So, you’re applying to grad school. You’ve got your letters of recommendation, updated your CV, passed the required exams and got your hands on your undergraduate transcript. What’s missing? The personal statement is a major portion of the graduate school application, one that can help set you apart from other candidates.
The personal statement might seem intimidating at first. Maybe you’re experiencing some serious writer’s block. Or perhaps you’ve become so accustomed to the straightforward, analytical writing assignments you’ve had to complete in many of your undergraduate courses. Here are some best practices for writing a graduate school personal statement you can be proud to submit:
1. Get in the creative flow
If it’s been awhile since you’ve last written something, you might need to perform some rudimentary exercises to get your brain into creative mode. Do what many writers call a “brain dump,” writing down everything that comes to your mind, no matter the relevance. Don’t even bother to review your material.
Instead, move right on to a more structured free writing activity: prompt-based writing. Set a timer for five minutes and spend that time responding to the prompt however you see fit. Who knows, maybe some of the content you create during this process might translate well into your finished product. For the sake of the personal statement, which is written in the first person, work on prompts that focus on you. Here are some narrative prompts you might try out, as per the New York Times:
2. Brainstorm some basic ideas
Now that your creative juices are flowing, it’s time to take pen to paper and get to work. You certainly aren’t ready to develop a polished piece just yet, but you have some of the tools you need to begin the brainstorming process. Like the “brain dump” activity, grab a piece of paper and write down every possible subject you want to touch upon in your personal statement. These might include previous work experience, passion for the subject, lessons you’ve learned from your undergraduate education, advice you’ve gotten from respected figures in your life, etc. In this stage of the writing process, there are no wrong answers or silly topics, just pieces of information you can choose to implement into your draft.
3. Consider the big questions
Many graduate schools provide some basic information they’d like applicants to include in their personal statements. These pieces might be subject-specific or broad. Not only are they great ways to inspire you during the planning process, but they might also take your statement in a completely different direction than what you had originally planned. Some common essential questions many graduate schools inquire from applicants include:
4. Create an outline
The final step of the planning process is drafting the frameworks of the personal statement. Create a broad outline that contains an overview of each subject you’d like to touch on. For more left-brained individuals, a somewhat detailed outline can be a huge sigh of relief, filling the blank space previously occupied by a sole blinking cursor.
5. Write a rough draft
And we mean a rough draft. The first copy of your personal statement may not be in the right shape to send to admissions counselors, but it’s a big step in the writing process. Once you’ve completed this copy, take a break from your personal statement for a few days. That way, you can come back to it for revisions with fresh eyes.
6. Revise your work
After taking a breather from the draft, look it over again, making sure it hits all the major points you wanted to touch upon and answers at least a handful of essential questions. Read it aloud to yourself, checking its readability. Quality-check it for spelling and grammatical errors.
7. Bring on a trusted editor
Even if your grammar skills are exceptional, you may have trouble spotting errors in your own writing. That’s why it’s always beneficial to have a second set of eyes look over your work. If you have friends who are writers, English teachers or work in other professions that frequently deal with written material, ask them to take a look over what you would consider to be the best possible draft of your piece. Once you’ve implemented any edits they’ve suggested, you are now looking at your final draft.
For some graduate school applicants, the personal statement can be daunting. For others, it’s a strong way to show off strengths, passions and pursuits that aren’t clearly stated in their CV. Regardless, it’s an essential step for most graduate schools and a useful way to enhance your application.