how to write the perfect personal statement (and get into your dream school)

Maybe you don't already know this about me, but I love to read personal statements. I have no intention of ever going to grad school, though my pretend personal statement for University of Wisconsin is the best thing I've ever written, and knowing this has given me the insight necessary to write a great personal statement. Or at the very least know what one looks like.

As grad school application deadlines are inching closer, more and more friends have been sending over their statements for a good ole once over. Little did they know, I am a personal statement master and my notes will lead them to writing the perfect personal statement (and getting into their dream school). Or at least to feeling really secure with what they wrote and not feel like they left anything out.

Personal statements are personal, obviously, and editing for content requires close reading and getting to the root of why you want to go to grad school in the first place. Nonetheless, there are a handful of tips that would be helpful to anyone embarking on their personal statement. Here goes:

1. Tell a story. Whether or not your application came with a prompt, it's important to engage your reader. Start off with something that happened to you, in real life, that is somehow relevant to your application. Like with any story, it's a good idea to begin in the middle of the action and always remember to show-not-tell. For non-writers, this means saying My hand shot up before she even finished asking the question instead of It was a Tuesday and I was sitting in my science class. Using a story is a good way to ground the reader in your voice and in your unique personal experience. Does the story your telling have a theme? Even better. You'll use that again later in the essay.

2. Don't regurgitate your résumé. This is the number one mistake I see in personal statements. Remember, the admissions team already has your résumé, likely in the same folder as your personal statement. They already know what you went to school for, what internships you had, and in which organizations you were the president. What is it about these experiences that makes you special? Or that makes you think grad school is the right option for you? Instead of saying that you had an internship with the state where you got to develop your communication and leadership skills, tell them about the time your supervisor called in sick and you had to lead a webinar by yourself. Write about that one social work course you took as an underclassman that made you change your major, but don't just leave it at that. Write about the project on privileged that changed your whole outlook and then connect the experience back to the theme from your opening paragraph.

3. Unpack, unpack, unpack. Don't just say because of my experience or I learned to use active listening skills because this could mean something different to everyone. Show the reader what actually happened. The less vague you can be and the more specific information you can provide, the better.

4. Drip with passion. So you think you want to go to grad school, huh? What if someone told you that you couldn't go? Would you keep reapplying because you know that this particular program at this particular school working with this particular professor is the only way to fulfill your academic goals and achieve your career dreams? If not, don't bother applying because grad school isn't the place for you. Yes, you may be accepted anyway, but if you have any doubt in your mind about what path is right for you, don't go to grad school yet. Your personal statement should burn their hands with how much passion you have for your discipline.

5. Do your research. So you're applying to that one particular program with that one particular professor. Learn what that professor studied in school or what projects they completed that make them the very best resource for you on your path to greatness. Now do this for each, individual school to which you apply.

6. Be explicit. This is probably the hardest thing for personal statement writers. I know it sounds crazy, but you have to literally tell them that you and grad school are soulmates. Not only is this program the only one for you, but you will be the very best addition to their school. Don't wait for your references to talk you up--you have to believe that they would be crazy not to accept you. It is both acceptable and encouraged to say something like I know that my unique perspective and extensive education in _______ will benefit your program and that together we will be able to change the world. Or, you know, something like that.

7. Come full circle. Remember that story you told at the beginning? Please call back to it. If you don't, the whole story was for naught. Did you say something about being a little girl with big dreams in the intro? Finish by writing that your dreams have only gotten greater with age. (Or something way less cliché, but you know what I mean.) Readers like it when they find the title of the book they're reading in their text. By the same token, we all like to feel like we've come full circle by the end of what we're reading. It's like a really yummy funfetti icing on the perfect essay (that will also get you into your dream school.)

1 comment

  1. This is fabulous! So where were you when I was applying?
    xo
    girlintheyellowdress.com

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