If you plan to apply for admission to a graduate program or for a grant or fellowship, you will need to write a personal statement. While all applications contain specific instructions, and you should definitely pay attention and tailor your statement to the program for which you are applying, there are some general principles that govern writing personal statements. Remember that you are writing an essay, and like any essay, it should have a clear purpose, strong organization, and impeccable grammar and syntax.
The personal statement should do the following:
Tell the department or organization:
- who you are
- what makes you tick
- what separates you from other strong candidates
- what special things you have done
- what problem have you solved or challenge overcome, finishing with resolution.
Try to say something interesting about yourself, because people like stories and will use their perception of your story to evaluate your application. The structure need not be framed chronologically. Consider what might be a good point of entry.
Explain what has led you to consider your choice of degree (which will lead to some career outcome, e.g., Ph.D. in Rocket Science so I can train NASA astronauts). For a grant or fellowship, talk about why you want to do whatever it is that the grant funds.
Explain what is special (perhaps this is who) about the department that has caused you to apply to them. This means you have to do some homework and tells the department that you’ve done your homework. Consider if your story arc is relevant to the department. A Ph.D. in Rocket Science is not relevant to a department of history. On the other hand, don’t waste space on statements of the obvious, such as “Oxford is one of the greatest universities in the world.”
The answer to the first portion should be well over 50% of your statement; addressing the second will be perhaps 10-20% and the final response will be the rest.
After you have done a few drafts, ask someone who knows you reasonably well (or several such people), “What strikes you about me?” Ask yourself, “What is the most difficult obstacle I’ve overcome?” Or, “What was my watershed moment?” The answers will produce seeds of what’s interesting about you.
Show your draft to mentors or friends who can help you refine it.
When reading the final draft, ask, would a reader want more, or respond, “We’ve got to get this person here” ?
Keep in mind the following points:
- Do not repeat things that are found other places in your application.
- Essays are not lists. Be sure you are telling a story, not writing a list of your accomplishments.
- Use the essay to talk about the development of your mind, your interests, your ambitions and your priorities. The details of your childhood are generally not relevant.
- When you make big generalizations, it is a good idea to give an illustrative example.
- Stay away from broad statements, unless you can explain them. For example, saying “My time in Antarctica changed my life” is not useful unless you can explain how it changed your life, and how that change is relevant to your application.
- Avoid clichés or jargon of any kind. For example, it is generally not helpful to say that you value diversity, or that you are looking for a challenge. While these things may be true, you need to find a more specific, less clichéd way of talking about them.
- Consider talking about books, experiences or ideas that have shaped your interests.
- Remember that many programs do not conduct interviews, and so will not be able to ask you follow-up questions. You must explain yourself fully in your essay. Consider carefully the details you choose.
- On the other hand, if the program does conduct interviews, you must be ready to expand on anything you mentioned in your application. If you are not prepared to discuss any element of your life in an interview, you should not include it in your application.
One approach to beginning the personal statement: Create a story board using post-its, which you can then move around until they are in the right order; then begin composing your story.