Applying for Graduate School-Part 2: The Personal Statement

Writing about yourself is the worst. How do you not sound like you’re gloating? Are you actually capturing what you’re all about? And this process is even worse when writing the life-changing personal statement.

Personal statements are required for applications to many graduate programs. They are how you explain why you’re a good program candidate, illuminate some of your strengths and experiences, and address how you’ll benefit from the program and how the program will benefit from you. It is meant to enhance your application and prove why you belong in a program. (No pressure.) It’s the place for you to shine as an individual, but it’s hard to avoid sounding like a set of numbers of accomplishments. I remember writing my personal statement and thinking that it was the worst thing ever until I found specific aspects of writing to focus on, to make the approach easier. Here’s what I discovered.

1. Pre-writing
Often, the hardest place to start is the beginning. You know what you want to say, but you’re not sure how to say it. And one way to approach this is by prewriting (providing structure and meaning before you draft). Here are some common activities you can try to get started:

Free-writing: for a certain amount of time (try three minutes), write non-stop and write anything that comes to mind. When the time it up, read what you’ve written and underline the important/relevant ideas. You can immediately use those ideas, but it also helps to try another free-write with those underlined portions in mind.

Mind mapping: Also known as making a web or clustering, this is a good method for if you have a central idea you want to focus on. To cluster, place your central idea in the middle of a blank page and then think of ideas or facts that relate to that concept. Then make “subtopics” around your central idea, connecting them with lines and arrows. Continue this process so that you develop each of your ideas to your liking.

Mind map example

2. Find your angle
In other words, find your thesis, or your thread that will connect the piece. For my DePaul personal statement, I wrote about my blue-collar family and how I overcame the judgment of pursuing a career in academia from people who didn’t go to college. I was able to carry this theme throughout my statement by sharing how this inspired me to want to become a professor who supports her students.

By finding your angle, your draft will make it look like your background has prepared you for this moment (your application) and that you have a deep-seated motivation to study your particular subject and accomplish your goals.

3. Connect with the university
This is advice I always give to writers. The admissions officers are looking for how you would fit in their program. You could be the smartest person in the world, but if your aspirations don’t fit their program, they (most likely) won’t want you in their program because you’ll feel constrained at their institution.

I recommend looking at your program’s website and looking at their mission statement and the courses they offer. From this, you can find connections to make in your personal statement. From their mission, you may find you already do part of it (or want to do part of it), thus creating a connection that shows why you’re a good fit. Or maybe your background connects with an aspect of the university—I used my undergraduate school’s Catholic background as a tie to why I wanted to study at DePaul (and I think worked really well).

You can choose any route to connect with a university, but be sure it effectively proves you’re a good match.

4. Revise, revise, revise!
The revision process will take your paper from good to great. Revision will help you find areas that may need a little bit more detail or maybe you’ll find that you don’t like something at all—the changes that you make will ultimately improve your draft.

Another (and better) way to revise is if you receive feedback on your drafts. Finding someone else to read your work is a smart move because they’re reading with a clean slate, unlike you who has read it 1,984 times. Someone else will tell you their first impression and indicate areas that you may have overlooked.

By following all of this advice, you’ll probably draft a good personal statement. Remember that a personal statement is meant to make you appear human, so use that to your advantage. And if you want feedback, you are always free to make an appointment at the UCWbL. Good luck!