Tips and tricks for writing great Personal Statements for Graduate School Applications

Personal statements are among the hardest essays that we have to write. Having written many personal statements myself, and having been a writing tutor during college, I’ve gathered a lot of insight regarding how writers can produce excellent personal statements. Given that the next admissions cycle is right around the corner, I want to share some of my top tips in this post.

Write the “meat” (the middle paragraphs) first.

These are the easiest. Write the introduction and conclusion last- you will likely spend the longest on these, because you will want to take your time thinking about how you will introduce yourself (and leave a good first impression) and how you will close your statement (and leave a good lasting impression). You may come up with your best intro and conclusion as you are building the rest of your essay. Save yourself time and stress by just writing both last!

Remember the phrase “don’t tell me, show me”.

Many applicants will write statements like “I am very passionate about biology and I loved learning about it while I was doing my undergrad degree and now want to earn a graduate degree in this field”.

Every applicant could be passionate about biology just like you are. Since admissions are generally competitive, there’s no way this statement can be used to distinguish between you and other applicants. So, don’t be the applicant who writes this statement.

Instead, show that you are passionate about biology by talking in depth about the activities that you’ve done which demonstrate this passion. Did you join (or start) any student clubs or initiatives that are relevant to your career path? Did you win any awards? Did you conduct research and/or present this research anywhere? This is the juicy stuff they want to know about.

Don’t write statements like “I was super fortunate and won X award”.

You worked for anything that you’ve accomplished, so don’t talk about the opportunities that you’ve had like they just fell into your lap. For example (for your internship)- A statement like “I sought out an internship doing X at Y company” is much stronger than “I was fortunate enough to get an internship at X company”.

Statements which communicate that you sought out opportunities also show that you are confident in your skills rather than that you landed jobs/internships/awards only because of luck.

Try to spin any bad experiences or bad grades in a positive way*.

You will want to spin these in a positive way (if you have any to address). So if you have a bad grade somewhere, instead of saying “I failed X class”, you can say something like “this class was difficult for me, but I learned….”. This is way more important than your grade- schools want candidates who are eager to learn so show them that you are.

*This is absolutely not an assertion that you have to have gained something positive or should have learned something from a bad experience. Not all bad experiences have to be learning experiences. The point here is to show how you are moving forward from this experience.

Also, there are applicants who completely switch career paths.

From computer science to psychology or from an engineering degree to an art degree or from a science degree or a law degree. This is absolutely not a “flaw” in your application- it could be a strength! Many (and maybe even most) good graduate programs like having degree candidates who can offer diverse perspectives.

You, as the applicant, just have to figure out how to talk about your career shift in the right way. What skills did you gain while on your previous career path that you can translate to your new path?

Show schools that you’ve done your research.

Make sure that you go on their websites for the programs/opportunities you’re interested in. It’s a good idea to even borrow the phrasing that they use on their websites. Talk about specific classes you find interesting, or labs or programs.

Include a specific statement about your career goals.

Remember, you aren’t married to these goals, but admissions committees may want to know what exactly you want out of earning this degree and how your degree impacts your career path. If your goals change, of course that’s okay. Just state (clearly) what your plans are for the moment

Remember: You’re absolutely deserving of good opportunities.

I’ve seen several students approach personal statements with a lot of fear or worry that they are not good enough for the program they are applying for. I’ve also been that student- I distinctly remember calling my mom one time, crying about how I “wasn’t special enough” to get into a program.

Writing personal statements is a very stressful and difficult because it’s literally about writing a statement to show schools that you are “special enough” to receive an opportunity. I hated writing personal statements because I felt like I was bragging about all of my accomplishments while simultaneously wondering if I actually had that much to brag about at all. Sometimes I felt like a fraud… but this just made the process of writing these statements more difficult.

If you forget everything you’ve accomplished, while you’re writing, take a look at your CV or Resume for help.

Make a bulleted list in your essay based on the accomplishments you’ve listed in your resume, and then write sentences between these bullets to “connect the dots”.

So I’m begging you: please don’t do this to yourself. If you ever find yourself doubting your capabilities, intellect, or general worthiness, just keep telling yourself that you are deserving of good opportunities.

Please let me know what you think of these tips!

Which ones are the most helpful (and which are the least helpful)? Any other advice you think I should include here?

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PhD Student in Cognitive Development at Boston University. I write about children’s science learning, public understanding of science, writing tips and more.

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Aarti Bodas

Aarti Bodas

PhD Student in Cognitive Development at Boston University. I write about children’s science learning, public understanding of science, writing tips and more.

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