Admissions for graduate school in the West require applicants—both for Master and Ph.D.— to submit a personal statement among other things. Without it, admission is impossible. If you have ever applied for a scholarship or to a graduate school, you know what we are talking about.
For those of you who have not heard about it, a personal statement is a short essay about your personal, academic and professional life. A personal statement is different from a research statement and a resume. A research statement is a short essay about your academic experience and how that relates to your current academic interests and future goals. We will write a separate post on it.
A resume is a presentation of your overall work and academic experiences. A personal statement is a carefully curated blend of these two elements, plus your personal history. The purpose of the essay is to introduce and ultimately convince the selection committee of the scholarship awarding entity or academic department at the university, to grant you admission and/or funding.
The personal statement is one of the most important elements of your application. It should represent your history, personality, academic achievements and aspirations for future studies in the best possible and most concise way. It is especially important because you probably won’t get a chance to present your case in person.
Here are some guidelines on how to write a personal statement:
- Do your research: Start with researching the requirements for the scholarship or institutions you want to apply to. Although there is a standard way of writing a personal statement, different institutions may have specific guidelines for you. It is important not to overlook them.
- Start working with enough time ahead: A good personal statement may take you over a month to write— in many cases a lot longer. Starting early gives you enough time to finish the first draft, edit and have friends and colleagues proofread it for you.
- Meet with qualified people in your field: It is important to meet with experienced people in the relevant field to bounce ideas around. Learn from their expertise as they probably had to write similar statements.
- Make it personal: Find a good, true and an interesting story about yourself and tie it neatly to your academic trajectory. But keep it short. This is not your autobiography. Keep in mind that a good story can make your essay stand out among hundreds of applicants. For instance, in her Fulbright application for a Ph.D. program in the natural sciences, Paulina started her essay telling a story about how she as a child loved reading a comic book about the life of anthropomorphic condor. She tied the native–species status of this bird to her interest in nature and biology and more specifically ecology.
- Start Writing: At this point, you should have enough ideas to sit and start writing your first draft. Bear in mind that there will be many drafts if you are serious about writing a perfect essay.
- Don’t talk about everything you have done: There is only so much that you can fit in a thousand or fewer words. Aim for relevant experience and story points. You will get down to the nitty-gritty in the resume.
- Walk away: Once you finish your first draft, drop it for a day or two. Then read it with fresh eyes and edit. Don’t get too attached to your words. Revise and edit. Be ruthless.
- Share it with friends and colleagues: Once you feel a hundred percent satisfied, share your revised draft with friends and colleagues. Give them enough time. Consider that they may have busy schedules, so don’t expect them to give you feedback from one day to the next. It is always good to have a fresh pair of eyes go through your writing. They will find mistakes and omissions that you haven’t (and also typos!)
- Write your final draft: Consolidate feedback. Check once again for formatting details and typos and submit.
Paulina A. Arancibia & Aslam Kakar: Paulina
is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology and Evolution and Aslam a Ph.D. Student in Global Affairs, Rutgers University