By Isabella Lanza, PhD
If you read the title of this article and thought, ’30 hours! What the…?’, this article is for you. Let me walk you through both the process and format that can take you from a semi-clueless writer of personal statements to an all-star of the personal statement world.
Process and Time Needed
The worst thing you can do when writing a personal statement is spending only one or two days on your statement before submitting it with your application materials. Slapping it together and calling it a day will not get you anywhere, unless you are applying to so-called ‘money-mill’ programs (think professional graduate programs that charge a bundle of $$$ for your degree). If that’s what you’re aiming for, well you could probably slap together a good enough statement in even a day. But for the rest of you reading this, before writing even a single word of your personal statement, you first need to outline a plan for writing your statement. You should also plan to complete the process over a month (this provides you time to have others read your statement and give you useful feedback), and spend around 30 hours from start to finish. Here is the process I recommend:
Day 1 (3 hours): Outline the Personal Statement – Use the format below if you don’t already have a preset format to create an outline of your statement. The outline shouldn’t contain complete sentences, but instead captures the key ideas, phrases/words, and examples you want to present. You don’t even need to organize your thoughts within subtopics (paragraphs) yet…that’s for Day 2.
Day 2 (4-5 hours): Detailed Outline – Prior to actually writing out your statement in essay format, make sure you have all the content that you want to highlight plus have the content organized in a clear and fluid manner. Follow the basic essay structure you learned back in elementary school. Paragraphs (excluding the introduction and conclusion) should have a topic sentence, evidence in the middle, and a conclusion sentence that also acts as a transition to the next area in your statement. Laying out your statement in an outline form before writing complete sentences is essential for identifying problems in organization and a lack of evidence to build sound arguments.
Days 3, 4, 5 (6-7 hours of writing; plus 10 hours of research and tailoring): Complete Draft – Spend at least three days on your personal statement draft (give yourself at least a few days to refresh your brain between these days). If you are not a strong writer, google examples of personal statements in your field, or better yet, if you know peers that are/were already in graduate programs you are applying to, ask them if they would be willing to share their statements with you. Reviewing personal statements from others that have had successful outcomes is a smart move that surprisingly few students utilize.
On top of this, set aside 2 hours per program to research unique strengths of each program/institution, and then tailor your statement to each individual program/institution by highlighting these unique qualities (see section below). I recommend applying to at least five graduate programs, but encourage students to select 8 programs if they’re in highly competitive fields.
Day 6 (2-3 hours): Edit based on Feedback – Identify two people that are willing to read through your draft and give you detailed feedback (preferably on track changes). Ask an advisor, professor, mentor to give you comments focused more on content. You also want to identify someone to check your grammar, semantics, and overall clarity. If you can afford it, think about paying a professional to review your statement (average costs range from $120-150).
Day 7 (2 hours): Final Edits – Once you have edited your statement based on feedback, take a few days off and then go back and edit again. Also, read your statement out loud! Many typos or awkward sentences are easily overlooked when reading the same document over and over, but reading out loud makes these errors easier to spot.
Day 8: Spend the day treating yourself because you’re done!
Of course, the length, content, and organization of each personal statement needs to be tailored to the requirements and/or preferences of the program(s) you are applying to, but below is a standard outline form that you can use as a general personal statement template. Organization, clarity, integration, and non-redundancy is key. You should aim to write your personal statement in about 1200 words (about 2 single-spaced pages with 1-inch margins; I prefer Arial 11 pt. font), unless otherwise specified by the program.
Here is the format I recommend for a personal statement:
I’ll repeat this again when I discuss the conclusion, but I am astounded by how many personal statements I’ve come across that don’t have a proper introduction. If you were planning to just start by going over your academic background or past professional experience, your statement will come off as awkward and you’ll be perceived as a hasty or poor writer. Before you get to the ‘meat’ of your statement, take the time to come up with three to four sentences that provide a preview of what is to come. This preview also does double duty for highlighting your key strengths, academic and professional achievements, and most importantly the main reason for pursuing the specific graduate program and your long-term career goal. You have to be strategic about how you can summarize your entire personal statement in a short paragraph just in case an admissions committee member doesn’t have time to read your entire statement and only takes a look at the introduction. I’m not saying that will happen, but with the hundreds of applications programs receive, very few people will have time to closely read through your entire statement. Be smart and give admissions committees a synopsis at the beginning of your statement that tells them everything they need to know to give you an interview or offer of admission.
This section, along with the following on professional experience, are the easiest sections to write because they are very fact-based. However, students still make errors here by keeping to the facts without promoting oneself and/or writing cumbersome, detail-oriented lists of accomplishments that have poor organization.
In the academic background section, besides briefly stating your academic degrees, concentrations, etc., the key is to 1) highlight how your academic achievements will inform your success in graduate school and 2) convey to the reader that you will have no problem exceling in your graduate studies. For instance, if you have a B.A. in Human Development you can note that being exposed to interdisciplinary learning has given you the ability to integrate and utilize multiple perspectives in problem solving. Of course, providing an example here that directly ties to the field you are pursuing would be a plus. You want to wrap this section up by convincing the admissions committee that you will be a stellar graduate student by providing concrete evidence of past academic achievements/accomplishments. This is not the time to be humble or modest, so any academic accolades that can set you apart from the pack needs to be shown off! If you have been substantially employed during your undergraduate studies (think 25+ hours a week), this feat could be used as a nice transition to the next section on professional experience.
Yes, you should provide a run-down of your professional experience; however, this paragraph is much more than just a list. It’s a chance to show the admissions committee that you’re prepared and already committed to the field.
If you have a vast amount of professional experience, only choose the 2-3 experiences that are strongly tied to your future graduate program/career goals. I’m not exactly sure why some students treat their pertinent professional experience, like interning at a child mental health clinic or working as a research assistant in a neuroscience lab, on the same level as working as a sales person at Forever 21, but I’ve seen it. Again, if you have substantial professional job experience that is related to your field of interest, focus on that and skip the non-related positions altogether*. Also, evidence, as is the case in so many of these sections, separates exceptional statements from ‘eh’ ones. Provide one or two examples of what you’ve gained in your professional experiences that will be applied to your graduate studies.
*Of course, if you don’t have related professional experience, this will be a huge disadvantage. Honestly, with how competitive all graduate programs are nowadays, unless you’re applying to a ‘money-mill’ professional master’s program, not having related professional experience is a deal breaker for most programs. Remember, professional experience doesn’t necessarily mean paid employment – internships, volunteer positions, non-paid service learning all count. Again, if you don’t have anything, re-evaluate applying to programs this round until you have some experience.
Reasons for choosing career path/long-term career goals
This is the ‘make-you or break-you’ section, so you better spend some serious time on it. At the end of the day if you don’t have a convincing argument of why you are pursuing graduate school and a specific career path, you need to stop the application process and re-evaluate your life goals. It’s ok – take a break and give yourself some space to contemplate. Talk to professors, mentors, family, peers, and therapists to help you gain a sense of how committed you are to your professional goals.
Most of the students I work with are seeking to go into the helping professions, which includes careers in the medical field (occupational therapy, nursing), education (teaching and academic counseling), social work, and psychology (both research-focused and clinical-focused). What all these students have in common is a desire to advance society by improving physical and/or mental health. Sounds wonderful, right? But time and time again, this objective tends to be vaguely described as, ‘I love helping people’ or ‘I want to help people improve their lives’. The problem with these statements is that they are too vague and flowery. They make an applicant appear less serious and dedicated to the field because they haven’t taken the time to provide evidence that they are committed to their career goals. If you have experience in the field (and you better), use specific examples here to make your case (‘After volunteering in homeless shelters for three years, I’ve observed how even limited resources can have a significant positive impact on a person’s well-being. I aim to use my graduate school training to identify mechanisms to improve the organizational structure within and networking across non-profits working with homeless populations in order to maximize the impact of available resources.’).
If you’re planning on a more research-focused graduate program, this is your prime opportunity to convey to the admissions committee that you are both passionate and committed to a specific research field. There is a fine line between too vague and too specific here. You don’t want to be too specific in your research interests because if the advisor(s) you are proposing to work with are transitioning to other research questions, you won’t look like a good fit for their new line of work. Also, it is more difficult to state your dedication to a specific line of research when you haven’t yet been heavily involved in the actual research. On the other hand, being too vague is a kiss of death because it conveys a lack of preparation and commitment, and if there’s one red flag admissions committees seek out in personal statements it’s hesitation and indecisiveness. A PhD graduate program makes a huge commitment when they take you on as a student – money, resources, and time – and generally only expects students to continue in the field when they graduate. Keep these points in mind when you are identifying your research interests. I’d start with something broad, but not too vague, and then provide 1-2 more specific plans related to the research (e.g., ‘I aim to conduct research on peer relationships across childhood and adolescence, including the impact of bullying on academic achievement, and how the increasing salience of popularity across adolescence influences risk-taking behavior’).
A critical tip on when to include personal reasons for pursuing a career:
The most frequently asked question I get from undergraduates is whether they should put in personal information about why they have chosen their career path. To be frank, they usually want to know whether they should include information about their own experience with physical or mental illnesses. Simply put, if it’s a physical illness (e.g., parent died of cancer when you were a child, and your experience with a clinical social worker at the time was so beneficial that now you want to pursue this career), sure go ahead and include it (but don’t let it be your only reason). If it’s a mental illness or mental health-related reason (e.g., you suffer from clinical depression and want to research treatment, your father committed suicide and now you want to implement suicide prevention programs for low-income populations), 99% of the time I would recommend against it. But why not include it, if it’s the main reason for pursuing a chosen career path? Because people are judgmental, and mental health is still greatly stigmatized. I’m not saying you need to keep these personal ties to your career a secret, but you should keep them out of a personal statement. Remember, even the most well-meaning, empathetic person will be influenced by your personal disclosures, so be wary of how personal you want to get on paper. A good reference is if you would be embarrassed to read it in front of a class, then keep it out of the statement.
Reasons for choosing to attend specific program
Compared to the section above on why you are choosing to go into a specific field and pursue a particularly career path, this section is a piece of cake, and yet many students are just straight up too lazy to do it (or to be more kind, maybe they don’t know to include it in the first place).
What a mistake to leave this section out or hastily throw in one sentence hidden somewhere in the personal statement. This section has the ability to make you look like a thoughtful candidate, and more importantly, this is where you can increase the committee’s positive feeling about themselves, which will inevitably trickle down to feeling more positively about you. If it sounds a bit manipulative, so be it – you want to get into grad school to your top choice, right?
The basic rule to follow is to take at least one hour of your life to choose three reasons why a particular graduate program is your top choice above all others. Um, but are you thinking they can’t all be your top choice? Obviously, they are not all going to be your #1 pick, but you need to act like every program is the best and link some of their strengths to your academic and career goals. The key is to be as specific as possible to show the admissions committee you have taken the time to get to know the program well, and that you see the VALUE of the program. You should choose at least two unique strengths of the program itself (e.g., the mentors/advisors you would have opportunities working with, the ability to start an internship or practicum a year earlier than other programs, a concentration on aging populations, etc.). Then what I recommend is to choose one or two strengths related to the overall institution or region (the university has a robust history of diversity and inclusiveness, the university has a community-building partnership you want to play a role in, the university is near populations you want to work with, etc.). Your job is to have the committee feeling high on school pride, so don’t get lazy at this point in your statement.
Many programs ask for you to identify a few strengths and weaknesses. This paragraph tells admissions committees so much about you – see this section is less about what your strengths and weaknesses are, and more about how well you present yourself in a professional setting.
When graduate schools ask you to identify strengths and weaknesses they view it as a test, so this is not the time to be honest about your wishy-washy commitment to the field you are applying or need to confess your explosive temper. If you just chuckled, I’ve actually seen both of these ‘weaknesses’ in personal statements. So how should you write this section? First, start by highlighting two of your strengths that are directly tied to exceling in a graduate program and in your career field. Perhaps it’s your exceptional writing ability, your knack at applying theory and conceptual frameworks to real-world problems, or your vast experience working with the population you are interested in working with long-term. Whatever the strengths you highlight they should be tied to your professional self. Avoid ‘fluffy’ personal strengths, like, ‘I care about others’. Just writing that out made me roll my eyes – you can care about others but word it more professionally and with a link to your field (e.g., ‘I am invested in creating dynamic, inclusive educational settings that encourage students to excel both academically and socially.)
Likewise, the weaknesses you identify in your statement should also be more specific than vague. Above all, your weaknesses (and I would just list one unless you are directly asked by a program to list more) should be aspects of yourself that can be modified (don’t choose a personality trait or something that people perceive as innate). To really step it up, a smart thing to do is mention how one of the facets of the graduate program will be instrumental in improving your identified weakness. Thank me later for that one.
Most times, students end their personal statement without a proper conclusion, which reflects a poorer than expected writing ability.
On multiple occasions I’ve seen statements end on strengths/weaknesses, which seems like a terrible place to abruptly end your statement. No matter what word limits you are working under, you need a conclusion that recaps all that has been said above. The key is to keep is very brief (50 words max; about 3 sentences). DO NOT include the phrase ‘I hope I have convinced the committee about my passion for blah blah blah, and I’d love the opportunity to be part of blah blah program’. Uh-uh. Graduate admissions committees want a non-groveling ending to a personal statement. No matter what, you want to: 1) reinforce whatever it is that makes you a unique candidate compared to the average applicant; 2) restate the key reason why this program is your top choice above all others; and 3) end with a statement on how you’re looking forward to pursuing (whatever the graduate program is) in order to achieve (long-term career goal).
With all that said, good luck on your graduate school applications!