Whether you’re in your last year of undergrad, or far removed from the academy and returning for a career-boost, there’s one piece of the application you cannot ignore: the personal statement.
Those three little words are enough to produce anxiety even in those who adore writing. You want me to write about myself? My accomplishments? My goals? I’ll pass.
But you can’t. So, where do you start?
Most graduate applications will have a prompt—use that prompt to help you envision why this program will help you get where you want to go. You can start by jotting down your vision in whatever format of brainstorming you prefer. Then use these tips to craft the best possible personal statement.
- Get Started Now (and Early): Ever look at a piece of writing months after having written it and find yourself editing it? You know, finding places you could have expanded or removed, seeing words that could be stronger, or formulating an entirely different organizational pattern?
That phenomenon is the reason you should start (and finish) your personal essay as early as possible. Between the time you begin and the fateful time you send it in, you will have given your now-more-experienced-self enough time and space away from the statement to make changes, if necessary.
Plus, the early bird gets the worm (there’s a reason clichés exist—because they’re true!). It can be tempting to put your future on hold by procrastinating the personal statement portion of your application, but starting early and letting the essay unfold slowly will not only alleviate stress, but it will give you more time to polish, change, and re-write (if necessary—and sometimes it is).
- Write wild: We all know that first-drafts are never good. That’s why their rough. There may be a lot of pressure imposed on you to get this essay perfect or right (I mean, it’s only your future here), but remember, that’s what final drafts are for.
During the brainstorming, drafting, and editing phases, anything goes. Write whatever it is that comes to mind. Do not concern yourself with word counts. Leave your editor out at this stage—that critical voice doesn’t get any say until you are well into a final draft (that you finished months before it was due because you followed tip number one).
- Get Excited: About the program you are applying to, about grad school life, and about this next step in your personal and professional development.
Use that excitement as fuel for researching the program, the school and its perks. Use the curiosity you have about who you will become during that program to fuel your writing and make it come alive. That energy will translate into your essay.
- Write about the Why: Have you ever listened to someone talk about something they love? They light up, talk fast, and can’t stop talking about it. This is how you need to write your personal statement.
You need to write about your why—why you are continuing your education, why you have chosen this career, why this is the program that gets you there. These whys will inevitably lead you to write about your history with the subject—the professors, classes, internships, projects, research, etc. that you’ve done that led you to this moment. Don’t forget to tie your why to the school’s mission and values, showing them you’ve done your research.
As your writing about your why, be specific. Don’t write that you want to study adult education because you like helping adults. Write that you want to study adult education because you spent years working as a tutor and now want to effect greater institutional change as an administrator. There is grad school granting magic in the details.
- Edit, Edit, Edit: Don’t purely proofread for grammar and punctuation—edit content and organization if needed. Don’t be afraid to slash entire ideas, add new ones, better ones, ones that you can add because you gave yourself enough time to re-imagine it. Edit out clichés (unless you are using them ironically). Choose strong verbs. Craft diverse sentences. Get other eyes to look over it.
The competition for grad school spots may be fierce, and writing about ourselves is generally awkward, but do it and brag, because you’re uniquely awesome and that attitude will infuse in your personal statement and ooze into the hands of the gate keepers (the admissions counselors) of your chosen program.
And remember, writing anything is a process, so start it early, ensuring you give yourself enough time to allow the process to work for you.
Now go forth and write!