(By Tracy Bennett, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)
A filmed personal statement might have helped Elle Woods get into Harvard Law School, but in the real world, you’re better off sticking to these tips.
If you have seen the 2001 film, Legally Blonde, you might remember that Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, creates a video for her admissions essay to Harvard Law School. As she sits in a hot tub, she states that she will be an “amazing lawyer” because she can discuss important issues, such as the brand of toilet paper used in her sorority house, and she uses “legal jargon in everyday life” to object when men harass her. She can also recall details at the “drop of a hat,” including the recent events on a soap opera. (If you haven’t seen the movie or simply want a good laugh, you can view the clip on YouTube.)
Although the Harvard committee granted Elle admission, you will probably want to take your essay in a different direction. While you cannot change your grade point average or entrance exam scores, you have complete control over the contents of your personal statement. There are many applicants and few spots, so work diligently to persuade readers that you fit their program given your qualifications, interests and professional goals. Use the tips below to prepare and refine your essay.
1. Just get started.
Yes, your first sentence should be compelling and attention-grabbing, but if you attempt to identify your opening line immediately you will probably induce writer’s block. Make an outline or free write. You can tweak the introduction later once you are more aware of your noteworthy accomplishments or the defining events that have led to your career interests.
2. Articulate your reasons for selecting your chosen career.
Although these essays are often called personal statements, they are not an autobiography. Instead, view it as an essay about your journey as an emerging scholar. Provide evidence to demonstrate that you have actively confirmed your interests and that earning an advanced degree will help you achieve these goals. Describe the courses, articles, professors, research, service projects, internships, shadowing or co-curricular activities that have shaped your aspirations. Avoid references to high school accomplishments, gimmicks or clichés such as, “I have always wanted to be a _________.” Cautiously address controversial topics. It is one thing to demonstrate your knowledge of the field by referencing a current debate. It is quite another thing to offend your readers with excessive political or religious rhetoric.
3. Be specific.
For example, it is not enough to say that you aspire to be a social worker because you want to help children. You could do this in a variety of occupations. Similarly, anyone can say that they are interested in law. Earn credibility by demonstrating this passion. Have you worked at a law firm or participated in student government, Model UN and/or mock trial?
4. One size does not fit all.
Unless it is a common application system, such as those used by law, physical therapy and medical schools, you should describe your rationale for selecting the program among other alternatives. By the way, most of the schools that use a common application system will require supplemental essays that inquire about this. For the time being, you may omit it from your initial personal statement. Each institution has its own values, mission and faculty. What led you to select its particular program over others? Was it an emphasis in a particular area (e.g., rural practice, technology) or the research interests of a professor? Was your interest heightened by a conversation with its alumni?
5. Whatever your reasons for applying, be sincere.
Briefly mention any noteworthy and appealing features that attracted you to the program or institution, but do not go overboard. Committee members already know the prestigious awards that they have won, and most of your competition will mention these same attributes. If you offer excessive praise, you may only appear disingenuous.
6. Describe your professional interests, particularly as they relate to research.
If you identified faculty members who share your interest in a topic, describe your desire to work with them. Be specific, but keep your options open, too. Committee members will roll their eyes if you say you are interested in every research area of its faculty. On the other hand, if your interests are too narrow, they may question your ability to collaborate with professors.
7. Demonstrate your motivation and capacity to succeed.
Graduate schools are not only selecting students, but they are also choosing future ambassadors of their program. Persuade them that you will contribute to their reputation as an institution throughout your academic studies and professional career. Avoid summarizing other parts of your application. Instead, you should provide them with concrete examples including relevant publications, presentations, classroom assignments and employment experiences. For example, describing a service project could demonstrate your compassion, which some medical schools value. If you collaborated with others on a research topic, describe your specific contribution. Research in particular is valuable to your readers because you will more than likely need to immerse yourself in this activity during your graduate studies, especially if you are a Ph.D. candidate.
If you have any blemishes in your application, such as low test scores, criminal convictions or poor grades, think carefully before you offer a rationale. If you were to survey career coaches and faculty, some would advise you to describe anomalies because, if you do not, you leave it open to imagination. Others, however, would only encourage you to share details if the graduate program requests it. Advisers on this side of the camp fear that graduate programs may perceive such descriptions as potential liabilities or excuses, especially if your grades were repeatedly low. For example, while committee members may empathize if you reveal that you struggle with test anxiety, they may still question your ability to succeed. Most graduate programs entail tests, and many occupations require individuals to pass licensing examinations before they can enter the fields. Applicants’ inability to perform in this arena may jeopardize the professional standing of the institution.
If you elect to include this information, be brief and positive. Keep it simple and do not be defensive. Perhaps your academic ability improved once you discovered your passion. Maybe you persisted despite a serious illness or death in your family. If you decide not to address these anomalies yourself, consider asking one of your trusted references to include the topic from a positive standpoint in your letter of recommendation.
8. Be concise.
Personal statements are generally no more than two pages. If the sentence is not essential to your thesis, remove it. Also eliminate unnecessary words, such as “in order to,” “I believe” and “the fact is.”
9. Carefully proofread and refine the essay.
Any errors reflect your ability as a writer. Confirm that you used transitions, diverse sentence structures, first person and active voice. Substitute weak words, such as “love,” with a more professional, powerful alternative. Let it sit overnight. Then, read it aloud or backward. Have a consultant at your campus writing center or a professor critique the essay.
10. Enjoy the writing process.
Preparing a personal statement confirms your desire to attend graduate school and clarifies your interests or goals, which is why professional schools require it. A few years from now, this will prove helpful in your professional job search as you write cover letters and respond to interview questions.
Billie Streufert is director of the Academic Success Center at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. With nearly 10 years of experience in career and academic advising, she is passionate about helping individuals discover and achieve their goals. She is eager to connect with students via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and her blog.
Billie Streufert, grad school, Harvard, personal statement, University of Sioux Falls, CAMPUS LIFE, CAREER PATH, VOICES FROM CAMPUS
Essays are an incredibly important part of the application process, says Stacy Blackman, an MBA admissions consultant. Seemingly straightforward questions require a great deal of introspection. Make sure you budget time to draft and redraft, try new approaches and carefully edit so that each line packs the maximum punch
1 As soon as you know that you are going to apply to business school, you can start to prepare in a low-stress way. Keep a notebook and jot down anything interesting that comes to mind. An inspiring lecture, a disappointing performance review, an enlightening conversation with a friend, a travel experience, running a marathon, a stimulating book—all of these can be terrific material for your essays. Don't agonise over whether it will make a great topic, just jot it down. You will find that you quickly have a plethora of material to choose from.
2 As you begin to approach essay-writing time, consider putting together a “brag sheet”. Write down all of the things about you that would not necessarily appear on a résumé: languages you speak, all extracurricular involvements, family traditions and more. This can also be mined for essay content.
3 Once you have the essay questions in hand, there may still be a few stumpers. Even with lots of content, when you are faced with answering a question such as “What matters most to you?” it is difficult to decide. Here is an exercise that stops you from over-thinking: set your alarm clock for 3am. When you wake up, ask yourself the question. The first thing that comes to mind might surprise you. Do this for a couple of nights and you may come up with a few options or find that you are building a consensus around a certain topic.
4 Before you actually write the essays, take the final step of mapping out the general topics you will cover in each essay. As you map a topic to a question, check it off on a master list of stories you want to cover. This way, you can make sure that a given school is receiving all of your key stories, and that you are spreading out different stories across an application and not being repetitive.
5 Everyone works in different ways: some work best first thing in the morning, others are night owls. Some need to outline concepts on paper, others go straight to computer. So develop a plan that supports your individual style. Many find that the first application can take around 40 hours of work—brainstorming, drafting, editing, refining. As you approach this process, make sure you have the time. Tackle one application at a go. Do not take work leave or attempt it in a single week. Essays require time to gel. Therefore make sure that you have plenty of time to do it right. You may require six weeks, or you may even want 12.
6 Many applicants are inhibited by perfectionism. They can sit at the computer for hours, unable to generate that “perfect” essay, rewriting so furiously that they don't get past the first few sentences. It is often easier to edit than to write. So just type. A page full of so-so text is less intimidating than that blank page.
7 It is essential that you research your target schools and understand how to appeal to each of them. Each will have a slightly different ethos and look for something different in their students. But…
8 …you can also save yourself a bit of work. There are certain qualities that all business schools want to see in a successful applicant:
- team skills
- communication skills
Just saying “I am a strong leader” is not enough. Every claim you make must have supporting stories that help the reader believe you. You do not need to check off every quality on the list. Select a few that apply to you and reinforce those in an honest and compelling way.
9 Nobody is perfect. The schools know this and you need to show them that you are realistic and self-aware. Revealing your humanity—in the form of quirks, weaknesses and flaws—can often help the admissions committee to like you. A story about how you learned from a failure, improved upon a weakness or struggled with challenges can be compelling. The other side of this is the ability to demonstrate that you can really benefit from the MBA degree. If you know everything already, an admissions committee may wonder why you want to return to school.
10 Get some help. Even the most meticulous writers benefit from a second or third set of eyes. Ask someone to review your essays, look for typos and tell you if you are hitting all of the points in the right way. Is your attempt at humour coming off correctly? Do you seem too humble, too cocky, too serious, not serious enough? After you have been buried with your essays for weeks, a fresh perspective can often help you see the application as an admissions-committee member does: for the first time. Enlist someone who knows about the application process and make sure they are not just reassuring you that all is well, but are actually giving you some quality feedback.
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