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Graduate School Personal Statement Guide
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The Admissions Essay Prep Leader shares essay writing strategies and samples that will help you gain entrance to your first choice graduate school. For more free essay writing advice and for help with your admissions essay, visit

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 Graduate School Statement Strategies

Graduate School Personal Statement Guide

The personal statements or essays required of graduate school applicants fall into two major categories. First, there is the general, comprehensive personal statement, which allows the applicant more latitude in what he or she writes. The second category encompasses essays that are responses to specific questions. Here you might have less latitude in terms of your topic, but it is still possible and prudent to compose a thoughtful and compelling response that holds the reader's interest.

No matter what type of application form you are dealing with, it is extremely important that you read each question carefully and respond fully to it. Some applications are more vague or general in their instructions than others; for these, it is often possible to compose almost any sort of essay you wish. You have virtually total control, and you also have a remarkable opportunity that you can either maximize or squander-the choice is yours.

The best way to approach your personal statement is to imagine that you have five minutes with someone from the admissions committee. How would you go about making the best case for yourself while holding the listener's interest? What would you include and omit in your story? Figuring out the answer to these questions is critical to successfully preparing an effective statement.

To arrive at these answers, you should begin by asking yourself some more specific questions:

  • Why have I chosen to attend graduate school this specific field, and why did I choose to apply to this particular school's program?

  • What are my qualifications for admission?

  • What is special, unique, or impressive about my life story?

The answers will not necessarily come easily to you, but this exercise will have great practical benefit in readying you to write an outstanding personal statement. After answering each question thoroughly, you will have given much thought to yourself, your experiences, and your goals, thereby laying the groundwork for formulating an interesting and persuasive presentation of your own personal story. We have divided our strategies in this section of the course into categories that follow those questions.

The Future Over the Past

"First, they should tell me where they're coming from--what it is in their background that leads them to apply to a program like ours. Second, they should tell me what it is they want to get out of our program. Third, I want to know where they hope our program will eventually take them in their career."
-- The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University

"Usually a straight autobiography should be avoided, although interesting and pertinent autobiographical facts should be included. But the statement should be more future-oriented than past-oriented. I don't really want the story of a student's life (although there are exceptions), but rather plans for and a vision of the future."
-- Graduate English Department, UCLA

"Mistakes? Dwelling on past accomplishments as opposed to describing future interests. The recitation of past accomplishments, prizes won and scores gotten-all that kind of stuff-is helpful but at the stage when we're reading the statement, we know all the applicants are highly qualified; that is almost beside the point. What we're looking for at that stage is, again, some insight into how the student thinks, what sort of clarity of purpose he has into one or more research areas."
-- Graduate Admissions Committee
Applied Mechanics, Civil Engineering & Mechanical Engineering, California Institute of Technology

Whereas some professional programs, particularly law schools, give applicants more freedom to discuss any past experiences that may help them to stand out, graduate schools are chiefly interested in your past only as it relates to your future. That said, if there are aspects of your background that would make you stand out, you should still try to incorporate them into your discussion. Just be prepared to put in a little more thought and analysis.

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