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Personal Statement Grad School: Brainstorming Tips

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Updated: April 8, 2024
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Writing an effective personal statement requires a bit of soul searching and reflection. The schools want to gain from your essay some insight into your character and personality. It’s difficult for most people to write about themselves, especially something personal or introspective. If thoughtfully observed and answered, the following suggestions and questions will yield material from which you can draw upon in writing your personal statement grad school essay. Although the questions are presented in categories, your responses will inevitably straddle the various groupings. This is as it should be, since brainstorming is a very lateral process. Most important while completing these questions is that you be sincere and enjoy yourself.

1. Perform a Self-Inventory of Your Unique Experiences, Major Influences, and Abilities

Long- and Short-Term Goals

  • What attracts you to this particular school?
  • Are there any specific faculty members at this academic institution whose work interests you? With whom would you most like to study?
  • What specifically do you hope to gain from the academic program to which you are applying?
  • What are your career aspirations, and how can this academic program help you to reach them?
  • What is your dream job? What would you ideally like to be doing in 5 years? 10? 20?

Skills and Characteristics

  • What personal characteristics (integrity, compassion, persistence, for example) do you possess that would enhance your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics? This is an area where it is far better to “show” the reader how you embody these qualities, rather than simply “tell” him or her that you possess them. You need to make strong connections between your experiences and the qualities you wish to convey. The ideal is to recount personal experiences in such a way that your “compassion” or “persistence” or whatever else is fully evident without your having to mention those qualities by name. Here is a list of the qualities that admissions committees find most desirable in applicants:
    • Seriousness of Purpose (to pursue graduate education)
    • Intellectual Ability (to handle graduate study)
    • Intellectual Curiosity (about the field you wish to enter)
    • Creativity (as reflected in the way your mind addresses issues in the field of your choice)
    • Open-Mindedness (to ideas, people, and circumstances different from your own)
    • Maturity (as demonstrated by being responsible and trustworthy)
    • Concern for Others (either by devoting time to social service activities such as tutoring or by being considerate and empathetic to others’ feelings; the latter is more difficult to pull off in an application essay)
    • Initiative (as in the ability to start a project or take on a responsibility on your own)
    • Enthusiasm (as demonstrated by your eagerness to engage in activities)
    • Confidence (in your ability to handle difficult situations and novel challenges)
    • Being Organized (as in the ability to stay on top of multiple tasks)
    • Sense of Humor (as in your ability to find humor in difficult situations; in many ways this is an index of maturity)
    • Diligence/Persistence (as demonstrated by your ability to stay with a task until you complete it; this is particularly relevant for programs requiring a dissertation)
    • Leadership (as shown in your ability to inspire others to work together to reach a mutual goal)
    • Risk Taking (as shown in your ability to deal with uncertainty in order to reach your goal)
    • Insight (as reflected in your ability to use introspection to understand aspects of yourself, such as your preferences and your motivations)
    • Optimism (as reflected in your ability to find positive aspects in seemingly negative situations)
    • Compromise (as in your ability to be flexible in negotiating with others; at a more abstract level this can mean the ability to reconcile ideological opposites or dialectical pairs among others or within yourself)
    • Overcoming Adversity (as demonstrated by your resourcefulness in dealing with serious problems such as divorce, death, illness, etc.)
  • What skills (leadership, communicative, analytical, for example) do you possess? As in the previous question, strive to “show” rather than “tell.” However, you can invoke these qualities by name with less chance of appearing insincere or conceited than if you attribute to yourself more personal, subjective qualities such as compassion and integrity.
  • Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school—and more successful and effective in the profession or field—than other applicants?
  • What do you have to offer the school—to your fellow students, to the faculty, to the broader community?
  • Why do you think you will succeed in this academic program?
  • What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?
  • Why do you think you will be successful in your chosen career?

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Background/Accomplishments: Personal

  • What’s special, unique, distinctive, or impressive about you or your life story? What details of your life (personal or family problems/history; any genuinely notable accomplishments, people, or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
  • Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (e.g., economic, familial, physical) in your life?
  • Have you borne significant care-giving responsibilities for family members? For an ailing parent, a sibling, a disabled or aging relative, a child? How has this impacted your academics? Your professional life? Your goals and values?
  • (If you live in the U.S. but are not a native-born American) How did you deal with the challenges of moving to the U.S. from your home? Did you experience culture shock? How did you adapt? What was most difficult for you? What aspects of your new home did you enjoy the most?
  • If work experiences have consumed significant periods of time during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has the work contributed to your personal growth.

Background/Accomplishments: Academic

  • When did you originally become interested in this field? What have you since learned about it—and about yourself—that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
  • How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
  • Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain?
  • Can you recall a specific incident that convinced you that you had chosen the right career path?

2. Consult Friends, Relatives, Colleagues, or Professors for Ideas

Others see us differently from the way we see ourselves. You may be overlooking some theme, angle, or aspect of your personality that might be obvious to others who know you well. Good ideas are good ideas, whatever their source. Here is a questionnaire that will give these people a structured format in which to help the applicants come up with ideas to submit sample grad school personal statements:

Preparatory Questionnaire

I am applying to _________ and must prepare a personal statement as a part of that process. I want to be sure to include all relevant data about myself and my background, so I am soliciting information from various individuals who know me and whose judgment I value. Thank you for your help.

1. What do you think is most important for the admissions committee to know about me?

2. What do you regard as most unusual, distinctive, unique, and/or impressive about me (based on our association)?

3. Are you aware of any events or experiences in my background that might be of particular interest to those considering my application to graduate school?

4. Are there any special qualities or skills that I possess that tend to make you think I would be successful in graduate school and in my chosen field?

3. Write An Experimental Creative Essay In Which You Are the Main Character

Pretend that you are enrolled in a creative writing class and that your assignment is to write a moving and inspiring short story (a couple of pages) about some experience in your life and its impact on you. Pretend you will be reading the story aloud during class and that your goal is to have your classmates approach you afterwards with the following sorts of reactions: “I feel as if I know you, even though I’ve never talked to you before,” or “I was really moved; thanks for taking a risk and giving us a glimpse into what makes you tick.” Although you will not be submitting your personal statement for graduate school sample in the form of a short story, this exercise will help you to achieve a level of sincerity, even vulnerability, in your writing that might prove elusive if you plunge directly into a first draft of your application essay.

You need a few failed attempts to apply to a college to understand that the answer to a question like, “Should I use a proofreading service for grad school essay?” is too obvious. Do you plan to apply to a graduate school and need to submit a paper? Follow our brainstorming tips, but don’t forget to order professional editing help after that.

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