Learning how to write a personal statement is not as easy as it may sound. In fact, the personal statement is arguably the hardest grad school application essay to write. Why? Precisely because it’s personal, which means there’s no exact blueprint or straightforward structure you can follow to write it. If you’re struggling to write this statement, you’re not alone, which is why I’m providing you with the following strategies to help you draft a strong personal statement.
Before I go into sharing some writing strategies, let me first define this statement. A personal statement for graduate school is an essay that shows your reader who you are as a person, what your background is, and how it relates to your academic pursuits.
A personal statement is always about you and it sometimes includes information that you would typically include in a diversity statement, such as the ways that you and/or your work have contributed or will contribute to the diversity of the student body at your college campus.
Please note that the personal statement and diversity statement are two separate graduate school application essays. I will share strategies for how to write a diversity statement in a separate blog post but if you’re curious, you can listen to Episode 7 of my podcast where I distinguish between the two essays.
So how do you figure out exactly what to write about in your personal statement? And how can you get started? Here are a few strategies:
Always Answer the Personal Statement Prompt
First, always make sure you go back to the prompt and answer it. Every personal statement prompt will look different. Some prompts will be short and open-ended. Other prompts will be longer and include several questions or bullet points to answer.
When reading the prompt, ask yourself, what is it that the review committee is asking for? Are there any key words you can underline and address in your essay? Can I get started by answering each question in the prompt? If the prompt is flexible, consider what part of your personal background would help to support an argument about why you are pursuing a graduate degree in your chosen field or at that particular institution.
Showcase Stories that Reflect Your Strengths
The next thing you can do is start to make a list of personal qualities that you want to share with the committee. Are you tenacious, creative, innovative? The list goes on and on… Then write a story where you show or prove this. Remember, showing is better than telling when it comes to writing your grad school application essays.
I mention storytelling because it is a powerful component of a personal statement. Some of the most compelling and memorable personal statements are those that start with telling us, the readers, a story about an individual that provides context and background as to why they’re interested in their chosen field.
Perhaps you’ve struggled with mental health most of your life and that led you to pursue a graduate degree in pharmacology, or you grew up fascinated by animals and insects and are now pursuing a degree in zoology, or maybe you grew up as the eldest sibling taking care of three younger siblings which inspired you to pursue a degree in child development. No matter your circumstance, you have a story to tell about an experience that was formative to you pursuing a graduate degree.
Consider Freewriting and Brainstorming Ideas
If you continue to struggle to draft your personal statement, consider freewriting and brainstorming to generate ideas.
Freewriting is a pre-writing technique where you write everything that comes to mind nonstop for a designated amount of time without concern for grammar, syntax, or errors of any kind. This will help you get content on a page, which you can then pull from to draft your personal statement.
Brainstorming is another pre-writing technique where you write down words, phrases, or ideas that come to mind. You can brainstorm by creating a bulleted list or drawing a mind map clustering related ideas together.
Here are some questions you could use to help you get started with freewriting and brainstorming to help you generate ideas for your personal statement:
- What have been your favorite courses in college and why?
- What is your favorite book, film, play, song, and why?
- What are the three most memorable experiences from your time in college?
- What are three life lessons you’ve gained in college?
- What continues to motivate you to pursue graduate school?
- What are your favorite quotes and why?
- What experiences from your family contribute to your interest in graduate study?
- What obstacles and/or hardships have you had to overcome?
Address a Gap
Another strategy you can implement in navigating how to write a personal statement is addressing a gap. If you’re applying to graduate school and know that your GPA or GRE score is not competitive or perhaps there was a quarter or semester that you didn’t do well or perhaps your schooling or educational trajectory was significantly impacted by the pandemic, then you can use the personal statement as a space to address this gap in your application.
When it comes to addressing the gap, students often ask me how to do this. My best advice for how to approach that is if you want to write about it, make sure that you write about this gap in a way where you share just enough details so that they know what you went through and what you did to manage and/or overcome the issue, obstacle, or difficult circumstance. I also share examples of language you can use in addressing a gap in Episode 38 of my podcast.
Reinforce Your Fit
If there’s one thing you definitely want to do in the personal statement and every other aspect of your graduate school application, it’s to reinforce your fit with that discipline and program.
Unlike in the statement of purpose, where you are highlighting your previous and future research interests, the personal statement gives you a space to discuss other experiences you’ve had that shape your academic interests; this can include leadership roles, volunteer work, part-time or full-time work experience, social activism, caregiving, internships, and much more.
Whatever experiences you share, it will help if you remind yourself to frame it around how it supports or complements the program or area or interest you are pursuing in grad school.
Want to learn more about how to write a personal statement or how to apply to graduate school in general?
Check out my course, “Grad Apps Demystified: A Step-by-Step Course for First-Gen Students Applying to Grad School” and sign up for my mailing list where I’ll be sharing more blog posts like this.