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How to Write an Effective Personal Statement for Grad School

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Every graduate program has a different name for it: personal statement, letter of intent, statement of purpose. But a rose by any other name is still a personal essay. While undergraduate institutions like to distinguish themselves with quirky essay questions, grad programs don’t have time for such adolescent antics. They want a straightforward narrative that shows that you are prepared for the work, committed to the field, and clear on how an advanced degree will contribute to your career. While this type of personal statement may sound like little more than a glorified cover letter, a well crafted narrative will not only cover all of the bases, but also drive home the point that your grad program of choice is the inevitable next step. No pressure or anything. 

The good news is that most graduate programs ask for very similar things, usually a combination of the personal, academic, and professional experiences that have informed your decision to apply. Your challenge is to weave this varied information into a cohesive story that demonstrates growth, mastery, and future potential. Lucky for you, dear applicant, we’ve done this before, and we have crafted a list of essential tips to help you get organized, sculpt your story, and distinguish yourself from your closest competition.

Write once, edit repeatedly.

This should be your mantra for the entire application process. Prompts tend to be so similar that you could probably flesh out an outline without ever looking at an institution-specific application. Once you have expanded your story, tailoring it to specific schools should be a breeze — adding a little here to elaborate on your research experience, subtracting a little there to meet a strict word limit. You will eventually end up with a few different versions that emphasize different things depending on program or application requirements. When you start, however, you should aim to have one excellent base draft. And if you want to start writing based on a specific prompt, consider choosing one of the longest ones on your list. These kinds of assignments typically range from 250-1000 words, so just remember that it’s always easier to cut than to embellish.

The basic criteria: personal, professional, academic.

You won’t be able to tell your whole life story in your personal statement — and you shouldn’t try! Instead, set aside some time to brainstorm and hone a list of key personal, professional, and academic experiences. The idea is to come up with a few formative or exemplary incidents in each of these categories. As you pare down your list and begin to create an outline or structure for your essay, play around with different ways to organize your story. Sometimes the clearest option is to address each area of your life separately, but the narrative can feel stilted. Often going with a more chronological or thematic structure will help illustrate your personal growth and demonstrate how your personal, professional, and academic experiences complement and build on each other.

Tell a story of growth.

The people who review your grad school applications will be inundated with lists — resumés, transcripts, and scores. So your personal statement needs to become something more than a basic list of facts: it should be a narrative that draws connections that include and transcend your “on paper” profile. The personal statement is your opportunity to guide the way your readers interpret the rest of your application, and provide context that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. As we mentioned above, you could organize your story in a number of ways, but we recommend favoring the structure that most clearly illustrates your personal growth. For most people this is chronological, but if you’ve taken a so-called “non-traditional” path to grad school, you may need to jump around and describe your experiences more thematically. No matter what, signposting throughout your essay will be key. State your intentions at the beginning so you can easily circle back throughout your essay. You are trying to help your readers envision you at their institution, so use the entire essay to build and strengthen the connection.

Fill in the gaps.

If there’s a big break in your resume or a blemish on your transcript, your personal statement is an opportunity for you to tell your side of the story. That said, you ultimately want your essay to draw attention to your strengths, growth, and triumphs. For example, if you want to address some bad grades you got in college due to a chronic illness, think about what you learned from the experience. Did it have a direct influence on your chosen field or decision to go to graduate school? Did it force you to develop a new skill set that will serve you well in chosen career? If this part of your story doesn’t fit neatly into the personal marketing required on the personal statement, there may be another option. Many schools offer an optional “additional information” section that is specifically intended for applicants to elaborate on personal issues that may have affected their academic or professional performance. The challenges you face in life are important, but they don’t have to define you.

Write about the program.

This may seem obvious but we have to say it: write about how the specific program you are applying to will build on your experience, cater to your interests, help you meet a goal, or all of the above. This crucial information can often come as an afterthought that applicants tack on in the final three sentences. While the end of the essay is a logical place to address your goals for grad school, they should be treated with the same care as the rest of your narrative. Your conclusion deserves as much attention as required to illustrate how grad school will be the culmination of your prior experiences: How will it draw them together and allow you to apply or build on what you already know? How will it help you achieve a goal? Do your homework and include institution-specific details — especially you PhD candidates! You don’t have to outline your dissertation, but you must demonstrate some knowledge of the faculty in your program. Just remember that there’s nothing less satisfying than reading an otherwise great personal statement that ends with a vague, single sentence stating, “And this is why I know I should study [insert any topic] at [insert any institution].”

Dig to the details.

We’ve said this in various ways throughout the previous five points, but it also deserves its own point. Focus on a few core experiences so you can fill your personal statement with unique, concrete details. The more specifics you include, the less you will have to rely on blustery generalizations like, “I have always cared about people.” (Looking at you, med school applicants.) In MFA speak, we’re basically saying, “Show, don’t tell.” The more you allow your story to speak for itself, the more convincing and memorable it will be. What can you write to make it so no one else can put their name at the top of your essay? Which details can you include to bring your story to life?

When in doubt, keep it brief.

Ok, now for a curve ball. Sometimes schools don’t provide a word limit for the personal statement or letter of intent. Sometimes they don’t provide a prompt at all! No, these aren’t administrative oversights. Yes, you still need to submit an meaningful essay. In these sorts of cases, you must use your judgement. Remember that your readers are busy: they don’t have time to read your entire life story, so keep it short — both in timeframe and physical page limit. Usually a page or so will do, and that is more than enough space to cover the key events from the last five years of your career (perhaps more if you are later in your career — again, judgement is key).

Ask for help.

For better or worse, lots of people have experience with this! The only way to know how another person will react to your essay is (surprise!) to ask another person to read it. Even a friend who is unfamiliar with the application process will be able to offer insight into what works, what feels confusing, and what is missing. And of course, you’ve always got us, your loyal friends at College Essay Advisors. We’re here for your at any point in the process, and we know you can do this!

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