(By Tracy Bennett, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)
A filmed personal statement might have helped Elle Woods get into Harvard Law School, but in the real world, you’re better off sticking to these tips.
If you have seen the 2001 film, Legally Blonde, you might remember that Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, creates a video for her admissions essay to Harvard Law School. As she sits in a hot tub, she states that she will be an “amazing lawyer” because she can discuss important issues, such as the brand of toilet paper used in her sorority house, and she uses “legal jargon in everyday life” to object when men harass her. She can also recall details at the “drop of a hat,” including the recent events on a soap opera. (If you haven’t seen the movie or simply want a good laugh, you can view the clip on YouTube.)
Although the Harvard committee granted Elle admission, you will probably want to take your essay in a different direction. While you cannot change your grade point average or entrance exam scores, you have complete control over the contents of your personal statement. There are many applicants and few spots, so work diligently to persuade readers that you fit their program given your qualifications, interests and professional goals. Use the tips below to prepare and refine your essay.
1. Just get started.
Yes, your first sentence should be compelling and attention-grabbing, but if you attempt to identify your opening line immediately you will probably induce writer’s block. Make an outline or free write. You can tweak the introduction later once you are more aware of your noteworthy accomplishments or the defining events that have led to your career interests.
2. Articulate your reasons for selecting your chosen career.
Although these essays are often called personal statements, they are not an autobiography. Instead, view it as an essay about your journey as an emerging scholar. Provide evidence to demonstrate that you have actively confirmed your interests and that earning an advanced degree will help you achieve these goals. Describe the courses, articles, professors, research, service projects, internships, shadowing or co-curricular activities that have shaped your aspirations. Avoid references to high school accomplishments, gimmicks or clichés such as, “I have always wanted to be a _________.” Cautiously address controversial topics. It is one thing to demonstrate your knowledge of the field by referencing a current debate. It is quite another thing to offend your readers with excessive political or religious rhetoric.
3. Be specific.
For example, it is not enough to say that you aspire to be a social worker because you want to help children. You could do this in a variety of occupations. Similarly, anyone can say that they are interested in law. Earn credibility by demonstrating this passion. Have you worked at a law firm or participated in student government, Model UN and/or mock trial?
4. One size does not fit all.
Unless it is a common application system, such as those used by law, physical therapy and medical schools, you should describe your rationale for selecting the program among other alternatives. By the way, most of the schools that use a common application system will require supplemental essays that inquire about this. For the time being, you may omit it from your initial personal statement. Each institution has its own values, mission and faculty. What led you to select its particular program over others? Was it an emphasis in a particular area (e.g., rural practice, technology) or the research interests of a professor? Was your interest heightened by a conversation with its alumni?
5. Whatever your reasons for applying, be sincere.
Briefly mention any noteworthy and appealing features that attracted you to the program or institution, but do not go overboard. Committee members already know the prestigious awards that they have won, and most of your competition will mention these same attributes. If you offer excessive praise, you may only appear disingenuous.
6. Describe your professional interests, particularly as they relate to research.
If you identified faculty members who share your interest in a topic, describe your desire to work with them. Be specific, but keep your options open, too. Committee members will roll their eyes if you say you are interested in every research area of its faculty. On the other hand, if your interests are too narrow, they may question your ability to collaborate with professors.
7. Demonstrate your motivation and capacity to succeed.
Graduate schools are not only selecting students, but they are also choosing future ambassadors of their program. Persuade them that you will contribute to their reputation as an institution throughout your academic studies and professional career. Avoid summarizing other parts of your application. Instead, you should provide them with concrete examples including relevant publications, presentations, classroom assignments and employment experiences. For example, describing a service project could demonstrate your compassion, which some medical schools value. If you collaborated with others on a research topic, describe your specific contribution. Research in particular is valuable to your readers because you will more than likely need to immerse yourself in this activity during your graduate studies, especially if you are a Ph.D. candidate.
If you have any blemishes in your application, such as low test scores, criminal convictions or poor grades, think carefully before you offer a rationale. If you were to survey career coaches and faculty, some would advise you to describe anomalies because, if you do not, you leave it open to imagination. Others, however, would only encourage you to share details if the graduate program requests it. Advisers on this side of the camp fear that graduate programs may perceive such descriptions as potential liabilities or excuses, especially if your grades were repeatedly low. For example, while committee members may empathize if you reveal that you struggle with test anxiety, they may still question your ability to succeed. Most graduate programs entail tests, and many occupations require individuals to pass licensing examinations before they can enter the fields. Applicants’ inability to perform in this arena may jeopardize the professional standing of the institution.
If you elect to include this information, be brief and positive. Keep it simple and do not be defensive. Perhaps your academic ability improved once you discovered your passion. Maybe you persisted despite a serious illness or death in your family. If you decide not to address these anomalies yourself, consider asking one of your trusted references to include the topic from a positive standpoint in your letter of recommendation.
8. Be concise.
Personal statements are generally no more than two pages. If the sentence is not essential to your thesis, remove it. Also eliminate unnecessary words, such as “in order to,” “I believe” and “the fact is.”
9. Carefully proofread and refine the essay.
Any errors reflect your ability as a writer. Confirm that you used transitions, diverse sentence structures, first person and active voice. Substitute weak words, such as “love,” with a more professional, powerful alternative. Let it sit overnight. Then, read it aloud or backward. Have a consultant at your campus writing center or a professor critique the essay.
10. Enjoy the writing process.
Preparing a personal statement confirms your desire to attend graduate school and clarifies your interests or goals, which is why professional schools require it. A few years from now, this will prove helpful in your professional job search as you write cover letters and respond to interview questions.
Billie Streufert is director of the Academic Success Center at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. With nearly 10 years of experience in career and academic advising, she is passionate about helping individuals discover and achieve their goals. She is eager to connect with students via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and her blog.
Billie Streufert, grad school, Harvard, personal statement, University of Sioux Falls, CAMPUS LIFE, CAREER PATH, VOICES FROM CAMPUS
Social work is full of strong, capable, intelligent women with a great sense of purpose. Here are just a few of the women we admire from the field.
Medha Patkar is a social reformer who became a politician. Born in Mumbai, Patkar had a keen interest in public service at a very early age.
As the daughter of a trade union leader, Patkar started understanding the problems faced by the underprivileged and felt the need to serve them. Her father took active part in the Indian Independence Movement; her mother was a member of Swadar, an organization formed to assist and support women who are financially underprivileged get educated.
Patkar has an MA in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Science. She left her position at the faculty as well as her unfinished PhD when she became involved in the tribal and peasant communities in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat.
Patkar is best recognized as the founding member of the famous Narmada Bachao Andolan – a movement to save the rivers and people of Gujarat. As a candidate of Aam Aadmi Party in 2014, she received 8.9 percent of votes; she resigned from Aam Aadmi Party’s primary member on March 28, 2015.
Mother Teresa, as she was commonly known, was a Roman Catholic religious missionary and sister. She was born in Macedonia in 1910, and after living in Yugoslavia for about 30 years, she moved to India and devoted her entire life in social work.
Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity, a Roman Catholic congregation, which is active in 133 countries. The Missionaries of Charity still run homes and hospices for people with leprosy, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS; mobile clinics and dispensaries; soup kitchens; orphanages; schools; and children and family counseling programs.
Mother Teresa devoted her life to provide: “wholehearted free service to the poorest of the poor”. She was honored with 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, and was also recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Marie Woolfolk Taylor
Marie Woolfolk Taylor (December 18, 1893 - November 9, 1960) was one of the sixteen founders of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated: the first sorority founded by African-American women, ever.
The legacy Woolfolk Taylor created in establishing the sorority has continued to generate social capital for almost 100 years.
Woolfolk Taylor did post-graduate study in the new field of social work, and returned to Atlanta to start her career. She worked as a social worker and probation officer, and chaired numerous civic groups, readily handling financial responsibilities; she was on the board of directors of a range of charities, and considered herself mostly a social worker: but she also worked as an educator at night school.
With her commitment to community service and strong leadership in activities in a segregated city, Woolfolk Taylor demonstrated how sororities could help women “prepare to create spheres of influence, authority and power within institutions that traditionally have allowed African Americans and women little formal authority and real power”.
A graduate of what is now the Columbia School of Social Work, Jeannette Rankin, an advocate of women’s suffrage and a lifelong pacifist, was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress. Her first act as a congresswoman was to introduce a suffrage amendment on the House floor. The amendment was passed about a year later. She was also the only member of Congress to vote against entering World Wars I and II.
These women are or were doing their thing regardless of their own circumstances, the political situation in their countries, or wherever they chose to go good and effect change. We’d love to support you if you’re headed in the same direction. Let us know how we can help you through our services.