The personal statement can mean the difference between rejection and acceptance. A well-crafted statement can tip the admission scale in your favor; a poorly written one can leave you out of the running. Think of the personal statement as a chance for you to introduce yourself—your background, experiences, knowledge of the field, goals and personality—to the selection committee. It also affords you the opportunity to explain any irregularities or shortcomings of your candidacy.
Some programs will ask you to write one statement covering a number of areas. Others require a brief response to a series of essay questions. Your best writing comes when you have an actual audience in mind and specific questions. I recommend that you don’t just write a generic personal statement but that you write a personal statement for the school with the earliest deadline.
Here is some advice on how to structure your statement, and what to emphasize and include:
WRITING THE STATEMENT
(by Carla Trujillo, Ph.D., Director, Graduate Opportunity Program, University of California Berkeley)
KEEP IN MIND
- Remember that they read between the lines: motivation, competence, potential as a graduate student, knowledge of the field or subfield and fit with the department should all be apparent.
- Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in an active, not a passive, voice.
- Tailor your response to the particular question being asked, the specific department and program. Avoid sending generic statements.
- Demonstrate everything by example. Don’t say directly, for example, that you’re a persistent person; you must demonstrate it.
- You don’t want to make excuses, but you can talk about the mistakes you’ve made as a learning experience.
- If there is something important that happened which affected your grades (poverty, illness, excessive work, etc.) go ahead and state it, but write it affirmatively, that is, in a way that shows your perseverance.
- Write with authority like a fellow colleague.
- Stick to the word limit guidelines.
- Single space statement, unless told otherwise.
- Understand that writing an effective, flawless statement takes considerable time and several sets of eyes.
How you arrange your statement and what you include ultimately will be up to you. The following outline, written by Carla Trujilo, provides a clear sense of the kinds of things to cover and a logical means of organizing that information.
Part 1: Introduction
This is where you tell them what you want to study. For example, “I wish to pursue an MS degree in Mechanical Engineering with an emphasis in controls”. Some applicants begin with a personal story. Make your opening sufficiently interesting, enticing the committee to read on. One Augsburg student applying to grad school in physics started his statement, “When I first enrolled in college I wanted to study Asian religions.” This path is probably atypical for doctoral candidates in physics and thus draws the reader in. Another began, “I was eighteen years old when I saw my first computer. Five years later I am applying to the doctoral program in Computer Science at….” These lines astound the reader while opening the door for the student to talk about being an immigrant, how his interest and aptitude in computer science developed and what goals he has for the future.
Part 2: Summarize what you did as an undergraduate
- Important class or classes you took which stimulated your desire for graduate study, such as a specific project for a class. Maybe conversations with a professor or a study abroad experience piqued your interest for graduate study.
- Research you might have done. Indicate with whom, the title of the project, what your responsibilities were, the outcome and any poster or oral presentations you might have given. Again, it’s important not to simply list what you did but the impact it had on you: what you learned about the field, yourself or the research process, how the experience shaped your decision to pursue graduate work in this particular field, etc. Write technically; professors are the people who read these statements.
- Work experience if it relates to your field of study or more generally, demonstrates preparation for graduate school. Tutoring or classroom teaching experience, for example, is often relevant, since it shows a more firm grasp of subject matter, and that you might be a good candidate for a teaching assistantship. Similarly, describe any kind of responsibility you’ve had for testing, designing, researching, extensive writing, etc.
Part 3: If you graduated and worked for a while and are returning to grad school, indicate what you’ve been doing while working: company, work/design team, responsibilities, what you learned. You can also indicate here how this helped you focus your intent to do graduate studies.
Part 4: Here you indicate what you want to study in graduate school in greater detail. This is a greater elaboration of your opening paragraph.
- Indicate area of interest, then state questions you might have which are associated with the topic, i.e., what you might be interested in studying or researching. You should have an area of emphasis selected before you write the statement. If you have no idea, talk to a professor about possible areas of interest or current questions in the field.
- Look on the web for information about the professors and their research. Are there professors whose interests match yours? If so, indicate this, as it shows that you have done your homework and are highly motivated. (Be sincere, however; don’t make up something bogus just to impress people.) Ideally you have read some of the professors’ work and have been in contact with them prior to making application and can make reference to that exchange. Having a faculty member pulling for you from the inside is a winning strategy.
- Talk about what draws you to this particular program. Show that you are familiar with the unique features, focus, field experiences, or faculty, etc. of this program.
- End your statement in a positive and confident manner with a readiness for the challenges of graduate study.
OTHER RESOURCES FOR WRITING THE STATEMENT OF PURPOSE
How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School
by Richard J. Stelzer
Stelzer offers concise yet informative suggestions for crafting a statement. At the back of the book is a survey that should help you get started writing. The thin book includes suggestions on what to include and what not to include, sample personal statements and advice from people who serve on graduate admissions committees across the country, offering a rare look inside the process.
Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice
by Donald Asher
Donald Asher is a well known figure in the world of graduate school admission. His writing is clear, concrete and often humorous. He walks the reader through the prewriting, writing, rewriting and editing processes. The book includes 50 sample essays.
Visit the URGO Office to peruse these books and read sample personal statements written by Augsburg students.