Oh, the dreaded personal statement.
Some grad schools ask for one outright, while others are a little sneakier and hide it in an essay question such as, “Describe your greatest accomplishment and how it relates to your future goals.” Regardless, it’s likely that all of the programs you apply to will want you to write in depth about who you are, how you came to be the person you are today, and how grad school will get you to where you want to go.
It’s true that you should present a cohesive story about yourself—you want to make it easy for the admissions committee to understand you and see how you will fit into their program. Don’t be fazed, however, if you can’t present your life as a perfect trajectory. The important thing is to feature a couple of your best qualities and to show how your jobs and interests fit into that picture.
Easier said than done, right? Here are four steps to help you make headway on your personal statement—in the next hour.
1. Think About Why You Do What You Do
Because your resume is a main part of your application, it’s a good place for you to start brainstorming about the skills and experiences that make you a unique applicant. So, spend the first 15 meetings writing down quick notes about each major career decision you’ve made since undergrad and how they’ve shaped you as a professional.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you think about this:
2. List Out Your Passions
Now for the fun part! Spend the next 15 minutes making a list of things that you are passionate about. Nothing is off-limits here: Include everything you love, from yoga to traveling to the Real Housewives of Atlanta.
If you’re having a hard time getting started, think about how you spend your time when you’re not at work. Do you run every day? Always try new recipes? If you spend all of your time at work, is it because you love what you do? If so, it’s fine to list work as your passion—just be specific about which factors of your job really get you excited.
3. Decide What You Want to Highlight
Next, take 15 minutes to write three to five things you want grad schools to learn about you through your personal statement. Focus on qualities as opposed to facts (e.g., you’re innovative, you’re dedicated to a particular cause, or you’re committed to success in whatever you do).
When making this list, you should also keep in mind what your target schools say they’re looking for in exemplary candidates. Grad schools are usually pretty explicit about this, which is great because it really helps you align your application with their selection rubric. Spend a little bit of this time clicking around on the admissions section of their websites—oftentimes you’ll find a “what we’re looking for” page that can be extremely helpful.
One caveat, though: You want to make sure you’re being true to yourself. If a school says that it wants someone who is service-oriented, but you don’t have time to volunteer, that’s OK! It’s much more important to build a strong case around what you actually do instead of slapping on an angle just because you think a school will like it.
4. Put it All Together
Now, it’s time to take all of the brainstorming you’ve done and put it together into a narrative for your personal statement.
First, spend three minutes reading through all of your notes to refresh your memory. Once you’ve reviewed everything, take a stab at tying key pieces of it together. One method is to treat each of the qualities you listed out in Step 3 as a topic sentence (ex. “I am a strong critical thinker”) and write two to three sentences proving how you exhibit that quality, based on the work experience, hobbies, and passions you’ve detailed. Pick the topic sentence that is the most compelling, and use it as an outline for your personal statement.
Say, for example, you’re a consultant who loves photography and you want to highlight that you’re innovative. You could write about pursing creative solutions to problems in your career and trying to help others see the world in a different way through your photos. I worked at the same education reform organization for five years before applying and wanted grad schools to know that I was driven, committed to social enterprise, and achievement-oriented, so I focused on my passion for my work and my goal of continuing to strive for our mission on a larger scale.
I won’t lie: Putting your life story together isn’t easy. But you’ll be off to a great start once you’ve followed these four steps. And if you’re still not sure which path to go down? Try calling someone and talking through a few options. There will probably be one that both excites you as you’re talking about it and piques your friend’s interest, and that’s a great sign.