Writing a Personal Statement (Graduate School)

No matter how many 15-page essays you’ve written during the course of your college career, the 2-page personal statement(also called a "statement of intent")can be more intimidating than any of them. “Justify the last 4 (or 5) years of your college life, and everything else that you have done,” the personal statement seems to demand. “Why do you deserve to go to grad school?”

The personal statement is a chance for you to write something that is purely about you – your experiences, goals, plans and thoughts on your undergraduate career and your expectations of grad school. It allows schools to evaluate your writing style and , and also to see, based on your strengths and goals, if you are a good “fit” for the school. You may have the GPA, the test scores, and have aced all the required courses, but if you want to study Medieval Literature at a small college that specializes in the 20th Century American Novel, you are not a good fit for that institution, and vice versa.

Grad departments don’t want to be risky in their choices: they can’t afford to be. This is why sometimes even the best students who seem to be shoo-ins to the schools of their choice don’t get in: if it comes to a choice between 2 students, one who is known to the graduate committee and one who isn’t – the one who is known has a major advantage. Graduate committees want to know that you can handle the challenge of graduate-level courses – they can’t afford to gamble on students.

So what do you talk about? There are various opinions about what you should write and how you should structure the personal statement. There are probably several ways that you could write a personal statement – you need to adjust the form to your content. You want to demonstrate to the committee who will review your application a coherence and logical path to the academic and personal choices that you have made; you are committed to attending school at the institution you are applying to – you want to show how attending their school is something that you have been working towards and how this fits in with your future career plans.

Do some research on the school – who are the professors whose research interests or area of concentration are close to yours? You might want to mention that you are familiar with their work, or that you would be interested in studying with them. You want to demonstrate to the committee that you have concrete reasons for applying to this particular school – it isn’t a whim, but rather a long-standing goal. You don’t have to include a title and outline for your thesis, research or graduating project, but be prepared to briefly state the areas that you are interested in, and why.

Once you have a draft down on paper, it’s best to leave it for a few days. Return to it with a fresh eye. And have at least two other people look at it for you. Your friends and your professors know different sides of you, and will have suggestions about your strengths and what you have to offer to the program. You want to convey that this is something that you are excited and enthusiastic about, without sounding insincere or vague. “I love Literature” or “Research is my life,” are not good enough statements for the admissions committee – they may be true, but you need to demonstrate how they are true, and how you have made decisions based on the strong interest you have in Business, or History, or Medicine.

Perhaps the reason that the personal statement is so difficult is because it forces you to really think about why you want to pursue an advanced degree. Is it something that you’ve been planning to do for so long that you can’t remember why you wanted to do it in the first place? How does pursuing a Master’s degree fit into your personal and professional goals at this point in your life? These are difficult questions to answer, especially if you’re in the middle of your senior year of college, wondering why on earth you would subject yourself to several more years of exams, papers, projects, and student “lifestyle.” But who knows how you’ll feel by next September; if, even in the midst of madness, you can acknowledge that you love to learn, and research, and write and study and that you want to know more – you should probably apply.