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How to Write a Stand-Out Personal Statement for Your Graduate School Application

To make sure your personal statement makes its way to the top of the college admissions pile, follow these tips and advice for crafting a powerful essay.

While deciding to embark on the path to graduate school is an exciting first step toward advancing your career, the application process can sometimes feel daunting and confusing.

One major part of the application that most schools require is a personal statement. Writing a personal statement can be an arduous task: After all, most people don’t necessarily enjoy writing about themselves, let alone at length.

A compelling personal statement, however, can help bring your application to the top of the admissions pile. Below, we’ve outlined what you need to know about crafting a personal statement to make your application shine.

What Is a Personal Statement?

The point of a personal statement is for the admissions board to gain a deeper understanding of who you are apart from your education and work experience. It explains why you’re the right fit for the program and a worthwhile applicant. It’s also an opportunity to highlight important factors that may not be readily available in the rest of your application.

A personal statement is different from a statement of purpose (if you’re asked for that as well). A statement of purpose will touch on your academic and career goals, as well as your past credentials. While those should also be discussed in your personal statement, it’s more about your life experiences and how they’ve shaped you and your journey to graduate school.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Writing a Personal Statement

Before you start crafting your essay, there are a few prompts you can ask yourself to help clarify what you want to accomplish.

  • What are the key points you want to communicate about yourself?
  • What personal characteristics or skills do you have that make you a strong candidate for this field?
  • What exactly are your career goals, and how does graduate school play into them?
  • What have you learned about this field already? When did you first choose to follow this path, and what do you enjoy about it?
  • What do you think is important for the admissions board to know specifically about you?
  • Are there any discrepancies or causes for concern in your application you need to address? For example, is there a career and schooling gap, or a low GPA at one point? This is the time to discuss whether a personal hardship may have affected your academics or career.
  • Have you dealt with any unusual obstacles or difficulties in your life? How have they affected and shaped you?
  • What sets you apart and makes you unique from other graduate school applicants?
  • What factors in your life have brought you to where you are today?

Top Tips for Writing a Graduate School Personal Statement

Pick a few points to emphasize about yourself. Introduce yourself to the admissions board. Select key factors about your background that you want the university to know — elements that reveal what kind of person you are and demonstrate why you’re a strong candidate for the school and field of study.

Be very specific. Again, a personal statement is all about communicating what distinguishes you from other applicants. To accomplish that, you need to share specific anecdotes that underscore your statements. If you say you’re a strong leader, present an example of a time you’ve proven that skill through work, school or your personal life. These specific, personal stories provide a deeper understanding of who you are and prove your intentions.

Do your research. Demonstrate what attracted you to the program. If there is a specific faculty member or class that caught your attention, or another aspect of the program that greatly interests you, convey it. This shows you’ve truly researched the school and have a passion for the program.

“Whatever the topic may be, I would recommend writing in a manner that reflects or parallels the institution’s and/or department’s missions, goals and values,” said Moises Cortés, a graduate/international credentials analyst for the Office of Graduate Admission at USC.

Address any gaps or discrepancies. Explain any factors that may have impacted your academic career. If you had an illness or any other personal hardships that affected your grades or work, discuss them. If there is a discrepancy between your grades and your test scores, you can also take the time to go over any extenuating circumstances.

Strike the right tone. While it’s important to give readers a glimpse of your personality, avoid oversharing or revealing intimate details of your life experiences. You should also avoid making jokes or using humorous cliches. Maintain a professional tone throughout your writing.

Start strong and finish strong. As with any piece of writing, you want to draw in your readers immediately. Make sure to start off with an interesting and captivating introduction. Similarly, your conclusion should be a well-written, engaging finish to the essay that highlights any important points.

For a personal statement, I think the first and last paragraphs are most important and should always relate the program they are applying to their own experiences and ideas,” Hoon H. Kang, a graduate/international credential analyst with the Office of Graduate Admission, told USC Online.

Proofread, proofread and proofread again. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of rereading your work. Your personal statement is also an analysis of your writing skills, so ensure you have proper grammar and spelling throughout. In addition, we recommend having multiple people look over your statement before submission. They can help with the proofreading (a second person always catches a mistake the writer may miss), give advice about the statement’s structure and content, and confirm it’s the proper recommended length.

Once you’ve considered all of the above and reviewed and edited your personal statement to perfection, it’s time to submit and check off any remaining application requirements, including your resume and letters of recommendation.

Personal statements are arguably one of the most challenging aspects of applying to graduate school, so make sure to revel in this accomplishment and acknowledge your successes.

For more information, visit the Office of Graduate Admission at USC and explore USC Online’s master’s degrees, doctoral programs and graduate certificates.

Graduate School Application Essays

Regardless of the type of school you are applying to, you will be required to submit an admissions essay as part of the application process. Graduate programs want students with clear commitment to the field. Essay prompts typically ask applicants to discuss their previous experience, future professional goals, and how the program can help them in achieving those objectives. The essay gives the applicant the chance to articulate these goals and display strong writing skills. Remember to tailor your essay to each school and the faculty committee that reviews your application. But first, take note of what kind of essay is being requested of you. Here are the two main admission essays:

Personal Statement

A personal statement is a narrative piece describing how your character and experiences have formed you into someone who will contribute positively and effectively to not only the department but the academic discipline as a whole. This is often achieved by detailing social, educational, cultural, and economic obstacles you have overcome in your journey to get to where you are today and your future objectives. A personal statement is also an opportunity to highlight what is unique about you and how you will advance diversity within the institution.

Statement of Purpose

Interchangeably called a “research statement”, a statement of purpose will prompt you to describe your research interests and professional goals, how you plan to accomplish them, and why a specific program is best suited for you to do so. Be specific about your specialized interests within your major field. Be clear about the kind of program you expect to undertake, and explain how your study plan connects with your previous training and future goals.

How to Write a Powerful Admission Essay

Whatever required format, your essay should be thoughtful, concise, compelling, and interesting. Remember, admissions officers read hundreds of personal essays. Below are some tips for your admissions essay writing process:

How to Write a Graduate School Personal Statement

Statement of purpose, personal statement, candidate’s admission statement … these terms send a shiver down the spine of many prospective graduate students who feel at a loss for how to write about themselves effectively.

A graduate school personal statement or similar type of application essay, however, is your opportunity to show the admissions committee what you’re made of. They want to know why you’re applying to their graduate program, and the application essay is your chance to communicate that to them as clearly and compellingly as you can.

[ GOOD TO KNOW: How long should I study for the GRE? ]

How do graduate schools use your application essay?

The graduate school personal statement serves two basic purposes. First, they show whether you know how to write a clear, coherent essay that’s logically and grammatically correct. These days, students’ writing ability is often presumed deficient unless proven otherwise.

Second, the application essay gives you the opportunity to present the admissions committee with more of a “three-dimensional” perspective of yourself as a deserving candidate than GPA and GRE numbers possibly can.

What you choose to write sends clear signals about what’s important to you and what your values are. You can explain why you really want to pursue graduate work and outline the career path it will enable you to follow. Your essay also enables you to address things that may warrant explanation, such as a dubious grade in an otherwise creditable record.

What does the admissions committee look for?

Reading your graduate school personal statement or statement of purpose is the best way for the admissions committee to determine whether you would be a good fit for their program. Remember, they’re trying to get a holistic view of your intellectual character, your ambitions, and your academic skills. So, don’t hesitate to go beyond narrow academic experience when searching for essay topics.

Feel free to discuss events or successes outside of school that have nonetheless helped to define your professional or academic life. If you have overcome significant obstacles, say so. If you were honored with an award, describe the award and what you did to achieve recognition.

Learn how to write about yourself

Preparation pays off when considering how to write your graduate school personal statement, so start early. Review your goals and aspirations, write several drafts, and talk to students and professors to gain insight about yourself. Then, give some thought to your goals and how to articulate them compellingly in a statement of purpose.

How will you accomplish those goals? What can you contribute to the graduate school community? What can you contribute to this particular degree program? If you can answer these questions in a clear and concise manner, you shouldn’t be at a loss when it comes time to put pen to paper and write your application essay.

The Most Common Personal Statement Mistake

Today, we’ll address one of the most common mistakes prospective students make when writing their personal statement: answering the wrong question.

The Wrong Question: “ Why I Want To Go To Grad School ”

If you thought the grad school personal statement is actually a “Why I Want to Go to Grad School” essay, you are not alone. It ranks up there with other false personal statement and application tips like the advice that you should leave your recommenders alone. Like that unhelpful tip, writing that kind of personal statement can prove detrimental to your grad school application.

Should you explain, at some point in your personal statement, why you want to go to grad school? Of course! Grad schools don’t want to admit someone who applies grudgingly, or who only wants to attend because the real world is scary and grad school seems like a good way to pass the time. But is that the primary goal of your essay? Absolutely not.

“Why I want to go to grad school” is a fundamentally forward-thinking question. To answer it, you have to talk about what you want to do and who you want to become. You might have promising visions and compelling aspirations, but grad schools don’t admit the person you’ll become. They admit the person you are right now. That’s who they want to get to know through this piece of your application.

The Real Question: “ Why You Should Accept Me Into Your Program ”

The question you primarily need to answer is, “Why should you accept me into your program?” You don’t want your personal statement to sound like a sales pitch, because nobody likes being sold to and grad schools aren’t stupid. But a sales pitch is exactly what your personal statement is.

Grad schools want someone who’s hardworking, competent, and mature, and going on and on about why you want to go to grad school won’t give admissions officers reason to believe you’re any of those things. If anything, an essay devoted entirely to explaining why its author wants to go to grad school runs a risk of making that author seem less mature.

The fundamental question that your essay needs to answer — “Why should you accept me into your program?” — can be broken down into three sub-questions: