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 ywriters blockou 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

Make Sure You Do Your Research to Find the Grad Program that Fits!

Week 9, can you believe it?? The Career Changer is back to tell the penultimate episode of her wavy career path, a career path that continues on in this moment, as I sit here at my desk in Career Services at OSU. But cutting right to it, when I left off last time, I was working as the Director for a nonprofit in Colorado. Yet no matter how much I enjoyed that work, I knew that I wanted to be in higher education, advising students, using some of the administrative, leadership, and team building skills that I was cultivating in my work as an office manager for a real estate agency and a nonprofit administrator, as well as my teaching and tutoring background. I realized, as I was applying for the jobs I really wanted at colleges and universities, that I might not have the degree that most applied to my field of interest. I was definitely competing against applicants who had a degree directly related to advising and educational administration.

I needed one of those degrees if I wanted one of those jobs. So, I began the search for my next graduate school. This time, my process of searching was much more intentional. I took note of the degrees that colleges and universities preferred their applicants to have. For instance, many of the job descriptions I looked at that sounded exciting to me would say, “Preferred Master’s in Higher Education, College Student Personnel, Educational Leadership, College Student Services, or Related”, so I was looking for one of these degrees. To search, I found professional organizations associated with higher education, several of which have databases that list graduate school programs in the field. I examined programs’ courses of study, their placement statistics, their requirements, and their mission statements and values. A priority for me in a school concerned location; I didn’t want to attend a school in a community in which I did not want to live. The opportunity for funding was a huge factor as well, as I did not want to graduate from a program with an enormous amount of debt in my mid-thirties, and I also wanted job experience to help me get my first position out of school. Graduate programs will often offer assistantships, for research, teaching, or administrative work, in exchange for a monthly stipend and a tuition remission. These assistantships are amazing opportunities for students to fund their own education.

In the end, I applied to just four institutions; four schools that I thought would give me the total package to graduate with the experience and knowledge to get the position of my dreams. When you are considering graduate school, it is important to do this level of research. Because graduate programs can last 2, 3, 5, or even 7 years of your life, you want to ensure that you will learn and grow in the ways that you intended and also in ways that may be surprising. Ask yourself what your goals are and how each program will help you achieve those goals. Also, talk to current students and faculty. Do you fit with the program and the campus culture? In my case, it was clear to me after my interviews that I wanted to be at OSU. This worked out well, since here I am, blogging to you all!

Have a great end of the term, and I’ll be back finals week with some closing thoughts about what it means to forge your own wavy path through your vocational life. There isn’t a right way, just a right way for you!

Jessica Baron is currently a Graduate Assistant in Career Services at OSU and a full time student in the College Student Services Administration Program. Before making her way to Oregon State, Jessica worked as an actor, waiter, online tutor, receptionist, college composition instructor, creative writer, gas station attendant, nonprofit program director, writing workshop leader, high school drama coach, Hallmark card straightener, substitute teacher, real estate office manager, and SAT tutor, not necessarily in that order. Her “Confessions of a Career Changer” will focus on her wavy career path and the challenges and joys of wanting to do everything.