Personal Statements Part 1: Just How “Personal” is it?
As application season is in full swing, we bring you a two-part series on the personal statement. See part two here.
Elizabeth Dean, Consultant
Most graduate programs, study abroad programs, and research opportunities require a “personal statement” or applicants. This statement, usually 1-2 pages in length, is where you have the opportunity to distinguish yourself from other applicants by showcasing your experience and goals. Programs differ in what they expect from personal statements, and many programs give very few directions in the prompt, so many applicants find themselves confused as to what they should include and what their overall message should be. Many students find themselves drawn towards including too many details about their life story or too much about their professional goals for the word limit. Here are a few tips to help you make you stand out among applicants while still establishing yourself as a good candidate:
1. Look carefully at your program’s instructions.
Your best insight is the instructions provided by the program itself. Even if there are very few guidelines, they will usually vary among programs. Phrases such as “discuss your research experience” or “describe why you are interested in this program” establish the expected direction that the admission committee wants you to take. If you are applying to several programs, tailor your statement to fit the specific requirements of each one.
2. Frame your story as one where the next logical step is entrance into the program.
You want to include your personal experiences to make you stand out among the other candidates, but a personal statement is not the same thing as your life story. For your personal statement, the stories that matter most are the ones that relate to your program-related goals, not necessarily the ones that have significantly impacted you the most personally. Consider why you want to enter the program and the steps you have taken to make yourself a qualified candidate. Every personal detail should directly relate to admission into your program. For example, if you are applying for a Master’s in Business Administration and you want to work for a bank, your experiences in business courses and internships should be a main focus, but volunteering to coach basketball for children is less relevant. It would be more relevant if you wanted to use your degree in a basketball setting, though.
3. Make every sentence uniquely specific to you.
The admissions committee will read many personal statements, so you each element of your personal statement should showcase you. Your readers will assume that you are interested in the program they offer simply because you submitted an application! Therefore, vague sentences such as “I believe that teaching is a great profession” will apply to every candidate. You would do better to highlight your reasons for applying, such as “I hope to teach high-school science because I want to offer students a chance to explore their complex world.” This sentence speaks more specifically to your goals and motivations, and the committee will get a better picture of who you are as compared to the other applicants.
4. Consider the other application requirements.
The admission committee will look at your entire application as a whole, so there is no need to repeat the same information. Your personal statement should fill the gaps that are not covered by the other materials. For example, most applications include an academic transcript, so you should not discuss the number of classes you took and your grades in your personal statement. Instead, elaborate on your experiences in one or two of those
classes and how they contributed to your goals and qualifications. In the same way, if you will submit a resume along with your personal statement, there is no need to include each resume item in your personal statement.
The University Writing Center can help you address these and other concerns you may have about personal statements! Make an appointment with a consultant, or consult our handout on personal statements. We’re here to help you, and we wish you the best of luck on your application process!