Graduate school and special programs often require a personal statement. The stakes are high, so here are some strategies for writing a strong one.
Know Your Audience
Study the school and the program or department to which you wish to apply. That means scour the pages that normally you might never even think of looking at, such as the following:
- Mission Statement,
- the President’s page,
- the Provost’s page,
- the department page,
- faculty members’ pages.
These pages will tell you the direction the school is going, where the big next projects will be, what kinds of talents this school values, and what goals it holds for its students. You might mention a faculty member whom you would like to work with in your essay—look at research projects and articles he or she posts.
It’s important that your own values and goals are in alignment with those of the institutions to which you apply. For instance, suppose you want to be a social worker who is active in your community, and you are considering applying to a school that wants to produce researchers in social work, not community leaders in social work. You would be better off finding a school that has similar values to yours. When you write your personal statement, use the values and goals that you and the school share.
What Committees Look For
Keep in mind that the admissions committee of most schools will want to know the following things about you:
- whether you look like you will complete your degree
- whether you have specific goals for your future
- whether you will realize those goals and join the alumni club.
The school wants to produce graduates who complete their vision, so what you write has to be in line with the above three things.
How You Approach the Question
While some schools will have specific questions, others will simply ask you to write a 1-2 page personal statement. If there is a list of questions, one dangerous thing is to follow the order of the questions: you can almost count on your answer not being coherent. These documents need a focus or thesis just like other writing tasks you’ve faced in many classes. Let the focus or thesis guide the paper. Here are some ways to approach the task:
- think of one word that describes how you have been successful in school thus far; then think of one story that illustrates that word—in this way, you will have both a focus and a specific example (which are much easier to write than simply a generic essay on why you want to go to school that might sound like everyone else’s essay). Be sure that your values are consistent with those of the school.
- if you want to be creative, remember the Blue Angels (those planes that fly side by side in the Air Show): you can tell a great compelling or intriguing story (that’s the one plane), but be sure your audience knows your real focus (that’s the second plane). A friend of mine wrote about fixing toilets for his medical school application: the first plane (intriguing story) was understood quickly by his audience because they understood his real thesis (the second plane) —that doctors are good with their hands. He got in! Another person wrote about his cab driving job (intriguing story), and his passengers were all in legal trouble (second plane, real thesis); by the second paragraph, the reader knows the writer wants to go to law school to help others.
Watch Your Tone
Be sure to bring your personal statement to at least three people you trust before you submit it. Remember you have to have a great deal of energy to complete special programs. Others can help you see where you might make yourself look bad. Here are some issues to consider:
- negative language makes you look like a critical and angry person
- if you want to write negatively, use facts instead of bad names
- if you are writing about abuse or neglect, it’s your overcoming that situation that the committee is looking for
- don’t neglect your experiences with learning in the past
Have someone check the grammar of your paper: when the competition is fierce, your grammar is one way that a committee can put your application behind someone else’s.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab has some sample essays, advice, and some comments from admissions committee members: