(By Tracy Bennett, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)
A filmed personal statement might have helped Elle Woods get into Harvard Law School, but in the real world, you’re better off sticking to these tips.
If you have seen the 2001 film, Legally Blonde, you might remember that Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, creates a video for her admissions essay to Harvard Law School. As she sits in a hot tub, she states that she will be an “amazing lawyer” because she can discuss important issues, such as the brand of toilet paper used in her sorority house, and she uses “legal jargon in everyday life” to object when men harass her. She can also recall details at the “drop of a hat,” including the recent events on a soap opera. (If you haven’t seen the movie or simply want a good laugh, you can view the clip on YouTube.)
Although the Harvard committee granted Elle admission, you will probably want to take your essay in a different direction. While you cannot change your grade point average or entrance exam scores, you have complete control over the contents of your personal statement. There are many applicants and few spots, so work diligently to persuade readers that you fit their program given your qualifications, interests and professional goals. Use the tips below to prepare and refine your essay.
1. Just get started.
Yes, your first sentence should be compelling and attention-grabbing, but if you attempt to identify your opening line immediately you will probably induce writer’s block. Make an outline or free write. You can tweak the introduction later once you are more aware of your noteworthy accomplishments or the defining events that have led to your career interests.
2. Articulate your reasons for selecting your chosen career.
Although these essays are often called personal statements, they are not an autobiography. Instead, view it as an essay about your journey as an emerging scholar. Provide evidence to demonstrate that you have actively confirmed your interests and that earning an advanced degree will help you achieve these goals. Describe the courses, articles, professors, research, service projects, internships, shadowing or co-curricular activities that have shaped your aspirations. Avoid references to high school accomplishments, gimmicks or clichés such as, “I have always wanted to be a _________.” Cautiously address controversial topics. It is one thing to demonstrate your knowledge of the field by referencing a current debate. It is quite another thing to offend your readers with excessive political or religious rhetoric.
3. Be specific.
For example, it is not enough to say that you aspire to be a social worker because you want to help children. You could do this in a variety of occupations. Similarly, anyone can say that they are interested in law. Earn credibility by demonstrating this passion. Have you worked at a law firm or participated in student government, Model UN and/or mock trial?
4. One size does not fit all.
Unless it is a common application system, such as those used by law, physical therapy and medical schools, you should describe your rationale for selecting the program among other alternatives. By the way, most of the schools that use a common application system will require supplemental essays that inquire about this. For the time being, you may omit it from your initial personal statement. Each institution has its own values, mission and faculty. What led you to select its particular program over others? Was it an emphasis in a particular area (e.g., rural practice, technology) or the research interests of a professor? Was your interest heightened by a conversation with its alumni?
5. Whatever your reasons for applying, be sincere.
Briefly mention any noteworthy and appealing features that attracted you to the program or institution, but do not go overboard. Committee members already know the prestigious awards that they have won, and most of your competition will mention these same attributes. If you offer excessive praise, you may only appear disingenuous.
6. Describe your professional interests, particularly as they relate to research.
If you identified faculty members who share your interest in a topic, describe your desire to work with them. Be specific, but keep your options open, too. Committee members will roll their eyes if you say you are interested in every research area of its faculty. On the other hand, if your interests are too narrow, they may question your ability to collaborate with professors.
7. Demonstrate your motivation and capacity to succeed.
Graduate schools are not only selecting students, but they are also choosing future ambassadors of their program. Persuade them that you will contribute to their reputation as an institution throughout your academic studies and professional career. Avoid summarizing other parts of your application. Instead, you should provide them with concrete examples including relevant publications, presentations, classroom assignments and employment experiences. For example, describing a service project could demonstrate your compassion, which some medical schools value. If you collaborated with others on a research topic, describe your specific contribution. Research in particular is valuable to your readers because you will more than likely need to immerse yourself in this activity during your graduate studies, especially if you are a Ph.D. candidate.
If you have any blemishes in your application, such as low test scores, criminal convictions or poor grades, think carefully before you offer a rationale. If you were to survey career coaches and faculty, some would advise you to describe anomalies because, if you do not, you leave it open to imagination. Others, however, would only encourage you to share details if the graduate program requests it. Advisers on this side of the camp fear that graduate programs may perceive such descriptions as potential liabilities or excuses, especially if your grades were repeatedly low. For example, while committee members may empathize if you reveal that you struggle with test anxiety, they may still question your ability to succeed. Most graduate programs entail tests, and many occupations require individuals to pass licensing examinations before they can enter the fields. Applicants’ inability to perform in this arena may jeopardize the professional standing of the institution.
If you elect to include this information, be brief and positive. Keep it simple and do not be defensive. Perhaps your academic ability improved once you discovered your passion. Maybe you persisted despite a serious illness or death in your family. If you decide not to address these anomalies yourself, consider asking one of your trusted references to include the topic from a positive standpoint in your letter of recommendation.
8. Be concise.
Personal statements are generally no more than two pages. If the sentence is not essential to your thesis, remove it. Also eliminate unnecessary words, such as “in order to,” “I believe” and “the fact is.”
9. Carefully proofread and refine the essay.
Any errors reflect your ability as a writer. Confirm that you used transitions, diverse sentence structures, first person and active voice. Substitute weak words, such as “love,” with a more professional, powerful alternative. Let it sit overnight. Then, read it aloud or backward. Have a consultant at your campus writing center or a professor critique the essay.
10. Enjoy the writing process.
Preparing a personal statement confirms your desire to attend graduate school and clarifies your interests or goals, which is why professional schools require it. A few years from now, this will prove helpful in your professional job search as you write cover letters and respond to interview questions.
Billie Streufert is director of the Academic Success Center at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. With nearly 10 years of experience in career and academic advising, she is passionate about helping individuals discover and achieve their goals. She is eager to connect with students via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and her blog.
Billie Streufert, grad school, Harvard, personal statement, University of Sioux Falls, CAMPUS LIFE, CAREER PATH, VOICES FROM CAMPUS
If you're applying for a Masters degree or other type of postgraduate course, we know that writing the personal statement is the most difficult part of the application process.
As experts in this area, we've written this guide to help you understand what a good Postgraduate personal statement should achieve, how to get started on putting it together, and complete a polished final draft ready to send off (if you're applying for a postgraduate course in the U.S, take a look at our Personal Statements for Graduate School section over at studential.com/us).
What's the aim of a Postgraduate personal statement?
A postgraduate personal statement is a document used to highlight your personal experience, skills, grades and other supporting factors that will assist when you embark on completing a postgraduate application, either for a Taught Masters, Research Masters or PhD.
Each time you submit an application, you will usually be required to write a personal statement.
Length of a Postgraduate Personal Statement
Typically you will be allowed around 1 side of A4 to say why you think you should be accepted on to the course. The structure of your statement we will cover later in this article as there are many things to consider first.
Sometimes you will just be asked to provide a statement that supports your application, though at other times you will be given more of a description of what to include.
For example, if you are applying for a PGCE course you may choose to use the following tip:
Describe briefly your reasons for wanting to teach giving the relevance of your previous education and experience, including teaching, visits to schools and work with other young people.
There will be times when you are not given any clear indication of what you should include in your statement, so we’ve written some guidelines to help you put together a well-structured statement.
Our advice is aimed at giving you a outline to follow if this is the case.
Before you start your Postgraduate personal statement
Before starting to write your first draft of your personal statement, use the points below as a guide.
Try to put together a paragraph of 2 or 3 sentences for each question, as this will help you construct a good personal statement that focuses on what the reader is interested to find out.
Notes About You
Why do you want to pursue postgraduate study?
This would likely to be based around your career choice and personal development and achievement.
What are your reasons for wanting to study at a particular university?
It may be the university’s educational reputation, the course you want to join is highly recommended for excellence, or that the location is where you would like to pursue your career goals following completion of you course.
Why is this particular course of most interest to you?
Perhaps consider the career route you wish to take means the course is highly relevant to that choice or that you want to study it because of your personal interests.
What aspects of the course are of particular interest to you? e.g. specialist modules, work placement opportunity.
You may have discovered that the chance of work experience whilst you study; or the excellent job prospects upon completion of your course are particularly alluring.
What previous academic and practical experience have you got that shows your interest in your chosen subject?
Did you take up work experience whilst studying at your last educational facility or were your grades particularly impressive?
Maybe you have been part of a specialist club or have taken on additional interests in your chosen subject.
What about mentioning if you took a year out to get involved in a relevant activity?
Make sure you include everything that is relevant to your application.
What skills do you have that will help you make the transition between undergraduate and postgraduate study and make you succeed in the research area?
Consider in this area if you have taken part in a skills programme which helps you with language and study as an undergraduate or postgraduate.
Think about the skills you learned or developed during your undergraduate degree or other previous studies. These might include time management, IT, numeracy, communication or analytical skills, as well as practical skills gained from field or laboratory work.
Try to give an example that demonstrates you have each of these skills - admissions tutors want to see proof behind your claims.
We go into a little more detail in the section below ‘What Should I Include in my Personal Statement’.
General guidelines for writing your Postgraduate personal statement
Do not use the same statement for each application – each one will require slightly different content depending on the university you are applying to and the content of the course.
Therefore it’s important to research each university and what’s involved in each course, so you can see what is unique about each of your choices and how they each stand apart from the others.
Don't underestimate how difficult it can be to write a good personal statement that will do you justice. Therefore make sure you give yourself ample time to write it.
Always use good vocabulary and grammar – well-written sentences that flow easily will make your statement more fresh and dynamic compared to other applicants.
There are many ways to discover good grammar and language by visiting the library or going online - some pieces of software available free of charge can check your grammar for you. Avoid Americanisation’s (unless of course you are American!).
Do not use overly long sentences.
Try to keep the tone of your statement positive and enthusiastic. You also need to demonstrate you are able to make the points required in a concise manner, and make sure you adhere to the word limit.
Write a draft and keep checking it, shortening if you need to and rewriting it until it feels right.
Perhaps get someone else to read it and provide you with any errors they spot as you tweak it.
When you've completed your final draft, make sure you use the spelling and grammar checker on your computer to correct any obvious mistakes.
How to Structure a Postgraduate Personal Statement
Your statement should be structured, with a clear introduction, main body and end.
The aim of the introduction is to grab the reader’s attention and hold it so they remain interested and read to the end of your statement.
In the main body of the statement you should concentrate on relating your skills, knowledge and experience in the field and how this relates to the course you are applying for.
When you think your statement is as good as you can make it, ask a few friends or family members to take a look at it and see if they can suggest any improvements. You could also ask one of your last teachers to check it for you.
Print off a copy of each statement you write as what you have written will probably be referred to in your interview. It’s important you remember what you have written so you can answer any questions from the admissions tutors as fully as possible.
What should I include in my personal statement?
As mentioned above, there are many different things to include. The following is a list of areas you could potentially cover in your statement, remembering to keep a positive view on all of the things you choose to include:
- Why you want to do this particular course/study this particular area of research – write down your reasons why you are interested in and enthusiastic about pursuing further study into the field.
- Convey your motivation and mention any relevant projects, dissertations or essays that demonstrate your skills. Put down anything that shows creativity, responsibility and independence.
- You should also mention any prizes or awards you have, plus any relevant travelling experiences or time spent studying abroad.
It's important to remember that a personal statement is meant to be "personal".
Almost every postgraduate course requires one, it provides the department with information about you whereas your application will cover the formal details such as where you last studied, your grades, which course you are applying for.
No matter which course you intend to apply to you will need to consider the language that you use, get the grammar and spelling correct, and make sure it is tailored to the course and university you are applying to.
There's nobody else who knows you and your experiences as well as you do, so you are the best person to write your personal statement in order to present yourself in the best possible light.
You may wish to ask yourself this question – could my personal statement apply equally to, say, my friend or my neighbour?
If the answer is "yes" then it is probably too general and you need to make it more specific and more personal.