components of a winning graduate school essay

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What Should Be Included In Your Personal Statement? Part 4 of 5

It is often said that a good personal statement will read like a story. You should be able to cite specific past experiences that contributed to your interest in a particular career. Do not be afraid to include information that is of a very personal nature; it is a personal statement, after all. Clearly specify how your application to this particular program fits in as the next logical step in your story.

Try to answer the following questions about yourself, and keep notes of the responses you come up with. You will later use these notes to make an outline of your statement or essay.

What is special or unique about your personal history?

Are there any features of your life that would help the admissions committee understand who you are and where you are coming from?

Did you have to overcome any special hardships or obstacles to get to where you are today?

How and when did you first become interested in this field?

What has happened since then to make you even more interested in the field?

What are your goals with respect to a career in this field?

Do you possess any notable skills or abilities (such as leadership, analytical, computer, writing, public

speaking, etc.)? How did you acquire them? What evidence could you point to that you do in fact possess these skills or abilities?

Do you possess any notable character traits (such as integrity, sensitivity, creativity, industriousness, persistence, etc.)? What evidence could you point to that you do in fact possess these traits?

Your aim should not be to incorporate all of these things into your statement, but rather to make a collection of points from which you will choose to use a few. When deciding which points to include, however, keep in mind that your statement or essay should have a unifying theme – the main point you want to get across to the reader. All other points should contribute to this message.

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 grad school, and especially in this specific program.

Next part of the series addresses the things to avoid in a personal statement 

[ If grad school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives, as well as my most recent posts. I realize that students face a huge information gap that makes it difficult to know what’s really involved, and that’s why I strive to provide the best information and advice about preparing for, and applying successfully to, graduate school.

I have been a professor for the past 18 years. I have been an undergraduate academic advisor, I have served on graduate admissions committees, supervised several graduate students and dozens of undergraduate students, and over the years I have had countless discussions about graduate admissions with Graduate Program Directors and other faculty members, in a wide range of disciplines and domains (sciences, social sciences, fine arts, humanities), and at universities in the U.S. and Canada. I have the perspective of a real insider into what students need to do to stand apart from the crowd, and how to avoid the mistakes that prevent most grad-school applicants from getting in.

You can spend a lot of time collecting bits of advice from all over Internet about dealing with different components of an application, or various steps in the process, but most of it is very basic information that everyone can get (thus, no one gets an advantage from knowing about it), and most of it is just recycled on different websites so that someone can sell advertising space.

The only thing you’ll ever see advertised here is my book and e-book. My main objective with the blog is to provide most accurate and actionable information and advice. I don’t get paid to do it, although if someone buys a copy of my book, or an e-book, I do make a few bucks. So far, however, that hasn’t exactly been happening a lot. So, rest assured, I’m not doing this for the money! ]

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Wondering How Long Your Personal Statement Should Be? – Part 3 of 5

Many programs actually specify a limit, which typically is two or three pages. But, even if exact limits are not specified, it is essential that your statement does not ramble about irrelevant things. Remember, your letter will be read by busy people — people who have many other applications to look at, and who will get annoyed if they have to spend more time than they want to reading any individual personal 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.

Do not try to say everything you think might 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.

If you need help preparing your personal statements for grad school, check out my consulting services FAQ section or fill out the pre-consult form using the following password: consult2017#mgs

Part 4 : Wondering What Should Be in Your Personal Statement?

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Applying to Grad School? Do You Know What Makes for a Winning Personal Statement? Part 2 of 5

For most people who need to do it, writing a personal statement for a graduate-school application is an unpleasant experience. There can be tremendous stress and self-doubt involved in the process. All the anxiety surrounding the personal statement is understandable, and it’s even somewhat justified. Sadly, despite someone’s investment of time, effort, and anguish, the personal statement is also the part of the application that ultimately does in a lot of the unsuccessful applications.

There are a lot of different reasons why a personal statement can make a bad impression, but generally speaking, a personal statement that makes a good impression will have at least three key features: selectivity, originality, and clarity.

The general idea behind selectivity is that you must include the right kinds of information, and also that you must refrain from including irrelevant information. Your choices will show whether or not you have good judgment. For example, it would normally be a mistake to describe the details of your academic history, unless it is to highlight something that is especially unique. The people reading your personal statement can look at your transcripts if they want to know details about your academic record.

Originality is important, because a run-of-the-mill personal statement will not help you stand out from the crowd. You need to grab the readers’ attention at the outset and hold their interest to the end. One of the most difficult things you are likely to face when preparing your personal statement is just getting started. Remember, it takes time to be creative, so be patient. Ideas will come, eventually. Do not be afraid to start over if a plan you had no longer seems good, or if you think of something better.

Clarity refers to how well you express your ideas in writing. Your statement should be logical, and it must be written with proper syntax and grammar, and free of spelling mistakes and typos. This is not just because a spelling mistake will make the reader think you cannot spell; a statement that contains these types of errors will make you appear unprofessional and careless.

Proofread, edit, and work on every sentence and passage until you are confident that you are expressing yourself in the most unambiguous and concise manner. People looking at your application want know about your writing abilities. Even just a single grammatical error, spelling mistake, or poorly worded sentence can leave a bad impression. 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.

Have a friend read your personal statement and ask for feedback and advice. If possible, ask this same favor of one of your professors, one who knows you well and whom you feel comfortable asking for the extra favor. Ideally, this should be a professor who is also writing a letter of recommendation for you, because he or she may then refer to your personal statement when preparing the letter.

Wondering how long your personal statement should be? Check out the next part of the series.

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Writing A Convincing Personal Statement For Grad School – Part 1 of 5

Most of those who have been through the process of applying to graduate school will agree — writing the personal statement was the most difficult and stressful part. Part of the problem for many is that they set out to write their personal statement without a clear set of guidelines for what to include, and with some uncertainty about exactly how it will be used in evaluating their application.

This is the first of a series of 5 articles related to preparing a personal statement. We try to give the reader a perspective on how the personal statement is used by members of a selection committee, or by a prospective graduate supervisor. Understanding the perspective of these important decision makers is essential to making good decisions about what to include and exclude from the statement, and appropriate and inappropriate ways to say certain things. (These latter aspects of preparing the personal statement will be dealt with in the remaining articles of the series).

* * *

The personal statement is also sometimes called the statement of purposeletter of intent,or admission essay. Its main purposes are to introduce yourself explain your educational, training, and career goals, and to present those qualities that make you an excellent candidate for graduate school in general, and for the program you are applying to in particular.

Admissions committees and prospective supervisors look at personal statements to see how you think, and how well you express yourself. It provides them with an opportunity to learn who you are through your eyes. It is the component of the application that shows whether you have maturity, good judgment, and a clear plan to get from where you are today, to where you want to be ten years from now.

If you are applying to a professional school in medicine, business, or law, or to a highly competitive graduate program in another field, there might be interviews later, but for most graduate programs you should think of your personal statement as a substitute for a brief personal interview with the admissions committee or prospective supervisor.

If you think this is a good time to figure out what you want to do, then think again… you should have figured this out already. If your main reason for setting out to decide exactly what you want to do for a career is just so that you can prepare a good personal statement, then you probably need to get more serious about your reasons for wanting to go to graduate school at this time.

The most common mistake that students make is to leave too little time for preparing the personal statement. It requires a great deal of thought and planning to write a good one. You should expect to spend several days or maybe even weeks writing drafts before coming up with a good final product. If you spend only a few hours preparing and writing it, then it is almost certain to be an application-killer. And none of the other components of your application will make up for a personal statement that leaves any kind of bad impression. When applying to a graduate program that receives a large number of applicants, success depends not so much on writing an essay that gets you accepted, as on avoiding writing a personal statement that gets you rejected. Keep in mind that your statement will be read by people who are trying to form an impression of who you are and what you are like. If there are a lot of applicants to consider, it may not take a lot of imperfection to get placed into the reject pile.

A generic statement or essay can ruin your application

Do not write a generic statement for several different applications. You will probably be applying to several programs, and it is important that each personal statement you send reflects that you have done your homework and understand what the program has to offer. Although there will be a great deal of overlap in terms of the content of the statements you send to different programs, the point here is that you should not simply send the same statement to each program.

Some applicants underestimate the number of important differences there are between the various graduate programs to which they apply. Admissions officers know this, and when they detect a generic statement that the applicant probably sent to at least a few different programs, then it suggests that the applicant is ignorant of the unique aspects of their program.

Remember, people do not automatically gain admission to a Masters or Ph.D. program just because they have a bachelor’s degree and excellent undergraduate grades. It may be helpful to think of the personal statement as a sales job — one where you are both the salesperson and the merchandise being marketed. As the salesperson, you should think of your personal statement from the point of view of the potential “buyer” — the prospective supervisor or members of an admissions committee. You need to take this approach, because the process of getting into most graduate programs is a very competitive one, and you are not likely to get in if you are outdone by other applicants.

You want to present a logical rationale for wanting a particular career. This will require that you can explain your future objectives in light of your past. Accordingly, much of the content of your personal statement will be a recounting of select and relevant aspects of your past.

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 more 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.

One of the added benefits preparing your personal statement is that, by the time you are done, you will know how to respond to questions about what you are looking for in a career, how you intend to get there, and how you got to this point in the first place. This is excellent preparation for a pre-selection interview with an admissions committee, or for a face-to-face meeting or telephone interview with a prospective graduate supervisor.

Obvious considerations, but still worth mentioning

You need to be extremely meticulous in proofreading and editing what you write. The people looking at your application will be keenly interested to know about your writing abilities. Even just a few grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, or poorly-worded sentences can leave a very bad impression. Write concisely, and if there is a word limit, be sure not to go beyond it.

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.

In the second article of this series we deal with some of the things to consider when deciding what to include, and exclude, from the personal statement.

[ If graduate school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives for this blog, as well as the most recent posts. I strive give you all the best information and advice about what it takes to get into the program that’s right for you. There are other sites out there, but they all provide the same generic information and advice about applying to grad school, and therefore, none of them offer anything that is uniquely helpful. In fact, following the advice of those other so-called grad-school experts can sometimes hurt your chances of getting in! If you want to see an example of what I mean by that, please check out my blog post from August, 2012 — What if the Guru is Wrong About That? ]