The Personal Statement
Academic Experience — Don’t be repetitive by describing a project you described elsewhere. Write about what you have learned from working with this project and how this has piqued your interest in further research. This may also be the place to mention any personal qualities. If you choose to do this, however, be sure to back up those statements with specific examples documenting your skills in these areas.
Research Interests — This is most appropriate for people applying to a research program and not for fields like law. Again, be as specific as possible and point out how this particular program to which you are applying for fits with your research interests.
Extracurricular Experiences — This may be particularly important in business and law, where leadership qualities are given priority. Again, don’t just describe your experiences. Show how these experiences relate to your goals and what they have taught you about your skills in these areas; in other words, analyze these experiences. Look for any experience which sets you apart from the crowd; e.g., conducting a research project, editing the college newspaper, or being an officer of a student organization.
Career Goals — Indicate how you plan to use your graduate training. You don’t need to have your life mapped out in detail, but be able to delineate some general goals. Admissions committees are interested in knowing that you have thought about what you want to do with your life and where a graduate education fits in with these plans. Whenever possible, point out how your goals are congruent with the training you will receive in that particular program.
Personal Attributes, Situations — This is the place to mention anything special about your background or extenuating circumstances relative to your application, such as reasons for a low GPA during a particular semester, etc. The important thing is to explain them in a non-defensive, non-apologetic manner.
A few more comments about your statement:
- Be aware that this is a sample of your writing skills. Therefore, watch for grammatical errors, typos, poor writing, etc.
- Graduate school committee are interested in knowing more about you as a person and whether or not you fit the kind of advanced degree program they offer.
- Be sure to answer the question they are asking. Avoid canned answers.
- You can bring a typed draft of your personal statement to Career Services to receive feedback.
- The Career Services library has resources to assist you in your writing and provide samples of personal statements for a variety of graduate programs.
WRITING THE PERSONAL STATEMENT
Rather than spending a lot of time anticipating and responding to specific questions a committee might ask, we will mainly focus on how to develop audience awareness as a writer and how this will engage your readers. One thing you need to immediately understand is that committee members look through hundreds of statements during the admissions process. Unfortunately, much of the writing brings on sleep. Why is this? Aren't the statements full of important information, much of it potentially interesting? Maybe. But information itself is not enough. We have human appetites for surprise, emotional connection, and sense perception. When these appetites aren't whetted, then satisfied by the writing, heads begin to droop.
WAYS TO ENGAGE AN AUDIENCE
Building a Connection — You need to establish yourself as a credible, thoughtful person. It's kind of a social contract between the reader and the writer. If you make claims that spark some degree of doubt in the reader, you may have lost them for the rest of the statement. Be honest. Most of the time, a careful reader will sense when the writer is piling it on. You'll find you do your best writing when the subject is heartfelt. You'll also get the best reaction from the readers.
Challenging Expectations — A surprising opening usually creates suspense. It does so by playing against expectations and prompting the reader to raise questions that presumably will be answered, not all at once, but slowly over the course of the statement. For example: "When I graduated from college, I ran away with the carnival." Who spends four years studying just to join the carnival? What does this have to do with wanting to go to grad school? Obviously, you are responsible for answering the questions raised in the readers' mind (the whetting of the appetite). Unfortunately, if you aren't aware what questions you're raising, you can't possibly satisfy them.
Specific Language — One of the things we have in common is, of course, our five senses. We grasp the concrete better than the abstract. Most all good statements use concrete particulars.
Economy — Committee members value brevity because they've got a lot to read. Make your statement memorable, not lengthy. Don't spend two pages "exploring" what could be said in one. Get across the same meaning without a lengthy prepositional phrase. For example: "I worked for a dermatologist for a long time" should be "As an experienced dermatology intern.."
Revising — Avoid using the 10 most common mistakes below. Have as many people proofread your statement as possible.
- Errors and general sloppiness. This devalues the statement because you didn't care enough to proof your work. They'll assume that you'd be as sloppy in your graduate work.
- Anything like: "I have always wanted to be.."
- All words and no action. You sound great on paper, but give no details to back it up.
- Taking too many or too few risks in your writing. Don't be timid, but don't go overboard.
- Stating personal problems or whining.
- Too long - indicates a lack of discipline.
- Too short - indicates a lack of knowledge and/or uncertainty of your future in graduate school.
- Saying what you think they want to hear is very dangerous. They will sense dishonesty and you will lose credibility.
- Avoiding questions.
- Mixing up schools in your statement, usually when applying to more than one school.
(Adapted from the Career Exploration Center at the University of Texas, 2009.)