How To Write A Grad School Personal Statement
Writing a personal statement for graduate school is an important part of the application process.
Our guide will ensure you start drafting in plenty of time, and help you create a successful, well-rounded statement that gives you the best chance of being accepted on to your chosen programs.
What is a personal statement?
You may be wondering what a personal statement is exactly, and why you have to write one for each program application.
A personal statement is a way for graduate admissions teams (usually consisting of faculty) to learn more about you as a candidate. It is a piece of creative writing that allows you to sell your abilities, skills and experience to others, much like a covering letter for a job application.
Admissions tutors not only want to see why you are interested in their program, but also what you can bring to them and their university. Think about the following as a starting point:
- What interests, skills, experience and qualifications make you a great applicant for this program?
- How will you contribute to the program through research, seminars, conferences and other opportunities?
- Why have you chosen a career in this particular field?
- Why does this university’s program appeal to you and how can it help you fulfil your ambitions?
Check the application requirements for each program carefully, as some may require you to write multiple admission essays.
Some programs might ask you to upload a personal statement to a centralised system which is then read by admissions faculty at several different universities.
Normally, there are two types of personal statement you could be asked to write:
1. A general, comprehensive personal statement
This will ask you to respond to a general prompt, and may or may not have a word or character limit imposed.
2. A personal statement that responds to a specific prompt
This type will often include several questions, and again, it may or may not have a word or character limit attached.
What are graduate admissions staff looking for in my personal statement?
When the admissions faculty look at your personal statement, they are likely to be asking two main questions:
1. Do we want this student on this program?
2. Do we want this student at this university?
These questions can then be broken up further to make it easier to answer them thoroughly:
- Is the student suited to the program that they are applying for?
- Does the student have the necessary qualifications and personal qualities for the program?
- Is the student conscientious, hardworking and unlikely to drop out?
- Will the student do their best and cope with the demands of grad school?
- Can the student work under pressure?
- Will the student be able to adjust to their new environment?
- What are their communication skills like?
- Are they dedicated to this program and have they researched it well?
- Do they have a genuine interest in the subject and a desire to learn more about it?
These are the sorts of questions you need to answer in your personal statement.
Unfortunately you cannot answer them directly with a simple 'yes' or 'no' - you need to provide evidence and make it sound believable.
Ultimately, grad school admissions tutors are human too, and may well have hundreds of program applications to sift through, so even if you think you've answered all these questions really well, you may still be unlucky.
The rest of this guide will show you can give yourself the best chance of being noticed through your personal statement, and get accepted onto your chosen programs.
Remember that your statement is like a personal job advert, where you are selling yourself by highlighting your skills, experience and life goals.
Programs want to know more about:
- Current achievements in your college degree
- Experiences outside of the classroom that have inspired you to pursue a career in this field
1. Pull together some ideas
The best way to begin putting together a successful personal statement is to sit down and have a brainstorming session. First, think about the following points and jot down some notes:
- Personal achievements - what relevant attributes and interests make you a special candidate? These can be either inside or outside of the college classroom.
- Extracurricular activities - have you completed any volunteering work or got involved with any charities or other groups/organisations that help the community? You could also include any leisure or sports activities you participate in during your spare time, providing the skills you gain from these are relevant to the program.
- Academic success - are there any appropriate projects or other pieces of college work that you scored highly in and are particularly proud of? Have you received any awards or other type of recognition for your studies?
- Work experience - what professional skills can you bring to the program? How have work placements helped shape you into an ideal applicant?
2. Formulate a plan
Next, build up some vocabulary that will allow you to establish a comprehensive, yet coherent statement that represents a true reflection of yourself and portrays you in the best possible light.
Try using the following words as category headings and see if you can put at least two or three words in each:
- Communication - e.g. speaking, writing, collaborating, explaining, discussing, listening.
- Research - e.g. analysing, collecting, investigating, interpreting,examining, collecting, evaluating, concluding.
- Creative - e.g. imagining, designing, illustrating, original, envisioning, artistic, inventive.
- Leadership and management - e.g. coordinated, delegated, responsible, teamwork, directed, assigned, negotiated.
- IT and Technical - e.g. networking, programming, web development, hardware, software, operating, engineering.
Other headings you might wish to use include: Clerical/Administrative, Problem Solving, Training, Media, Financial and Human/Public Relations. Feel free to add any of your own headings that you feel are relevant to your application, too.
Hopefully you should now have a nice long list of keywords that demonstrate all of your skills and personal qualities. For each one, write down:
- How you have demonstrated this skill or trait - try to think of a specific experience that provides evidence you possess this skill. As mentioned earlier, your personal statement will be much more solid and believable if you backup everything with examples.
- When you began to develop it, e.g. high school, college - again, try to be as specific as possible.
- How it will benefit you during the program - tutors will want to see how your skills will make you a successful student.
- How you might use it once you have completed your graduate studies - think beyond your program and show your commitment to your chosen career path by demonstrating how you plan to use your skills and attributes in the field later on.
- Any related skills or traits you hope to gain during your time at grad school - recognise that there are still areas you could improve on, and tell the admissions faculty how the program can help you with these.
At this stage you should have a whole host of skills and personal qualities that you can demonstrate through a particular experience. Now you need to begin constructing actual sentences with all the information you have gathered.
3. Write a first draft
It helps to write an opening paragraph that will grab the admission tutor’s attention straight away. A good way to do this is to start by conveying an experience that tells a relevant story, e.g. jetting off on holiday abroad as a child sparked an interest in engineering.
As this will form the opening to your personal statement, choose your experience carefully and think about the following once you have decided what to write about:
- Does the story provide clues about your personality, and if so, how?
- Will the reader get a sense of enthusiasm for the subject?
- Does it explain why you have chosen to pursue this field of study?
- Are your long-term career plans or professional hopes indicated?
The rest of the first draft of your personal statement should follow a similar pattern, with further skills addressed using specific examples from your past.
The final paragraph should form a memorable conclusion that will again attract the admission tutor’s attention and make you a memorable candidate. After all, you need to stand out from the crowd if you want to have a chance of being accepted.
4. Review and edit
Once you have completed the first draft of your personal statement, you will need to analyse it critically and evaluate how it might be improved. There are two ways you should do this:
1. Critique it yourself
Read through it carefully and ask yourself the following questions to help you highlight its strengths and weaknesses:
- Is the opening paragraph interesting enough to make you want to read further?
- Have you provided specific examples for all of the skills and personal attributes mentioned?
- Have you talked about your work and/or voluntary experience in detail, and how this will be useful during the program?
- Is your statement engaging throughout? If not, how could you change the vocabulary, sentence structure and/or content to improve this?
- Is your statement focused enough that it explains why you have chosen to pursue a career in this particular field, rather than a related one?
- Are there any spelling, grammar or formatting issues that need to be fixed? Check the word or character count, and make sure you have addressed all the points you have been asked to (if necessary).
2. Ask for feedback from family, friends, college professors and career counselors
It’s often hard to be objective about your own work, so it’s always a good idea to show your statement to at least several other people if possible. Ask them to comment on the strengths and how it could be improved (it’s best to give them a printed copy and let them write on it).
Read through all the feedback and take it all on board - are there any common areas people have noted could be improved?
Next, go through each point and see if it would make the statement better overall. If you feel it doesn’t, don’t incorporate that particular suggestion into your new draft. Although other people’s views are essential here, it’s also important that you are happy with the statement. Never let someone else rewrite your statement - it should only be your own writing.
5. The final draft
Write as many drafts as you feel are necessary, until you have a polished statement that you are completely happy with sending off to your programs.
Check carefully for any spelling and grammar mistakes, as these errors are likely to be noticed and will make you look incompetent. Don't just rely on a spell checker for this - you should read your final statement several times and do these checks by eye.
Also make sure that your statement meets any word or character limits, as well as any other requirements outlined by the graduate school. Otherwise it will look like you couldn't be bothered to read the application process and you may be rejected straight away.
Good luck with your program applications!
For more tips and advice on applying to graduate school, please see: