It’s the night before the application deadline and Jamal has completed all application forms, requested transcripts, and asked for letters of recommendation from his professors and research mentor. One last piece needs his attention, however: the personal statements. One application states, “ Discuss how your past educational, research and/or work experience(s) will contribute to your proposed studies.” Another application asks, “What are your career goals and how do you see our program supporting your goals?”
Jamal thinks, “I’ll write up a quick one-pager of my life story and send it to all the programs I’m applying to. The review committees won’t even look at it. Anyway, I’m a science major, not an English major.”
Jamal’s approach to writing a personal statement is risky; he is making several assumptions that could jeopardize his admission to graduate school. In my capacity as program coordinator of undergraduate educational research programs, I have learned what admissions committees are looking for in a personal statement. I am aware of the mistakes students commonly make and offer suggestions about how to present yourself effectively.
What is a personal statement and why is it important?
A personal statement (also known as graduate school essay, statement of interest, statement of goals, among other names) is a document, submitted as part of a graduate school application, that describes your abilities, attributes, and accomplishments as evidence of your aspirations for pursuing a graduate education and, beyond that, a career in research. This is your chance to stand out from all the other applicants.
An important quality of a graduate school personal statement is how well it communicates professional ambitions in personal terms. It outlines a career-development plan including previous experiences, current skills, and future goals. Faculty reviewing graduate school applications want to know that you have a personal commitment--the deeper the better--to the path you desire.
What is the structure of a personal statement?
Your personal statement should clearly express your understanding of what graduate school is about and how the graduate degree will build upon your previous experiences toward the attainment of your career goals. The outline below is just a guideline, a suggested structure. You can follow it precisely or devise a structure of your own. But either way, make sure your personal statement has structure and that it makes sense.
The Introduction--Set the stage for the rest of your essay. Begin with a hook (i.e., a personal anecdote that relates to your career path, a unique perspective on your academic career, or a statement that clearly summarizes your level of commitment) that will draw the reader into your story. Once you lose a reader, he or she is gone for good. On the other hand, don’t get too creative or humorous; you may offend someone inadvertently.
The Body--Describe your experiences, professional goals, your motivation for attaining these goals, and how you intend to get there. Discuss the research project(s) you’ve been involved with intelligently and clearly: identify your research area, state the research question you were addressing, briefly describe the experimental design, explain the results, state the conclusions, and describe what you gained from the experience. If you have not been directly involved in hands-on research, describe other experiences you’ve had that have influenced your career path, how the graduate degree will advance you toward your career goals, and why you feel you would be adept at such a career. Provide evidence of your progress and accomplishments in science, such as publications, presentations at conferences, leadership positions, outreach to younger students, and related experiences that sparked your interest in specific areas of science. Since this section--the body--demonstrates that you can communicate science effectively, you should devote the bulk of your writing time to it.
The Conclusion--Once you're done with the body, it's just a matter of wrapping things up. This is a good place to reaffirm your preparation and confidence that graduate school is right for you. Explain what contributions you hope to make--to science or society--and how a graduate degree will help you make that contribution.
Questions to consider
The following questions will help shape your personal statement. Address the ones you feel are most appropriate to what you want to convey to the review committee. Most of these questions will be addressed in the body of the piece, but one or more may help you structure the article as a whole.
Why should the admissions committee be interested in you? Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school than other applicants?
How or when did you become interested in a specific area of science? Was it through classes, readings, seminars, work, or conversations with people already in the field? What have you learned about the field and about yourself that has further stimulated your interests?
Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you need to explain?
Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships in your life? How have these experiences shaped your professional growth?
What personal characteristics do you possess that would tend to improve your chances of success in the field (i.e ., persistence, determination, good problem-solving skills, a knack for collaborative--or independent--work)? Provide evidence.
What experiences, skills, attributes, both in and out of the lab, make you qualified?
Tailor your personal statement to the institution and program you’re applying to. Be certain your statement is in line with the program’s mission and focus. Describe why you want to work with specific faculty members in that particular program. If you’re interested in studying obesity, for example, be sure that institution or program has researchers working on obesity.
Describe your research concisely and leave out minute details (e.g., 1M solution of NaCl was added to the master mix at 50oC…).
Stick to the length guidelines specified in the application. If there aren't any length guidelines, keep the document to about 2 single-spaced pages of typewritten text, no more than 3 pages.
Proofread for spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors.
Give your essay to at least 3 other people who will provide feedback and suggestions for improvement. Consider all feedback and revise accordingly.
Don’t use slang.
Don’t use abbreviations unless generally known in the scientific community (AIDS and DNA are fine, but spell out other, discipline-specific technical terms instead of using abbreviations).
Don’t make up experiences you’ve never had or write what you think the review committee wants to hear.
Don’t send in a first draft.
Write it yourself; don't steal--or borrow--someone else's words.
Don’t say you want to help people, want to cure cancer, or use other clichés. A desire to help humanity can be a plus, but only when expressed in very specific terms.
Things to keep in mind
Here are three points that you should be aware of while writing.
Remember your audience. Applicant review committees are composed primarily of faculty from the department you are applying to. They may be familiar with some terminology but assume that they are not familiar with all aspects of your research project. Faculty read many--sometimes hundreds of--applications. Make your statement unique.
If you are submitting applications to multiple programs, each personal statement should be customized for that particular institution and application. Ensure that each personal statement includes the correct name of the institution or program and states faculty member's names correctly.
Ensure that you address specific questions posed as part of the personal statement portion of each application for different programs.
The personal statement is an important part of your application package. Developing one is a process that takes time, persistence, and revision. Start early and take it seriously. Remember, the statement is a reflection of you. Don’t be like Jamal. Use it to your advantage and it will land you an interview with your program of choice. Happy writing.
More from Careers
Brian Rybarczyk is director of academic and professional development at UNC Chapel Hill's graduate school. He has a Ph.D. in pathology and laboratory medicine from the University of Rochester.
Sample Graduate Application Essay - After
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As a single mother who has confronted homelessness and poverty, I am committed to reforming public education. I have a particular interest in improving the accessibility of schooling to homeless individuals, single mothers, and disadvantaged women of color. As a result of my own experiences, I am familiar with the despair and frustration endemic to individuals struggling to survive. I am convinced that increasing individuals' access to education can make the difference between despondency and hope. I am applying for my doctorate in educational leadership so that I can pursue my life-mission: to make education accessible to all.
I began preparing for this mission by volunteering as an intake coordinator at the Christian Assistance Ministry (CAM). Although I had many responsibilities, the role that consumed most of my time and energy was interviewing clients and assessing their physical and emotional needs. One of my greatest contributions was streamlining and updating the paperwork associated with CAM's intake process. I also generated an updated resource list that included many service agencies in the Houston area. By personally contacting each agency to acquire contact information and to learn about its services, I facilitated greater communication between service organizations and ensured that my clients had access to necessary aid.
In my present position as Research Analyst at SeaNet, my primary role is ascertaining the needs of client networks. As an umbrella group, SeaNet has only limited contact with small business development centers, and my job is to ensure that our organization meets these centers' needs. When I took the initiative to send out surveys asking agencies to rate our group's effectiveness, I received an overwhelming response. The information I compiled was so revealing that it was published in the quarterly report that is sent to our funding agency in Washington, D.C. In addition, I have been involved in a number of special, innovative projects. Recently, I analyzed the availability of renewable energy resources in Southern Texas in tandem with The Economic Development Center, Solar Energy, Brooks Air Force Base, and research universities in Texas.
As part of my master's thesis, I collaborated with Upward Bound, Peace Center, and the Davis Education Foundation to underline the importance of community cooperation in public schools. I also provided informational brochures and handouts detailing other such organizations that could assist with the individualized needs of schools. I was gratified when my efforts resulted in teachers and administrators contacting several of the organizations I had mentioned so that the organizations could start outreach in their educational districts.
Although I have not yet been employed in the educational sector, my master's work, as well as my life experiences, has given me a nuanced and sophisticated knowledge of the educational field. I have acted as a mentor at Davis Middle School for many years and have tutored a number of home-schooled children. When my own children attended school, I was involved in their schools' organizations and often took on a leadership role on educational committees. I served on many boards and was active in assisting both instructors and administrators. Fifteen years of experience has familiarized me with the diverse needs of Houston's students, and it has prepared me to act on their behalf.
My short-term goals include advancing my knowledge of quantitative research using programs such as SPSS and Microcas, and acquiring a sophisticated understanding of how to become a leader in the educational field. I wish to use these skills to promote empirical studies in education that can help direct educational reform.
I am attracted to the doctoral program at Texas A&M for precisely this reason. Only Texas A&M offers the kind of collaborative experience that suits my personal needs and professional goals. Over the past four years, I have seen the department blossom into a challenging and innovative program. I am excited about the program's direction and its emphasis on practical application. I appreciate that every course offers the opportunity for independent research, and that the faculty is open to student suggestions for improvement. The flexibility and patience of the faculty and the talent of the students makes Texas A&M a singular choice for my doctoral degree.
My long-term goal is to use my past experience and Texas A&M training to help make education accessible to all, particularly the underprivileged. Whether I am working in the public or private sector, I look forward to addressing the nation's urgent need to educate its citizens efficiently and comprehensively.
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Click Here for the Edited Version.
I read your personal statement with great interest. You do a good job of showing the reader your diligent preparation for a career in education. By emphasizing your research-oriented background and your practical experience in the educational sector, you show that you have the knowledge and resolve to excel in a doctoral program.
However, there are ways in which your essay could be improved. My comments in this critique describe ways to make your writing more vivid and offer recommendations on how to make your statement more convincing.
Many of the changes I made to this essay were confined to the sentence level. I reworked awkward phrases, varied your vocabulary, adjusted diction, and improved the direction and flow of your writing. I also made subtle but significant changes such as eliminating redundant sentences like, "My purpose for seeking a [doctorate in education] is to expand my knowledge of theory and research as it pertains to education."
I also read your essays with a careful eye toward whether you effectively answered the question. In addition, I closely examined your statements, determining whether more detail or a fresh approach was needed to improve the effectiveness of your essay. Upon review, I feel confident that you addressed all the aspects of this multi-pronged topic, but I have made a number of suggestions for how to improve your essay's delivery.
The overall content of your essay was strong, but its expression was awkward at times. I agree that your essay needs a "stronger sense of purpose," and I believe that the reason your essay feels "wishy-washy" is that you do not have strongly-articulated goals. Broad career objectives like, "establishing a network of scholars and future administrators participating in a rigorous intellectual process," are too vague; you need to give your reader a precise sense of what you want to do.
Your essay will be much more persuasive if you articulate specific intermediate and long-term career goals. Because you have already accomplished significant work in the educational field, the committee will expect you to have clearly-defined objectives in your doctoral studies. Given your experience, you may want to discuss your specific plans for your dissertation.
Here are my specific comments on each individual paragraph of your essay:
Your introduction suffered from an excessive reliance on circular logic ("I seek an education because I am interested in education. I want to fine-tune my research skills because research skills are important to a career in education."). Sentences like these obscure rather than clarify your goals, and I sought to make your writing more active and transparent. I eliminated your entire first paragraph and incorporated your discussion of "purpose" into a new engaging introduction.
I also liked this paragraph's allusion to your role as a "reformist." Nonetheless, I felt that this passage would be stronger if you did more to define this term. What do you want to reform? Can you give concrete examples?
"I have struggled hard to get myself out of this situation..."
I liked the passion you convey in this sentence, but you need to maintain a formal, almost reserved voice in academic writing. See my suggestion for alternative wording that does a better job of capturing your experience and of demonstrating how that experience has influenced your decision to seek an advanced degree.
This paragraph did a good job of describing your work at the Christian Assistance Ministry. Nonetheless, your argument digressed somewhat during your discussion of the difficulties faced by social workers. This paragraph is most effective if you focus on your accomplishments and on the needs of your clients.
Also, please note that even though the refined paragraph is more concise than your original, it still retains all the significant content. The ability to condense and synthesize information is highly prized by admissions committees.
This paragraph required more up-front details. You mention some diverse research experiences, which is good, but you should also cite the title of your position and describe your primary responsibilities.
Because the name of your company implies that you do small business development, a reader might be confused by your research in seemingly unrelated fields. Be sure that I accurately conveyed the essence of your professional responsibilities in my revised version of this paragraph.
To ensure that your description of the learning center is intelligible, I added more details to place this discussion in context.
"I am also an advocate of 21st Century Learning Centers that would provide a safe refuge for the millions of latch-key children in this country that go home to an empty house on any given school day."
You need to be more exacting in your transition sentences. By using a transition sentence like this, the reader assumes your entire paragraph will describe your work with latchkey children. As a result, your treatment of other topics catches the reader off guard.
"I also provided information in the form of brochures and handouts about other such organizations that could assist in the needs of their own schools."
This sentence does not tell the reader enough about your experience. Whenever you write, be sure that a reader who is unfamiliar with your accomplishments will understand the subject, object, and action of each sentence.
Please note that the term "advocate" could apply to either paid or unpaid work. You should specify the exact capacity in which you worked, especially as this is important to placing your accomplishment in perspective.
Finally, if you have time, you may wish to rework this section. A thorough description of one particular project (perhaps your thesis topic) would be much more persuasive than a list of numerous activities.
I do not think this paragraph adds much to your essay. You need to prove your qualifications through examples rather than simply describe them to reader.
"I have a very hard working and decisive character that has earned me a 4.0 GPA."
This sentence is a good example of an uncorroborated assertion. Although you are undoubtedly hard working and decisive, you need to prove it to the reader through concrete examples.
Paragraphs 6 to 8
As I mentioned in the first section of my critique, your essay will be stronger if you cite more specific goals. See my suggestions in the text, and be sure to elaborate on your specific areas of interest.
I suggest concluding your essay with the description of your long-term goals. Reemphasizing your desire to make education accessible to all is a great way to conclude your essay, and it brings your statement to a resonant close.
Overall, this is an excellent start to a compelling essay. Keep in mind that although the committee allows you to write up to five pages, three double-spaced pages is usually adequate. Feel free to add more detail, but make sure your text is concise and transparent. You might consider "writing" ideas and then "rewriting" them. Too often, authors put ideas onto the page, but do not render those ideas compellingly. Giving your sentences a bit of extra effort, and giving your experiences a bit of extra reflection, will result in a persuasive essay that compliments your accomplishments and character.
I wish you the best of luck in the admissions process.
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