Monday, August 5, 2013

How to write a grad school personal statement

I was lying on the floor covered in blood gasping for air while my life was flashing before my eyes…

That got your attention didn’t it? Well, if you want to do a good job applying to grad schools you’ll start your personal statement with a “hook”, something that will grab the reader’s attention straight away. It doesn’t have to be as exciting as what I just wrote but it has to stand out from a bunch of other boring essays the admissions folks have to slog through during the day.

personal statement, graduate school, international students, postgraduate studies, United States, university
Preview of graduate school

So, what is your personal statement and how important is it? Think of it as your ID, the one thing that can make you stand out among the competition.

Sure, there will be lots of smart candidates with excellent grades but many of them will come from different countries and once you start comparing apples and oranges, i.e. different grading systems it all soon starts to look terribly complicated and it’s hard to remember even the people with perfect grades.

GRE scores are usually not very important, as long as they’re not horrible. Prepare well and try to do a good job when taking the test but know that the most important thing is not to raise any red flags with a bad score. More about that in my previous post.

The truth is, if you want to stand out from the crowd, you need a great resume and an awesome personal statement. Of the two, it is the latter that tells more about who you really are and why you want to go to that particular school (the one you’re applying to).

Does this mean you should write a different personal statement for every school? Yes, but you can use the same “hook” (described above) and basic paragraphs about yourself and change the part about the school and why you want to study in their program. If they even smell a mass-produced personal statement you sent out to a lot of different schools you can bet your life you won’t even be considered for the waiting list.

The essay should usually be around 500 words long and you should check the exact guidelines on the school’s website. Always adhere to them because they are not flexible about this.

 What should be included in your personal statement? First of all, that sentence that separates you from the rest of the herd. Try to grab their attention right away, shock them even, and then take it from there.
I cannot tell you how many lame essays begin with “It has always been a dream of mine to come to your school because you are the best…” They know they’re the best (or at least that’s what they want to believe), they don’t need your input, thankyouverymuch.

What they want to know are two things: who you are and how you can make their program better. The first part of your personal statement should answer the first question, the ”hook” is there to make them want to read more about you, where you come from, what your ambitions are. This sentence will then lead into the opening paragraph that sets the tone and theme for the entire essay. Try to be as analytical as possible when doing this.

The second part should deal with how you can contribute to their program. In other words, you need to tie in who you are and what you want to accomplish with what they offer in their curriculum.

You also need to show you’ve done your research on the school. This is where you drop the name(s) of the professor(s) you’ve been writing to about their work and why you think they could benefit from having you in their class.

Remember, just like any employer you’ll ever interview for, they don’t want to hear so much about why this is good for you (they’re great, get it?!) but why it will be beneficial for the program to have your input there.

Many of these graduate classes depend heavily on the input of students, some are even book clubs (especially if you choose to study humanities, for example) and you want to show that you will enrich the working environment in class by actively participating with your (very interesting and informed) point of view.

They should glimpse that point of view in your personal statement.

Also, don’t fall into the trap of trying to be too academic. Write in the way that comes natural to you, not the way you think will make you sound more intelligent. That’s how you'll end up using words and constructions that look unnatural and out of place.

Always proofread several times what you wrote and have a couple more people you trust do it, too. It’s amazing how many mistakes we can overlook when we write something ourselves, someone else might catch it right away.

Here’s a nice little set of instructions on how to write a personal statement.

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