Tag: personal statement

Personal Statements Part 2: Research and Focus

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 Writing20150824_140027

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.

Tips on Crafting an Effective Personal Statement

Joanna Englert, Consultant 

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Well, we’re almost there. The end of the semester is in plain sight, and once we pull through these final (and coffee-filled) weeks of studying, that glorious thing called Winter Break will be upon us. For those of us applying to graduate school, the close of the semester may bring more than just cold winds and extra time to spend on our couches: it will likely bring application deadlines. So, looking for some tips on how to craft that tricky little paper known as the personal statement? The University Writing Center and I have you covered. While the University Writing Center offers an enormously helpful handout on personal statements, I offer a few additional tips that have personally helped me in writing my own.

More Relevance, Less Fluff:

So you’ve wanted to be a doctor since you were 4? Great! Just try not to take half a page to narrate the moment you played doctor with your stuffed elephant named Pebbles and decided your future goal. Don’t get me wrong, anecdotes are great attention-grabbers in the beginning, but try to keep the majority of your paper’s focus on relevant specifics. Remember, you typically have little space (1-2 pages) to provide lots of information (past experience, admirable traits, future goals, etc.).

Be Specific:

Yes, so I know I just said to cut the fluff because there’s little space. “Fluff,” however, is not to be confused with “specific and important details.” For example, let’s say you’re applying for a nursing program, and you want to include that you’ve worked on rotation at a hospital. Great! This is a good thing to include in your personal statement—it demonstrates an out-of-classroom learning experience in the field. But what did you do in these rotations? Who did you help?  What were you responsible for? Did you collaborate with others for any tasks? It’s true that all these details will also appear on your CV or resume, but it’s still beneficial to include some of the larger details in your personal statement. What I typically ask myself is, “What responsibilities or achievements pertain most to the field I am applying to?” Then I make sure to include those biggest takeaways. Remember, even with a CV or resume, your personal statement should still be able to stand on its own.

Know the Buzzwords:

This one’s short and sweet and will help you find the specifics: keep in mind certain buzzwords or phrases that appear in personal statements. For example, “I was responsible for” or “I was in charge of.” These words help me to remember to be specific, and they indicate positive traits to the reader!

Avoid Negativity:

This may sound like a no-brainer, but negativity is able to sometimes slip its way into a personal statement. Try to avoid words with negative connotations when evaluating yourself. For instance, did an experience force you to consider an idea further? Or did it encourage you? Just this slight change in connotation can make a big difference! In some circumstances, personal statements may ask for challenges. Here, I find it helpful to turn the negative into something positive. For example, if you must describe a challenge you faced in the past, be sure to emphasize how you tackled that challenge!

Demonstrate Knowledge of the School or Program:

It’s important, of course, to build yourself up in a personal statement. Just don’t forget to build up the school, as well! Most schools will want to know that you are enthusiastic about attending.  Prove this by, once again, being specific. Are you interested in a school because they have the top program in an area you want to pursue? Tell them! That said, the paper should still be about you, so don’t let the school section dominate the paper. Though there’s no set rule, you’ll oftentimes find this school information in a concluding paragraph.

Read Aloud:

So you’ve finished your first draft of your personal statement? Read it aloud! You may be surprised by what stands out when you hear it spoken. In fact, this is a great tool for any type of writing.

And finally, don’t forget to visit the University Writing Center! We are happy to help you with your writing at any step in the process. Happy writing, everyone!

Five Tips for Writing a Killer Personal Statement

Megen Boyett, Consultant

DSCN1655More than any other month, January seems to be the time to write personal statements. You’re thinking about summer internships, fall graduate programs, and real world jobs, and application deadlines are just around the corner. You don’t want to brag, but you do want to stand out from the crowd. You want to showcase how hard you work, but you aren’t quite sure what committees look for. You have so much to say, but only 1000 words to say it in!

Sound familiar? You’re in good company. Plenty of other students are expressing the same concerns every week in the writing center. Here are five tips for writing an interesting, clear personal statement in 1000 words or less!

1. Don’t take it personally; it’s just business.

“Personal” is really the wrong word for this kind of writing. Acceptance committees want to know about your interest in the program or position you’re applying for as well as any experience you already have. Thus, you want to leave out childhood anecdotes, high school jobs, or stories about overcoming fears. Those say a lot about your work ethic, passion and character, but they don’t necessarily explain why you’re a good fit for your chosen profession or program.  Instead, think about your experiences in or related to the field that you’re hoping to get a position in. What interesting experiences have you already had working or volunteering in this field? Focus on one or two significant experiences that have shaped your views of the field or helped develop a particular interest. Instances that exemplify your interests or strengths in the field help a committee see who you are as a potential employee or program member.

2. Talk about your plan.

Where do you see yourself in a year? Five years? Ten? How will this position or program help you reach those goals? You don’t have to have all the details figured out yet, and you can certainly change directions later, but being able to clearly articulate what you want from the program or position will help an acceptance committee know what you hope to get from the program as well as what interests and skills you’re bringing in with you. This kind of detailed, practical planning may also help you think about why you want to be part of the program or company you’re applying for.

3. Do your research.

What do you know about the program or position you’re applying for? What do they value or put emphasis on? How do your goals or values fit with that of the company or school? Again, this will help you narrow your focus and think critically about your plans for the future. Talking about your values or goals in a way that reflects those of the program also show that you care enough about the job to do your homework and that your interests are in line with what the program or company see as their own goals. You might also talk about specific professors or researchers you want to work with. A personal statement is a good time to mention how your interests intersect with theirs. If you’ve been able to work with them already, you might mention that work as particularly influential or shaping.

4. Don’t think of it as bragging.

Obviously you have a lot to learn still about the field you’re going into. Obviously you want to appear humble and eager to learn. Instead of thinking of a personal statement as bragging, think of it as telling a potential employer or program director what you have to offer the team you’d be joining. What needs might you fulfill within the program? What has your unique background and set of experiences prepared you for? What research are you interested in or already working on? When you couple this with discussion of your goals and what you hope to learn from the program, a committee can start to visualize your place within their program or team.

5. Put it away and come back later.

Once you’ve finished drafting and you think you’ve got a pretty solid personal statement, close the document. If you have time, take a day or two before you go back to it. Then, read it aloud, looking for typos. You might print it out and mark changes you want to make in pen if you’re having trouble focusing on a computer screen. Looking at your writing in a different environment can help you catch typos or think about your word choice in a new way.

Of course, we at the writing center will be happy to help at any stage of the process, from brainstorming to drafting to helping you revise before you send it off. Make an appointment to bring by your personal statement. Having someone to talk about your writing with not only relieves some stress, it’s also pretty fun.

Happy Writing! And if you need more tips before you come see us, check out our earlier post!

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: