How to a Write Personal Statement for Graduate School

Sep 20, 2018

By Deborah Vieyra

You’re applying to your dream school, but the blank page is glaring at you. You have little cheerleaders in your head urging you to get going. It’s only a personal statement, after all. How hard can it be? Somehow, you just don’t know what to say about yourself.

If this is how you are feeling as you sit down to write your personal statement for graduate school, you are not alone. This deceptively challenging task is one of the hardest parts of the application process — and it’s easy to see why. An admissions body has to go through hundreds of applications and somehow yours has to rise to the top. Your personal statement is your opportunity to connect with the people making the decisions about your future.

While the requirements for each graduate program will be different, there are a few top tips that are applicable across the board. Here are 5 ways to write a personal statement that jumps off the page and immediately connects with the selection committee.

1.  Get Started.

While this seems like the most obvious advice you could ever get, knowing where to begin can be one of the hardest parts of the journey. Of course, you really want to do well, and sometimes just the pressure of that desire to achieve can paralyze you. What should that perfect first sentence be that will make your audience sit up and pay attention? While it is important to ensure that the quality of your writing is as good as it can be, the best approach is to first brainstorm on paper all you want to say. You will more than likely find that the process of writing down your thoughts – even in bullet points – will trigger your best ideas. The first step is that simple — just start.

2.  Follow the Instructions

Every program has a unique set of instructions that you will need to follow to write a successful personal statement. Some have word count stipulations, and almost always they will ask you to answer two or more specific questions about your background, goals and motivations. Think of this as your first graduate school test. They want to know if you can follow instructions — show them that you can. This means that if you are applying to multiple schools, steer away from submitting the same exact personal statement for every school. One way to get started on your draft personal statement is to simply write a sentence directly answering their questions. If the statement instructions ask you to describe “your reasons for applying to the proposed program,” start drafting the sentence “I am applying to this graduate program because…” and fill in the rest.

3.  Be you.

While graduate schools will be interested in your GPA and the awards you have received, they are most interested in one thing — who you are. Being you is one thing that there is no way anyone can do better than you no matter how hard they try. Give them a feel for what you care deeply about, how you have demonstrated leadership ability in your life, and why you are drawn to the work you want to do. Think of your personal statement as an opportunity to sit down with the selection committee and introduce yourself.

4.  Tell a story — don’t rewrite your resume

A common mistake is to simply regurgitate your resume when compiling your personal statement. Unless it is part of a story you would like to tell them about your life, it’s not necessary to list your achievements and experience. Rather, think of this task as if you are writing a good story about yourself. Ask yourself why they should be interested in the story’s protagonist.

5.  Demonstrate that you have done your research

Connect your personal story back to the program you are applying to. How do your own ambitions align with the goals of the program? This is the perfect place to demonstrate that you’ve looked into the details of the program and the university and have made your decision to apply from an informed perspective. Perhaps you have an interest in the work of one of the faculty members, or maybe you are drawn to one of the key focus areas of the department. Be sure to mention the specific reasons why you are pursuing this program and not others. Express what you have to gain from their program and why the program is such a great fit for you and your goals.

Has this got your wheels turning? Great, now get writing!

Deborah Vieyra is a Fulbright alumna from South Africa who completed her MA in Applied Theatre Arts at the University of Southern California. She now works as a writer, proofreader and performer in Vancouver, Canada.

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