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).

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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? ]

Five Main Components of a Graduate School Application

Most graduate programs require applicants to submit the items described below by a certain deadline. Programs in some fields may require additional items, such as a curriculum vita, or a portfolio or dossier, but the five components described here are the most common.

Application forms

Expect to fill out either one or two application forms for each program. For those requiring two forms, one is usually a university-wide application form, which is filled out by applicants to most or all graduate programs at that university. The other application form is for the specific department or program to which the student is applying. Much of the information requested will be the same on both forms. Still, be sure to fill out all of the line items on both forms. They will be going into different files in different offices, so both forms must be completed.

In addition to standard biographical data, any application form is likely to indicate the particular program to which one is applying, details about the applicant’s academic history, and the names and contact information of two or three references. Information about employment history and relevant professional and research experience may also be requested.

There is more to properly filling out application forms than simply providing the right information. Many students make mistakes while filling out application forms without realizing they are doing anything wrong. The consequence is often a bad first impression, which can lead to early rejection.

Transcripts of undergraduate grades

Not surprisingly, an applicant’s undergraduate GPA is a heavily weighted factor in the decisions of most admissions committees. However, the admissions committee is not always responsible for making the final decisions about who gets in, and their concerns might be simply whether the applicant has, at least, the minimum grade requirements and any other prerequisites needed to be eligible.

Unless there is something very special about an applicant with a GPA below the minimum criterion, that person will be eliminated from the competition. Minimum grade requirements range from quite high in some programs to surprisingly low in others. Higher minimum entry requirements are characteristic of programs that receive a large number of applications each year and can accept only a small fraction. Relatively few applicants fail to meet the minimum grade requirements, so the admissions committee is likely to rank applicants at least partly according to GPA, paying particular attention to those with exceptionally high grades.

Letters of recommendation  (a.k.a. Reference letters)

Most programs require two or three letters of recommendation from people who can attest that you possess qualities that will enable you to excel in graduate school. The most effective letters are from professors who are familiar with you and your scholarly or research capabilities, or from professionals or other qualified individuals from outside your college or university who have a good basis for being able to provide such an assessment. Few students anticipate far enough in advance that they will need two or three reference letters, and most end up scrambling at the end to find someone, perhaps anyone, who will write one for them. It takes time and planning to ensure that you receive effective letters from the right people. Without knowing what makes a letter of recommendation effective or ineffective, many students end up asking the wrong people for them.

The personal statement (or essay)

Another criterion for assessing an applicant’s potential is the personal statement (also sometimes called the statement of purpose, letter of intent, or biographical essay). One purpose of this statement is to explain why you want to enroll in a particular graduate program. Another of its purposes is to describe your qualifications.

The admissions committees are not so much interested in your specific reasons or qualifications as much as they want to ascertain from your statement whether you have realistic goals with respect to what the program will do for you and what a career in this field would be like.

Admissions committees look closely for evidence in the personal statement that the applicant possesses important positive attributes that tend to be needed for success. Importantly, they are also looking for evidence of negative attributes, and when such concerns are raised by the content or style of the applicant’s personal statement, it can lead to a quick rejection.

Not all graduate programs require a personal statement. Some programs, particularly professional degree programs, ask applicants to write a few short essays in response to specific questions. Other programs instead have sections on the application form that ask for the same information that one would normally provide in a personal statement.

Scores on standardized tests (GRE, LSAT, GMAT, etc.)

Most graduate programs, but not all of them, require applicants to submit official scores from one or more standardized tests (a.k.a. entrance exams). These tests provide an objective basis for comparing the academic aptitudes of all the applicants. They are designed to assess academic knowledge and skills relevant to graduate studies. The scores are thought to be one measure of academic aptitude that is not influenced by the huge variation that exists in the grading standards and procedures of different courses, professors, departments, faculties, and schools. The rationale is that everyone writes an equivalent test and all tests are graded the same way. Thus, the playing field is level for all participants.

After completing all components of the graduate application, consider having an academic advisor at your school look it over for any discrepancies, omissions, or typos that you may not have detected.