Most clients I see who are applying to graduate school do not know how to effectively write a good graduate school personal statement. They fall into a few common traps that keep their writing from being effective and memorable. Some of the most common traps they fall into are being too boring in their writing, restating their resume in their personal statement, or being too impersonal in the personal statement.
This is understandable. They were probably never taught how to write a graduate school personal statement, so why would they be able to pull it off on their first try?
But, how should you write a graduate school personal statement? Your goal should be to compellingly recount your personal journey as it pertains to applying to the graduate program of your choice, highlighting your most relevant accomplishments while making the case for yourself as a promising candidate.
A good personal statement should read like a story, and it should leave the reader on a high note. It needs some drama, some interesting situations, some personal failings and how you overcame them – think more Hollywood movie and less research paper.
Now, this isn’t to say that your personal statement shouldn’t pertain to the task at hand, which is selling yourself to the admissions committee. Indeed, what’s a more effective strategy, writing something exciting, interesting, and out of the ordinary, yet still focused on why you are a great candidate, or sticking to a boring, impersonal format that everyone else uses?
At the same time, you should always avoid a personal statement that brags. Why would you need to brag when you have already accomplished interesting things? Let your personal accomplishments speak for themselves. Ex: I founded the mathematics society at my university and served as president for three years. When I graduated we had a consistent attendance of twenty students each meeting.
Versus: I am a really great leader. I know how to get things done. I took it upon myself to start the mathematics society at my university. My peers elected me president three years in a row because they thought I was the most qualified and best guy for the job. Most everywhere I go people see me as a leader because of my charisma and confidence. I know I’ll be a leader in your program because I’ve always been successful and a leader everywhere I’ve ever been.
And I’ve seen personal statements even more braggy than this. Show, don’t tell; this is the first rule of good writing.
Here’s an easy step by step formula to follow to write a good graduate school personal statement.
Step 1: Brainstorm
You can complete this step alone, or even better, with someone else. The point of this step is to get the main experiences that tell your story down onto paper. Working with someone else will force you to get out of your own head and consider your own experiences from another person’s perspective.
More is better than less at this stage. Get it all down, even if it’s multiple pages of notes. Sometimes seemingly unimportant or unrelated experiences can provide compelling material for your personal statement. I like to start with my client’s childhood and work all the way up through high school, college, post-grad life (if applicable), and to the present. Sometimes childhood memories or experiences explain why you’re interested in your field or why you’re a unique candidate.
For example, I recently helped a woman apply to a graduate program in clinical psychology. It turns out she grew up seeing her brother experience schizophrenic episodes, which was the impetus for her going into the field of mental health. This is an important detail to include in her personal statement because it’s honest, interesting, compelling, and explanatory. It builds her case that becoming a clinical psychologist is a life-long dream, something she feels compelled to do. It’s a detail relevant to her life story and to her candidacy to a graduate program in clinical psychology.
I’ve found in helping hundreds of clients write personal statements that truth is almost always stranger than fiction. You just have to probe deep enough to find those idiosyncratic yet relevant experiences that work well in a personal statement.
Step 2: Create a Structure
Once you have a ton of details down, it’s time to start thinking like an author by figuring out how you plan on telling your story. Indeed the nature of story telling is exclusion. To tell a story, you must leave out a ton of details and only include those which compellingly advance your plot.
This step is also a good time to figure out what your main selling point as a candidate is going to be. Like a corporation, an applicant to graduate schools should figure out what his competitive advantage is. You only has a few minutes to impact an admissions officer, so it’s important to distill your competitive advantage down into something focused and manageable.
For example: The lifelong musician who has transferred her creativity into the field of engineering – she is creative and right-brained, and has demonstrated such with her extra-curricular activities, while also being left-brained, logical, and competent in math and science, an assertion backed up by her undergraduate transcript. She’s not one dimensional. She’s multi-faceted and human. She turns the stereotype of the overly linear engineer on its head by approaching engineering as a creative and artistic endeavor as much as a mathematical one. She thinks outside the box and defies stereotype.
Or there’s the guy who went to four different undergraduate universities all across the country before getting his degree. This could look like a negative to an admissions officer, so he spins it into something positive. He talks about how he’s learned to fit in at many different schools in many different states. He’s learned and grown as a young man all across the country with all types of people, and he’s built a resiliency and adaptability that have served him well so far. He’s the jack of all trades, having changed majors three times and worked in many different jobs. But he knows this is an asset not a liability. He’s been a high performer in different fields (backed up by his resume) and can talk to anyone, always able to find common ground.
So then, a candidates main theme or personal brand takes his or her disparate interests and accomplishments and puts them into a manageable and sensible logic. It can also be used to overcome a potential objection (I have a bad GPA but I was an entrepreneur who started two companies. I learned a ton of valuable things, X Y and Z in doing so, that my GPA can’t speak to.)
Think like a writer. Figure out how to tell your story in the most interesting way possible, while proving your case to the admissions office.
Step 3: Start Writing
This step gives a lot of my clients pause. They get writers block before they even start, unable to put words down on the page. In reality though, this is the easiest step in the whole process. Once you have your structure down, just start writing! All you need at this point is a rough draft. DO NOT over-analyze your writing, try to make your sentences sound perfect, or cause yourself more grief than necessary. Just put your thoughts and notes from step 2 into complete sentences.
Step 4: Edit and Edit again
This is a trickier step than step three. Here you need to make your writing pretty, you need to make sure your grammar is correct, and you need to make sure your personal statement flows effectively and reads as a cohesive narrative.
Enlist your friends and family to help and take their criticism seriously. What have you overlooked? What wasn’t explained well? How can yo answer the prompt more effectively?
Overall, writing a personal statement shouldn’t be hard. Figure out how you’re special and put that into a logical format. Edit three or four times, and voila, you’re a lot better off than when you started!
Think like a storyteller and tell your story!
Original post can be found here.