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Professional Development

The Genre of the Personal Statement

It’s fall, and that means it’s officially time to begin crafting admissions essays again! And no, I don’t mean the Common Application that haunted a teenage year or two in high school; I’m talking about graduate school applications. Whether you’re looking into a program in International Affairs or Bioengineering, you may face a vague prompt and a tight word limit to portray your passion, credentials, and potential.

Here, we’ll walk through what a personal statement is, what it should achieve as a part of your application package, and five do’s for the content of your personal statement. Let’s dive right in.

What is a personal statement?

Sometimes referred to as a statement of purpose, a personal statement is a short essay that states your purpose for pursuing graduate-level study. “Personal statement” and “statement of purpose” may be used interchangeably, or there may be differences that distinguish a personal statement from a statement of purpose piece. While the statement of purpose tends to answer the question, “What is your purpose for applying to graduate school?”, the personal statement answers, “How have your experiences and background prepared and led you to graduate school?”. 

In other words, while statements of purpose tend to focus more on your academic and professional experiences, career interests, and your suitability to the program, the personal statement has a more personal leaning, and invites prospective students to write on their narratives a bit more deeply. It can include information on your motivations, interests, long-term goals, accomplishments and challenges you have overcome. 

Whichever you have been asked to write, this short essay in your grad school application package acts as the space in your application to explain why you want to be a graduate student at a particular university, highlighting your goals for the degree and career and your previous academic preparation, according to UC Davis

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According to ASU admissions, the admissions committees reviewing your personal statement want to pinpoint what your previous experiences, accomplishments, and background will contribute to the program you desire to study at. Explaining why you and the program of your choice are a good fit is essential.

Your personal statement prompt may look different from others simply depending on the school or program for which you are applying. Be aware of the sort of genre of writing that is expected from applicants of your chosen program. While some arts programs may come with the expectation that personal statements may be more creatively constructed, this may not hold for people applying to business school. In writing this post, I found two schools (Johns Hopkins University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) with which to compare personal statement prompts. 

Some prompts, such as the one for a Master of Arts in International Relations at Johns Hopkins, will ask students to take a forward-leaning perspective and seek to describe their career and graduate study goals in the prompt. Students may be nudged to explain their motivation for selecting to study a specific field in graduate school (especially if this differs from the undergraduate discipline) and describe how the school would help them meet their academic and career goals. Here is the prompt referred to:

“Statement of Purpose: Discuss your goals for graduate study and for your professional career. What experiences have most contributed to your desire to study international relations? How will this degree program serve to meet your academic and professional goals? This essay should be no more than 600 words in length.”

On the other hand, prompts such as that for applicants to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Economics degree program may leave the central focus of the student’s personal statement essay more open. These sorts of prompts ask students to choose if they would like to discuss their academic interests, work and research experiences, long-term goals, or other experiences. In this case, gauge what the prompt seems to foreground the most. In the following prompt, half of the description covers the length expected for the applicant’s personal statement. With that said, it appears that the prompt is nudging students to elaborate most on their meaningful research, professional, and academic interests. The exact prompt is as follows:

“Topics that you may want to discuss in your Statement of Purpose include: your academic interests,  research, or work experience relevant to graduate study in economics, your career goals, any other pertinent experiences. The statement should be one to two pages single-spaced. If you have described your interests in less than two pages, please do not feel compelled to stretch out your statement to fill more space. Keep in mind that more is not necessarily better. (If necessary to relate your interests and background, you may add an additional page.) Note that we do not expect applicants to have identified a research topic or even a specific research area before beginning graduate school but we do look for evidence that an applicant has thought seriously about attending graduate school and undertaking a major research project.”

Likewise, personal statement prompts are likely to have drastically different length requirements from school to school. Yet, the similarities lie in the fact that each personal statement completed must demonstrate a knowledge of the trajectory the student intends to follow and how their program would assist them in it. In essence, the purpose of the personal statement is to provide a succinct story of where you have been and where you intend to go academically and professionally. With this in mind, here are five do’s for crafting a personal statement that takes into account both your previous accomplishments and your goals for the future.

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Top 5 Do’s

1. Organize your response carefully.

Although for some it may seem like meeting the word or page requirement for a personal statement is daunting, others may feel as if they don’t have enough space to put all they want to say into their personal statement. Regardless of your dilemma, it takes time and intention to write a meaningful piece. 

Make a map of a few short paragraphs that build on each other. Maybe you will begin your statement talking about the project you completed at your internship, move to a paragraph on your current leadership and coursework experiences, and conclude with how the university’s program aligns with your long-term goals. Whichever organization you choose, choose with intent! Every paragraph should help build the confidence of the admissions committee that you will be an asset to their school. 

It is imperative that you revise carefully, deleting unneeded sentences and words. You’ve got just a minute or two to tell your story. Succinct storytelling is not only captivating, but difficult, so a concise narrative attests to the caliber of work you are capable of.

2. Tell your story.

There are many life experiences that attest to the trials of what it means to be human and persist through tragic and unexpected life changes, and sometimes, these can be weaved into the overarching narrative you tell in your personal statement highlighting your professional and academic journey. Mentioning a challenge that you overcame or an impactful moment in life that led you to pursue a specific field of study could help allow admissions officers to understand you and your journey to applying for grad school more clearly. God has given us each different stories to carry, and the one He gave you is always worth telling honestly.

Frame experiences as things that have shaped and molded you into the person you are today. Admissions committees know grad school is hard work; let them see that you have developed emotional maturity, resilience, perseverance, diligence, time management, or leadership through the academic and professional story details you include. Your readers will already know the general nature of your accomplishments from the rest of your application; it is here that you get to invite them to understand how you think and solve problems, as well as what your motivations and driving passions are. 

The personal statement is a chance to provide the admissions committee with new information that cannot be derived simply by looking at your college transcript, resume, or letters of recommendation. Consider writing your personal statement as one cohesive narrative of your journey.

3. Show and tell.

You need to show how you are prepared for a specific program, taking into account how your research would be propelled under the guidance of specific faculty members. As you talk about the events you generated on campus as a club president, the specific results you produced as a summer intern at a nonprofit organization, or the award you received conducting research with a faculty member, it’s important to explain how your accomplishments fall in line with your passions. 

Describe where you showed initiative, drive, and leadership. Alternate between describing the process of being motivated to pursue opportunities and displaying the tangible outcomes you created in those positions. Finding a balance between showing and telling your accomplishments, achievements, interests, and experiences is essential!

The key to showing is getting specific about details. Instead of making a lot of general claims in your essay about what you are motivated by, or what experiences you have had, or why the school you are applying to is a good fit for you, prove this by providing hard figures about your accomplishments and commitments and how they could enhance the school. It is important for you, an applicant to graduate school, to include specific details in your personal statement that answer not only questions of “what,” but also “how” and “why. ”

4. Explain why you are a good fit for them, and they for you.

Make the case for why you chose and would add to the specific program you’re applying for. What does it have to give to you that you couldn’t get elsewhere? Does your two-year program have a practicum, internship, or research abroad component that you are especially drawn to? Is there a specific professor with research interests that intrigue you? Know the program you are applying to and leverage your strengths to fit it!

This part of your personal statement is integral to truly distinguish your writing from being merely a personal story of your past and your current areas of focus. By electing to end on a note, or weave throughout your piece, a description of why you would contribute to your selected program, you create an opportunity for admissions committees to respond to your writing. If writing in the personal statement is a conversation of sorts between applicants and reviewers, your explication of why the program is a good fit for you and them is an invitation to respond affirmatively by offering you a place in their program. 

5. Choose your tone carefully. 

Since the personal statement is neither a confessional nor a pedestal, consider how you sound in your essay. Beware of slang, punctuation or spelling errors, or overdone humor. At the same time, stay away from overly technical jargon or syntax or vocabulary hearkening back to Shakespeare’s day. You want to leave a memorable impression, but not for being overly rigid or uncomfortably lax.

It is generally advisable to conform to the typical genre of personal statement expected of applicants to specific programs. For example, it may be to an applicant’s benefit to take risks by writing in fragments or with varied syntax when applying for a creative writing degree program. However, for someone going on to study Middle Eastern history, this may be inappropriate. While it may be tempting to write in a way that may be unique or out of the ordinary, it is generally advisable to attend to and write in line with the standards typical for your discipline.

Staying true to your own brand of writing is important to ensure that your personal statement reads clearly and personally; however, it is also important to remain credentialed and professional.¹ It can be helpful to read your piece aloud to yourself or a friend willing to listen. By hearing your piece spoken, you will be able to identify parts of your writing that sound overly casual or too impersonal. 

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Conclusion

By harnessing these tips, and beginning your personal statement early (give yourself at least a month from first to final drafts), you are setting yourself up for a stronger graduate school application.

Before even writing, reach out to at least two professors, prior internship supervisors, or academic advisors to request their feedback and revision. Not only will they be able to help you better articulate who you are as a student and professional, but they will be more likely to understand your motivations for applying to graduate school and your specific program. Requesting that professors review your personal statement can give them the chance to comment on your candidacy for graduate studies with more clarity and precision, and they will be better able to speak to your qualifications.

If you’re stuck in a rut while writing your personal statement, be sure to check out the Writing Center Blog’s entries on brainstorming and setting the scene for productive writing sessions. Oh, and also, check out the examples on this PrepScholar website for more ideas on what grad school personal statements can look like, and check out this PrepScholar website for help when writing either a personal statement or a statement of purpose.

Endnotes:

  1.  For an essay that is so personal, many students are tempted to break academic conventions, often to make a point about who they are and how they stand out from others. Unfortunately, you’ll have to make these decisions with caution–until you’re accepted into your program of study, it is usually better to play it safe and take a standard academic tone.

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