Summer is finally here! Classes are out, and most of us are making plans for the fall while we enjoy a much-deserved break from all of the essays and labs and exams. Well, unless your fall will consist of preparing application materials for graduate and professional schools. In that case, your summer will likely be spent writing one of the most important essays of your life: the personal statement.
The personal statement is one of the most difficult parts of applying to graduate school. Take it from me: I wrote 26 drafts (yes, you read that right…26 drafts) of my own personal statement for graduate school applications last fall. It’s time-consuming, the pressure is high, and it’s so hard to write about yourself. It almost feels wrong to spend 1-2 full pages telling a graduate committee how awesome you are. All of this pressure can pile up and leave you feeling frantic, and if you’re like me, you might even procrastinate until just a few weeks before applications are due (and trust me, this is not a good idea).
Never fear, though. I’m here to give you some tips on how to craft a stellar personal statement: one that will help you stand out from the crowd of applicants and help you feel confident heading into application season.
#1: Develop an argument
This might seem like a weird thing to suggest. After all, personal statements aren’t argumentative essays, right?
The purpose of a personal statement is to show a committee why you belong in their program and why you’ll make an excellent colleague and professional in the field. You need to convince your reader that you’re the best choice compared to all other applicants. If that’s not an argument, I don’t know what is.
Before you even start outlining and writing, ask yourself these questions:
Why do I want to go to graduate/professional school? Why will I make a good colleague/professional in this field?
These are sometimes difficult questions. I, for one, found myself saying “Well, because I want to!”—not an adequate response when you’re up against a couple of hundred people who have the same response. If you need to, take some time and freewrite, i.e., writing down anything and everything that comes to mind in about 10 minutes or less without stopping.
#2: Choose the right information to share
Chances are, if you’re applying for graduate/professional programs, you’ve done a lot of prep work during your undergraduate years, and even if you haven’t, you still need to prove you have an interest in the subject/field. You don’t want to spend the entirety of your statement rambling about awesome things you did and awards you won unless they’re relevant. If these things don’t somehow support your argument, it’s a waste of valuable space, so it’s imperative that you identify the right information and anecdotes to include.
Return to your answers to the questions in step 1, then make a list of your incredible achievements. Have you interned at a company in your area of interest? Have you traveled? Have you won any awards or honors? Have you been published or participated in a research forum? What clubs have you participated in? What leadership roles have you held?
Once you have your list, pare it down. You likely can’t include everything, so ask yourself how each activity, award, or experience has prepared you for the program. Focus on the experiences that make you stand out; i.e. if you worked an internship at a corporation but you want to go to dental school, you should either communicate how that internship has influenced your decision, or choose a more relevant anecdote.
#3: Revise, revise, revise
Obviously, I’ve skipped a few steps here. For the sake of time (and because I know you don’t want to read my rambling for another 500 words), here’s the middle bit in sum: outline, draft, cut the stuff you don’t like, repeat.
After you have a solid draft, you’ll want to revise it over and over again. Even when you feel like you’re done, revise it more. Read it aloud for typos, awkward phrasing, and unnecessary words, and ask your mentors and friends to read it. Understand that the first draft is going to be nothing like the final draft if you’re going to produce a really good statement. That’s the writing process, though: it just gets better and better the more you revise. Write 26 drafts if you have to. That’s what I did (PSA: it worked).
The final step of your revision process is the tailoring. In most cases, if you’re applying to multiple programs, there may be different requirements; one school may want a shorter version, one may want one that addresses specific questions. Regardless, you need to tailor each statement you intend to submit to the specific program. Mention the program directly. Discuss professors you’d like to work with and why. Explain why the program is the perfect fit for you. Do the work for the committee and just tell them outright. Directness is always best.
Ok, that’s all, folks. I hope you find these tips helpful. Of course, don’t forget that the WRC is open all summer and we love personal statements! Bring it in and our tutors can help you develop it into the perfect advertisement for you.