Your graduate school personal statement may initially get only five minutes of an admissions officer's attention. In those five minutes you have to show that you are a good pick for the school.
Writing an amazing graduate school essay is probably far more straightforward than you might think. Graduate school admissions officers aren't looking for gimmicks. They're looking for passionate, motivated, and prepared applicants who are ready to hit the ground running in their program. Read on for more details in creating your best graduate school essay. If you're looking for one-on-one assistance, check out EssayEdge.com.
Know what the admissions officers are seeking
Don't make assumptions about your graduate school personal statements. Many programs simply ask you to submit a personal statement without any further guidance. Other programs will tell you exactly how they want the essay structured along with word count limits and formatting requirements. Review the prompt thoroughly and plan your essay before you begin writing to ensure that you create an essay that will be an effective and persuasive addition to your application package.
What should you do if the program doesn't give you any specifics? With greater numbers of applicants to graduate programs, the trend is toward shorter essays. This is especially true of graduate programs in the STEM fields. Unfortunately, longer essays tend to be skimmed rather than read thoroughly, and most any admissions officer will tell you that the best essays that they've read are always shorter essays. Think about what is absolutely essential, and write about those aspects of your experience with passion.
Personal, personal, personal
Did we mention personal? Some graduate programs will ask you to write an additional essay about an issue within your chosen field. However, your personal statement should be about you as an individual. Write about issues only if they relate specifically to your personal experiences. For example, 'In Africa, a child dies every minute. This stark statistic prompted me to join an NGO aimed at providing nutrition and healthcare for children in Namibia.'
Keep your anecdotes focused on your life after you began college
It is common for graduate school applicants to start their personal statements with an anecdote about something that happened during childhood or high school. On the surface, this makes sense because that event was what started the journey that has culminated in an application to the program. However, graduate programs are for professionals, and writing about your childhood is more appropriate for an undergraduate essay than one for graduate school. If you feel that you absolutely must include something from your childhood, use it as the starting sentence of your concluding paragraph.
Know your program and make connections
Securing acceptance into a graduate program is more about being the best match than about being the most highly qualified. Among applicants who meet the program's minimum requirements, they'll choose an enthusiastic and informed applicant over one with higher test scores and a better GPA who doesn't seem to know much about their program.
During your graduate studies, you'll likely do research, and graduate programs want to know that you can both participate in ongoing research as well as find a mentor for your own project. In your essay, write about professors in the programs whose work interests you and why. Also, there is life outside of the classroom. Does the school have a close-knit traditional college campus? Is it located in the heart of the city? Especially if you will be moving with your family, show the admissions officers that you will thrive in their environment.
Finish with a strong statement about why the school is your top pick
This doesn't necessarily mean that the school is your only pick. However, generic essays have no place in the graduate school application process. Form letters aren't persuasive, and generic essays won't help your application package. If you can't sincerely write that the school is a top pick, then why are you applying there? Instead, focus on creating stellar essays for the ones that actually interest you. Help the admissions officers understand your overarching vision for your future career and how your time at the school will prepare you to realize these goals.
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Why Graduate School?
Because people do not make career decisions based purely on reason, it can be difficult to explain why you have chosen a particular field of study. What follows are some categories into which your ideas may fall, but your focus should be on your unique, personal details. Also, keep in mind that you are not limited to any one of the following, but should develop multiple reasons as you see fit—so long as your points are focused and coherent.
Early Exposure to Your Field
Graduate school is a serious commitment, and it may have been your goal for a long time. Describing your early exposure to a field can offer effective insight into your core objectives. Watch out, however, for these two potential problems:
- Avoid offering your point in such a clichéd, prepackaged way as to make your reader cringe. For example, you should not start your essay, "I have always wanted to…." or "I have always known that [X field] was my calling." Instead, you should discuss specific events that led to your interest in the field.
- Do not rely solely on your initial reason and forget to justify your choice with more recent experiences. Think about what you have learned about your chosen field—and yourself—that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to that course of study.
This applicant traces his interest in photojournalism to his collection of baseball cards and sports pictures at a young age. The youthful sense of curiosity and passion he conveys is sincere and draws the reader in to his individual mindset. The writer goes on to describe the evolution of his hobby, which becomes a vocation after he earns some publishing credits and enrolls in a BFA program.
Graduate school is, of course, a means to an end, and admissions committees prefer students who know where they're going and to what use they'll put their education (though the occasional soul-searcher, who may exhibit exceptional raw potential, is welcomed). For many people, the long-term goal is to work in academia, and to differentiate yourself in such cases, you can stress more specific objectives such as your research interests (see the following section).
Other degrees can lead to work outside the academic setting. This applicant describes his reasons for pursuing a degree in public policy: "Providing health care to 44 million uninsured Americans, while keeping insurance affordable, is one of the most difficult challenges facing policymakers. I want to work in state or local government to resolve this health care crisis and ensure that the disadvantaged get the care they need and deserve." Rather than offering a clichéd sentiment about wanting to "help people" or "change society," he identifies a specific issue and explains the origin and evolution of his interest.
Read the instructions carefully: Sometimes schools will ask for a statement of purpose describing your specific research interests in lieu of, or in addition to, a personal statement that emphasizes your character and qualities. For these types of essays, you can assume that a faculty member will be reading your statement, but it should still be accessible enough for a non-specialist to understand. Remember that such essays should also still aim to engage the reader, in a way that conveys your own enthusiasm for the subject matter.
This applicant demonstrates the depth of her knowledge about her subject. To engage the reader, she identifies specific problems that she hopes to investigate: "My junior year and private studies of Anglo-Saxon language and literature have caused me to consider the question of where the divisions between folklore, folk literature, and high literature lie. Should I attend your school, I would like to resume my studies of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with special attention to its folk elements." The essay is not scholarly, but it offers a glimpse of her intellectual character and proves the maturity of her goals.
Addressing the School
While professional schools tend to have similar curricula, the differences between graduate programs abound. The highest ranked institution in your basic subject might not be strong in the particular areas that you want to pursue. Moreover, graduate school involves more direct faculty relationships, so you want to evaluate your potential mentors carefully.
You should do this research for your own sake, of course, but discussing your discoveries in your personal statement can help convince the admissions committee that you are a good fit. Avoid mistakes like discussing the school's rank or prestige, or simply offering generic praise. Instead, mention faculty members by name and indicate some knowledge of their work. Consider contacting faculty members first and discussing their current research projects and your interest in studying under them. Then refer to these contacts in your essay.
This applicant demonstrates a carefully considered interest in the school's program in paragraphs 7 and 8. She explains, for example, that this particular university's cross-disciplinary focus holds a specific appeal for her. Additionally, she reveals an in-depth understanding of the work of one of the school's faculty members, mentioning Akhil Gupta by name and expounding upon Dr. Gupta's influence upon her own work.
Similarly, this applicant, after describing how her laboratory experience has led to a heightened interest in neurological diseases and their underlying causes, demonstrates in detail how Mt. Sinai's Ph.D. program is an excellent fit for her. She is clearly familiar with Mt. Sinai's faculty, which includes many experts in her field of interest, several of whom she mentions by name. Note, however, that mentioning several professors is not as effective as describing one in further depth. The previous applicant left no doubt that she knew Dr. Gupta's work well, while it's not clear that this applicant did anything more than superficially research the areas of specialization of four professors.
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