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Writing A Good Personal Statement For Grad School

Think of your personal statement as the meat of your application to grad school: everything around it – from your GRE scores to your two letters of recommendation – is accompaniment. Without a strong personal statement, you simply will not stand a chance of getting through to the next stage.

Adopt the right tone

It’s important that you get the tone right – and you may find that different countries and graduate schools will expect varying degrees of familiarity from a personal statement, but it’s always a good idea to avoid either being negative, or being overly informal.

It can be very tempting to overshare, but remember, this is graduate school. Admissions officers will expect you to sound like a budding academic. Don’t risk trying to crack a joke, as the admissions officer may not share your sense of humor. Avoid personal anecdotes and leave out the cheesy celebrity quotes! The admissions committee won’t care that your interest in civil engineering began back in 199X when you were playing Lego Star Wars with your cousin.

Welcome to College Admission Pet Peeves 101: clichés. Admissions officers have to read through piles and piles of personal statements, and you need to make sure that you stand out from the rest, so don’t write that you have always been ‘passionate’ about your subject. Don’t waffle, but do back up each claim you make with specific examples.

Plan

You should aim to write a side of A4 or 500 words, but check content and style guidelines with your university first so that you are not unduly penalized.

Your statement needs to be tailored to the course and university you are applying to, and painfully precise and specific. Some universities will advise students on what information to include in their statements, but as a good rule of thumb you should aim to outline your career and research goals, your existing education and skillset, and explain your interest in the course, university and department.

Before you set pen to paper, make sure you have outlined an essay plan detailing everything you will include in your introduction, body and conclusion.

One way to structure your essay is:

  • Outline your goals and dissertation idea in the first paragraph;
  • Describe how your previous degree has prepared you for your research in the following paragraphs, giving a rundown of any relevant modules or internships you have completed;
  • Conclude by explaining why you think the university in question would be the best place to undertake your research, listing any resources, staff members and facilities you would like to make use of.

Of course, one size does not fit all and you might find a different structure would work better for you. That’s fine – after all, you don’t want your statement to be indistinguishable from all the others.

Proofread several times

Remember: your personal statement needs to be absolutely perfect – especially at PhD level or if you are applying for a scholarship! Get your friends, family and professors to proofread it for you as many times as needed and watch out for those misplaced commas and typos! It might be worth leaving your statement to the side for several days, and then returning to it with a fresh pair of eyes.

Applying to grad school?

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Your graduate school personal statement may initially get only five minutes of an admissions officer's attention. In those five minutes you have to show that you are a good pick for the school.

Writing an amazing graduate school essay is probably far more straightforward than you might think. Graduate school admissions officers aren't looking for gimmicks. They're looking for passionate, motivated, and prepared applicants who are ready to hit the ground running in their program. Read on for more details in creating your best graduate school essay. If you're looking for one-on-one assistance, check out EssayEdge.com.

Know what the admissions officers are seeking

Don't make assumptions about your graduate school personal statements. Many programs simply ask you to submit a personal statement without any further guidance. Other programs will tell you exactly how they want the essay structured along with word count limits and formatting requirements. Review the prompt thoroughly and plan your essay before you begin writing to ensure that you create an essay that will be an effective and persuasive addition to your application package.

What should you do if the program doesn't give you any specifics? With greater numbers of applicants to graduate programs, the trend is toward shorter essays. This is especially true of graduate programs in the STEM fields. Unfortunately, longer essays tend to be skimmed rather than read thoroughly, and most any admissions officer will tell you that the best essays that they've read are always shorter essays. Think about what is absolutely essential, and write about those aspects of your experience with passion.  

Personal, personal, personal

Did we mention personal? Some graduate programs will ask you to write an additional essay about an issue within your chosen field. However, your personal statement should be about you as an individual. Write about issues only if they relate specifically to your personal experiences. For example, 'In Africa, a child dies every minute. This stark statistic prompted me to join an NGO aimed at providing nutrition and healthcare for children in Namibia.'

Keep your anecdotes focused on your life after you began college

It is common for graduate school applicants to start their personal statements with an anecdote about something that happened during childhood or high school. On the surface, this makes sense because that event was what started the journey that has culminated in an application to the program. However, graduate programs are for professionals, and writing about your childhood is more appropriate for an undergraduate essay than one for graduate school. If you feel that you absolutely must include something from your childhood, use it as the starting sentence of your concluding paragraph. 

Know your program and make connections

Securing acceptance into a graduate program is more about being the best match than about being the most highly qualified. Among applicants who meet the program's minimum requirements, they'll choose an enthusiastic and informed applicant over one with higher test scores and a better GPA who doesn't seem to know much about their program.

During your graduate studies, you'll likely do research, and graduate programs want to know that you can both participate in ongoing research as well as find a mentor for your own project. In your essay, write about professors in the programs whose work interests you and why. Also, there is life outside of the classroom. Does the school have a close-knit traditional college campus? Is it located in the heart of the city? Especially if you will be moving with your family, show the admissions officers that you will thrive in their environment.  

Finish with a strong statement about why the school is your top pick

This doesn't necessarily mean that the school is your only pick. However, generic essays have no place in the graduate school application process. Form letters aren't persuasive, and generic essays won't help your application package. If you can't sincerely write that the school is a top pick, then why are you applying there? Instead, focus on creating stellar essays for the ones that actually interest you. Help the admissions officers understand your overarching vision for your future career and how your time at the school will prepare you to realize these goals.

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