We bring you the second installment in this week’s series on the personal statement. See part one here.
Stephen Cohen, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing
Working with writers at both the Belknap and HSC campuses has taught me that, despite differences in discipline and focus, writers everywhere are working through very similar hurdles and anxieties. Students across both campuses right now are thinking about taking the next step in their academic careers; often this involves applying for residencies, internships, or further graduate study. Though these applications can be stressful, I try to help people think of them as opportunities to present themselves and find the program that is the best fit.
Many of these applications require a version of the “personal statement” essay. For this post, I’ll be thinking through some of the most common stumbling blocks in this process and (hopefully) giving you a few useful tips to help you through writing a statement of your own. Also remember that one of the best ways to develop a personal statement is to make an appointment to discuss it with one of our consultants here in the University Writing Center.
1. Do your homework.
Find out what the requirements are for the statement – and don’t deviate from them. How many words? Does the application ask you to address specific questions? Carefully adhering to guidelines demonstrates to the committee that you’ve taken time to understand their particular application process, and, by extension, their program.
Speaking of which, you’ll want to find out what you can about the school and the program to which you’re applying. Mission statements and program descriptions are great places to look for information that you can use to your advantage – demonstrate to the committee that you understand how their program differs from others and that you are excited about what makes it unique.
If you are applying to multiple programs, try to contain anything that applies to a specific program to one paragraph. That way, you can switch that paragraph out for each program without having to do extensive revision on the rest of your letter.
2. Put your best foot forward.
People often understand “polishing” a personal statement to mean carefully proofreading it and ridding it of errors. While this is important (you don’t want to send a letter addressed to University of Louisville to University of Kentucky because you forgot to change it!), it’s more important to think about polish as careful presentation of the experiences you list on your CV or Resume.
Think carefully about what you list on your CV/Resume and choose the experiences that best demonstrate why you are a great candidate for a given program – you’ll want to use your experiences to show a committee not only how well prepared you are for graduate study, but also what makes you unique – what you can bring to the program that others can’t. Remember, the committee won’t necessarily know how your work (as a student assistant, for example) has prepared you for the demands of grad school – you’ll have to tell them.
If there was ever a time to toot your own horn, this is it. Though you don’t want to seem arrogant, most people I’ve worked with err too far on the side of caution. This is your chance to let the committee know how great you are – take it!
This is also an opportunity to answer any questions you think might be raised while the committee considers your other materials. Is there a gap on your resume? Don’t leave the reason for it up to the committee’s collective imagination – explain it to them, in the most positive terms possible.
3. Be Specific
Be sure you include particular reasons for your proposed path of study, and where possible, who you would like to study with. Remember the part about doing your homework? The more you know about a program, the better positioned you are to explain specifically how that particular program can help you meet your academic and career goals in ways that other programs can’t.
Use appropriate details to support any claims you make about yourself and your preparedness (in my case, an example might be not “I am a good teacher,” instead I would write “I have successfully taught introductory Rhetoric, Literature, and Business Writing courses).
4. Be Yourself
Often, a program will ask for a personal statement because they want a sense of who you are that they just can’t get from scanning a CV. Coordinate the experiences you’ve selected to write about to demonstrate some personal characteristic(s) that you think will appeal to the committee. In other words, rather than writing “I am a hard worker,” choose to detail a few experiences from your CV/Resume that demonstrate how hard you’ve worked.
Use the personal statement as a place to tell the committee what you think are the most important things to know about you – the things that make you different from another candidate. What life events have led you to consider your course of study? What challenges have you faced along the way, and how have you overcome them in order to achieve the accomplishments listed elsewhere in your application materials?
The personal statement is only a small part of your overall application, but a thoughtfully prepared statement can have a big impact on how your whole package is received.