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Writing a Personal Statement

When writing your personal statement you should consider the following.

Distinguish yourself

Identify those experiences that have influenced your decision to attend graduate school or have formed you as the person you are today. Identify those characteristics that make you suitable for graduate-level study. One of your goals is to avoid writing a very generic statement that any candidate could have written (e.g., "I am very determined; I work hard; I am a committed student..."). You need to distinguish yourself from other applicants by highlighting those experiences that make you unique.

Be original

This is hard to do, but you need to show an admissions committee that you are more than just a good student. This is the opportunity to talk about personal experiences that have shaped you. It's okay to talk about your family or friends, about a summer job, or about a volunteer experience that really affected you. Make sure you connect your personal experience to the larger themes and ideas of your essay.

Fully develop key points

The hallmarks of good writing include clarity, development, good use of detail and examples, and a sincere voice. Too often students do not provide a full discussion of their experiences.

Avoid writing statements like "My internship at a local mental health ward was also very rewarding." This communicates very little. Identify the hospital, the type of job you were doing, who you reported to, the specifics of a case you worked, the lessons you learned there, and how these experiences are relevant to your graduate school choice.

Analysis

"My work as a peer tutor in the Academic Resource Center allowed me to better understand the various ways students approach writing assignments. I was able to classify students according to the drafts they brought in... I learned that revision techniques need to be tailored to the learning styles of individual students."

Be aware of words/phrases that don't say anything

Avoid the pitfall of over-using words such as significant, important, of great interest, great experience, motivated, and driven. In and of themselves, these words aren't necessarily bad, but they can often become a substitute for specific and focused writing. For example:

"My senior thesis was very significant in my development; it influenced my decision to attend graduate school."

versus

"My senior thesis on the intertextual relationships between Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray compelled me to discover other great literary relationships."

Target the school

Identify what it is about the school that attracts you. For example, "The English Department at the University of Massachusetts appeals to me because of its strength in the field of literary theory. In particular, Professor Smith's seminal work in semiotics and deconstruction..." This might mean doing a little research as part of the application process.

Revise, revise, and revise

You probably haven't had to ever write anything resembling a personal statement before, so don't expect to get it right the first time. You might need to write a couple drafts before you're ready to begin refining the prose. We strongly recommend that someone-a professor, advisor, or the director of academic advisement-review your personal statement with you.