Writers Workshop: Writer Resources
Writing Tips: Personal Statements
Overview of the Personal Statement
Personal statements are sometimes also called "application essays" or "statements of purpose." Whatever they are called, they are essentially essays which are written in response to a question or questions on a graduate or professional school application form which asks for some sort of sustained response.
Some applications ask more specific questions than others. There is no set formula to follow in shaping your response, only choices for you to make, such as whether you should write an essay that is more autobiographically focused or one that is more professionally focused.
From application to application, requested personal statements also vary widely in length, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to a series of essays of a page or so each.
Personal statements are most important when you are applying to an extremely competitive program, where all the applicants have high test scores and GPA's, and when you are a marginal candidate and need the essay to compensate for low test scores or a low GPA.
How are personal statements read, and by whom? It's most likely that your personal statement will be read by professors who serve on an admissions committee in the department to which you are applying. It is important in developing your personal statement to carefully consider this audience. What are the areas of specialty of this department, and what might it be looking for in a graduate student?
Additionally, since personal statements will most often be read as part of your "package," they offer an opportunity to show aspects of yourself that will not be developed in other areas of your application. Obviously, it is important that personal statements are not simply prose formulations of material contained elsewhere in the application.
It may be helpful to think of the statement as the single opportunity in your package to allow the admissions committee to hear your voice. Often times, committees are sorting through large numbers of applications and essays, perhaps doing an initial quick sort to find the best applicants and then later reading some of the personal statements more thoroughly. Given that information, you will want your statement to readily engage the readers, and to clearly demonstrate what makes you a unique candidate--apart from the rest of the stack.
One Process for Writing the Personal Statement
- Analyze the question(s) asked on a specific application.
- Research the school and/or program to which you are applying.
- Take a personal inventory (see below). Write out a 2-3 sentence response to each question.
- Write your essay.
- Revise your essay for form and content.
- Ask someone else - preferably a faculty member in your area - to read your essay and make suggestions for further revision.
- Revise again.
- Proofread carefully.
Personal Inventory Questions
- What makes you unique, or at least different from, any other applicant?
- What attracts you to your chosen career? What do you expect to get out of it?
- When did you initially become interested in this career? How has this interest developed? When did you become certain that this is what you wanted to do? What solidified your decision?
- What are your intellectual influences? What writers, books, professors, concepts in college have shaped you?
- How has your undergraduate academic experience prepared you for graduate/professional school?
- What are two or three of the academic accomplishments which have most prepared you?
- What research have you conducted? What did you learn from it?
- What non-academic experiences contributed to your choice of school and/or career? (work, volunteer, family)
- Do you have specific career plans? How does graduate or professional school pertain to them?
- How much more education are you interested in?
- What's the most important thing the admissions committee should know about you?
- Think of a professor in your field that you've had already and that you like and respect. If this person were reading your application essay, what would most impress him or her?
- Answer all the questions asked.
- If you are applying to more than one program, you may find that each application asks a different question or set of questions, and that you don't really feel like writing a bunch of different responses. However, you should avoid the temptation to submit the same essay for different questions—it's far better to tailor your response to each question and each school.
- If you do find yourself short on time and must tailor one basic essay to fit a number of different questions from a number of different schools, target your essay to your first-choice school, and keep in mind that the less your essay is suited to an application's particular questions, the more you may be jeopardizing your chances of being admitted to that school.
Be honest and confident in your statements.
Use positive emphasis. Do not try to hide, make excuses for, or lie about your weaknesses. In some cases, a student needs to explain a weak component of his or her application, but in other cases it may be best not to mention those weaknesses at all. Rather, write an essay that focuses on your strengths.
Write a coherent and interesting essay.
Make your first paragraph the best paragraph in your essay.
Develop a thesis about yourself early in the essay and argue it throughout.
Each piece of information you give about yourself in the essay should somehow support your thesis.
Pick two to four main topics for a one-page essay.
Don't summarize your entire life. Don't include needless details that take space away from a discussion of your professionalism, maturity, and ability to do intellectual work in your chosen field.
Use the personal statement as a form of introduction.
Think of the essay as not only an answer to a specific question but as an opportunity to introduce yourself, especially if your program doesn't interview applicants.
- Ask yourself the following questions as you edit for content:
- Are my goals well articulated?
- Do I explain why I have selected this school and/or program in particular?
- Do I demonstrate knowledge of this school or program?
- Do I include interesting details that prove my claims about myself?
- Is my tone confident?
- Make sure your essay has absolutely perfect spelling and mechanics.
Use technical terminology and such techniques as passive voice where appropriate.
You should write clearly and interestingly, yet also speak in a voice appropriate to your field.
- Write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. You are probably wrong, and such a response is likely to make you blend into the crowd rather than stand out from it.
- Use empty, vague, over-used words like "meaningful," "beautiful," "challenging," "invaluable," or "rewarding."
- Overwrite or belabor a minor point about yourself.
- Repeat information directly from the application form itself unless you use it to illustrate a point or want to develop it further.
- Emphasize the negative. Again, the admissions committee already knows your GPA and test scores, and they probably are not interested in reading about how a list of events in your personal life caused you to perform poorly. Explain what you feel you need to, but emphasize the positive.
- Try to be funny. You don't want to take the risk they won't get the joke.
- Get too personal about religion, politics, or your lack of education (avoid emotional catharsis).
- Include footnotes, cliches, or long-winded and slow introductions.
- Use statements like "I've always wanted to be a…" or any other hackneyed phrases.
- Use gimmicks—too big of a risk on an application to a graduate or professional program.
- Allow any superficial errors in spelling, mechanics, grammar, punctuation, format, or printing to creep under your vigilant guard.
Helpful tips and advice for drafting a compelling personal statement when applying for graduate admission
What does this statement need to accomplish?
The personal statement should give concrete evidence of your promise as a member of the academic community, giving the committee an image of you as a person.
This is also where you represent your potential to bring to your academic career a critical perspective rooted in a non-traditional educational background, or your understanding of the experiences of groups historically under-represented in higher education and your commitment to increase participation by a diverse population in higher education.
What kinds of content belongs here?
Anything that can give reviewers a sense of you as a person belongs here; you can repeat information about your experiences in your research statement, but any experiences that show your promise, initiative, and ability to persevere despite obstacles belongs here. This is also a good place to display your communication skills and discuss your ability to maximize effective collaboration with a diverse cross-section of the academic community. If you have faced any obstacles or barriers in your education, sharing those experiences serves both for the selection process, and for your nomination for fellowships. If one part of your academic record is not ideal, due to challenges you faced in that particular area, this is where you can explain that, and direct reviewers’ attention to the evidence of your promise for higher education.
The basic message: your academic achievement despite challenges
It is especially helpful for admissions committees considering nominating you for fellowships for diversity if you discuss any or all of the following:
- Demonstrated significant academic achievement by overcoming barriers such as economic, social, or educational disadvantage;
- Potential to contribute to higher education through understanding the barriers facing women, domestic minorities, students with disabilities, and other members of groups underrepresented in higher education careers, as evidenced by life experiences and educational background. For example,,
- attendance at a minority serving institution;
- ability to articulate the barriers facing women and minorities in science and engineering fields;
- participation in higher education pipeline programs such as, UC Leads, or McNair Scholars;
- Academic service advancing equitable access to higher education for women and racial minorities in fields where they are underrepresented;
- Leadership experience among students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education;
- Research interests focusing on underserved populations and understanding issues of racial or gender inequalities. For example,
- research that addresses issues such as race, gender, diversity, and inclusion;
- research that addresses health disparities, educational access and achievement, political engagement, economic justice, social mobility, civil and human rights, and other questions of interest to historically underrepresented groups;
- artistic expression and cultural production that reflects culturally diverse communities or voices not well represented in the arts and humanities.