Leaping Over the Personal Statement

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To apply to graduate school, an internship or other professional experience, you may have to write a personal statement. Think of this as an opportunity for you to introduce yourself by writing a concise narrative where you are the main character. You don’t have to fear the personal statement. Yes, it takes time and effort and should be given a lot of attention, but admissions folk don’t expect you to write like Charles Dickens or Will Shakespeare. In fact, one of the most important qualities of your personal statement is to sound like yourself–your authentic best self! Here are some pointers.

Start early. Give yourself time to think. Reflect on your experiences and your special qualifications. Think about what makes you unique.  Research the school or company. Become knowledgeable about the program, professors, facilities, and the culture. Know why you are a good fit. Mull over what you’d like to write. Jot down a few sentences for several prospective essays, and let them percolate. Remind yourself that you are in the best position to write about this topic because YOU know the answers to these questions the best. You just have to take time to think about them.

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes. A personal statement is at its core a persuasive argument. You want your audience to accept you for the position, so you must think like your audience. Here are the questions you must address to be convincing:
•    Do you have the necessary education? Experience? Qualities?
•    Are you conscientious, hardworking, and unlikely to drop out or leave?
•    Can you work under pressure?
•    Do you adapt well to new environments?
•    Are you genuinely interested in the field, university or company?

Avoid trite and broad narratives that fall into one of these categories:

•    the big trip where you learned it’s a small world
•    random childhood memories with no particular purpose (focus on more recent experiences)
•    the athletic event where you learned it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose
•    the amazing defining moment that’s mostly about someone else (e.g., your mother, professor–Admissions counselors tell me that after they read this type of essay they are inclined to let your mother or professor in instead of you!)

To avoid the cliché, zoom in on the unexpected. Consider a smaller “canvas.” Make sure to give examples; cite instances by which you exhibited the skills they are seeking.

Write your story. The basic structure of a personal statement is a story, so you need a good first sentence to engage your audience. Think of this as the hook. Compare these two examples:
•    I am applying to the Master of Science program in ________ because
     I believe my skills will be enhanced at your program since it is a place
     where I will be challenged, and I can hone my research interests.

•    When I was eleven, my great aunt Matilda passed away and left me
     something that changed my life: her rock collection. As a child, some
     of my best days were spent with my rock hammer and my magnifier.
     My interest in geosciences began in my early youth, and it continues
     to develop and become more focused with each experience.

Notice in the first example, the admissions committee knows you’re applying to their MFS program because that’s the stack of applications they are reading. They also know that your skills will be enhanced because they like their program. And they know you’ll be challenged–all new students are challenged, no matter how well-prepared they are. You’ve just used 39 words and none of them are useful.

Instead, use this as the basic structure for your personal statement.
•    Engage; passionate hook
•    Forecast (thesis; promise to your reader)
•    Background (why you want to go)
•    Qualifications/Experience (why you’re a good choice–specific classes and professors;         related extracurricular activities/publications; explanations–if needed)
•    Good fit (more about the specific University; name specific areas, features, professors)
•    A satisfying ending (style)
Demonstrate your intelligence and effective communication by paying attention to organization and conciseness too. If you veer off on tangents and write a disconnected personal statement, you’ll give your reader a headache. Cut every word that you can. Carefully proofread and edit your draft. Read it aloud slowly to find the problem areas.

Think of yourself as Superman: you may not be able to LEAP tall buildings in a single bound–but you can liven up the moment of those poor souls trapped in a room with 5,000+ applications to read!

(Next week: Checklist for personal statements) 

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