The Personal Statement

The time is upon us to craft those personal statements. A seemingly innocuous task, it’s one that tends to haunt a good number of our students throughout the summer. Why so? It’s hard to write about one’s self and try to self yourself at the same time. When you consider the graduate school application process, the personal statement does happen to be a pretty important component. It’s the piece that holds the potential to “turn around” an application package containing any less than stellar items. Still, it doesn’t have to be such a huge deal.

So how do we keep it from driving us crazy? We break it down with Maureen’s expert guidance and take things one step at a time. In my view it comes down to a delicate balance between taking yourself really seriously, and, not. For sure you’ve got to tell your story in a way that shows how everything leads you to this very choice to pursue a graduate degree. You ground the reader in your background, your influences, your experiences that have drawn you to this point. For me personally? As a reader, I like to get a sense of who the person really is, their flavor, their zest for life.

I realize that in some fields, it’s more cut and dry. It’s all about the research actually. Tell us what you’ve done and we’ll tell you if you can do more of it here with us. I still think that you can insert a little personality that will speak to people. When it comes right down to it, people are looking for cool and smart people to join them in their work.

Here are the basics that you want to be sure to hit on:

  • Give us context on “why this” and “why now.” I like to see your goals set out right from the start – you want to get your degree from this program because why? What’s it going to enable you to do?
  • All throughout, you are demonstrating your intellectual capacity, so you want to introduce your influences and experiences in a way that goes deeper than just saying what they are. You want to talk about them in relation to how they have informed your thinking and curiosities. You want to describe them in a way that draws a picture for the reader of who you are, what excites you, what drives you and how you generally maneuver yourself in life. You do this by adding detail and providing a commentary on your experiences instead of just a laundry list of items you’ve completed.
  • Your research and research interests always need to be front and central. Again, describe them in a way that demonstrates your knowledge and gives the reader a “feel” for what kind of researcher you are aspiring to be.
  • I think it’s important to provide some “back drop” for your goals and interests, and often, this comes from sharing some personal details from your life. Where you grew up, what kinds of things you were exposed to, what challenges you might have faced, and then connecting it with the person you are today.
  • You demonstrate “fit” by indicating what prospective faculty advisors you would mesh well with. Naming more than person is essential and be sure to show how your interests align with theirs.
  • Think about the tone of your writing in an overall sense. What kind of “feel” do you get when you read it? You are striving to come through as someone who is smart, clear on their goals, is clear about their past and how it might inform their future, and someone who is excited about this next step in their journey. By drawing a picture of what’s cool and different about you, the reader will be sure to know exactly what you will be bringing to the table when they admit you.

The bottom line? Don’t think too much about it. Let your stuff flow as you write, you can shape and massage it in further drafts. In my experience, half the battle is just getting something down on paper in the first place. Try not to judge what might be coming out the tips of your fingers as you type (easier said than done). This is usually when your best stuff surfaces. Just the mere act of writing this piece will help you to clarify your goals and think more critically about your experiences and how they have led you to where you are today. The goal of your statement is to convince your readers how completing graduate work at their institution is an essential next step in your trajectory.

Best advice: go with it.