Make it Personal
The personal statement is a much more nuanced paper than the college admissions paper you wrote when applying to undergrad. This time around, the admissions committee is not a full-time admissions staff; rather, they are scholars and professors from the department to which you are applying. In order to prove effective, the personal statement must achieve two things: (1) explain why you seek to further your education in a particular field and (2) explain why this particular graduate program is a good fit for you.
While the personal statement for every graduate school is going to have different requirements, there are a few elements that are crucial. While drafting your personal statement, consider all of the following so that your personal statement accurately represents you and impresses the department.
Keep It Professional.
The personal statement is a professional piece of writing. As such, it must be clear, eloquent, and mistake-free. To ensure this, you should use a peer reviewer. Ask your reviewer what main points he or she took away from your personal statement, and if everything he or she read seemed clear.
Your personal statement should also be well-structured and contain no traces of informal language or long rambling sentences. This is especially important for students that are applying to a writing-heavy program like journalism or literature; there is no easier way to discredit yourself than by making mistakes in the first work you present to the department. While drafting your essay, make sure to consult a grammar manual, such as MLA or Chicago. Once you have completed your essay, give it to a professional to look over—this can be a professor or an editing service (e.g., Prompt).
As with all writing, you want to avoid being vague and writing in clichés. The personal statement is not the place to brag and make unfounded claims. Instead, use concrete evidence that demonstrates your potential to be successful in the graduate program. Most importantly, make your personal statement distinctive. That is, highlight experiences or attributes that make you unique or stand out. Everyone claims to be “dedicated" and "a hard worker." How are you different?
Do not underestimate the importance of presenting yourself professionally. You are about to enter a community of highly educated professors and academics, and it is vital that you are able to present yourself in a professional manner.
Don’t Be Too Personal
While it is helpful to include skills or experiences that make you seem unique, also remember to keep your personal statement career focused. The academics reading your paper are not interested in your childhood obsession with literature or how well you get along with your sister. Most of your paper should concentrate on your achievements in undergrad and not on your experiences in grade school.
Do Your Research.
Remember that a necessary component of your personal statement is an explanation of why the particular program to which you are applying is a good fit for you. Therefore, you must learn everything you possibly can about your graduate schools of choice before actually applying. Start by checking out their websites, where you can learn about what facilities the campus offers, and how closely the faculty’s current work aligns with your own academic interests. Additionally, some graduate programs provide testimonials and success stories, which are helpful for seeing whether the career trajectories of past graduates are similar to the one that you hope to have.
An even better way to learn about a graduate program is by getting in touch with someone in the department and requesting a visit. Graduate schools want the right students to attend their programs as much as students want to find the right graduate school to attend. This will enable you to see the facilities yourself and speak with someone who has had experience with past successful applicants.
Have Good Reasons for Applying
In your application essay, be sure to only give professional reasons for your interest in the graduate program. At this point in your academic career, you need to show that graduate school is an essential step for you to gain more expertise in your field of interest. Therefore, only provide reasons for wanting to join the program that are relevant to your career and educational ambitions. At this point, you should have a general goal of how you plan to use your graduate school education, so be sure to mention how this program will be a step towards this ultimate professional goal. Do not mention liking the campus, being drawn to the school’s prestigious name, or wanting to live in a big city as reasons for wanting to study at any school. Also, do not attribute your desire to join a certain program to the extracurricular activities offered by the school. Professors and principal investigators are interested in admitting students whose interests and goals resonate with the faculty and the features of the program, not in admitting students who are likely to become preoccupied by unrelated distractions.
Prove That You Are Qualified
Besides having interests that make you a good fit for the program, it is equally important that you are capable of pursuing those interests effectively. Provide strong examples of previous experience that demonstrate that you have the necessary skillset to be successful in your field. Of course, these experiences will be different for each graduate program. If you are pursuing a graduate degree in a liberal arts field, you will want to compose a very well-written statement about past writing experiences, presentations you have given, or perspectives you have developed. If you are applying to an engineering program, you will probably be expected to outline a research question that interests you and use appropriate technical language. Provide concrete evidence that shows that there is a history to your interest in this field, and that you have the competence necessary to pursue this interest.
Also, be careful not to list everything you have ever done in your personal statement. The CV accompanying your personal statement already does that, so there is no reason to list all your accomplishments twice. Instead focus your personal statement on one or two related accomplishments and how you have grown and expanded your interest after that experience.
All of your qualifications should showcase not only your passion, but also your ambition. Do not make it seem like you learned everything you need to know throughout your undergraduate career—this would make a graduate degree obsolete. When you write your personal statement, you should make it evident to the faculty that you need a graduate school education to achieve your ultimate goal in your profession, and that you have what it takes to pursue such a degree.
Prove Competence, Not Passion.
While demonstrating passion is crucial to a personal statement, be careful not to dedicate too much time to expressing your passion for your subject. If you are trying to attend a graduate program in archaeology and your entire personal statement is about how long you have loved museums since you were five, you will be seen as more of a hobbyist than a qualified applicant. Every person who is applying for a graduate program is attempting to seem passionate. This factor alone will not make you stand out.
Tell Your Story.
Storytelling can prove to be extremely effective in a personal statement, especially if you are sure of your end goal. Keep a career objective in mind and frame the story of your past experiences as though it is only the beginning of your academic journey. Remember to keep your story relevant and only include necessary details. Keep to our 40/60 rule; none of your stories mean anything unless you explain how you have grown or what you have learned as a result.
The content of this chapter discusses the fundamentals of your personal statement, but each field has specific and unique requirements. We strongly advise that you consult a professor or advisor when drafting your personal statement for advice-- it is likely that they have been through the graduate school application process at some point. Finally, when you feel happy and accurately represented in your personal statement, you should have it peer reviewed and professionally edited. Your final product should have gone through at least four of five revisions by the time it is submitted.
Your personal statement is your opportunity to prove yourself as passionate and capable to potential professors and mentors. They are just as interested in finding qualified applicants, as applicants are in finding a great graduate program-- now that you know what they expect to see in a personal statement, you will be one step ahead of the herd!
Write well and prosper!