That’s right. ‘Tis the season: for snow and ice and long afternoons spent artfully avoiding that noisy item on your perpetual to-do list: the Personal Statement for Graduate School. Just putting it on the to-do list hasn’t gotten it done. Neither has eating every cookie in your house and your neighbor’s house (although, I applaud you for trying and urge you to continue as that is a delicious way of practicing avoidance). The bottom line is, the personal statement has to be written. And, it has to be written by you.
A personal statement has to be personal. It is one facet of the diamond of you that you will present to whatever institute(s) of higher education you choose, and it is an important one. The practice of writing a personal statement requires honest reflection, constructive self-criticism and provides a chance to sit with yourself and truly understand how you got here and where you want to go. If I write it for you, or your friends write it for you, or Google writes it for you, then you’ve skipped the process and missed the point. And, that graduate school committee will see right through it. They’ve read thousands of these.
As a professional with actual interest in writing, I still find constructing a personal statement to be extremely challenging, because there is no prescriptive way of doing it. If you look around, there is a lot of advice on how to put one together, a lot of it seemingly contradictory: “Start with a personal story that will grab their interest” and “Don’t get too dramatic and tell a story for shock value. That’s off-putting”; or, “Don’t repeat your resume” and “Be sure to include experience and education that is relevant and has impacted your decision”. It is, justifiably so, difficult to know exactly what to include. So, look at all those suggestions, reflect on some answers to a few broad questions (Why do I want to go to this school? What do I bring as a student and professional? How do I see myself using and enhancing this education? Why didn’t I become a florist instead?) and then, do this . . .
Just start writing.
This is the best piece of advice I have ever received from a writing mentor. If you don’t know what to write, staring at a blank page is not going to help. Just write something down. I wrote a personal statement for grad school that started by typing the following words: “I’m writing a personal statement for grad school and it will probably suck because I can’t write and I don’t have anything to write about.”
I’m not kidding. (That line didn’t, unbelievably, make it into the final draft.)
I went on to list all the reasons I’m a terrible writer and that I have nothing to offer the programs. I even got a little angry with the process (“Why should I have to prove that I fit with this program? I’m supposed to be a counselor, I can be a counselor, I want to be a counselor, what other proof do they need?!”) As I typed, I realized that soon, through all of the muck, some actual gems of information started to shine: some of my motivations for pursuing school again after I said I would never go to graduate school; some of my goals for what I would glean from graduate school; some of my turning points and learning curves that impacted my ability to be successful in a master’s program. And most importantly, it was all my voice.
Once you’ve gotten the flow going a bit, then start adding in some of the things you’ve been instructed to do: talk about coursework that you think is important, show some of your strengths and abilities and examples of you using them, talk about impactful personal and professional experiences and explain your interest in a program’s characteristics. Don’t worry about format or structure yet. Those are things that can be edited and worked with after you feel that some of the integral parts of your content are already on paper.
Try that approach as a start if you haven’t already started writing. And perhaps start rationing the cookies a bit more strictly, to avoid a complete brain overload and sugar crash.
And if you want more, try out these tips for preparing a statement:
Do your research. Know the programs and the schools to which you are applying. You ought to be able to identify and articulate a thorough answer to the question “Why do you want to complete your graduate studies in this particular program?” If you are struggling to come up with anything to answer this question, then take the time to look into the program more. Utilize their web page, contact the program and graduate school main office, read the mission and vision statements and learning objectives, look into the archives of the program’s projects, coursework, research topics and more. Anything you can do to better understand why the program exists the way it does will help you understand whether you have sincere interest in being part of it.
Follow directions. Please read the instructions for the personal statement. Oftentimes, programs will include a specific question or set of questions to answer or address. If not, and it is a general personal statement, it still needs to be written in a way that is directed toward what you learned from doing your research.
Avoid canned phrases and ideas. I would wager that you are all aware of this, but might want a reminder now and again: almost every person who wants to be a doctor likes science and wants to help people. Unearth some other reasons you want to go to medical school. And likewise for your field of interest. Get creative.
Show instead of tell. Anyone can say “I’m awesome and I have all these skills and interests that you should care about.” Instead of listing why you are awesome, show them: concrete illustrations of initiative you’ve taken, hard lessons you’ve learned, instances that have inspired you and how you’ve played a role in the world. Connect the examples to the program and continued education and active learning.
Don’t throw a pity party. If struggling through something in life has impacted you in a way that is significant and speaks to who you are and how you plan to be, that is ok. The struggle is ok and often ends up being rewarding in one way or another. However, the struggle is not always the reason that you want to go to law school, or get a graduate degree in public health or history. It might be, or it might be part of the story, or it might have nothing to do with your graduate school goals whatsoever. If the latter is the case, please don’t make that experience the main focus of your personal statement. Pulling at heartstrings is not the most direct way into graduate school.
Good luck and come see us in Career Services for help, encouragement, and to share those cookies . . .!
posted by Malia Arenth, Career Counselor