Writing a Winning Personal
Statement for Grad School

writing a successful grad school personal statement

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Going to graduate school is a big deal. Even as more and more undergraduate students see their baccalaureate degrees as stepping stones more than academic endpoints, it’s can still be an arduous process. You’ll need to be prepared to delve deeply into your core subject. After all, the goal of graduate school is to become a master of your chosen subject.

Thus, your personal statement needs to reflect that you have not only the academic credentials, but the personal wherewithal to do this. After all, graduate programs are a bit more personal than most undergraduate departments. You need to demonstrate a deep interest in the subject and a history that reflects dedication and determination.

This page is dedicated to the process of writing a personal statement in order to attend a graduate school master's program. This is one part of your application that serves as your true introduction to the department. From this essay, no matter any apparent negatives in your full application, you may be asked to interview or even enroll. After all, if the school is considering another student with the same grades and test scores, the final decision will likely come down to who had the better essay.

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What is A Personal Statement for Graduate School?

A grad school personal statement is sort of like a mission statement for a business or other project. In their personal statements, graduate school applicants will discuss why they want to attend that specific program and what they intend to accomplish while enrolled. It will certainly help to discuss how your background supports your estimated success as this is the whole reason why an admissions committee asks for a personal statement; they want to ensure that the student they enroll is a worthwhile applicant and is committed to their graduate school program.

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Since this is a graduate school personal statement rather than an intervie, you can feel free to take a more casual, conversational tone. It is with the help of this pesonal statement that you can give the reviewers more than statistics and let a little of your personality shine through and talk about your personal life. However, that does not imply using slang or poor grammar. Keep a personable, but professional tone throughout the piece. Be objective and realistic with your goals but also show how your personal story aligns with your academic and professional aspirations; give specific examples. Thus, if your motivation to attend medical school stems from watching a doctor heal a family member, you should certainly include that along with how that experience kicked off a lifelong fascination with disease prevention, anatomy, etc. A good personal statement will likely talk about more than academic and career goals, but will also mention how your life story will impact your future and how it motivates you to be successful. A compelling personal statement will give the admissions committee a deeper understanding of your goals and your positive qualities outside your undergraduate education.

When Do you Need to Have a Personal Statement Ready?

Your personal statement needs to be ready at the same time as the rest of your application. In fact, it may be helpful to write your personal statement well in advance of your application process. However, keep in mind that you should tailor your personal statement to match specific programs.

For instance, if you are applying to MBA programs you will need a personal statement that details your business history and future. However, certain programs may offer concentration areas that are of particular interest and you'll want to focus on those specifically, altering your personal statement or essay for each program's unique features. On the other hand, you might be applying to traditional MBA programs alongside dual-degree programs. For those you should consider how you plan to synthesize your learning in the professional world.

What Do Schools Look for in a Personal Statement?

Graduate programs are looking for students that will be a good fit in their academic community. That is, they can easily look over your GPA and test scores, but that doesn't indicate much in terms of your dreams and desires. They want to see that students are driven and bring appropriate experience and knowledge to the table. They want to know that your participation will be unique and helpful. However, this means slightly different things to different programs.

To find an appropriate focus, look over the admissions web pages to find essay examples and any statements that describe what the admissions team seeks. Some might want to see a discussion of your extra-curricular activities, but others may want a strictly academic or professional focus. If you have a prepared personal statement, you can use that as source material from which you craft a unique personal statement to match each potential program.

Steps to Take When Writing Your Personal Statement

  • Write a comprehensive draft of your graduate school personal statement or essay. Make this version very personal. Express all of your deepest motivations and desires for graduate school. In this draft, allow yourself to be as emotional as you can. This process will help you not only sort out your feelings, but you might also discover deeper motivations for your pursuits and new goals may arise.

    Consider this an exercise in self-exploration that is best kept to yourself. After all, you will need to be professional, objective, and concise in your finished drafts. Once you've got all of that off your chest, you can focus on the final draft(s) that you'll send to your desired graduate program(s).

    If you intend to apply to multiple schools, having a thorough source document will be enormously helpful. You may be able to recycle certain bits on each grad school personal statement, such as the introduction, but the other parts may need to be cut or revised to meet the needs of varying program directives and focus.

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  • Get motivated. Make sure you are motivated for every program you're applying to. This goes double for your top two or three choices. You need to be enthusiastic and excited to attend the program. If you have that sort of excitement driving you, admissions counselors will pick up on it.

    To avoid any sort of burnout, try to space out your writing sessions. Even if you are trying to knock out all your personal statements in a single day, take breathers between each one. Take a walk around the block or run a few errands. When you return to your desk, your mind will be refreshed and ready to express your driving desire to attend that program.

  • Know your audience. This is a general rule of formal and business writing, but in this context, it means that you should know the specific requirements of each admissions department. Things like word count requirements mean a lot and should be heeded. You should also look for any tips on their website. Many programs provide examples that they found particularly effective. Study these and analyze what made those examples so successful.

    Though every program will rely on numbers such as your GPA and test scores, they may really want to hear about your extra-curricular activities as well. A lifelong dedication to photography, for instance, may reveal not only a strong and consistent work-ethic, but a perpetual dedication to improvements, on top of the requisite attention to detail.

    Other programs may be more interested in your academic experiences. Here, you might describe the first intro class you took and how that changed your major and the entire course of your life. These programs may also be interested in relevant work experience or special academic projects, such as scientific studies or internships.

  • Plan each personal statement. For you, this might entail a detailed outline. Others may jot a series of notes gleaned from what they learned on the admissions web page. Regardless of your specific method, make each planning document unique and specific to a particular program.

    If you need to craft a series of personal statements or essays, write out your plan or outline for each one prior to crafting a full draft. This way you can have this planning step completed for each application and you won't be constructing each personal statement from whole cloth. Further, this will give your brain time to process these plans and you may discover new ideas between the planning and writing phases.

  • Make revisions and edits. One maxim professional writers live by is, "Writing is revising." You may jot out a full draft in a single sitting and think that it's perfect. However, if you return to it later, there's a significant chance that you will need to make at least a few changes.

    It will also be immensely helpful to share your personal statement with a friend or colleague who can provide an objective critique. Though it's not always comfortable to hear criticism, any outside suggestions may make the difference between an average personal statement or essay and one that blows away the admissions counselors. You might even consider hiring a professional writer/editor to assist you.

How to Write a Successful Personal Statement

  • Know your material. In this case, you must know exactly why you want to attend a graduate degree or graduate school in general, and what you intend to gain from it. Further, you need to know what you bring to the table. These things may seem self-evident, but that's not always the case. The more you explore your inner motivations and long-term goals the better you will be at articulating them in a personal statement.

  • Avoid clichés and seek specifics. This is a personal statement, after all. Thus, when you discuss your motivation for a specific field, write it in such a way that it's unique to you. If you want to attend a graduate art program, don't say you have always loved to draw. Rather, recall a moment from your past that served as a definitive moment and made you the artist you are today.

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  • Be clear and concise. Most personal statements have word count limits, so make each word count. This is where revision is key. Look for words that can be easily omitted. One good place to start cutting is adverbs. Try cutting as many adverbs and adverbial phrases as possible. In their place, make sure that you have strong verbs and adjectives to do the heavy lifting.

    You can also reduce extra verbiage by culling stock phrases.

  • Know that you are unique. While some of your fellow graduate students may seem to have exceptional academics and dramatic personal stories that dwarf what you have to offer, know that you are also worthy. If you dig deep into your story, you are sure to discover that you have special strengths that any graduate program would love to have exemplified in their students.

  • Remember that grammar matters. These days, many undergraduate degree programs undervalue grammar. Don't let this dissuade you from its importance in effective writing. Consider that you are headed to graduate school in order to become a professional. Thus, your writing should reflect a well-educated professional who attends to their words and phrases with care. Make sure to have a grammar guide on hand when you begin writing. If you don’t have a copy of a grammar guide, you can search for the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), which can answer any writing question you may have.

  • Style matters more than you might think. Try varying your sentence structure and question each comma usage. If you write one long, compound sentence, try to follow up with a shorter, simple sentence. On the other hand, a series of simple sentences can sound staccato and even a bit immature. If this is a new idea to you, try to use nothing but simple sentences in your first draft. On revision, see which sentences can be combined into compound sentences.

    Essentially you want your essay to flow and be as easy to read as possible. With that in mind, try to build effective transitions between paragraphs, and avoid repeating words as much as possible.

  • Always use the active voice. You want to come across as confident and professional, so avoid using ‘to be’ verbs or other passive constructions. When you use an active voice, the action (verb) is attributed to the subject. In this case, most of your sentences are about you and you want your reader to see you as proactive and effective. Passive voice will only sabotage this mission. You can use Grammarly’s free, online editor to catch as many of these passive phrases as possible.

  • Tell everything as a story. This doesn't imply that your essay needs to read like a short story, but it should carry the reader through a narrative. Flesh out you’re the essay with enough specific examples and details to make you a fully-realized individual. You should also include action that leads to some sort of change or conclusion for the reader. Part of this work can be done by choosing specific words and phrases that demonstrate who you are, your worldview, and how it evolved to its present form. As always, much of this will be achieved in the revision process.

  • Focus on a theme or thesis. If the program provides an essay prompt or question, make sure you stick to it. If it has multiple parts, be certain to address each with depth and detail. When you revise, ask yourself if each sentence directly relates to the theme or prompt question. If you happen to stray off on a tangent, that's okay. You may be able to revise that material and make it work for that essay. If not, it may be useful for other personal statements.

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