Writers Workshop: Writer Resources
Writing Tips: Personal Statements
Overview of the Personal Statement
Personal statements are sometimes also called "application essays" or "statements of purpose." Whatever they are called, they are essentially essays which are written in response to a question or questions on a graduate or professional school application form which asks for some sort of sustained response.
Some applications ask more specific questions than others. There is no set formula to follow in shaping your response, only choices for you to make, such as whether you should write an essay that is more autobiographically focused or one that is more professionally focused.
From application to application, requested personal statements also vary widely in length, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to a series of essays of a page or so each.
Personal statements are most important when you are applying to an extremely competitive program, where all the applicants have high test scores and GPA's, and when you are a marginal candidate and need the essay to compensate for low test scores or a low GPA.
How are personal statements read, and by whom? It's most likely that your personal statement will be read by professors who serve on an admissions committee in the department to which you are applying. It is important in developing your personal statement to carefully consider this audience. What are the areas of specialty of this department, and what might it be looking for in a graduate student?
Additionally, since personal statements will most often be read as part of your "package," they offer an opportunity to show aspects of yourself that will not be developed in other areas of your application. Obviously, it is important that personal statements are not simply prose formulations of material contained elsewhere in the application.
It may be helpful to think of the statement as the single opportunity in your package to allow the admissions committee to hear your voice. Often times, committees are sorting through large numbers of applications and essays, perhaps doing an initial quick sort to find the best applicants and then later reading some of the personal statements more thoroughly. Given that information, you will want your statement to readily engage the readers, and to clearly demonstrate what makes you a unique candidate--apart from the rest of the stack.
One Process for Writing the Personal Statement
- Analyze the question(s) asked on a specific application.
- Research the school and/or program to which you are applying.
- Take a personal inventory (see below). Write out a 2-3 sentence response to each question.
- Write your essay.
- Revise your essay for form and content.
- Ask someone else - preferably a faculty member in your area - to read your essay and make suggestions for further revision.
- Revise again.
- Proofread carefully.
Personal Inventory Questions
- What makes you unique, or at least different from, any other applicant?
- What attracts you to your chosen career? What do you expect to get out of it?
- When did you initially become interested in this career? How has this interest developed? When did you become certain that this is what you wanted to do? What solidified your decision?
- What are your intellectual influences? What writers, books, professors, concepts in college have shaped you?
- How has your undergraduate academic experience prepared you for graduate/professional school?
- What are two or three of the academic accomplishments which have most prepared you?
- What research have you conducted? What did you learn from it?
- What non-academic experiences contributed to your choice of school and/or career? (work, volunteer, family)
- Do you have specific career plans? How does graduate or professional school pertain to them?
- How much more education are you interested in?
- What's the most important thing the admissions committee should know about you?
- Think of a professor in your field that you've had already and that you like and respect. If this person were reading your application essay, what would most impress him or her?
- Answer all the questions asked.
- If you are applying to more than one program, you may find that each application asks a different question or set of questions, and that you don't really feel like writing a bunch of different responses. However, you should avoid the temptation to submit the same essay for different questions—it's far better to tailor your response to each question and each school.
- If you do find yourself short on time and must tailor one basic essay to fit a number of different questions from a number of different schools, target your essay to your first-choice school, and keep in mind that the less your essay is suited to an application's particular questions, the more you may be jeopardizing your chances of being admitted to that school.
Be honest and confident in your statements.
Use positive emphasis. Do not try to hide, make excuses for, or lie about your weaknesses. In some cases, a student needs to explain a weak component of his or her application, but in other cases it may be best not to mention those weaknesses at all. Rather, write an essay that focuses on your strengths.
Write a coherent and interesting essay.
Make your first paragraph the best paragraph in your essay.
Develop a thesis about yourself early in the essay and argue it throughout.
Each piece of information you give about yourself in the essay should somehow support your thesis.
Pick two to four main topics for a one-page essay.
Don't summarize your entire life. Don't include needless details that take space away from a discussion of your professionalism, maturity, and ability to do intellectual work in your chosen field.
Use the personal statement as a form of introduction.
Think of the essay as not only an answer to a specific question but as an opportunity to introduce yourself, especially if your program doesn't interview applicants.
- Ask yourself the following questions as you edit for content:
- Are my goals well articulated?
- Do I explain why I have selected this school and/or program in particular?
- Do I demonstrate knowledge of this school or program?
- Do I include interesting details that prove my claims about myself?
- Is my tone confident?
- Make sure your essay has absolutely perfect spelling and mechanics.
Use technical terminology and such techniques as passive voice where appropriate.
You should write clearly and interestingly, yet also speak in a voice appropriate to your field.
- Write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. You are probably wrong, and such a response is likely to make you blend into the crowd rather than stand out from it.
- Use empty, vague, over-used words like "meaningful," "beautiful," "challenging," "invaluable," or "rewarding."
- Overwrite or belabor a minor point about yourself.
- Repeat information directly from the application form itself unless you use it to illustrate a point or want to develop it further.
- Emphasize the negative. Again, the admissions committee already knows your GPA and test scores, and they probably are not interested in reading about how a list of events in your personal life caused you to perform poorly. Explain what you feel you need to, but emphasize the positive.
- Try to be funny. You don't want to take the risk they won't get the joke.
- Get too personal about religion, politics, or your lack of education (avoid emotional catharsis).
- Include footnotes, cliches, or long-winded and slow introductions.
- Use statements like "I've always wanted to be a…" or any other hackneyed phrases.
- Use gimmicks—too big of a risk on an application to a graduate or professional program.
- Allow any superficial errors in spelling, mechanics, grammar, punctuation, format, or printing to creep under your vigilant guard.
Tips for Writing a Personal Statement
- Reflect on your academic and extracurricular experiences and how they have shaped your motivations for a career in health care.
- Create a list of experiences that represent the evolution of your path to a career in health care.
- Identify key people (mentors, faculty, supervisors...) who have inspired you.
- Think about the message you wish to convey.
- How do you want to tell your story?
- What are the key elements of your story that bring it into focus?
- If you start with a thesis statement, remember to return to that thesis at the end t provide closure.
- The conclusion is a restatement of your focus, but in a way that shows how your story has evolved over time from mere observations to reflection to wisdom that will continue to serve you in your medcial training and as a clinician.
In answering the prompt "why do you want to become a clinician?"
- Seek to illustrate rather than merely tell your story.
- Incorporate examples from your experiences that capture your commitment to serving in health care. For example, discuss an experience:
- shadowing a clinician,
- volunteering at the ER, hospice center, or inpatient clinic
- volunteering at the local medical, dental or vet clinic,
- working as an EMT,
- serving as a translator at a free clinic
- Incorporate examples of service outside the clinic, to help further illustrate your commitment to service and desire to help others.
- Incorporate examples of leadership and overcoming hardship, to demonstrate perseverance, resilience and grit.
- Be succinct in illustrating your examples.
- Create smooth yet strong transitions throughout your story.
How to SHOW and not tell
- Use sensory details to help set scenes. Note what the sky looks like, what color a child's dress is, how the food smells. Make sure your reader is right there with you.
- Share your personal emotions and indicate how your surroundings affected you. This will give the reader a better idea of your individualism and make experiences that are common seem unique.
- Be anecdotal and use examples to illustrate your observations.
- Write with the intention of communicating something original. Don't just put down what you think the reader wants to hear.
- Avoid general commentary.
Things to avoid
- Overly flowery language
- Controversial language
- Reference to longing to be a clinician since a very young age
- Discussing why you don't want to do research
- Discussing why you don't want to become a health care provider other than your intended career path
Final items to keep in mind
Style refers to how you choose to use words to say what you have to say. There are a lot of different styles, and many of them are acceptable for a personal statement. However, make sure your grammar (syntax) is correct. Proofread for errors, spelling, and subject-verb agreement. Make sure that you don't have sentence fragments or run on sentences. Use punctuation correctly. Always have someone proofread your statement, and if grammar is not your thing, have someone who is good at grammar check your statement for errors.
If you bring raise issues, follow through on them and offer explanation or background. A common mistake is to make a statement and then assume that the reader will be able to place it as relevant. You must be explicit, and make sure that you round out the issues you raise with supporting details. For example, if you introduce the fact that you are a single mother, you must make sure that it is relevant to your focus, and you should offer details about how it is relevant. If you say that your desire to become a doctor started after your trip to Mexico, you need to tell why this is so. Sometimes writers rely too much on meaning that they believe to be implicit and leave the reader with questions. Remember, the person reading your essay knows very little about you, your life experiences, your character, or your personality. Be clear.