Write Your Best Personal Statement: Tips from Admissions Offices

Helpful tips and advice for drafting a compelling personal statement when applying for graduate admission

What does this statement need to accomplish?

The personal statement should give concrete evidence of your promise as a member of the academic community, giving the committee an image of you as a person.

This is also where you represent your potential to bring to your academic career a critical perspective rooted in a non-traditional educational background, or your understanding of the experiences of groups historically under-represented in higher education and your commitment to increase participation by a diverse population in higher education.

What kinds of content belongs here?

Anything that can give reviewers a sense of you as a person belongs here; you can repeat information about your experiences in your research statement, but any experiences that show your promise, initiative, and ability to persevere despite obstacles belongs here. This is also a good place to display your communication skills and discuss your ability to maximize effective collaboration with a diverse cross-section of the academic community. If you have faced any obstacles or barriers in your education, sharing those experiences serves both for the selection process, and for your nomination for fellowships. If one part of your academic record is not ideal, due to challenges you faced in that particular area, this is where you can explain that, and direct reviewers’ attention to the evidence of your promise for higher education.

The basic message: your academic achievement despite challenges

It is especially helpful for admissions committees considering nominating you for fellowships for diversity if you discuss any or all of the following:

  • Demonstrated significant academic achievement by overcoming barriers such as economic, social, or educational disadvantage;
  • Potential to contribute to higher education through understanding the barriers facing women, domestic minorities, students with disabilities, and other members of groups underrepresented in higher education careers, as evidenced by life experiences and educational background. For example,,
    • attendance at a minority serving institution;
    • ability to articulate the barriers facing women and minorities in science and engineering fields;
    • participation in higher education pipeline programs such as, UC Leads, or McNair Scholars;
  • Academic service advancing equitable access to higher education for women and racial minorities in fields where they are underrepresented;
  • Leadership experience among students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education;
  • Research interests focusing on underserved populations and understanding issues of racial or gender inequalities. For example,
    • research that addresses issues such as race, gender, diversity, and inclusion;
    • research that addresses health disparities, educational access and achievement, political engagement, economic justice, social mobility, civil and human rights, and other questions of interest to historically underrepresented groups;
    • artistic expression and cultural production that reflects culturally diverse communities or voices not well represented in the arts and humanities.

From Saint Mary’s College:

A Sample Outline for Personal Statements

This outline is meant to be a guide to writing a personal statement. It does not represent the only format for a personal statement. Take the information that is most helpful to you and adapt it to meet your specific needs!

Introductory Paragraph
Although you may be tempted to jump right into a narrative of your earliest accomplishments, begin instead by focusing on why the law school/med school/grad school has attracted your interest and why you consider yourself an able candidate for the position. This opening paragraph need not be extensive, but it should sketch out your view of yourself as a capable individual who has the necessary confidence, maturity, and talent to success in this venture. Somewhere in your introductory paragraph, either in your first or last sentence, you should define yourself in a succinct way (this corresponds to the function of a thesis statement in an ordinary essay).

The Body of the Personal Statement, Part 1: The Recent Past
Saint Mary’s students generally tend to be reluctant to beat their own drum, either out of politeness or humility. But remember that only you can put your best foot forward and that all other candidates will do the same. A personal statement should not be egotistical, but it should not be modest. Your readers will be looking for reasons to stop reading your essay, so use all your ammunition (it isn’t bragging if you can back up your assertions with facts). When you write about your educational and/or employment background in the next two or three paragraphs, emphasize how these experiences and activities helped to shape the person you have become (in addition, of course, to family and other influences—but keep those references to a minimum to keep the spotlight on you). Find ways to illustrate the value of your educational and work experiences, providing as much detailed commentary as you can to make your experiences interesting to the reader.

The Body of the Personal Statement, Part 2: The Present
Add a paragraph or two presenting yourself as you are now. Stress the qualities that you believe best characterize you such as confidence, maturity, intellectual curiosity, and the determination to succeed. This part of your essay will answer the following question: who are you now and why? Once again, the more concrete you can be regarding your positive self-image, the more likely the reader is to accept what you say about yourself as more than mere rhetoric.

The Body of the Personal Statement, Part 3: The Future
In a paragraph or two, present a positive forecast of your future developement in relation to the specific career or profession you wish to pursue. Obviously, you will feel more confident and have a more specific idea about your immediate future, rather than your long-range plans, but visualizing your professional identity two or three decades from now demonstrates both vision and determination. In this part of the personal statement you may wish to address some of the following questions: How will the grad school/law school/med school you are presently pursuing be an important stepping stone leading to your life’s work? What do you hope to accomplish in life? What are your personal goals and/or career objectives? How do you see yourself evolving in the next several years?

The Concluding Paragraph
After forecasting your future, you may be tempted to end your personal statement on that visionary note. But a brief conclusion will help by summarizing, for the reader’s benefit, your past accomplishments, your present sense of identity, and your future goals. Try to make your last sentence a real clincher so that the reader has a vivid impression of you.

The Most Important Step
Now that you have written the first draft of your personal statement, prune it mercilessly so that only the most essential points remain. Edit your work thoroughly, as well, to make your sentences more concise and declarative. Remember, not everything in this guideline sheet will be applicable to every potential audience, so tailor your personal statement to the specific task at hand. Above all, don’t be discouraged by any rejections. Your diligence and belief in yourself will eventually be rewarded. Good luck!

A Perennial Favorite: The Illustrated Guide to a PhD

Fall is upon us once again. A new crop of students will begin doctoral studies, and many more will take classes in preparation for applying to PhD programs. It seems the ideal moment to share an old favorite.

illustrated guide to a phd

Matt Might, a professor in Computer Science at the University of Utah, created The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D. to explain what a Ph.D. is to new and aspiring graduate students.

[Matt has licensed the guide for sharing with special terms under the Creative Commons license.]

 

Save

Save

Robert Heinlein on raising children

Robert Heinlein | polyarchive.com

Working in higher education, I deal with helicopter parents and lawnmower parents on a daily basis now. Overparenting is an incredible disservice to children and young adults. Not only do they experience setbacks, negative feedback, and garden-variety frustrations of life as insurmountable failures and barriers, they often lack the savvy to safeguard themselves from actual dangers. I see expensive gadgets left unattended and personal safety measures ignored at night, and I am often asked for help with various questions and issues (sometimes it’s more of a demand than a request), apparently because I am a female who looks sufficiently older than a student. It makes me both sad and concerned to think that these young people were raised to expect a benevolent world of surrogate mothers taking care of them, only to find, as we all must, that life is harder and more unfair than that. I suspect that a child who has to live with the consequences of having a smaller item stolen would not, at 19, be so careless with a laptop. The child who had to struggle and learn by doing her own homework might not need her mother to call a college professor about an unclear grading policy. The child who was taught to hope for the best but be prepared for the worst may be able to be delighted by the good things that happen, and not crushed when problems arise.

Tuesdays with TED: Sir Ken Robinson, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”

One of  the first TED talks made available online in 2006, Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” remains the most-watched talk on the TED.com website. In addition to the speaker’s excellent rhetorical techniques (which, indeed, have helped set the tone for many future TED and TEDx events), the subject matter, if anything, rings even truer now than it did a decade ago.

Robinson builds his speech on the themes that, in his opinion, the whole conference shares:

  1. The extraordinary range and variety of human creativity
  2. The impossibility of knowing what the world will be like even five years into the future
  3. The innate capacities children have for innovation and creativity

He asserts:

All kids have tremendous talents. And we squander them, pretty ruthlessly… My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.

After telling two humorous anecdotes about the fearlessness of children to be wrong, Robinson concludes:

You’ll never come up with anything original — if you’re not prepared to be wrong. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this, by the way. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.

While many other TED talks have discussed the variety observed within educational environments around the world, Robinson focuses on the hierarchy of subjects that he finds universal within them: that mathematics and languages (the subjects that supposedly make a person employable) are at the top of the hierarchy, and the arts on the bottom. Even within the arts, he notes, drama and dance rank below art and music.

Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist. Benign advice — now, profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution. And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can’t afford to go on that way.

Robinson tells the thought-provoking story of Gillian Lynne, who, as a child, performed poorly academically until a doctor suggested taking her to a dance school, where she met other people like herself, “who had to move to think.” The story concludes:

She was eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School; she became a soloist; she had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet. She eventually graduated from the Royal Ballet School and founded her own company — the Gillian Lynne Dance Company — met Andrew Lloyd Weber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history; she’s given pleasure to millions; and she’s a multi-millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.

All in all, we would have to agree that the 20-minute talk does deserve its place of prominence among the TED collection. Robinson explores his topic in further detail in his book, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything [library]. He has also given several more TED talks, which we will eventually feature here.