Tackling the Graduate Application Personal Statement

Writing a personal statement for a graduate school application can feel a little like building a bicycle from leftover car parts. You know you have the components for a vehicle. But, each piece feels bigger and more complicated than what you need, and nothing seems to fit together perfectly. It’s intimidating to distill your experiences down to a few sentences and knit them together to form a cohesive narrative explaining why you’re ready for the next academic step.

But, don’t get discouraged. Selection committees are basically looking for three things: that you are academically and intellectually prepared for your program, that you have the maturity to handle a step up in rigor and expectation, and that you will eagerly contribute to the department’s professional or scholarly community. A great personal statement tells a story that conveys all of this information. Here are some tips to keep in mind when you are crafting your personal statement.

1. Get an early start.
Once you know where you are applying and have access to application instructions, be bold and get right into it. The more time between when you start writing your statements and when your applications are due, the better. The reasons are simple. First, you’ll have time to solicit feedback from friends and colleagues. Second, you’ll have time to put your essay away for a few days or even a few weeks and read it again with fresh eyes.

2. Write first, and edit later.
One strategy for getting started is to pretend you’re writing an email to a close friend. When you write to your friends, you write in an honest, conversational, and authentic way. It’s easier to get to the heart of what you are trying to say when you write to someone you trust and care about. Once you have some words down, it will be easier for you to shape those words into an essay.

3. Follow the directions.
Go through the instructions and start to tailor what you want to say to the application’s format. Pay attention to word counts, page limits, spacing, and requests for you to cover specific content. Keep in mind that many universities (including the University of Minnesota) use a one-size-fits-all application software for the entire institution. Thus, there might be two sets of instructions: one in the application portal and another on the program’s website. Pay close attention to both sets.

4. Write for the school.
You know when you see an advertisement that’s clearly not meant for you? Those advertisements can be easy to dismiss. It sometimes feels that way to selection committees if an applicant hasn’t researched their department. If you write about a research agenda or a career goal that doesn’t align with the program to which you are applying, it will be hard for a selection committee to see you as a competitive candidate. Name a few faculty members you would be excited to work with. Show how your interests match the values and research themes in the department. And, conclude your essay with a sentence or two about why this particular department is a great fit for you.

5. Demonstrate maturity and personal growth.
It can be tempting to show steady commitment to your field or profession by referencing experiences you had long ago. After all, who wouldn’t want an applicant that has been dreaming of this opportunity for his or her entire life? However, if you write about inspirational experiences that happened in high school or before, your graduate school personal statement could almost double as an undergraduate essay. Talk about meaningful experiences you’ve had as an adult. Even if it has been your life-long dream to pursue a career in the field to which you are applying, write about the more recent experiences that have galvanized that dream. Faculty are looking for deeper, more nuanced reflections on your adult aspirations.

6. Edit and proofread separately.
Editing is the process of changing the text in order to improve the clarity and quality of writing. When we’re writing, it’s easy for us all to get attached to our own artful turns of phrase, elegant sentences, and clever transitions. We’re writing for ourselves, and we intimately know our own meanings. However, after a few days, we can easily forget what we intended, revealing mistakes in clarity and transition. If possible, give yourself a break between your writing and your editing so you can spot errors more easily. Make sure your ideas are strong and that they are conveyed in a cohesive, logical manner.

If editing is an art, proofreading is a science. It’s nearly impossible to do both simultaneously. Again, if possible, give yourself a break between editing and proofreading. Then proofread for grammar and syntax. This is where you want to fix punctuation and pay close attention to things like tricky homophones that don’t show up in spell check (e.g., their, there, and they’re, or to, too, and two). Read closely for missing words. And, end with reading through your essay aloud to catch any remaining errors.

7. Ask for help.
Our last piece of advice is to find one or two people you trust and ask them to read your statement. Seek people that know about your field. Ask your readers to review your work for specific issues such as grammar and spelling or voice and tone. Be open to their thoughts and suggestions, even if they are tough to hear.

Writing a personal statement takes time and thoughtfulness. But, if you can convey your readiness and enthusiasm for a new academic adventure, you will certainly make a strong impression on any selection committee.

Looking for more tips on applying to grad school? See our post on practical things to consider when applying to graduate school