Last Updated: Apr 1, 2020
Applying to law school? Med school? PA school? Business school? No matter what type of graduate program you choose, you’ll likely need to write a personal statement (or multiple essays) to get in.
Why? Personal statements help admission committees get to know the person behind each grad school application. They also give applicants an opportunity to express their reasons for applying to a particular graduate program. For many candidates, this task can be intimidating. To make it a little less so, here’s some advice to get you through this big task.
What makes a good personal statement?
There is no rubric for a good personal statement for grad school, but the ones that stand out all share a few common features. Regardless of the prompt, they:
- Answer the question;
- Showcase a positive trait or characteristic;
- Sound like a graduate-level student;
- Illustrate something meaningful about the applicant;
- Explain why the applicant wants to be part of this particular school and program; and
- Demonstrate reflection.
There’s a lot of competition for limited spots in graduate-level programs at the most selective schools in the United States, and personal statement can indeed make a difference. It won’t rescue lousy transcripts or mediocre test scores, but the personal statement can help set an applicant apart from the crowd.
Writing the essay may not be the easiest task for everyone, but it certainly doesn’t need to be daunting. Look at it like an elevator pitch that can help get you to the next phase of the admission process.
“Approach your personal statement as a five-minute conversation with a normal human being at the end of which you hope the normal human being is thinking, ‘This person would be well suited to be at XYZ Law School when fall comes,’” suggests Sarah Zearfoss, Senior Assistant Dean for Admission, Financial Aid, and Career Planning at the University of Michigan Law School.
Develop a plan for your personal statement
The graduate admission committee wants to get a glimpse of who you are beyond the basics. You can give them what they want by developing a plan before you start writing. At Wow Writing Workshop, we’ve been working with undergraduate and graduate applicants on their college essays and grad school personal statements for more than a decade. During this time, we’ve found that applicants who plan out which characteristics and experiences are most important to share do a much better job writing their essays—so don’t just dive in with no plan.
How to get started on your personal statement
Start the process by making a list answering these three questions:
- Who are you?
- What are your best traits and characteristics?
- How are these traits and your experiences relevant to the program you’re applying to?
Next, look at the prompt. Let’s use this prompt for Harvard Business School’s MBA program as an example: “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?”
To answer this prompt, ask yourself:
- What do I want Harvard to know about me beyond my test scores, undergraduate transcript, and résumé? Think about traits and characteristics, not just experiences and accomplishments.
- How are my traits and experiences relevant to this specific MBA program?
- Why am I a good fit for this program?
I recently worked with an applicant who responded to this prompt with a beautiful story that focused on his father’s business success rather than himself. His father was a beloved surgeon who volunteered in the community where he grew up. The applicant wanted to follow his dad’s lead and wrote about that. Unfortunately, he made a huge mistake: he didn’t answer the prompt. To answer a prompt, applicants must write about themselves, not about people they admire or want to mimic.
While the story was heartfelt, it missed the mark. We helped him reframe his experience to focus on his ability to seize opportunities and showcase his traits—he is hard working, determined, and focused. The applicant was admitted to Harvard’s MBA program.
Can I use one personal statement for every school?
Grad school personal statements vary. Some provide clear instructions, while others are more general. Some prompts are designed to get to know you better, while others are more specific and look for clear ideas about what you plan to do after the program. Before you begin planning your essay, read the prompt and make sure you understand it thoroughly. You can also search the school website to see if there are specific items you need to include in the personal statement.
“Read the prompt carefully,” warns Manhattan-based independent educational consultant Janet Stark, a Harvard Business School graduate who counsels college and grad school candidates. “You may be applying to five schools for graduate work in Physics, but they may give slightly different personal statement prompts and word counts. Do not answer the ‘Why this school?’ question if that school doesn’t ask for it.”
If a particular graduate or professional school does use the “Why this school?” prompt, what should you do? “Make sure that it is very specific to that school,” Stark says. “The reader should know that you know the school and have reasons specific to that school.”
But don’t write the piece like a brochure, she cautions. If you’re applying to a school in New York City, don’t tell them you want to go to a school that’s located in New York City. They already know that! Rather, tell them what it means to you that the school is located in the city.
Common mistakes on the personal statement
Besides writing about someone other than themselves, students at the graduate level tend to quote famous people and professors in their personal statements. But graduate admission teams prefer to hear about your life, your story.
Remember that the personal statement is a narrative about your life, your successes, your best characteristics; it’s not about someone famous. At Wow, we say the only person to quote in any essay or personal statement is you, the applicant. You don’t have a lot of words to use, so you need to make every word count.
It’s critical that your personal statement be written in your own voice, using your own words—never copy someone else’s ideas. Don’t duplicate information from your résumé, and don’t tell the school you have no clear idea of a career path. Tell them what you hope to do with this advanced degree.
“The story has to be your own,” Stark says. “Just because someone else you know got accepted with a certain story doesn’t mean you should tell that same one.”
In the same vein, an essay that has good ideas but is poorly written will not help you. At this point of your educational journey, admission committees expect clean copy that flows well. It should include great content and be free from spelling and grammatical errors, incorrect sentence structure, and inconsistent verb tenses. Your grad school personal statement should show that you can write well enough to succeed at the grad school level. Proofread, and make sure to have another reader proof it as well before you click send.
Personal statement best practices
- Focus on you. Highlight your unique traits and key values. Are you resourceful? Funny? Creative? Philosophical? Decide what you want your prospective grad school to know about you that they can’t learn from the rest of your application.
- Pick a meaningful topic. You don’t have to be the editor of the college newspaper, work overseas, or be a TA to write a good personal statement for grad school. This essay should be meaningful, reflective, and connected to the program you want to study.
- Know your audience. You’re writing for graduate admission committees, not your parents, teachers, or Instagram followers. These folks want to know how you think and if you’ll be a good fit for the school (and vice versa), so write with that in mind.
- Be yourself. How would you tell your story to a friend? Write it that way, in your own words and voice. Trust yourself. Don’t try to sound “professional,” like your favorite author, or the kid whose essay went viral after he was admitted to all the Ivies. And write it yourself! Your personal statement has to sound like you.
- Don’t treat it like a college class paper. There is no “formula” for writing a good personal statement, but it shouldn’t sound like an academic essay. If you reflect on your life experiences and relate them to the program, you’re applying to then write and revise, your best story and a structure will emerge through the writing process.
- Take your time. Do not start your personal statement the night before it’s due! You need to brainstorm, write, and edit. Give this important piece of writing the time and care it deserves by starting a few months before your application deadlines. This also makes the process easier to manage because you’re not as rushed.
- Follow the directions. Grad schools will often give you specific application instructions, so follow them! If they ask for 500 words, don’t write more. You don’t want the admission committee to question your ability to follow directions.
- Proofread. After you’re done writing your personal statement, set it aside for a day or two, then read it again with fresh eyes. Look for typos, misspellings, and punctuation errors. Also make sure you’re conveying the message you wanted and answering the prompt accurately. It needs to show you’re capable of grad school–level writing.
The most important things to remember when writing your grad school personal statement are to be authentic and to not treat it like just another essay. With care and intention, you’ll be able to write a great statement that will impress admission representatives and get you into the graduate program of your dreams. Good luck!
Do you know we have a whole section dedicated to Graduate School? Check it out now to learn more about the admission process or find the right program for you.