Your Graduate School Personal Statement

‘Tis the season to apply to graduate school, and I’ve had a lot of questions about writing an appropriate and compelling personal statement. Here are a few things to know that should relieve some of the stress of writing this all-important application document:

Let’s start with a general personal statement. This is the statement you should write to begin with, to get your thoughts on paper and have a starting point to customize as needed. For your general personal statement, we’re assuming you have not been asked any specific questions, or given any parameters on length or content. This personal statement should be 1-2 pages double spaced, and cover the following:

  1. Your interest in your field. This should include your original inspiration for pursuing your career path (whether that was one particular moment, or a longer term experience), and any specific experiences that solidified your professional interest in this line of work. Those might be courses you took, academic projects you completed, clubs or events you participated in, or volunteer, internship, or paid work that you did.
  2. Your professional and academic strengths. This is the part of your personal statement where you help an Admissions Panel envision you a) as a valuable member of their classroom and academic communities, and b) as an excellent practitioner in your field who will represent their institution well after you graduate. Discuss some of the academic accomplishments you are particularly proud of, and the skill sets you’ve been able to demonstrate that will help you succeed in your field. Think about the strengths needed in both arenas – interpersonal communication, cooperation, active listening, compassion, professionalism, adaptability, and strategy. Which do you embody the most, and how have you demonstrated that in the past?
  3. Any unique traits, accomplishments, or interests. Have you attended special conferences? Presented research or led trainings? Won a prestigious award? Presented or collaborated with your Dean, College President, or Board of Trustees? Studied abroad? Interned abroad? Volunteered for a particular cause for many years in a row? These types of accomplishments, and any others you can think of, help round you out as a candidate, make you stand out from other applicants, and make you memorable to a committee.
  4. Your interest in the institution. This may be difficult to write as part of a baseline personal statement, so be sure to add this when you adapt your statement for your first application. Graduate schools want to understand your specific interest in their program. This has to go beyond the reputation, prestige, cost, or location of an institution. Analyze their curriculum and talk about why it appeals to you. Do they offer a thesis or research option that intrigues you? Does their program include coursework that other programs don’t? Do their class sizes or campus culture appeal to you? Are there faculty that teach specific courses or conduct specific research that aligns with your professional interests?
  5. Closing. This is easier than you think! Many people feel uncomfortable closing their personal statements, and aren’t sure how to write a summary paragraph without sounding redundant. The good news is that you don’t always have to! Often, your paragraph(s) about your interest in the program lead naturally into a concluding sentence or two, such as “For all of these reasons, I would be honored to be a part of the academic community at [insert institution].” There’s no need to take up valuable space with a whole paragraph if you don’t have something valuable to add.

Some programs will simply ask you to include your personal statement as part of your application. In those cases, review your general personal statement, update your section about their program and any other content needed to customize your statement, and add that to your application.

Other programs will ask you to write a new personal statement just for them, answering specific questions. Sometimes these questions will coincide with what you’ve already written in your general statement (so you can extract from what you’ve already written and tweak it to fit the new statement), and sometimes they will be completely different. Be sure to answer the question(s) they ask.

Whether or not they ask specific questions, some programs may specify a minimum, maximum, or exact length for your personal statement – by page or by word count. Read and adhere to this very carefully.

Once you have your general personal statement, or your first customized one, drafted feel free to bring it in for review.

Best of luck!

By Lyn Leis
Lyn Leis Associate Director, Career and Faculty Partnerships Lyn Leis