Timely Tips for the Personal Statement/Application Essay

MichelleThings are pretty slow around the Writing Center this time of year, but we have had plenty of recent or soon-to-be graduates working on personal statements or applications for graduate school.
To be honest, writing a personal statement or similar application material can be a little awkward, especially when there isn’t a specific prompt beyond “Tell us about yourself and why you want to pursue a career in this field.” It can be unnatural for some people to talk about themselves in the self-appraising manner of this genre of writing. The openness of the requirements—combined with the necessity of “selling yourself” as an applicant to a committee of people you’ve never met—leaves many clients in the Writing Center unsure of whether they’ve written something unique and compelling or ordinary and boring.
Below is some of the most common advice I have given to clients lately:
1. Prove it. Don’t just say you want to be a doctor because you love to help people (or whatever your motivation is). Give the application committee some evidence to believe that. For example, show the committee that you’ve already been trying to help people, as evidence that you’ll continue to be motivated to do that in the future. What has caused you to want to help people, how have you been doing that already, and why do you want to continue helping in the future?
Also, you can move from recounting your resume of past activities to talking about the specifics of your plan for the future. For example, I recently had a client applying to dental school who described a program he plans to implement in his own dental practice one day. Maybe you haven’t thought quite that far ahead, but you should still be able to prove to your committee that you have thought about how your motivations will play out in future action.
2. Connect experiences/activities you’ve done to who you are as an applicant. I often have clients who include compelling personal stories separated from a seemingly disconnected list of qualifications. They start off telling about growing up in poverty and how it has motivated them to be social workers for the disadvantaged, but then spend several paragraphs listing off every organization or job they participated in during college.
However, who you are and the things you have done shouldn’t be divorced from each other in your personal statement. If you’re going to include a significant job experience or volunteer opportunity in your personal statement, make sure to connect it back to how it has contributed to the person you are that’s applying to the program you want to be a part of. If the relevance seems flimsy, perhaps that activity is better fit for your resume or CV than your personal statement. Stick to activities that are more than qualifications; you want to use activities/experiences that fit in with the larger story you’re telling about who you are and why you want to be a lawyer, doctor, professor, social worker etc.
3. Watch transitions between paragraphs. Sometimes clients have a good handle on selecting and connecting experiences that have contributed to the people and professionals they are and are becoming. Instead, what seems disconnected in their writing is the relationship between those experiences. These personal statements jump from one internship, volunteer activity, or life experience to the next without demonstrating to the reader how those activities come together as a whole. Often that’s because it can be hard to reflect on the connections between seemingly discrete life events; however, working to create transitions between paragraphs are essential for helping the reader understand a cohesive picture of the message of your personal statement.
Purdue’s Online Writing Lab (OWL) offers lots of help with transitioning between paragraphs at the following link: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/574/1/. But sometimes, the most effective method of working on transitions is to discuss it with someone else who can help you identify and verbalize the connections between your paragraphs.
4. Find someone in your field who can read over your personal statement for you. We can give you lots of tips and things to think about here in the Writing Center, but it also helps to find a professional in your desired field who has already been admitted to and completed law school, dental school, etc. They’ve already been through the application process successfully and are often more in tune with the writing conventions of their field than other people. Also, they’re often happy to help potential future colleagues.
There are many web pages that offer other advice for personal statements or statements of purpose that often go along with graduate school applications. Here are a few helpful resources:

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