Tips for writing a compelling personal statement

By: Vanessa Jaeger, Pre-Law Advisor

Pay Attention to the Details

It’s getting to be that time of year…end of the semester and lot’s of people asking “what will you do after you graduate?” If you’re a junior or senior—or, let’s be honest, even a sophomore—then you’re probably tired of being asked this question during the summer break by friends and family. The usual response people give these days is: graduate school. With an increasingly competitive and specialized job market, lots of people are considering how further education will better prepare them for successful employment. However, the application process can be daunting. While the resume, transcript, and letters of recommendation are easy enough to tackle, the most difficult dragon to slay is the dreaded Personal Statement. What is this amorphous, open-ended document and how do you write a compelling enough piece to convince an admissions panel that, “Yes! I am prepared!”? The following tips should help get you started: 

This piece of advice may seem obvious but it can easily get an applicant in trouble if they don’t adhere to it. Make sure that you’re reading the criteria provided by the specific application. In a lot of instances, you can easily write a general statement that considers why you want to pursue X graduate experience. But, you will want to make sure you tailor it to certain programs, especially if the school you’re applying to is the school and not just any school. Read the fine print—is there a word limit? Page count? Specific prompt? 

One thing to keep in mind: you don’t have to answer every question provided by the prompt. In a lot of instances, doing so will prevent you from writing a focused and coherent piece. Instead, think of these questions (if asked) as a guide to get you started. 

Focus, Focus, Focus

That leads to my next point—you can’t say everything so don’t try to. It is easy to fall into the trap of brain dumping on a page and ending up with a million ideas. While that’s a good place to start, you need to kill those little darlings and edit edit edit out so that you have a single focus. For a lot of people, this means that you give attention to a single narrative because, yes, this is a narrative. What is a single experience that led you to believe that this program is the next step for you? 

For me, continuing my education in literature was a result of needing to know “why?” I’d spent most of my life reading books, content to sit back and enjoy the show; but the further I went through my undergraduate studies, the less interested I was in what was happening and the more I needed to know why it was happening. Why did Jane Eyre marry Mr. Rochester despite everything that happens prior—”Reader, I married him”?!—and why was Lucy’s sexuality such a threat in Dracula? My personal statement addressed this continued desire to know why and how such a thirst for understanding made me feel confident that a PhD program was the only way that I could ever get answers. I didn’t go into every experience and every detail, just this one single thought. Wanting to address everything will often result in a personal statement with transition sentences that read as follows: “Another reason I think I am a good fit for your program…”. You want to avoid such writing; you’re not trying to convince them you’re a good fit but that you’re passionate. Your passion is what makes you a good fit. 

Depending on what program(s) you’re considering, you’ll want to dig a little deeper and answer a similar question. Had I just said “I like reading and that’s why graduate school is right for me,” I can assure you admissions would have rejected me. 

Put the Personal in Personal Statement

As my example above demonstrates, I wasn’t afraid to be personal and that’s a good thing. It’s called a PERSONAL statement for a reason. The undergraduate experience often doesn’t lend itself to creativity, meaning that the ability to be vulnerable is something many students struggle with doing. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what this document is asking you to do. You don’t need to share every single personal detail about your life—remember that the piece should be focused—but you do want to be honest and genuine about your reasons for applying. Imagine that you’re on a reality television show and you’re giving your confessional interview—that’s how this piece should be written. I don’t mean that you spill all the tea about the other contestants but you get rid of that professionally distanced, academic writing and write in a way that is slightly more conversational and lets admissions know who you are. 

Don’t Reiterate What’s on Your Resume

Lots of admissions teams will ask for your resume in addition to a personal statement. For this reason, it’s important not to tell them all the things your resume also explains. A resume is your professional self whereas the personal statement is an entirely separate document and component of the application. They want to know about you and not hear more about your professional experiences. If they did, then they would have asked for a cover letter. Again, it can be tempting to share all of the experience and skills you have because you think that it is 1) what they want to read and 2) demonstrates why you’re a strong applicant; however, you’re only selling yourself short by doing that. An application for graduate school is a package and each piece of that package should be distinct and individual, speaking to all the components of who you are rather than only speaking to a few. This isn’t to say that you can’t write about one experience that is on your resume but rather than saying what you did at the internship, job, etc. you will want to write about how it positively affected you and why the experience further pushed you towards the graduate experience that you’re applying for now. Reframe the experience from what into how and why. By writing in this manner, you’ll better explain your reasoning and passion. 

Revise and Revise Again

Writing a personal statement is not a one-shot document so don’t assume that a single draft is good enough for submission. Applying to graduate school is a long process and writing the personal statement should be taken seriously. Get as many people to read it as possible: friends, family, letter of recommendation writers, other professional office staff like Fleishman and the Writing Center tutors. When I go over personal statements with students, more often than not we go through 3+ drafts before it’s even close to submission. Ask any student who has worked with me in Pre-Law Advising—I make students really revise and really perfect this piece. Admissions takes the personal statement very seriously. Why? Because at the end of the day applicants all look very similar. They have similar GPAs, similar majors, similar internship and professional experiences. What sets them apart on an application are two things—letters of recommendation and personal statements. Write the best personal statement you can; not one that is just “good enough.”

By Jessica Lane-Rwabukwisi
Jessica Lane-Rwabukwisi Career Consultant