How to Write a Personal Statement for Grad School

GRADUATE STUDIES | 4 MIN READ

An illustration showing a personal statement for grad school that is typically part of a graduate school application.

Of all the grad school application requirements—letters of recommendation, entrance exams, transcripts—the personal statement is almost undoubtedly the most daunting.

But it also can be the most liberating. A personal statement turns you, as an applicant, from a set of grades and numbers into a three-dimensional human being. It provides a holistic view of your intellect, ambition and values—the person behind the GPA.

Look at writing a grad school personal statement as an opportunity to state your case as to why you will be a good fit for the school and program you aspire to. Here are three tips to make your essay as clear and compelling as possible.

1. Don’t Rush, but Don’t Delay

Read through the instructions, then give yourself ample time for brainstorming ideas. Talk to friends, family members, professors or employers to help narrow your focus. Start by outlining or free-writing your ideas.

Tripped up by writer’s block? Just start. It sounds simplistic, but your first draft is when you throw down any and all ideas. Staring at a blank page or screen won’t get you there. Worry about coherency and cutting clichés later. For now, think of some narratives and examples that will bring your personal statement to life.

What you write about signals to the admissions committee what is important to you and what your values are. Some questions to consider:

  • What makes you stand out from other candidates?
  • What are your strengths, and how will those benefit the program and your future classmates?
  • What academic and life experiences have most shaped you and brought you to this point?

2. Be Authentic, Honest and Sincere

You want to show your familiarity with and passion for the program—just be sure to show it in an honest and authentic way. Your essay for each institution should be unique and answer any specific questions asked. Don’t just cut and paste from one application to the next.

Avoid generalizations and statements that will be true of many applicants. This is not a biography or a retelling of your resume in essay form. You want to present your best self, but that might include explaining some of your struggles and how you have grown and learned from them.

Instead, identify a couple of on-brand anecdotes. Tell a smaller story well. What are the courses, teachers, research projects, internships or volunteer experiences that have shaped you? How will earning this advanced degree move you closer to your career and life goals? How well have you worked as a part of a team to accomplish a shared objective?

Remember, your immediate objective is to land an interview, where you can go into further detail and ask and answer questions in person.

3. Clean It Up

But first, step away from the personal statement for a while—for at least a couple of hours, if not a couple of days. When you come back, you should notice what needs tweaking. Be brutal with your editing: Snip away any unnecessary words, phrases or redundancies.

Next, add in some flavor with descriptive words, active verbs and transitions. Diversify your sentence structure, and stay in the first person. Be consistent with your verb tense and tone.

And those folks who helped you brainstorm? Check in with them again—this time to assist with the polish. Sometimes using a shared file like a Google document works well for this purpose. Ask them to scour for spelling and grammatical errors, but also evaluate whether your message makes sense and holds their attention.

There’s no one-size-fits-all when you write a personal statement for graduate school. Everyone’s personality and experiences are different, so everyone’s essay will be different. But if you give the admissions committee a self-reflective, lively and focused snapshot of what makes you you, they are sure to see what an asset you will be to their program.

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Posted April 11, 2019

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