After spending weeks researching programs, making pros and cons lists, and making sure it’s the right step for you, you’re finally ready to dive into your grad school applications. Compared to undergraduate applications, grad school applications require a bit more material, and depending on the programs you’re applying to, each one may have specific requirements When I was applying to grad school, one university required certain genres to be represented in my writing sample with specific word counts, while another allowed me the choice of material I wanted to submit and was more open regarding the word count of each piece.
However, regardless of the universities and programs you’ll apply to, they all require the same application material: the personal statement. It seems easy in theory — at least, it seemed that way for me. But sitting down to actually write it was a totally different story. I went through at least four different drafts and yes, one draft was even done the old-school way, by hand with pen and paper. Knowing how to write a personal statement for grad school seems daunting at first, but here are some tips to help you write yours from a grad student who’s been there.
Don’t overthink it. Just start.
If you’re like me, you’re probably waiting for the right moment to sit down and write your personal statement: a clean desk, a fresh cup of coffee, and a clear mind. But if you keep trying to wait for that moment, it’ll make writing your personal statement harder. For me, the difficulty in waiting for that moment manifested as anxiety. I kept a note on my phone with ideas of lines I wanted to include in my personal statement and a list of ideas I wanted to expand upon, but I still felt an impending sense of anxiety the longer I waited.
When it came down to it, I woke up one morning during winter break and just decided to go for it. Jumping into it definitely helped because my mind wasn’t focused on trying to be perfect. Instead, I simply wanted it done and that’s where it all came together.
Think of it like your cover letter to grad school.
Looking back at the personal statements I wrote, they are very much written like a cover letter to the admissions departments of the schools I applied to, without the overtly professional tone and a little more word count to work with. You do want your personal statement to reflect your professionalism and dedication to the program you’re applying to, but you don’t want to lose your personal voice.
In the same way that you’d want to stand out as an ideal candidate for your dream job, you want to have the same effect with your personal statement. Or, in the same way you don’t want your cover letter to just restate your resume, you don’t want to tell the same story the admissions team could already gather from your transcripts and other documents.
Most universities have a personal statement writing guide on their website for applicants to reference. For example, some of the questions to consider when writing that are listed in the personal statement guides from Yale University, Stanford University, and Purdue University include:
- What would the admissions team benefit from hearing about that isn’t already reflected on your transcript?
- Is there a weakness you can highlight that will showcase your perseverance and your problem-solving skills?
- If you are sending in a resume or CV along with your application, is there an experience listed there that you can further highlight in your personal statement?
- What event or experience inspired you to pursue your chosen field or area of research?
- What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?
Tell a story with your personal statement.
Now, you aren’t writing a novel, but you want your personal statement to stand out. Start your statement with a hook that will grab the admission team’s attention and keep them invested in not only your statement, but you as a candidate. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, more people have been turning to grad school, but while application numbers have increased, enrollment numbers continue to dwindle. So, you want to make sure your personal statement leaves a mark. It can be the deciding factor on whether or not the admissions department chooses you.
Don’t be afraid to get vulnerable.
All great stories are vulnerable in some way. As a writing grad student, I hear it all the time and can attest. So don’t be afraid to get vulnerable in your personal statement. Now, you don’t want to trauma dump on the admissions department, nor do you want to reveal anything you wouldn’t want to in the long run, but you do want to form a connection with the people reading your personal statement. The line between oversharing and being authentic can be blurry, but Forbes has some questions and insight you can consider while writing your personal statement.
One of the programs I applied to was at the same university I was enrolled in as an undergrad, so in my personal statement, I reflected on what my experience at the university was like. I included elements of me being an international student and what it would mean for me and my education if given the opportunity to continue my education on the same campus I’d found a home at.
Show how you’d fit in at the university or program.
Going off of the previous point, you’re applying to certain schools and programs because you can ultimately see yourself succeeding there. Don’t be afraid to express that in your personal statement. If the school you’re applying to has a motto, slogan, or mascot, try to see how you can incorporate it into your personal statement. A little school spirit can go a long way. If there are any faculty teaching in the program whose research you admire or who are academic role models to you, mention them in your personal statement. If you come across as invested in the university you’re applying to, chances are they’ll want to invest in you.
The more eyes on it, the better.
Send your personal statement to your peers, your parents, or your academic advisor for review. If you’re spending hours or days working on your personal statement, chances are you may miss a word here and there or a punctuation mark. So even if you’re setting aside time to proofread and polish it, getting someone else to read it can help ensure that the final version is as polished as can be. It also won’t hurt to get some feedback on the content as well!
Now, you do have a word count to meet with your personal statement, so chances are you won’t be able to hit every point you’d want to make. But if you consider these tips while writing yours, you’ll be able to write a personal statement you’re proud of and that will reflect yourself as an ideal grad school candidate.