What is a personal essay?
The overall application package will represent who “you” are to people whom you will most likely not know personally. The written expression of your qualities as an applicant will often be a very important way for committee members to get to know why you are an acceptable candidate for their program. Thus, it is essential to take great care in preparing this part of your application. Because graduate schools make important selection decisions that are partly based on what you say in this essay, the writing of it can be an intimidating prospect.
To begin your essay, brainstorm using the following questions:
- What might help the evaluating committee better understand you? What sets you apart from other applicants? Who will be applying for the same program?
- Why are you interested in this field? What things have stimulated and reinforced your interest?
- How did you learn about this field (classes, seminars, work experience)?
- What are your career aspirations?
- Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that need to be explained?
- Why should an admissions committee be interested in you?
- What skills or personal characteristics do you possess that would enhance your chances for success in this field?
Write the first draft from this, then try to find an angle or a hook which can sink into the admissions committee; a good place to start is with an original and provoking opening paragraph. One of the worst things you can do with your personal statement is to bore the admissions committee, yet that is exactly what most applicants do. Admissions committees see thousands of “I have always wanted to be a…” opening paragraphs, so a good way to make the essay more interesting is to write about an anecdote or memorable incident that led you to choose the particular profession. This can help add drama, vitality, and originality to the statement. It is important, however, that the anecdote is related to the questions asked and not just a retelling of a catchy life drama.
After you have written the first, second, or third draft, there are another set of evaluative questions that you can work through to help you revise your essay.
- Does the opening paragraph grab your attention?
- Is the statement interesting or does it put you to sleep?
- Is it a positive portrayal? Is it upbeat and confident?
- Is it an honest portrayal?
- Have you answered all the questions thoroughly?
- Has anything relevant been omitted? Work or academic experience?
- Does the statement provide insight into your character?
- Is it well-written? Is the grammar, tone, and verb agreement perfect?
- Are there any typos?
For your final draft, be sure to avoid sloppiness, poor English, spelling errors, whining, manufacturing a personality, avoiding the questions that are asked on the application, high school experiences, personal biases about religion, ethnicity, politics, sexist language, revealing of character weaknesses, and arrogance.
The personal statement is extremely important in gaining admittance to graduate and professional schools. Although it can be frustrating to write an original and well-devised statement, through time and drafts it will be written. The ones that are good take time. The ones that are bad can sabotage your chances for success. It is also important that you show your drafts to a Writing Center tutor, your academic advisor, Career Planning advisor, and friends; they will help you write an essay that reveals the right balance of personal and academic characteristics and specifics.
Once you have developed a sense of the faculty’s interests and the department’s special features, you can make it clear in your application exactly why you want to attend that particular school. What is it about the department’s curriculum structure or general approach to the field that makes you interested in being a student there? Don’t waste your valuable essay space, or your reader’s valuable time, telling the reader how wonderful or prestigious their institution is; people on the admissions committee already know this. They want to know about you.
Nonetheless, if there are special programs or institutes at the school that seem appealing to you, briefly mention that you are interested in becoming part of them. For example, state that you “want to be a member of the XYZ Group for Blank and Blank Studies because …”, but don’t tell them how great, well respected, and world-renowned this part of the school is.
If, during your research on the department’s faculty, a faculty member strikes you as someone whom you might be interested in working with, indicate this in your essay; be concise and specific about why you want to work with this person in particular. A word of caution here: Do not try to use this as a way to “butter up” the admissions committee, because if there is any reason to believe that you are not sincere, your application may be adversely affected. Again, mention the person and how their work relates to your interest, but don’t load this statement with what might be interpreted as false or superfluous praise.
Some applications may ask you to give a personal history, telling about experiences that you have undergone which have led you to decide to pursue graduate education in a certain field of study. (If personal information of this sort is not required, then you are under no obligation to provide it.)
The information that could be included in a personal-type statement is limited only by your own imagination and life history, but you should be highly selective about what you include. There are two things to watch out for: (1) saying too much and/or (2) not saying enough.
Some applicants may ramble on about themselves in a manner that may appear self-indulgent and not very appealing to the committee. Remember, this is an application essay, not an autobiography. Conversely, some applicants tend to say too little, perhaps hesitating to promote themselves too explicitly or not knowing what about themselves would be interesting to people whom they don’t know. In such cases, perhaps focusing more on what you want to do than on what you have already done (let your record speak for itself) may help in getting beyond self-inhibition.
Generally, keep in mind that the points about your life that you highlight should be somehow relevant to both your own interest in the field of study, as well as to the concerns of the admissions committee. In judging what information to include or exclude from your essay, try to balance academic, work-related, and personal information in a manner appropriate to your situation, goals, and the application requirements.
If you have additional, relevant information about yourself that does not easily fit into the essay, or into any other section of the university’s application, you may want to include a condensed resume or curriculum vitae with your application package. This is especially applicable to those who have worked professionally since having graduated from school. Relevant items here might include work experience, publications, and presentations, as well as language and computer skills.
Also, if you have experienced times of great hardship or extenuating circumstances that have negatively affected your academic performance at any time, provide a short explanatory statement. This is another one of those places where caution should be exercised: you want to explain the cause of your poor grades, etc. without alienating the reader by overdoing it. Once again, be specific and concise.
Tips for Writing a Personal Essay for Your College Application
Do start early. Leave plenty of time to revise, record, and rewrite. You can improve on your presentation.
Do read the directions carefully. You will want to answer the question as directly as possible, and you’ll want to follow word limits exactly. Express yourself as briefly and as clearly as you can.
Do tell the truth about yourself. The admission committee is anonymous to you; you are completely unknown to it. Even if you run into a committee member in the future, he will have no way of connecting your essay (out of the thousands he has read) to you.
Do focus on an aspect of yourself that will show your best side. You might have overcome some adversity, worked through a difficult project, or profited from a specific incident. A narrow focus is more interesting than broad-based generalizations.
Do feel comfortable in expressing anxieties. Everybody has them, and it’s good to know that an applicant can see them and face them.
Do tie yourself to the college. Be specific about what this particular school can do for you. Your essay can have different slants for different colleges.
Do speak positively. Negatives tend to turn people off.
Do write about your greatest assets and achievements. You should be proud of them!
Don’t repeat information given elsewhere on your application. The committee has already seen it-and it looks as though you have nothing better to say.
Don’t write on general, impersonal topics-like the nuclear arms race or the importance of good management in business. The college wants to know about you.
Don’t use the personal statement to excuse your shortcomings. It would give them additional attention.
Don’t use cliches.
Don’t go to extremes: too witty, too opinionated, or too “intellectual.”
See: Personal Essay Sample
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