Writing a Winning Personal Statement for Grad School


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As you are applying to get into the graduate school program of your choice, you will be competing against hundreds of other hopeful graduate students who are sending in their own applications. This includes the required Personal Statement/Essay.

A Personal Statement is different from a Statement of Purpose. In your personal essay, the content can be less formal and a little more personal (thus the name) in introducing yourself to graduate school acceptance committees. In this document, you place the focus on your personal reasons for requesting admission to a graduate school program and field of study. Who are you? How did you develop your research interests? Why this program; are there specific staff or professors you'd like to work with?

Your personal statement tells a story about you and will explain why you want to go into the major you have selected, paying special attention to what you think are the most relevant points. You have the chance to tell a story about what motivated you to enter the field you chose and why you're a perfect fit for this campus, rather than other graduate programs. It’s a good idea to talk about the common or special problems in your life that affected your progress and how you got past them.

What is a Graduate School Personal Statement?

This statement is your opportunity to tell your story of “You”. You’re talking personally to the graduate school admissions committee, introducing yourself to them, and spelling out your motivation for attending graduate school in a particular field. In your personal statement, you should go into detail about why you want to attend the university you are sending your admission package to. Discuss your future educational and professional goals, as well as any related work experience and research you may have done. Don't include your resume or a cover lettter, only note interesting examples of when you've had success or been effective in your community or career.

A personal statement is not where you talk about any weaknesses you may have. Use this as a time to show you at your best. If need be, discuss your weaknesses in a different document, such as an addendum. These weaknesses should be related to your academic aspirations, such as low admission testing scores or low grades during your undergraduate studies. Keep this short and factual. The people reading this will read hundreds of strong student school applications each year; they understand the process better than you do and have access to all your other data. Stick to your topic, don't follow a sample personal statement too closely, keep your grammar and style clean, and don't go on too long.

When Do you Need to Have a Personal Essay Ready?

You'll want to get started as early as you can. Writing this essay isn’t a one-time project. You are going to have to write a preliminary draft and have that proofread by people whose judgment you trust. Ideally, one of the people you choose should be working in the field which you plan to study. Once you get their opinions and suggestions for any issues, you’re going to rewrite your essay multiple times. You should try to apply all advice you receive from your readers. The short length of a personal statement can be deceptive. Because this document affects your professional and academic plans so much, you should put that much more thought into writing and rewriting it.

Before you even write your first word, read the admissions committee’s essay instructions closely. Follow every instruction to the letter. Write your personal statement in the format you are instructed to use. Do preliminary research before you begin to write. Research your eventual field and the program/school you want to attend. Be thorough.

What do Schools Look for in a Personal Essay?

Graduate schools and admissions committees are looking for a well-crafted essay that expresses relevant information about you that may not otherwise be expressed elsewhere. They don't want to hear about your GPA in this section.

The instructions for personal statements have been deliberately written to elicit the information committees are looking from each of the applicants. Committees look for essays that respond to each question. They also look for ones that are written in compliance to directions (page limit, font and font size, number of paragraphs, etc.). After all, if you can’t follow instructions, how will you get through the rest of your education?

These committees want to get to know each candidate through their essay, so it's best if you're making it about YOU. What makes you who you are? Be honest and sincere. The members of each committee will “get” your sincerity, and this will increase your chances of admission.

Graduate schools look for essays containing real-life evidence of your experiences; this should back up your statements in other documents or letters of recommendation you submit. It helps an admission committee when you write about your professional goals and interests, using honesty and examples that illustrate how your plans mesh with the school/program mission.

Steps to Take When Writing Your Essay

Be Aware of Specific Requirements

Before you begin to write, carefully read the instructions for your personal statement. This is your chance to shine and prove to the admissions committee that you will be a wise choice for admission.

This means you should read all questions first, so you can formulate your responses as part of the narrative of your story. Not all graduate schools require personal statements to follow a thesis statement. For these essays, you’ll have more freedom to respond to each question by showing, not telling your story. If you are asked to “tell a story” about what prompted you to go into veterinary school, show them how you helped your local vet to save the life of a kitten that was struck by a speeding car. Paint a picture with sights, sounds, smells, and how the kitten’s wet fur felt under your hands.

Prepare/Outline

Begin to write by creating an outline about yourself and your life. What makes you the unique being you are? What sparked your interest in your chosen field? Write in some detail about your career goals. What obstacles have you faced and overcome? Express the strongest reasons you can about why the admissions committee should invite you to their program.

If you include specific dates for each activity you participated in, make sure they are all accurate. Refrain from “educating” an admissions committee about what your chosen field is. Instead, express what the field means to you. In your outline, weed out references to any high school accomplishments. Do the same for all controversial topics; this may not be the place to be controversial.

Be Specific/Unique/Enthusiastic

As you are writing your story, remember to be as specific as you can. Write about experiences you’ve had, talk about how the event influenced your career choice. Who was there? What did they say? Talk about “Amy, the nurse who complimented me on my grasp of treatments for sprains.”

When you start talking about your work and internship experiences, be just as specific. These recollections about your professional experience should tie into your desire to continue learning about this academic area in your graduate studies.

As you talk about how you became interested in your chosen field, describe this by showing what happened. Tell your story with description that will captivate a reader. If you are entering law school, you may want to describe an incident where you learned of an injustice committed against a friend or relative. Describe how you may have helped this person by doing legal research.

Relate your Interests and Plans to your Chosen Program

This is the point in your essay where your interests and activities can shine. Again, sticking to your college years, talk about the activities in which you were active. They should relate to your planned career—if you plan to go into law, your activities with Amnesty International or another non-profit may show how you arrived at your passion for your chosen career.

Draw on the skills you learned during your undergraduate years. Did you work full- or part-time as a social work aide or as a licensed practical nurse? For a master’s degree or PhD in social work, your experiences in transporting children or adults to therapy or observing family visits for the supervising social worker are an excellent way to demonstrate what led you to obtain a graduate degree in the field. Show how your work as an LPN influenced your decision to earn your MSN. You may have assisted with a difficult case on the delivery ward, for instance. Describe how your decision happened.

Make Sure Committees Know why you Want to be There Rather than Anywhere Else

This step allows the graduate admissions committee to see that you did your research when it came time to choose your graduate school. What sets a particular university or graduate program apart from others? Did you delve deeply and look for the graduate school’s mission statement? If you have a real reason why you chose this graduate school over any other, this can set your personal statement apart from most others.

Look closely through each school’s website. Read their blogs and public relations pages. What’s new in your degree program? Are there new developments? Has a professor, along with a team of students, made a new discovery? What research are they working on, and would you like to be a part of it?

Now, look even more deeply into each school’s website. Peruse their social media feeds—Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Here, you’ll learn what the school, its faculty, and their students are most passionate about. Find a connection to their passions and link them with yours.

Proofread/Refine/Get an Outside View

Now that you have written several drafts of your personal statement and had several trusted people read it and give you targeted critiques, it’s time to write it one more time, giving it a final polish. This should be one of the best essays you have ever written—the competition for your chosen program and university are both tough. Your whole application package should be strong—but your personal statement tells the story of you. You want it to make committee members sit up and take notice of you.

Did you follow every direction and answer every question? What about formatting? Have you used the correct school name? Before adding it to the rest of your application package, consider heading over to the Writing Center at your university and asking for some assistance. Once it has gotten everyone’s approval, it’s time to send it off.

How to Write the Personal Statement

Think and Reflect

Think about your extracurriculars and academic career to date. Reflect on how both have influenced your plans and motivations for a career in your chosen field. Write down several experiences that illustrate your growth as you progressed toward your career. Who guided you on your way? Inspired you? What is your message in your essay?

Consider your Essay Structure

Keeping the instructions for your personal statement in mind, brainstorm different ways to tell your story. Will you use a thesis statement? This may be required. If so, go back to that statement in your conclusion. Thinking back to your English Composition classes, remember that a conclusion in an essay is a restatement of your thesis point—but this essay will point out how your growth and story have evolved from observation to a deeper wisdom that you will use in graduate school.

“Show, Don’t Tell”

Your personal statement will be much more compelling if you can “show”, through the senses, how events happened. Include details about the smell of the cut grass or the chocolate chip cookies that you remember; the color of a child’s eyes as they cried in distress. “Show” by expressing what your emotions were at that time. How did the run-down home affect you as you shadowed an investigative social worker? “As I followed the social worker into the house, the dull walls and the broken-down furniture gave off a sense of hopelessness.”

Use Specifics

Why would you be a caring social worker or nurse? What details about your personality and temperament set you apart from other graduate school candidates? If you spent time in foster care, use this as a positive. Seeing this environment “from the inside” gives the committee a much better idea of who you are and why you want to be a top-notch licensed social worker.

Exhibit Your Knowledge

Returning to your time in foster care, you may have experiences and memories that point out your uniqueness to the committee. If you experienced things because social work policies were poorly written or not well thought out, express your personal experiences in a few sentences. Do use professional language but steer clear of social work jargon. Take the committee into your practicums and work experiences. Detail conversations with fellow social workers your experiences at training seminars you attended.

Write Your Dreams in a Positive Way

If you love lab work and want to help people stay healthy or get healthy, say it. Cast your plans so that you blend your love of science and research with your desire to help people suffering from chronic illnesses. Don’t state that you want to do research in a lab because you don’t want to be around people, even if you know yourself to be relatively unsociable. This can create a negative view of you and is more appropriate to an inside joke than a personal statement. If you worked during the summer helping out in a research lab, detail your experiences. “I worked in a research lab during the summers, preparing samples. I was also responsible for washing and sterilizing equipment. My interest in working in a laboratory was deepened by my summer work experiences.”

“Intellectual Autobiography”

By thinking of your personal statement as an intellectual autobiography, the graduate school admissions committee gets a clearer image of you as someone who has academic and professional interests, goals, and ideas. They will know you are serious about your plans to advance your learning by going to graduate school.

What is Your Story?

Everyone has one. From your earliest memories and impressions, you began to develop your life’s story. While life had its way with your path, your unexpected experiences may have given you new insights and knowledge that eventually brought you to your career goal. As you reflect on your personal statement and life, think about how you can organize your story.

Avoid Cliches

Cliches are boring and drag your story and essay down. Use original phrasing that pulls your readers in.

A few cliches to stay away from include:

  • in modern society
  • From the dawn of man
  • In this day and age
  • Good things come to those who wait
  • Little did I know
  • I learned more from them than they did from me
  • The time of my life
  • You win some, you lose some
  • Easy come, easy go

Cliches aren’t specific. In your essay, you want to use examples that clearly present what you want to say. Using cliches also makes you look lazy and they may take away from your credibility and trustworthiness.