the best option. This could be an academic reason, but it could also be a geographic or cultural change reason that is worth highlighting.

“Each institution you apply to has their own area of expertise and focus, as do individual programs. It is important to demonstrate you have done your research, and to be able to clearly express how your interests align with the focus of the department/program you are applying to.

If there are specific professors you are excited to study under, highlight those professors. Similarly, if during your undergraduate students you studied under a professor that is well-known to the field, highlight that to. ”

The Writing Process

Now, you’re ready to begin the writing process. Here are a few important considerations for this phase of your personal statement:

Think of a Hook

Most people don’t have a big, dramatic story to tell. If you’re one of those people, you’ll need to think of an angle or hook that sets you apart. You want to engage your reader immediately, and want to be authentically passionate.

Create a Draft

Get started. Writing a personal statement can feeling overwhelming, but as soon as you’ve finished your brainstorming, it’s best to get started right away, to allow you more time to revise and edit.

Read It Out Loud

Reading your writing out loud can help you isolate areas that might not make sense. It also forces you to see what’s really on the page.

Ask For Feedback

Eisenberg suggests asking many people to read your statement: “Professors, classmates. See if your current institution’s admissions department would give it a review. The more eyes you have on that statement, the better.”

You might also consider asking a professional in your field. Remember that each field will have different requirements and something that works well for one may not make sense for another, which is why a professional in your field can help revise.

Do’s and Don’ts for Personal Statements

Answer Everything Asked

Make sure you’ve answered everything asked, and if you are re-using some statements from another application, you may want to adjust them slightly to ensure your response is tailored specifically to the school. Make sure you’re also addressing the other formatting requirements they’ve asked for, such as number of pages and appropriate font sizes. 

Tell a Story

Show, don’t tell, your readers why you’re passionate about the field. Anyone can say they really enjoy cybersecurity, but if you can tell a story about how you helped design and implement a better cybersecurity program as part of a summer internship, it demonstrates your passion.

Write Concisely

Don’t overwrite or belabor your point. Another way to support concise writing is to ensure you aren’t regurgitating anything already communicated in your application. Overall, you want to be clear, using words and descriptions appropriate for the graduate level.

Discuss Your Goals

Explain your goals and how completing the program you’re applying to helps you achieve them – and again, be specific.

Don’t Use Clichés

The goal of your personal statement is to highlight your skills and uniqueness as an individual, so don’t roll out tired statements that could be used anywhere. For example, writing that you love children and want to support childhood development is likely a statement that could be written by every applicant and graduate of a child psychology program.

Don’t Let Errors Slip Past

Your personal statement is a first impression, and it should be polished. Glaring errors can turn off readers and misrepresent your capabilities. As Eisenberg puts it, “Remember that a key component of graduate school is your ability to effectively communicate, that you have strong writing skills, and that you can concisely convey who you are and why you are good fit for that program – think of your statement as your written assignment for graduate school. Spend a lot of time on it.”

Don’t Procrastinate

Kick off the process as soon as possible. You’ll need to time to brainstorm, write, edit, seek input and re-write.

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