Writing University Application Personal Statement

Writers Workshop: Writer Resources

Writing Tips: Personal Statements

Overview of the Personal Statement

Personal statements are sometimes also called "application essays" or "statements of purpose." Whatever they are called, they are essentially essays which are written in response to a question or questions on a graduate or professional school application form which asks for some sort of sustained response.

Some applications ask more specific questions than others. There is no set formula to follow in shaping your response, only choices for you to make, such as whether you should write an essay that is more autobiographically focused or one that is more professionally focused.

From application to application, requested personal statements also vary widely in length, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to a series of essays of a page or so each.

Personal statements are most important when you are applying to an extremely competitive program, where all the applicants have high test scores and GPA's, and when you are a marginal candidate and need the essay to compensate for low test scores or a low GPA.

Context Considerations

How are personal statements read, and by whom? It's most likely that your personal statement will be read by professors who serve on an admissions committee in the department to which you are applying. It is important in developing your personal statement to carefully consider this audience. What are the areas of specialty of this department, and what might it be looking for in a graduate student?

Additionally, since personal statements will most often be read as part of your "package," they offer an opportunity to show aspects of yourself that will not be developed in other areas of your application. Obviously, it is important that personal statements are not simply prose formulations of material contained elsewhere in the application.

It may be helpful to think of the statement as the single opportunity in your package to allow the admissions committee to hear your voice. Often times, committees are sorting through large numbers of applications and essays, perhaps doing an initial quick sort to find the best applicants and then later reading some of the personal statements more thoroughly. Given that information, you will want your statement to readily engage the readers, and to clearly demonstrate what makes you a unique candidate--apart from the rest of the stack.

One Process for Writing the Personal Statement

  1. Analyze the question(s) asked on a specific application.
  2. Research the school and/or program to which you are applying.
  3. Take a personal inventory (see below). Write out a 2-3 sentence response to each question.
  4. Write your essay.
  5. Revise your essay for form and content.
  6. Ask someone else - preferably a faculty member in your area - to read your essay and make suggestions for further revision.
  7. Revise again.
  8. Proofread carefully.

Personal Inventory Questions

  • What makes you unique, or at least different from, any other applicant?
  • What attracts you to your chosen career? What do you expect to get out of it?
  • When did you initially become interested in this career? How has this interest developed? When did you become certain that this is what you wanted to do? What solidified your decision?
  • What are your intellectual influences? What writers, books, professors, concepts in college have shaped you?
  • How has your undergraduate academic experience prepared you for graduate/professional school?
  • What are two or three of the academic accomplishments which have most prepared you?
  • What research have you conducted? What did you learn from it?
  • What non-academic experiences contributed to your choice of school and/or career? (work, volunteer, family)
  • Do you have specific career plans? How does graduate or professional school pertain to them?
  • How much more education are you interested in?
  • What's the most important thing the admissions committee should know about you?
  • Think of a professor in your field that you've had already and that you like and respect. If this person were reading your application essay, what would most impress him or her?

Do…

  • Answer all the questions asked.
    • If you are applying to more than one program, you may find that each application asks a different question or set of questions, and that you don't really feel like writing a bunch of different responses. However, you should avoid the temptation to submit the same essay for different questions—it's far better to tailor your response to each question and each school.
    • If you do find yourself short on time and must tailor one basic essay to fit a number of different questions from a number of different schools, target your essay to your first-choice school, and keep in mind that the less your essay is suited to an application's particular questions, the more you may be jeopardizing your chances of being admitted to that school.
  • Be honest and confident in your statements.

    Use positive emphasis. Do not try to hide, make excuses for, or lie about your weaknesses. In some cases, a student needs to explain a weak component of his or her application, but in other cases it may be best not to mention those weaknesses at all. Rather, write an essay that focuses on your strengths.

  • Write a coherent and interesting essay.

    Make your first paragraph the best paragraph in your essay.

  • Develop a thesis about yourself early in the essay and argue it throughout.

    Each piece of information you give about yourself in the essay should somehow support your thesis.

  • Pick two to four main topics for a one-page essay.

    Don't summarize your entire life. Don't include needless details that take space away from a discussion of your professionalism, maturity, and ability to do intellectual work in your chosen field.

  • Use the personal statement as a form of introduction.

    Think of the essay as not only an answer to a specific question but as an opportunity to introduce yourself, especially if your program doesn't interview applicants.

  • Ask yourself the following questions as you edit for content:
    • Are my goals well articulated?
    • Do I explain why I have selected this school and/or program in particular?
    • Do I demonstrate knowledge of this school or program?
    • Do I include interesting details that prove my claims about myself?
    • Is my tone confident?
  • Make sure your essay has absolutely perfect spelling and mechanics.
  • Use technical terminology and such techniques as passive voice where appropriate.

    You should write clearly and interestingly, yet also speak in a voice appropriate to your field.

Don't…

  • Write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. You are probably wrong, and such a response is likely to make you blend into the crowd rather than stand out from it.
  • Use empty, vague, over-used words like "meaningful," "beautiful," "challenging," "invaluable," or "rewarding."
  • Overwrite or belabor a minor point about yourself.
  • Repeat information directly from the application form itself unless you use it to illustrate a point or want to develop it further.
  • Emphasize the negative. Again, the admissions committee already knows your GPA and test scores, and they probably are not interested in reading about how a list of events in your personal life caused you to perform poorly. Explain what you feel you need to, but emphasize the positive.
  • Try to be funny. You don't want to take the risk they won't get the joke.
  • Get too personal about religion, politics, or your lack of education (avoid emotional catharsis).
  • Include footnotes, cliches, or long-winded and slow introductions.
  • Use statements like "I've always wanted to be a…" or any other hackneyed phrases.
  • Use gimmicks—too big of a risk on an application to a graduate or professional program.
  • Allow any superficial errors in spelling, mechanics, grammar, punctuation, format, or printing to creep under your vigilant guard.

(Image: Polka Dot/Thinkstock)

Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate school or trying to get into graduate programs, many applications require a letter of intent or personal statement. Personal statements are one of the most important parts of the application and sometimes the deciding factor for admission.

Personal statements give a better understanding of who you are, beyond the rigid constraints of the “fill-in-the-blank” application.

Like many around this time of the year, I am finishing my graduate school applications. Looking for advice and guidance, I decided to compare different schools’ personal statement requirements and ask admissions offices for advice. Here’s what I found:

1. Be yourself

The Columbia Graduate School for Journalism encourages students to write about family, education, talents or passions. They want to hear about significant places or events in your life; about books you have read, people you have met or work you’ve done that has shaped the person you have become.

Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.

2. Show diversity

Rayna Reid, a personal statement guru, received her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Law degree at Columbia. Reid says a personal statement is really just a way to make the college fall in love with you.

“The essay is where you really get a chance to differentiate yourself from the other applicants,” she said. “Explain why they should accept you. What will you contribute?”

Sean Carpenter, University of Southern California Student Services Associate and undergraduate student, reiterates the importance of differentiating yourself from other applicants.

He works in the Annenberg School for Communication admissions office and deals with prospective students daily. Carpenter says USC or any major school want to see diversity.

“They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants?” Carpenter said, “Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”

3. Do research and tailor each essay accordingly

Every college is different, so each personal statement should be different. Many students try to get away with having a universal essay but admissions departments will notice.

“Do research to give concrete reasons why you’re interested in particular program,” Carpenter said. “Speak with a faculty member that you’re interested in working with or doing research for and mention that in your statement. It would also be beneficial to say what classes you’ve taken that were relevant to the field of study.”

4. Be concise and follow directions

Make sure you read the directions carefully. One of the biggest red flags for an admissions office are students who don’t adhere to word limitations. Don’t give them a reason to throw out your application.

Believe it or not, there is a way to say everything you want in a page or less. If you need some help, ask several faculty members to read over your essay and give you feedback.

5. Go beyond your resume, GPA and test scores

Many students worry about how their GPA and test scores will affect the admissions process. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain any strengths or weaknesses in your application — such as changes in major, low GPA or lack of experience.

For instance, Reid was worried about not having a 4.0 GPA. Since Reid didn’t have the perfect GPA, she explained what she did with her time to make up for that fact. Being on the Varsity rowing team and a Teach for America Corp member are great examples of how devoting her time to other things made an impact on her GPA.

6. Tell a story

“Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner,” Reid said. “For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”

One of the worst things you can do is bore the admission officer. Make yourself memorable by telling a story about something distinctive from a creative or different angle.

With this advice, your personal statement will be the highlight of your application. Good luck!

Alexis Morgan is currently a senior at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in public relations, broadcast journalism, print journalism and production. Alexis truly believes if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.

Alexis Morgan, Columbia University, Cornell University, grad school, Penn State University, the application, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 

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