The personal statement is an essay that accompanies your application to graduate, law, or medical school. It functions as a type of interview by proxy—you explain who you are, why you want to enter the program, and what your plan is after you get your degree.
Departments typically weigh the personal statements pretty heavily because they demonstrate your ability to write, whether your expectations for the program are realistic, and what intelligence and experience you bring with you. This means that it’s an essay most people agonize over. It’s important to give the document due consideration, drafting and editing multiple times, but it shouldn’t be the hardest thing you’ve ever written. All of your work in school and experience have been preparing you for an essay like this; it’s just a short piece about your and the program you’re entering.
To help you get started, we have broken up the process into a few simple steps, and a couple of warnings to keep you on track. After following these, you should take your draft to one of our career counselors, as well as a professor(s) in your field to get some feedback on how it’s going and editing.
Five Steps to a Great Personal Statement
- Follow the directions: Maybe it shouldn’t need to be said, but people who are nervous tend to make simple mistakes. Read whatever directions they give you and take them as gospel. If they say there is a maximum of five hundred words, do not go over by twenty five or even five words. If they ask you to only address what you are going to do with the degree, focus the essay on just that.
- Be bold: This is an essay about your accomplishments and overall greatness. You have to demonstrate eagerness, intelligence, and a professional interest in your field. Sum up everything that is great about you in a list and figure out how you can fit all the best items in your essay. You are trying to impress and persuade your reader. You don’t want to be viewed as a “know-it-all” but be confident!
- Be unique: It is a personal statement, not a general statement about how great the study of law or public health is. You need to tell some story about you, and that story needs to illustrate the personality and experiences that make you an individual who would be well suited to whatever profession you have chosen. If there is something about you that is unusual, then your real challenge is how to relate that experience back to the degree you are trying to pursue. So if you are an ex-Olympic athlete or have done charity work in Africa, you have a starting point for a memorable essay. What if you’re not that unusual? Then you need to be clever—come up with something witty, something that shows off your love of whatever field you’re going after. Your failed attempt at student government might show off your determination and ability to compromise. An interesting case might have come in while you were job shadowing someone and you can use that story to display your professional interest and research skills.
- Write well: This is a test of your ability to write a good essay—everything you were taught in English class counts. You need to have an introduction, conclusion, and paragraphs with transitions. The spelling and grammar have to be perfect. It shouldn’t read like a high school essay though—the introduction should be interesting and grab the reader right away. The essay can have paragraphs of any length. There is no magic in the five paragraph formula—paragraphs should follow the logic of content, one topic per paragraph.
- Write and rewrite: Give yourself enough time to do a couple of drafts at least. Because it is a stressful situation, some people put off writing the essay with “I don’t know where to start” excuses. The essay will get better the more you work on it, so you have to get started. From our experience, often the first draft is not the right direction at all, but there will be something in it that is the key to a wonderful personal statement. But you won’t find that key idea without putting your hands to the keys and trying to put your thoughts into writing. Whatever excuses you’re coming up with to avoid starting - you need to dismiss them. A favorite tactic is to start in the middle. We typically know what we want to say in the statement, so just start there. Do the easiest thing first and then when you’re warmed up, tackle the other parts.
Danger Zone: Three Common Personal Statement Mistakes
- Don’t make the reader wait: The person reading your statement probably just read a hundred other statements. He or she is tired and hoping it will be over soon. If you are going to be liked by this reader, you need to start strong and stick to the point. If you tell a story, it needs to be interesting and connect to your field of study. If you make a generalization about yourself, back it with an example that is short and direct. Don’t start a story at the beginning of the essay and wait to the end (or even a paragraph later) to reveal the reason it’s there. The reader will be annoyed and may not read the whole thing. Do not add a lot of extra detail to your story - just the most significant points.
- Don’t fly off into the abstract: The essay needs to be about you, not a bunch of generalizations about the importance of law, or why understanding history is a lofty goal. When asked why people want to study something, some will want to talk about philosophy and values. It’s not inherently bad, but when you suddenly find yourself writing a whole paragraph about how counseling is good because it helps people, you have two problems. The first problem is that your readers know that already. The second is that anyone can say nice things about a field, someone who is becoming a professional needs to not just embrace some ideal, but understand the pros and cons of what he or she is getting into. If you talk about abstract ideas, relate them to real events. Balance praise with a clear-eyed view of problems and limitations.
- Don’t apologize or confess: This is not the place to be modest or reveal your insecurities. Do NOT draw attention to your weaknesses. EXCEPTION TO THE RULE: If you have done something that must be explained because it can’t be missed—you have a felony conviction or you failed freshman year and had to move to another school—you need to address it head on. You can’t expect any pity though, so don’t ask for it. Instead, distance yourself by admitting that it was a stupid mistake and explain how you changed and learned from it. Offer concrete examples of how you have changed to assure the committee that you are not that person anymore. Move on in the essay and don’t refer back to it.