Tips for writing an effective personal statement
What is the purpose of the personal statement?
Admissions committees review a lot of applications. The personal statement (like a cover letter for a job application) is your time to take your experience and personality and draw a direct line from their program to you! Use the personal statement to fill in any gaps in your resume or other information and pull disconnected pieces of your story together. You do not want to make your application reviewers do more work than necessary. It is not always as easy to connect the dots about someone else as we think it is. Present your story in your own words and reference other things in your application packet (for example: “as you will see on my resume I…”). Be careful, however, to not simply rehash your resume. A personal statement should provide a new and interesting take on what you have in your resume. This is your first (and possibly only) chance to show reviewers who you are and why they should care about you.
What will an admissions committee care about?
- Leadership, People skills
- Clubs and activities, Volunteer work, and Hobbies
- Teaching experience
- Research experience and application of knowledge and skills learned in the classroom or through firsthand experience
- Communication skills — no typos or grammatical errors
- How you became interested in the field
- Genuine interest in the field, and your career plans/ideas
- Brevity — if you can be straightforward and to the point, you will impress the reader more than if you take 10 pages to get around to the same idea.
- That you answered any questions that were asked of you
- Unique and interesting individuals who will be a pleasure to work with
Brainstorm what makes you the perfect candidate:
Before you begin, you must determine what any given committee is looking for and tailor your statement — and entire application — to that particular school, program, or job’s needs. Review the application requirements and any other information available to you and put yourself in the reviewer’s shoes. Then, ask yourself these questions:
- What are you applying for?
- How will the personal statement be used?
- What are you trying to accomplish with the essay?
- How competitive is the process?
Once you know what reviewers are looking for, take some time to think about your story. What makes you unique, what are your interests and influences, etc.
Take some time to think about what makes you unique. Make a list of ten things that someone else may find interesting — get help from family, friends, professors, or your mentor if needed.
- Do you have any interesting experiences or talents?
- Was there anything special or unusual about where/how you grew up or where you went to college?
- Did you take an unusual journey to where you are now? (Did you start college as a theater major and change to biochemistry? Why? What happened?)
- Does your family history give you a different perspective than the average applicant?
Brainstorm about what excites you and what motivates you to continue on your educational or professional journey. Admissions officials want to know that you will be a good investment for their institution. Think about times you showed grit or tenacity.
Make a list of your intellectual influences.
- What scientists and articles have influenced your thinking?
- Who were your favorite professors/mentors? Why?
- What is the best paper/exam you have had and what made it good?
- What do you think is the most important “work” in your field?
- What is the most important concept you have learned in college?
- Other educational milestones or guideposts.
Make a list of your “light bulb moments”
- Where were you/what were you doing when it crystallized in your mind that you wanted to pursue this particular field at a graduate/professional level?
- How has your interest evolved? What were the turning points?
- What experiences have led you to believe you would LIKE to do “this”?
- What experiences have led you to believe you would be GOOD at doing “this”?
Clearly define your career goal or path. List what attracts you to this path and why you think you would be successful in this career.
Explore your educational and research background.
- How have you prepared yourself for success in graduate school?
- What body of relevant knowledge will you take with you?
- What skills are you proficient in? What skills are developing?
- What personal attributes make you likely to succeed in your field of choice?
- List your major projects (when, what) and what your role was
- What did you really learn?
- Who did you work with? Where?
- Was your research published or presented? (or will in the future?)
- Ramifications of your project…’who cares? so what?’ (important to put your work in the bigger context!)
- What has been your biggest accomplishment/ what are you most proud of?
- Don’t limit this to just research
- What encouraging words others have said to you?
- Write down the “actual words” and when they were said to you (and by whom).
Formatting your Personal Statement
This is your first (and potentially only) chance to grab the reader and excite them about your application.
- Interesting info about you
- Unusual experiences
- Epiphany experience
- Be vivid in your description
- Career statement
- Phrases such as “ever since I was a little girl/boy” and “my grandfather/grandmother taught me” tend to be over used. You can tell a story from your childhood, but find a more interesting way to introduce it.
This is the time to sine and show the reviewers that you are mature, experienced, and dedicated but not without personality.
The body should answer these questions:
- Why are you here?
- How did you get here? What was your journey?
- What is inside of you that makes you want to do this?
- What comes next?
- What will you spend your time doing between now and graduate school, starting the program, or beginning the job in question?
Successful Essays Offer:
- Specific academic preparation and knowledge
- Demonstration of an understanding of what the student is “getting into”
- Sense of maturity, compassion, stamina, teamwork skills, leadership (indirectly)
- Names of specific potential mentors and aspects about the program that show a good fit
- How the applicant will use the advance degree in a career
- Demonstration of an understanding of the student’s role in the “big picture”
Tell the reviewers what conclusions they should make about you based on your experience, uniqueness, and personality. Politely let them know that you look forward to working with them.