What is the Personal Statement?
Graduate schools, fellowships, grants, and other competitive programs often require each applicant to submit a short essay about her history and goals. These essays are sometimes written in response to very specific questions; sometimes, they’re written in response to a generic prompt. In both cases, the good personal statement carefully balances its author’s history and aspirations.
Unlike much academic writing, personal statements are not necessarily thesis-driven. They tend to offer instead a narrative of development or illustrate a match between applicant and program. This does not mean the statement should narrate the applicant’s resume. Applicants should ask instead how the statement can enhance a particular element of the resume. Each applicant should ask how she might tell a compelling story about how and why she was drawn to a particular field of study, program, or career path.
How to Write a Personal Statement
Start by examining the prompt. Oftentimes, applicants are asked very specific questions about why they are applying to a particular program and what, specifically, qualifies them to be part of that program. Think about the question you’ve been asked. Also, no matter how tempting it is, do not submit the same personal statement to multiple programs if those programs are asking different questions. Tailor each statement to each question.
Decide how your experience is different, interesting, or special. Personal statements succeed when they are specific. Don’t say you want to go to medical school because you want to help people or you want to be a veterinarian because you like animals. Instead, tell a story about Megan, the seven-year-old leukemia patient you met when you volunteered in the cancer ward of Boston Children’s Hospital in April 2008. Or, instead, describe how you watched Dr. Phillips, the local veterinarian in the Chicago suburb where you grew up, reset the broken leg of your neighbor’s Irish Setter, Morris, after the dog had been hit by beat-up Camaro on Oak Street.
Research the program. The program you’re applying to is also unique in some ways, and you should make it clear that you chose it carefully from among its competitors. Think about how your goals will best be served by this particular fellowship, internship, or university. Again, be specific. Any MBA program will grant you the “skills you need” to succeed in the business world. What will this specific MBA program do? Is the actuarial class taught by the president of the Casualty Actuarial Society? That would be important if you’re more interested in becoming a casualty actuary instead of a pension or health actuary.
Make your goals clear. Just as your past is interesting and specific, so is your future. What do you plan to do, and how will this program help you do it? Do you want to develop long-term convection models for the eastern seaboard? Or become a choreographer for a major ballet company? How do you plan to get there, and how does this particular program fit into that plan?
Once you’ve thought about your history and your goals, start writing. It’s often very tempting to put this off. Writing a personal statement is stressful. But it’s important to start writing as soon as possible—especially because you’ll be revising again and again. Show how your personal history relates to your goals, and how you’re a good fit for this particular program. If your first attempt looks halting and a little half-baked, don’t worry. The first draft is supposed to look this way.
Revision is where the real work begins. Read through what you’ve written. Ask yourself what works and what doesn’t:
- Are you answering the question you set out to answer?
- Are you specific enough?
- Are you spending too much time on your personal history (this isn’t an autobiography, remember; only relevant information here)?
- Is your tone consistent throughout?
- Does your first paragraph grab the reader’s attention?
- Do you make it clear why you’ve applied to this particular program?
- Do you have too many things competing for the focus of the statement? What should you consider cutting (even if you want to include everything)?
After looking over your writing, rewrite. Then, rewrite again.
Once you feel the personal statement says what you want it to say, show it to somebody. The Writing Center can be useful here. It might also be useful to get feedback from a professional in your field. Many personal statement conventions are discipline-specific. What works in the hard sciences might not work in the humanities; what works for business majors might not work for artists.