Before applying to graduate schools, you should reflect on yourself, your interests, and your goals. While your academic focus may change with time and exposure to a university’s recourses, programs are looking for applicants who show clear potential for contributing to intellectual communities in specific arenas. . Programs are not only looking for candidates who will be an asset in the classroom, but also those will make the most of the resources provided to them. By reflecting on your own interests, you will not only gain insight about yourself and what you are looking to gain from your experience in graduate school, but also about how you might thrive in a university environment.
As you prepare your application, try to imagine yourself in your reader’s position. Your reader will be trying to put together a picture of you based on your application, interests, and personal statement, so you should strive to make your application as indicative of your goals as possible. Before you begin drafting your personal statement, consider these questions:
- What skills do you possess, and how have you demonstrated them in the past? How will they help you find success in a graduate program?
- What are your passions, and how will graduate school help you practice them?
- What attracted you to this specific school? While the majority of your personal statement should be geared towards your academic interests and relevant experience, you should tailor your statements to each school. Consider the recourses each school offers (i.e. faculty, libraries, internship opportunities, job placement) and how they may be amenable to your proposed line of study.
- How has your experience or background shaped your academic interests?
- Do you have any gaps or discrepancies in your application that warrant an explanation? For example, did you take time off during your undergraduate career, or take a significant amount of time between graduating from college and applying to graduate school?
- How have you pursued your interests, both during your undergraduate career and in extracurricular activities or independent research?
- What do you hope to gain from your graduate school experience? Consider your career goals, and how your proposed research may transform.
When answering these questions, allow yourself to dream big. Graduate school will grant you the opportunity to connect with professionals in your field, expose you to new ideas that may change your worldview, and introduce you to peers who will challenge and enrich your work. While admissions boards are looking for focused candidates with specific research interests, they also are aware that your line of focus can transform over your years of graduate study. Therefore, they are interested in candidates who have specific interests and strengths, but also who are ambitious, flexible, and capable of thriving in an academic setting. Therefore, your enthusiasm, flexibility, ambition, and focus will be your greatest assets in applying for graduate school, and should all be reflected in your application.
Applying Your Understanding
Once you have meditated on your goals and interests, you will be faced with the task of strategically expressing these ambitions in your application. While universities will not explicitly ask about your 20-year plan, there are more implicit ways of communicating your goals and passions within your application. Most graduate school applications will require a personal statement, in addition to supplemental essays. As we will discuss throughout this book, there are various opportunities within the application to demonstrate that you understand yourself and your passions. The questions above can most easily be applied to your personal statement, and to supplemental essays required by your university.
Your personal statement is your chance to distinguish yourself to your readers. The admissions board has likely already reviewed your résumé, transcripts, and test scores, and will turn to the personal statement as a testament to what roles you may play in an incoming class. Thus, your personal statement should both reflect your strengths and give readers a glimpse to who you are as a person, student, and community member. Most personal statements prompts are intentionally open-ended to allow candidates to interpret the prompt according to their interests and focus. However, there are questions that you should answer regardless of your interpretation of the prompt.. You should aim to answer several of the following questions in your personal statement:
- Why this school?
- What will you contribute to this program?
- Why this line of study?
- What do you hope to do with this degree?
- What distinguishes your proposed research from that of other candidates?
- How committed are you to this field?
Consider these examples that successfully synthesize academic focus with positive personal qualities. The given prompts are adapted from real prompts asked by specific universities:
- MFA personal statement
- Prompt: Describe your goals and influences as a writer
Andrea is applying to a MFA in creative writing. Her poetry focuses largely on social and cultural issues faced by first-generation Hispanic immigrants, but she is also interested in ecofeminist theory. She begins with a hook about how her mother used to read to her in Spanish and English, and how her bilingualism informs her poetry. She talks about poetry as a bridge between two cultures and references specific writers who have influenced her approach. Next, she discusses how the environmental angle of this particular program will allow her to fully synthesize her passions. She paints a picture of herself as a passionate and focused candidate who will make the most out of the program’s unique resources.
- PhD personal statement
- Prompt: Describe your research interests, professional objectives, and how this program will match your interests
David is applying for a PhD in English literature. While his intellectual interests are diverse, he knows he needs to tailor his personal statement to each school. David’s principle focus is the intersection between Renaissance literature and the art of the period, so he emphasizes how a school’s unique resources will contribute to his education. His top-choice program offers a study abroad option, so he researches the international university where he would like to study for a year, and demonstrates his knowledge of and admiration for the program. He points to his award-winning undergraduate thesis on a similar topic as a catalyst for his interest in the field, but also acknowledges that the university’s specific course offerings will challenge his work in exciting ways.
A thorough understanding of yourself, your passions, and your goals can deeply influence how you put together your grad school application. By understanding both how you see yourself, and how you hope your reader will see you, you can leverage your experience and interests to best express your potential as a student, leader, and citizen.