When it comes to graduate school applications, “personal statement” seems to bring on the same anxiety that job searchers have when hearing “targeted cover letter”. As I have been meeting with many students applying to graduate programs for the next year, I realized that personal statements are consistently the last piece of the application waiting to be completed. I hear: “I just don’t know what to write!”, “How do I sum myself up in 500 words?”, and my personal favorite “How can I write with no prompt?!”
Personal statements can definitely be tricky. When writing for my own graduate school applications I found it difficult to effectively (and concisely) convey my passion and goals in just a few pages. There was so much I wanted to send to each program, but I had to be realistic that the review committee members actually did not want to read a novel about me.
What can be the trickiest are the applications that simply ask for the statement. No prompt, no questions to answer, no guidelines to go by. As students this is a foreign concept—do professors typically tell you to go home and write an essay within a particular word limit with not even one stipulation of a topic or prompt? Nope.
After reading and reviewing countless personal statements for graduate school I’ve come up with my own guidelines for a spectacular piece of prose:
The review committee does not need to receive your entire life story, and you do not need to completely narrate your resume. However, it is important to convey your previous experiences and tie in your interest for the program that you’re applying to. Were you originally interested in public health from a mission trip you took early in life? Provide some of this insight in your essay, but then don’t neglect to follow up with how your related senior thesis and community work in public health have provided you with great experience. There are stories to tell that convey your passion and connection to programs and fields, be sure to use them appropriately.
They may not be detailed out to the exact organization you want be working for in 10 years, but there must be some goal or you wouldn’t be pursuing a graduate degree. If there is no goal, this may be a sign to do some reflection on your interest in applying. Maybe your goal is to stay in academia and become a professor? Or maybe the program is going to provide you with the proper skills and training to become a successful public relations professional. Where do you want to go? Where do you see yourself going? The committee is going to want to know what you’re hoping to attain in the future. Try to think about something short term (three years) and longer term (five + years) to get you started.
Once you’ve come up with your information for the points above, it’s time to connect your past achievements with future goals. How is this particular graduate program going to be the link between? How does it fit into your plans and why is it the relevant next step for you? It’s not about how you qualify for a program and listing your accomplishments, but how will this program work for you and help you to achieve future goals?
So take some time to sit down and think about the three points above before you start writing. On a piece of paper brainstorm words, phrases or stories underneath each of the three points and take it from there. Just make sure that you tell your story. Use original words, don’t be cliché, and don’t focus too much on your character traits. Of course you’re a hard worker and high achiever—you’re applying to graduate school!
Similar to the job search process, we can help you with anything related to grad school: personal statements, writing samples and navigating your applications. If you’re stuck or would like to review your personal statement, feel free to set up a meeting with a career advisor.