Writers Workshop: Writer Resources
Writing Tips: Personal Statements
Overview of the Personal Statement
Personal statements are sometimes also called "application essays" or "statements of purpose." Whatever they are called, they are essentially essays which are written in response to a question or questions on a graduate or professional school application form which asks for some sort of sustained response.
Some applications ask more specific questions than others. There is no set formula to follow in shaping your response, only choices for you to make, such as whether you should write an essay that is more autobiographically focused or one that is more professionally focused.
From application to application, requested personal statements also vary widely in length, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to a series of essays of a page or so each.
Personal statements are most important when you are applying to an extremely competitive program, where all the applicants have high test scores and GPA's, and when you are a marginal candidate and need the essay to compensate for low test scores or a low GPA.
How are personal statements read, and by whom? It's most likely that your personal statement will be read by professors who serve on an admissions committee in the department to which you are applying. It is important in developing your personal statement to carefully consider this audience. What are the areas of specialty of this department, and what might it be looking for in a graduate student?
Additionally, since personal statements will most often be read as part of your "package," they offer an opportunity to show aspects of yourself that will not be developed in other areas of your application. Obviously, it is important that personal statements are not simply prose formulations of material contained elsewhere in the application.
It may be helpful to think of the statement as the single opportunity in your package to allow the admissions committee to hear your voice. Often times, committees are sorting through large numbers of applications and essays, perhaps doing an initial quick sort to find the best applicants and then later reading some of the personal statements more thoroughly. Given that information, you will want your statement to readily engage the readers, and to clearly demonstrate what makes you a unique candidate--apart from the rest of the stack.
One Process for Writing the Personal Statement
- Analyze the question(s) asked on a specific application.
- Research the school and/or program to which you are applying.
- Take a personal inventory (see below). Write out a 2-3 sentence response to each question.
- Write your essay.
- Revise your essay for form and content.
- Ask someone else - preferably a faculty member in your area - to read your essay and make suggestions for further revision.
- Revise again.
- Proofread carefully.
Personal Inventory Questions
- What makes you unique, or at least different from, any other applicant?
- What attracts you to your chosen career? What do you expect to get out of it?
- When did you initially become interested in this career? How has this interest developed? When did you become certain that this is what you wanted to do? What solidified your decision?
- What are your intellectual influences? What writers, books, professors, concepts in college have shaped you?
- How has your undergraduate academic experience prepared you for graduate/professional school?
- What are two or three of the academic accomplishments which have most prepared you?
- What research have you conducted? What did you learn from it?
- What non-academic experiences contributed to your choice of school and/or career? (work, volunteer, family)
- Do you have specific career plans? How does graduate or professional school pertain to them?
- How much more education are you interested in?
- What's the most important thing the admissions committee should know about you?
- Think of a professor in your field that you've had already and that you like and respect. If this person were reading your application essay, what would most impress him or her?
- Answer all the questions asked.
- If you are applying to more than one program, you may find that each application asks a different question or set of questions, and that you don't really feel like writing a bunch of different responses. However, you should avoid the temptation to submit the same essay for different questions—it's far better to tailor your response to each question and each school.
- If you do find yourself short on time and must tailor one basic essay to fit a number of different questions from a number of different schools, target your essay to your first-choice school, and keep in mind that the less your essay is suited to an application's particular questions, the more you may be jeopardizing your chances of being admitted to that school.
Be honest and confident in your statements.
Use positive emphasis. Do not try to hide, make excuses for, or lie about your weaknesses. In some cases, a student needs to explain a weak component of his or her application, but in other cases it may be best not to mention those weaknesses at all. Rather, write an essay that focuses on your strengths.
Write a coherent and interesting essay.
Make your first paragraph the best paragraph in your essay.
Develop a thesis about yourself early in the essay and argue it throughout.
Each piece of information you give about yourself in the essay should somehow support your thesis.
Pick two to four main topics for a one-page essay.
Don't summarize your entire life. Don't include needless details that take space away from a discussion of your professionalism, maturity, and ability to do intellectual work in your chosen field.
Use the personal statement as a form of introduction.
Think of the essay as not only an answer to a specific question but as an opportunity to introduce yourself, especially if your program doesn't interview applicants.
- Ask yourself the following questions as you edit for content:
- Are my goals well articulated?
- Do I explain why I have selected this school and/or program in particular?
- Do I demonstrate knowledge of this school or program?
- Do I include interesting details that prove my claims about myself?
- Is my tone confident?
- Make sure your essay has absolutely perfect spelling and mechanics.
Use technical terminology and such techniques as passive voice where appropriate.
You should write clearly and interestingly, yet also speak in a voice appropriate to your field.
- Write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. You are probably wrong, and such a response is likely to make you blend into the crowd rather than stand out from it.
- Use empty, vague, over-used words like "meaningful," "beautiful," "challenging," "invaluable," or "rewarding."
- Overwrite or belabor a minor point about yourself.
- Repeat information directly from the application form itself unless you use it to illustrate a point or want to develop it further.
- Emphasize the negative. Again, the admissions committee already knows your GPA and test scores, and they probably are not interested in reading about how a list of events in your personal life caused you to perform poorly. Explain what you feel you need to, but emphasize the positive.
- Try to be funny. You don't want to take the risk they won't get the joke.
- Get too personal about religion, politics, or your lack of education (avoid emotional catharsis).
- Include footnotes, cliches, or long-winded and slow introductions.
- Use statements like "I've always wanted to be a…" or any other hackneyed phrases.
- Use gimmicks—too big of a risk on an application to a graduate or professional program.
- Allow any superficial errors in spelling, mechanics, grammar, punctuation, format, or printing to creep under your vigilant guard.
Over the next three months, applicants for 2009 entry into university will be completing their online applications. With drop-down menus, prompts and clear instructions, it's easy to think this is a simple and straightforward task. Many advisers will be familiar with a quick burst of mouse clicking followed by the exultation "I've finished!" Without prior research and preparation, though, that frenzied bout of clicking can easily lead to unnecessary trouble and an unhappy experience later.
Before embarking on the detail of the online application, do your research. First, work on your choice of subject, then find out which unis do your course, paying particular attention to content and entry requirements. Next, compose your personal statement justifying your choice.
Registering online is the easy bit. Go to the Ucas website (ucas.ac.uk), go into "Apply" and click on "Register". In this first section, you'll be asked for personal details. Make sure your name is how it appears on your exam entries and certificates, to avoid any issues later. Your mobile number and email address are useful to include, as both universities and Ucas increasingly use these to contact you.
Next comes the security bit. You'll be asked for a password (some schools and colleges will provide these for you) and some security questions. Remember:
• Don't forget your password;
• Keep the username generated safe;
• You may need to know the answers to all your security questions in future.
You'll now be asked if you are applying through your school or college. If so, you have to enter a buzzword provided by them. Make sure the correct school or college appears next. Finally, you'll be asked to verify your email address. Ucas will then send you a verification code to enable you to complete the form. Two hints here:
• The code email sometimes does not come through immediately, so patience may be required;
• If you're completing at school or college and using your personal email address, bear in mind that you may not be able to access the reply until you get home.
Now you're ready to complete the other parts of the form. Remember that it doesn't all have to be done in one go; you can save at any point and come back to it another time.
This section covers information about where you live, your nationality and your status for assessing your entitlement to student grants, loans and fees payment. The drop-down menus are clear enough, but here are a few things that may help:
• Nationality: having a UK passport means you select "UK National";
• Residential category: if unsure, answer the questions in the help box;
• Student support: most home students should choose 02 (Local Education Authority);
• Unique Learner Number: you may not have one of these - if so leave blank.
You can ignore the "nominated access" question unless you really do need somebody (usually a parent) to act on your behalf at any stage. You must complete the disability/special needs section even if you don't have a disability (in which case choose "none"). Consider this question carefully - if there is anything to identify (eg dyslexia) it should go in this section.
Here's where the answer "I prefer not to say" enters the fray, and here the help boxes are your friend. You must complete the "ethnic origin" section but you can select the above as a response. Your answer to the parental education question can be used during the selection process, but the occupational background answer isn't available to your choices until later. It isn't yours (ie "student" or your part-time job) - you should write in the job of your parent or guardian who earns the most. If they are unemployed or retired then enter the job they used to do.
Summer schools and tasters can be included here. Don't forget to enter them even if you're saying more about them in the personal statement later.
It's a good idea to wrap up this section before completing your choices and the statement. It's easy to make mistakes or miss things out, and the drop-down menus won't always correct errors. Here you'll record where you've been educated since you were 11, as well as the qualifications you've gained and those you're currently studying for.
First, enter all the institutions you've attended, making sure you get the dates correct. If in doubt, check! Clicking on "Find" and "Search" should produce your school or college and the exam centre numbers. If you took exams, make sure you say "yes" when asked if you have taken qualifications. Occasionally you may need to enter the institution and exam centre number yourself.
Once you've made sure all your schools/colleges are listed, you can start to fill in all your qualifications to date. For most this will be GCSEs.
• Include all of your results, not just the As to Cs;
• Some will be double awards under a different heading
• Some will be short courses, again under a different heading
It's now the same process for your A-level studies. For many this will entail clicking on "Advanced Subsidiary" for their AS levels and then "Advanced GCE" for their A-levels. If your school or college cashes in your AS results, this is a completed qualification and must be recorded. For exams still be to taken, put "pending" in the result box. While you can include modules and units - check with your adviser about this - few universities need this detail. Check "other qualification type not in this list" for BTec, GNVQ and other qualifications.
Hints: have your certificates or result slips in front of you so there's no confusion about exam boards or dates.
Some will have to include additional entrance tests in this section, such as BMat or Ukcat for medicine or LNat for law.
You can enter your choices in any order here - there is no preference order as they will be automatically sorted alphabetically. It's a good idea to put in and save those choices that are definite in your mind first and add the others later. This should help you focus on what you really want. Make sure you're choosing both the correct institution and the course when you click, and pay close attention to the campus code. Occasionally, the course is not taking place where you thought. It may be on a different site or be franchised out to another college and be miles away from the main site, potentially affecting your choice.
Those intending to take a gap year and go for deferred entry for 2010 can identify their intentions here. Remember to outline your plans in your personal statement.
This section is all about paid work (part-time or full-time jobs past and present) not voluntary or work experience. These can be included in your personal statement, especially if relevant to your chosen course and career plans.
Don't type straight into the "Apply" section - use a word processor or similar, using the spell-check facility, and copy and paste over when you're ready. For the sake of compatibility, use Times New Roman font, size 12. Keep an eye on the length: more than 4,000 characters with spaces means trouble. You can use 47 lines, but Ucas advises that the last line can go missing in transmission to the universities, so beware of this.
Once imported into the apply section, you'll see how much space you have left or if you are over the limit. Remember: you don't have to use all the space just because it's there. Be concise, don't waffle. And make sure it's all your own work.
When you think it's finished, click "Preview" to see what it will look like when an admissions selector sees it. Click on "Edit" if you want to make any changes.
Some general hints
• Save as you go
• At any stage, you can check your progress by clicking "View All Details";
• Mark each section off as "complete" when you're ready.
Your school or college will have their own arrangements for how you seal the deal, but everyone has to click on "Pay/Send" to forward the application to your referee. There are five tick boxes plus an "I agree" box here - it may seem tedious, but do read the text; you are saying that everything you've included is correct to the best of your knowledge.
Now you're done! It's £17 if you made 2 or more choices, £7 if only one. Remember: it hasn't electronically winged its way to Ucas and the universities until your referee has completed the reference and pasted it into the application.
Common mistakes to look out for
• Previous surname at 16th birthday - don't fill in if it's the same as now
• Home address: don't fill in if it's the same as your postal address
• Email address: remember - a university selector will see this, so avoid anything rude and crude
• Dual nationality: only fill in if you have a passport of a second country
• Permanent residence/student support: the name of your local authority
• Fee code: usually 02. Common mistakes are people selecting 01 (private finance) and 99 (other)
• Further details section on Choices section: usually leave blank, but check if university needs completion (eg subjects for a combined degree)
• Education: check for missing exams, including those to be taken, and ensure that all dates are included
• Include other admissions tests
John Beckett is a higher education adviser at City & Islington Sixth-Form College