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.
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
- Analyze the question(s) asked on a specific application.
- Research the school and/or program to which you are applying.
- Take a personal inventory (see below). Write out a 2-3 sentence response to each question.
- Write your essay.
- Revise your essay for form and content.
- Ask someone else - preferably a faculty member in your area - to read your essay and make suggestions for further revision.
- Revise again.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
Think carefully about how you want to structure your personal statement. If your argument flows naturally and follows a logical order, this will impress admissions tutors and show them that you will do well on their course. After all, it’s a skill that will come in very handy when it’s time to write your essays and sit your exams over the next three or four years.
Basic personal statement structure tips
- Use paragraphs. This can be tricky as it will eat into the 47 lines available to you so don’t use lots of paragraphs but try to have a few. This will make your personal statement easier for the admissions tutor to read than one large block of writing.
- Have a clear beginning, middle and end. This will make help your personal statement flow naturally. For help with how to begin your personal statement, read our article on writing your opening sentence and, for help with the rest of your personal statement, read our article on what to include in your personal statement.
- Use the ABC method. When writing about each experience, use the ABC (action, benefit and course) structure. What is the activity, what skills and qualities have come from it and how does it relate to the course?
- Keep it short and sweet. You’re limited to 4,000 characters (47 lines) so use short, concise sentences and delete any unnecessary words.
Structure your personal statement to best show off your examples
There is no one set way to structure your personal statement. However, consider putting the most relevant and unique examples of your skills and experience towards the start of your personal statement. This can be more effective than working through all your examples in chronological or reverse chronological order.
For example, if you’re applying to study history you’ll probably want to make sure the school trip you went on to Auschwitz in year 12 has centre stage, rather than feeling you need to start with examples from year 13 or from when you were doing your GCSEs.
Read our article on what to include in your personal statement for more help on what to write about.
The three section approach to your personal statement
If you’re still not sure how you want to structure your personal statement, you might find it helpful to loosely split your personal statement into three sections. Jonathan Hardwick is a former head of sixth form and now a professional development manager at Inspiring Futures, a provider of careers information, advice and guidance to young people. He explains: ‘Your personal statement should cover three things. These are:
- why do you want to study the course?
- what have you done that makes you suitable for the course?
- what else have you done that makes you somebody who will contribute to the course and to the university?’
Section one: why do you want to study the course?
You need to explain to the admissions tutor your reasons for wanting to study this subject. If it’s a vocational course, such as nursing, think about what you like about this profession and why you think it’s the right career for you. If it’s an academic degree, such as geography or chemistry, why do you want to spend a long time studying this subject in detail? Think about what you’ve enjoyed so far and what you want to learn more about.
Section two: what have you done that makes you suitable for the course?
This is the biggest part of your personal statement. You’ll need to draw on your experiences to explain why you think you’d be a good student on the course and how you’ve developed the skills and knowledge needed.
If it’s a vocational course, think about what you’ve done that shows you’re engaging with the profession. Now is the time to mention any relevant work experience or voluntary work that you’ve done.
If it’s an academic subject, show that you’re going beyond what your teacher is telling you to do. If you’re doing an EPQ (an extended project) or you’ve done lots of extra reading, for example, tell the admissions tutor what you’ve done and how this has prepared you for the course. Or if you’re applying for a creative course, such as drama or music, write about what you’ve done outside the classroom. For example, for a creative writing course you could mention your blog or the poetry competition in which you were shortlisted for a prize.
Section three: what else have you done?
‘As a rule of thumb, 75% of your personal statement should be about your studies and your justifications for applying and 25% should be about your extracurricular activities,’ says Emma-Marie Fry, an area director at Inspiring Futures. Emma manages the careers guidance team in London and the south-east and goes into schools to deliver support to students.
A quarter of a personal statement is 1,000 characters (around 11–12 lines), so aim to roughly devote this amount of space to what else you’ve done. This is your chance to write about what you’ve done that perhaps isn’t so related to the course but makes you an interesting and well-rounded person. This could include any hobbies you enjoy in your spare time, paid employment or volunteering.
‘It’s important that you demonstrate why these interests and experiences are relevant to your application (for example, to show that you are able to balance your studies with your commitments) rather than just listing them,’ says Dr Helen Moggridge, a lecturer in geography at the University of Sheffield. Use your examples to show that you’ve developed important skills that will help you thrive at university. Good skills to highlight include independence, time management and organisation. So, for example, a Saturday job as a waitress may have improved your communication skills as well as your ability to work under pressure and prioritise urgent tasks. These skills will help you communicate with your lecturers and peers on your course, as well as juggling your coursework and exams.
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