A personal statement is a crucial part of your graduate school application, but writing it can also be one of the most stressful things on your to-do list. Many students do not consider writing to be their strong suit, and matters are only made worse due to the intense importance of this particular essay.
It may help many students to remember what the purpose of the personal statement is. The grad school admissions board uses it to determine two things:
• Whether you will be an asset to the graduate program
• Whether you will be an asset to the school itself
Graduate schools are typically judged by the performance of their students. As a result, no school wants to admit a student who will be a black mark on its record. Your personal statement’s purpose, therefore, is to convince the admissions board that:
• You are deeply motivated to learn about (and excel in) your chosen area of study
• You are a capable student who will perform well in your studies
In order to accomplish these tasks, there are several points that almost every personal statement must cover (unless, of course, asked to do differently by the admissions board itself). You also have the challenge of trying to make your personal statement stand out from the hundreds of other applicants, who will all be saying basically the same thing.
For more information on how to write a winning personal statement, follow the guidelines below.
What Should a Personal Statement Include?
Not every personal statement should look the same. Different graduate schools have different expectations of what you should include in your personal statement. First and foremost, your responsibility is to make sure your essay answers the questions asked.
In general, though, most personal statements should include five things:
• Area of study – This should be a given, but you would be amazed by how many students focus so much on answering other questions that they forget to state which program they are interested in. Don’t leave your reader to figure it out by deduction – make sure your chosen area of study is clearly stated in your personal statement.
• Your interest in the subject – By discussing the basis for your interest in the subject, your personal statement will prove you have a genuine interest in your chosen area of study. However, don’t simply say, “I have always wanted to be a ______.” Instead, use a personal experience to show – rather than tell – what drives your interest.
• Related experience – Graduate schools also look at your experience in the field in order to determine your interest level. For example, if you are pursuing a graduate degree in psychology, the admissions committee will expect you to see some combination of related courses, research work, internships, volunteer work, membership in related organizations, and/or other extracurricular activities.
• Your interest in the school – Many people choose a graduate school because it has a program that interests them. This should go into your personal statement. However, make sure you go beyond general flattery – the committee will want to see that you have actually researched the program. For instance, if you admire the work of a professor who teaches in the program, mention this and discuss why you would like the opportunity to study under him or her.
• Post-graduation plans – In order to choose the graduate program that is right for you, you should have a general idea of what you will do with your degree. Be sure to convey your career goals in your personal statement, as this proves that you have given some serious thought to your future, and therefore are more likely to finish the program.
How Do I Make My Personal Statement Stand Out from All the Rest?
Once you have outlined how you are going to answer the question or cover the five points listed above, you need to figure out how you will make your personal statement memorable. Remember, there are most likely hundreds of other applicants, all of whom will say more or less the same thing. Here are a few ways to make sure your stand out from the crowd.
• Make it personal. A successful personal statement should not read like a description of your resume. Instead, use stories and examples from your life to illustrate why you became interested in your chosen area of study, and your experiences as you have pursued it thus far.
• Make it organized. A personal statement is not a term paper, but it should still be well organized. Make sure your sentences flow well from one paragraph to the next.
• Make it between one and three pages. Like a resume, it is hard to say how long a personal statement should be. Some admissions boards may only ask one question to be answered, allowing your personal statement to be as short as 250 words. On the other hand, more complex answers may require as many 750 words.
• Have a theme or thesis. Like any other personal essay, your personal statement should have a unifying theme. The anecdotes you use to illustrate the above five topics or answer the admission board’s question should also support your theme.
• Maintain a professional tone. As a graduate, you are no longer just a student – you are also a professional in your field. Your personal statement should reflect your professionalism and dedication to your studies.
• Gear it toward the specific school. While you may be able to reuse certain sections of your personal statement for other schools, sending out the same essay to every school is a major faux pas. For one thing, many schools differ in their requirements: They may impose a different maximum or minimum length, or ask that different questions be answered. Make sure that your personal statement is written for the specific requirements of the school you are applying to.
• Proofread your work. Nothing will turn an admissions board off faster than sloppy writing. If you are going to convince them that your graduate degree is one of your top priorities, then your personal statement should reflect your level of dedication. Take the time to perfect your work, eliminating typos and grammatical errors as well as fine-tuning the overall message.
Writing a Winning Personal Statement
While it’s true that there is a lot riding on your personal statement, this does not mean that it needs to be difficult to write. By understanding the purpose of the exercise, making sure that it concisely yet thoroughly covers the necessary information, and minding details such as organization and grammar, anyone can write a winning personal statement.
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