Make Your Personal Statement for Grad School a Winner

The comments from H. on Feb. 3, 2011 blog inspired me to post a few tips about putting together a personal statement (a.k.a. statement of purpose, letter of intent).

Without a doubt, this is the most difficult component to prepare for a graduate school or professional school application. Admissions committees and prospective supervisors look at the personal statement to learn things about the applicant that cannot be ascertained from other parts of the application. This includes things like, how applicants think, how well they express themselves, and what they think about themselves. It is a component of the application that shows whether an applicant has maturity, good judgment, and a professional demeanor.

The greatest common mistake grad-school applicants make with the personal statement is to spend too little time on it. It requires a great deal of thought and planning to write a good statement, and one should expect to spend several days or maybe even weeks writing drafts before coming up with a good final product. None of the other components of your application will make up for a personal statement that leaves a bad impression.

One of the common mistakes that students make is to try to guess what the admissions committee is looking for with respect to the contents of a personal statement. There is no particular response that they are looking for, and it is always obvious when a student is trying to guess at what is expected. This diminishes the statement, and it may spoil the entire application.

No matter what format the personal statement uses, in all cases, applicants are expected to convey that they have clear plans for how to get from where they are today to where they want to be ten years, or longer, from now. It must be clear how this particular graduate program fits logically in those plans.

If you are in a discipline in which graduate students spend a lot of time engaged in research activities (a majority of disciplines fit this description), then you must strive to make a convincing case that you are not only interested in a general field of study, but also more specifically in the area in which your prospective supervisor does research. Even if it is a program in which you would be assigned to a specific supervisor only after some time in the program, or if you will receive periodic supervision by multiple faculty members on a rotational basis, it should be apparent from your statement where you are expecting to fit in with the research interests of the faculty members who are there.

Do not try to say everything you think may be relevant. Highlight two or three or maybe four important points and keep it at that. Before you start writing, plan the order in which you want to make your points. The people reading it will appreciate a concise and well-organized personal statement, rather than one that is long and rambling.

Most programs allow a limit of two pages. Even if exact limits are not specified, it is essential that the statement does not ramble about irrelevant things. Remember, your letter will be read by busy people — people who have many other letters to read and who will get annoyed if they have to spend more time than they want to reading any individual statement. A few short paragraphs covering one-and-a-half to two pages is almost always enough, unless the instructions in your application package specifies that you need to provide particular details that require more space than this.

Overall, a good statement will read like a story. Much of the content of your personal statement will be a recounting of select and relevant aspects of your past. You should be able to cite specific past experiences that contributed to your interest in a particular career.

The beginning of your essay should grab the reader’s attention. Some options here include a personal anecdote, a compelling question, or a thought-provoking quote. There are more subtle ways to be interesting, too. Try to end the statement in a way that ties it back to whatever you used to grab the reader’s attention in the beginning.

Remember, your goal is to write a personal statement that will leave the reader with a positive and memorable impression of you. Therefore, you want to refer to your strengths and any notable qualities you possess that should help you succeed in graduate school, and especially in this specific program. Put this information in the second paragraph, but be very careful here. Do not go overboard in talking yourself up. Self-confidence is a good thing — in fact, it is one of the qualities one looks for in a graduate student — but students with inflated ideas about how good or important they are often alienate the people whose support they need.

Allude to your relevant work experience somewhere in your statement. If you are reading this while you are in your senior year, and you do not yet have such experience, plan to get some during the next few months and you can refer briefly to those plans in your statement. For example, a Biology student might mention that he or she will be doing volunteer work at the local conservatory during the summer. A student of History might soon be volunteering at a local museum. Obviously, you must be honest in what you say you plan to do.

Proofread and edit, meticulously. The people looking at your application will be keenly interested to know about your writing abilities. Even just a single grammatical error, spelling mistake, or poorly-worded sentence can leave a bad impression. Most students prefer not to think about these small details, but even one or two weaknesses can torpedo a statement or essay that is otherwise very good. Write concisely, and if there is a word limit, be sure not to go beyond it.

Do not try to impress the reader with your vocabulary. Importantly, you must not rely only on the spell-checking function on your computer. If you are required to answer specific questions, make sure you understand what is being asked of you. Think of how it makes you look if you don’t—it raises the question of whether or not you are capable of understanding simple instructions.


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