School Personal Statement Guide
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.
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.
at these answers, you should begin by asking yourself some more specific questions:
I chosen to attend graduate school this specific field, and why did I choose
to apply to this particular school's program?
my qualifications for admission?
special, unique, or impressive about my life story?
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.
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
-- The Woodrow Wilson School
of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University
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,
"Mistakes? Dwelling on past accomplishments
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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