The best way to approach your personal statement for graduate school is to imagine that you have five minutes with someone from the admissions committee. How would you go about making the best case for yourself while holding the listener’s interest? What would you include and omit in your story? Figuring out the answer to these questions is critical to successfully preparing an effective statement.
To arrive at these answers, you should begin by asking yourself two specific questions:
- Why have I chosen to attend graduate school this specific field, and why did I choose to apply to this particular school’s program?
- What are my qualifications for admission?
The answers will not necessarily come easily to you, but this exercise will have great practical benefit in readying you to write an outstanding personal statement. By answering each question thoroughly, you will have given much thought to yourself, your experiences, and your goals, thereby laying the groundwork for formulating an interesting and persuasive presentation of your own personal story.
As the founder of EssayEdge.com, the Net’s largest admissions essay prep company, I have seen firsthand the difference a well-written application essay can make. Through its free online admissions essay help course and 300 Harvard-educated editors, EssayEdge.com helps tens of thousands of student each year improve their essays and gain admission to graduate schools ranging from Harvard to State U.
Having personally edited over 2,000 admissions essays myself for EssayEdge.com, I have written this article to help you avoid the most common essay flaws. If you remember nothing else about this article, remember this: Be Interesting. Be Concise.
Why Graduate School?
Graduate school is a serious commitment, and it may have been your goal for a long time. Describing your early exposure to a field can offer effective insight into your core objectives. Watch out, however, that you do not your point in such a clichéd, prepackaged way as to make your reader cringe. For example, you should not start your essay, “I have always wanted to….” or “I have always known that _______ was my calling.” Instead, you should discuss specific events that led to your interest in the field.
Graduate school is, of course, a means to an end, and admissions committees prefer students who know where they’re going and to what use they’ll put their education (though the occasional soul-searcher, who may exhibit exceptional raw potential, is welcomed). For many people, the long-term goal is to work in academia, and to differentiate yourself in such cases, you can stress more specific objectives such as your research interests.
Note: Read the instructions carefully. Sometimes schools will ask for a statement of purpose describing your specific research interests in lieu of, or in addition to, a personal statement that emphasizes your character and qualities. For these types of essays, you can assume that a faculty member will be reading your statement, but it should still be accessible enough for a non-specialist to understand. Remember that such essays should also still aim to engage the reader in a way that conveys your own enthusiasm for the subject matter.
Avoid mistakes like discussing the school’s rank or prestige, or simply offering generic praise. Instead, mention faculty members by name and indicate some knowledge of their work. Consider contacting faculty members first and discussing their current research projects and your interest in studying under them. Then refer to these contacts in your essay.
Why Am I Qualified?
The way to prove your qualification is not to list attributes you believe you possess but to discuss concrete experiences that show your abilities and qualities. As always, details are paramount. The rest of your application has already summarized your accomplishments and your activities. Show the reader what you did in concrete terms, and again, highlight your active roles.
The experiences that demonstrate your qualification are not necessarily distinct from those that explain your motivation. You shouldn’t plan on dividing the essay into two separate sections for each, but rather organize the structure by topic and extrapolate insights as they develop. It’s important that you think of the essay as an integrated whole, not as a checklist of questions you must answer.
Focus on research experience, since research will be your main job for the duration of your studies. Be specific about what you did. If you worked for a year under a professor, you might consider emphasizing one particular project and exploring that in depth. The experience does not have to have been a major undertaking: Any practical experience can be used as long as you demonstrate your enthusiasm and aptitude for the field of study.
Remember to keep the discussion personal. Do not get bogged down in minute details and jargon. Ultimately, the focus of the story should remain on you and your growth or success.
TOP 10 GRADUATE SCHOOL ESSAY WRITING TIPS
1. Don’t Write a Term Paper.
As a prospective graduate student, you may be tempted to try to impress your reader with an already tight grasp of academic style. Resist this temptation! You will have plenty of time to produce labyrinthine sentences and sophisticated vocabulary. Your reader will have seen too many essays to appreciate bewilderingly advanced prose. Write clearly and personably.
2. Don’t Bore the Reader. Do Be Interesting.
Admissions officers have to read hundreds of essays, and they must often skim. Abstract rumination has no place in an application essay. Admissions officers aren’t looking for a new way to view the world; they’re looking for a new way to view you, the applicant. The best way to grip your reader is to begin the essay with a captivating snapshot. Notice how the blunt, jarring “after” sentence creates intrigue and keeps the reader’s interest.
Before: I am a compilation of many years of experiences gained from overcoming the relentless struggles of life.
After: I was six years old, the eldest of six children in the Bronx, when my father was murdered.
3. Do Use Personal Detail. Show, Don’t Tell!
Good essays are concrete and grounded in personal detail. They do not merely assert “I learned my lesson” or that “these lessons are useful both on and off the field.” They show it through personal detail. “Show, don’t tell” means that if you want to relate a personal quality, do so through your experiences without merely asserting it.
Before: If it were not for a strong support system which instilled into me strong family values and morals, I would not be where I am today.
After: Although my grandmother and I didn’t have a car or running water, we still lived far more comfortably than did the other families I knew. I learned an important lesson: My grandmother made the most of what little she had, and she was known and respected for her generosity. Even at that age, I recognized the value she placed on maximizing her resources and helping those around her.
The first example is vague and could have been written by anybody. But the second sentence evokes a vivid image of something that actually happened, placing the reader in the experience of the applicant.
4. Do Be Concise. Don’t Be Wordy.
Wordiness not only takes up valuable space, but also confuses the important ideas you’re trying to convey. Short sentences are more forceful because they are direct and to the point. Certain phrases, such as “the fact that,” are usually unnecessary. Notice how the revised version focuses on active verbs rather than forms of “to be” and adverbs and adjectives.
Before: My recognition of the fact that the book was finally finished was a deeply satisfying moment that will forever linger in my memory.
After: Completing the book at last gave me an enduring sense of fulfillment.
5. Do Address Your Weaknesses. Don’t Dwell on Them.
The personal statement may be your only opportunity to explain deficiencies in your application, and you should take advantage of it. Be sure to explain them adequately: “I partied too much to do well on tests” will not help your application. The best tactic is to spin the negatives into positives by stressing your attempts to improve; for example, mention your poor first-quarter grades briefly, then describe what you did to bring them up.
6. Do Vary Your Sentences and Use Transitions.
The best essays contain a variety of sentence lengths mixed within any given paragraph. Also, remember that transition is not limited to words like nevertheless, furthermore or consequently. Good transition flows from the natural thought progression of your argument.
Before: I started playing piano when I was eight years old. I worked hard to learn difficult pieces. I began to love music.
After: I started playing the piano at the age of eight. As I learned to play more difficult pieces, my appreciation for music deepened.
7. Do Use Active Voice Verbs.
Passive-voice expressions are verb phrases in which the subject receives the action expressed in the verb. Passive voice employs a form of the word to be, such as was or were. Overuse of the passive voice makes prose seem flat and uninteresting.
Before: The lessons that have prepared me for my graduate studies were taught to me by my mother.
After: My mother taught me lessons that will prove invaluable as I pursue my research interests.
8. Do Seek Multiple Opinions.
Ask your friends and family to keep these questions in mind:
- Does my essay have one central theme?
- Does my introduction engage the reader? Does my conclusion provide closure?
- Do my introduction and conclusion avoid summary?
- Do I use concrete experiences as supporting details?
- Have I used active-voice verbs wherever possible?
- Is my sentence structure varied, or do I use all long or short sentences?
- Are there any clichés, such as “cutting-edge” or “learned my lesson”?
- Do I use transitions appropriately?
- What about the essay is memorable?
- What’s the worst part of the essay?
- What parts of the essay need elaboration or are unclear?
- What parts of the essay do not support my main argument?
- Is every single sentence crucial to the essay? This must be the case.
- What does the essay reveal about my personality?
9. Don’t Wander. Do Stay Focused.
Many applicants try to turn the personal statement into a complete autobiography. Not surprisingly, they find it difficult to pack so much information into such a short essay, and their essays end up sounding more like a list of experiences than a coherent, well-organized thought. Make sure that every sentence in your essay exists solely to support one central theme.
10. Do Revise, Revise, Revise.
The first step in an improving any essay is to cut, cut, and cut some more. EssayEdge.com’s free admissions essay help course and Harvard-educated editors will be invaluable as you polish your essay to perfection. The EssayEdge.com free help course guides you through the entire essay-writing process, from brainstorming worksheets and question-specific strategies for the twelve most common essay topics to a description of ten introduction types and editing checklists.
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