Advice on Conquering the Personal Statement

Rebecca Marcum, admissions counselor and graduate student
Rebecca Marcum, admissions counselor and graduate student

By Rebecca Marcum, Penn State World Campus admissions counselor and graduate student

Writing a personal statement is a very important part of the graduate program application process, but it can be the most intimidating part as well.

Trust me — I know.

I’ve been there, too.

Before applying to Penn State World Campus’s higher education master’s degree program (where I’m slowly but surely making progress toward my M.Ed.), I took a year to write my personal statement.

I won’t shower you with details, but that year was littered with personal upheavals and professional transitions. I wrote in fits and bursts, often stopping and walking away for weeks or months at a time. I had to re-think my priorities, my goals, and my future.

With all of these changes occurring, I found many reasons to procrastinate. “I’m just going to wait until things quiet down,” I kept telling myself, breathing a sigh of relief that I had managed to push the personal statement off a little further.

But then the morning came when I realized that I couldn’t let myself keep making excuses. In the months and months that I had been working on my personal statement, it had somehow mutated into this big, hulking monster, constantly looming in the back of my mind. It was time to sit down and confront the beast – all 2 double-spaced pages of it.

I am now here to tell you that it is possible to face the personal statement and emerge victorious! Here are a few tips that I discovered can help to ease the stress of writing a personal statement; I now also use these tips when I speak with prospective World Campus graduate students in my position as an admissions counselor:

Take a deep breath

Remember that personal statements center on you: your academic, professional, and personal background and aspirations. Think about your career goals and be prepared to explain not only why you wish to enter or advance in this field of work, but also what you hope to contribute to the field. With these thoughts in mind, ask yourself these questions and let them guide your writing: Why are you applying to this program? What will you bring to this program? Where do you want this program to take you? These questions might seem daunting, but don’t be afraid! After all, who’s a bigger expert on you than you are?

Be clear, relevant, concise, and precise

Make sure you answer all the questions the prompt asks in succinct, to-the-point language. Most statements of purpose limit you to 1 to 2 typed pages or 500 words. This doesn’t allow much room for lengthy reflections about your educational philosophy, nor does it give you time to discuss your love of French cooking or how you were the captain of your college’s ultimate Frisbee team. Each word you write must be essential and serve to aid your argument and give your statement a feeling of cohesion. Lastly – and most importantly — make sure you proofread everything!

Don’t forget to be yourself

You are your biggest advocate, so don’t sell yourself short by trying to be someone you’re not. Your personality, your experiences, and your thoughts (yes, including your doubts!) make you a unique person and an intriguing applicant. Being succinct doesn’t mean erasing your personality from the statement.

Ask for help

Have a question about the prompt or about the program? Don’t be afraid to contact the academic department to ask for clarification. Doing this will show the program that you have put time and thought into what you are preparing to say, and that you are interested and invested enough to do some additional digging.

Find a second opinion

Ask someone you trust and respect to read over your statement, once you have a working rough draft. Not only will this person catch any typos or grammatical errors you might have made, he or she will also give you a new perspective. Are you really answering the program’s questions to the best of your ability? Is your statement well written and well argued, or is there room for improvement?

Just remember that, in the end, this is your statement; don’t let it become someone else’s words written in your name!

Proofread once more…or twice more…or…

Just as you wouldn’t want to submit a cover letter or résumé to your dream job only to discover you misspelled the hiring manager’s name, you shouldn’t submit a personal statement that contains careless mistakes. This is a time to slow down, turn on spellcheck, pull out your dictionary and thesaurus, uncap your red pen, call in a second pair of eyes (if you haven’t already). Be prepared to look over your essay multiple times with a critical eye and a fine-toothed comb before you hit “Submit”!

In the end, don’t forget that each program is different and so each statement of purpose is different as well. And if you transform the personal statement into a fearsome, loathsome beast (like I did), remember this: you are more scared of it than it is of you. If you follow the tips above, however, you should be well equipped to face the personal statement – and win!

Happy writing!

Now it’s your turn. What comments or questions do you have? And for those of you who have successfully written your own statements of purpose, what other tips can you provide to eager grad-students-to-be?