statement of purpose

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Things to Avoid in a Personal Statement – Part 5 of 5

No doubt about it – when writing a personal statement for a grad-school application, there are a lot of choices to make when deciding what to include. Many positive elements must be there for the statement to make a good impression, and some of those elements or features were discussed in a recent posting. Here, I want to give a bit of advice on the kinds of things that one should avoid in a personal statement, at all costs.

First of all, do not try to guess what the admissions committee is looking for in 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 will undoubtedly make an applicant appear naïve, uncertain, or immature – and such an impression will typically spoil an entire application.

In most cases, it is a mistake to refer to academic achievements or other accomplishments prior to college. To mention the fact that you obtained an A+ in every high school class while you were also captain of the basketball and football teams would create the impression (probably accurate) that you do not know the difference between relevant and irrelevant information. Participation in varsity sports as an undergraduate will seldom be of any relevance.

A common mistake is to be effusive about the passion one has for a particular field of study. No one other than you really cares about your intrinsic interest in the field, so long as you have enough motivation to succeed in the program. The admissions committee should be able to infer from your letters of recommendation whether or not you are motivated enough.

Do not include boring platitudes or generic statements, and discuss frankly any significant weakness that needs to be addressed, such a poor grade or test score. Do not offer weak excuses, as they usually backfire and cause damage to the impression one makes on others. Do not exaggerate your previous accomplishments.

So you don’t risk offending anyone, avoid discussing anything in your personal statement that may be considered to be controversial. Avoid politics or anything that would reveal your own political biases. The same goes for religious views; they do not belong in a personal statement.

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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? ]

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Applying To Grad School? Are You Doing It For The Right Reasons

I thought I would write something for all the newbies to this blog and especially to those who are only still in those first few weeks of considering grad school and have come across this blog, somehow, to find out more about grad school and what’s involved in getting in.

Why do you want to go to graduate school?

It is a simple question, but one that deserves a lot of thought. I see too many students with poorly justified motivations for wanting to go to graduate school.

Regardless of whether or not you have an excellent GPA and outstanding standardized test scores, if you don’t have a clear reason for going to graduate school, you will probably not be able to convince anyone on the graduate selection committee or your potential graduate supervisor that you are the person they should choose for their program.

The purpose behind graduate studies in most fields is to turn promising students into skilled specialists who are well suited to a specific range of careers. Therefore, it is really important to consider whether an online Ph.D. degree or some other advanced degree will really help you achieve your long-term goals.

Many students expect that they will figure out what they want to do either during or after graduate school, but that’s really not the ideal way to approach it. You really need to work this out BEFORE  you apply to graduate school, because the success of your applications will depend partly on your ability to explain in your personal statement, cover letter and even pre-selection interviews, why a particular advanced degree is needed for your specific career aspirations.

Picking a graduate program that matches your objectives (career objectives or the type of training you want) determines how much success you have in getting into a graduate or professional program. Don’t underestimate the importance of this match.

Consider each potential graduate program and determine whether completing that program will actually help get you from point A (the here and now) to point B (eventual career). To be able to answer that, you had better figure out what you want. Read more on clarifying your expectations of graduate school before you begin.

If you do not have the least bit of an idea of what you want to do with your life, you may want to considering getting some career counselling or life coaching. Or, perhaps some reflection and a relevant book on the topic might be enough to draw up a reasonable career plan for yourself over the next 5 to 10 years.

Whatever you do to figure out your future career, do not just assume that graduate school is the obvious option or for that matter, the only option.

Also, check out this related article I wrote for MyGraduateSchool.com on choosing the right graduate program.

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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.