By Jess Tate. Published April 25, 2014.
As a second year doctoral student I can remember as if it was yesterday the graduate application process. After about twenty different drafts of my personal statement later and having three professors that I worked closely with make edits, it is safe to say that this particular document can be a daunting task. It is also often one of the more difficult components of the graduate application process. More specifically, writing, editing, and sending off the final draft of the personal statement is one of the most rewarding yet frustrating aspects of the application process.
During my senior year at Iowa State University I attended a McNair conference in which Donald Asher the author of “Graduate Admissions Essays” presented several workshops discussing how to effectively write a statement of purpose. I took several notes during the conference and then purchased his book to use as a resource during my writing process. Now as a graduate student I still refer to this book for my own professional development as well as to use with students that I advise.
From these learning experiences at conferences and multiple resources given from several mentors I have created a handout (as seen below) that I utilize for myself and as a supplemental resource for students that I advise.
Attention Grabbing Paragraph
Your opening paragraph should say something about you as a person and a student – perhaps some moment at which you realized what you wanted to do and that graduate school was the path to get you there. Your opening should be tailored to your particular interests in the program you are applying to. Your opening should be sufficiently interesting, engaging the committee to read on.
Here, you might talk briefly about the courses you’ve taken that influenced you to pursue graduate school, your research experiences (e.g., research assistantships, honors thesis work, independent studies, research projects and skills, internships, field schools), and discuss how these courses and experiences led you to focus on the areas of interest you have chosen. You can also address issues such as changes of major, poor grades in certain semesters, GRE scores, and other “red flags” if you have a plausible, legitimate explanation for them. The key here is to synthesize – the admissions committee will have your transcripts, GRE scores. There’s no need to repeat that information. It is important NOT to simply list what you did, but rather the impact it had on you: what you learned about the field, yourself or the research process, how the experience shaped your decision to pursue graduate work in this particular field, etc. You want to provide the committee with a narrative of how you became the kind of scholar you are today.
Reasons You Are Applying To a Specific Program
Give the admissions committee a sense of what it is you want to do in their program. Identify the particular areas of interest you have (fields you want to study, courses you want to take), as well as a preliminary direction for your research interests. Talk about what draws you to this particular program. It is important to show that you are familiar with the unique features, focus, field experiences, or faculty, etc. If you’ve already contacted faculty members in the department, note that here, as well as why you are interested in working with them.
What This Specific Program Has To Offer You
This section should provide the general reasons you’re interested in a program. You don’t want to restate the things you said directly above; rather, address things like research, teaching, or funding opportunities. You want to show the admissions committee that you’re not just randomly applying to their program, but that you’ve done some research on the program, what it’s like, and what life in the department (and city) may be like.
What You Have To Offer a Program
The admissions committee will want to know if you will be a good match with the program – not just in terms of your research interests, but also personally. This is your chance to highlight the academic preparation and other kinds of personal and educational experiences, as well as how they’ve prepared you to go to this particular school.
Summary and Conclusion
This paragraph should work to tie everything you’ve discussed so far back into the kind of experience or moment you discussed in section I. You want to integrate everything you’ve presented the admissions committee so that they see the entire person – not just GPAs and GRE scores, but the full picture of who you are and why you want to be a part of their program. This is your chance to tie everything you have mentioned above into the bigger picture of what you want out of your graduate degree. Finally, you should end your statement in a positive and confident manner with a readiness for the challenges of graduate school.
Guidelines adapted from Dr. Laura Damuth’s “Personal Reflection: Getting Started by Taking a Personal Inventory”, Donald Asher’s “Graduate Admissions Essays”, and Dr. Carla Trujillo’s “Writing the Statement”.