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Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate school or trying to get into graduate programs, many applications require a letter of intent or personal statement. Personal statements are one of the most important parts of the application and sometimes the deciding factor for admission.
Personal statements give a better understanding of who you are, beyond the rigid constraints of the “fill-in-the-blank” application.
Like many around this time of the year, I am finishing my graduate school applications. Looking for advice and guidance, I decided to compare different schools’ personal statement requirements and ask admissions offices for advice. Here’s what I found:
1. Be yourself
The Columbia Graduate School for Journalism encourages students to write about family, education, talents or passions. They want to hear about significant places or events in your life; about books you have read, people you have met or work you’ve done that has shaped the person you have become.
Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.
2. Show diversity
Rayna Reid, a personal statement guru, received her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Law degree at Columbia. Reid says a personal statement is really just a way to make the college fall in love with you.
“The essay is where you really get a chance to differentiate yourself from the other applicants,” she said. “Explain why they should accept you. What will you contribute?”
Sean Carpenter, University of Southern California Student Services Associate and undergraduate student, reiterates the importance of differentiating yourself from other applicants.
He works in the Annenberg School for Communication admissions office and deals with prospective students daily. Carpenter says USC or any major school want to see diversity.
“They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants?” Carpenter said, “Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”
3. Do research and tailor each essay accordingly
Every college is different, so each personal statement should be different. Many students try to get away with having a universal essay but admissions departments will notice.
“Do research to give concrete reasons why you’re interested in particular program,” Carpenter said. “Speak with a faculty member that you’re interested in working with or doing research for and mention that in your statement. It would also be beneficial to say what classes you’ve taken that were relevant to the field of study.”
4. Be concise and follow directions
Make sure you read the directions carefully. One of the biggest red flags for an admissions office are students who don’t adhere to word limitations. Don’t give them a reason to throw out your application.
Believe it or not, there is a way to say everything you want in a page or less. If you need some help, ask several faculty members to read over your essay and give you feedback.
5. Go beyond your resume, GPA and test scores
Many students worry about how their GPA and test scores will affect the admissions process. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain any strengths or weaknesses in your application — such as changes in major, low GPA or lack of experience.
For instance, Reid was worried about not having a 4.0 GPA. Since Reid didn’t have the perfect GPA, she explained what she did with her time to make up for that fact. Being on the Varsity rowing team and a Teach for America Corp member are great examples of how devoting her time to other things made an impact on her GPA.
6. Tell a story
“Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner,” Reid said. “For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”
One of the worst things you can do is bore the admission officer. Make yourself memorable by telling a story about something distinctive from a creative or different angle.
With this advice, your personal statement will be the highlight of your application. Good luck!
Alexis Morgan is currently a senior at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in public relations, broadcast journalism, print journalism and production. Alexis truly believes if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.
Alexis Morgan, Columbia University, Cornell University, grad school, Penn State University, the application, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS
Now that application deadlines are just around the corner, today we’ll take a look at the main types of admissions writing. These terms get thrown around a lot at this time of year, so it may be helpful to dissect each and provide a bit more in-depth information.
Application Essay, Admissions Essay, and Admission Essay
These three terms are often used interchangeably when describing an essay featured as part of an application. These essays can range from 100 to 1,000 words in length and almost always have a very specific prompt or question, which vary widely depending on the specific school:
- Why do you want to attend our school?
- Write page 273 of your autobiography.
- Describe a time when you failed at something. What did you learn?
Admissions essays are most commonly found on college and MBA applications.
Tip: When writing an admissions essay, make sure that you read the prompt or question carefully and fully. Many have multiple parts, and you need to address everything in your response.
A personal statement is a general type of admissions essay, most commonly found on applications to medical schools, residencies, graduate programs, and law schools. The average personal statement is 500-1,000 words in length and is meant to provide a fairly broad overview of the applicant. Topics covered include where an interest in the field of choice developed, how skill and experience have been built in that field, and goals/plans for the future.
Tip: Avoid covering information in your personal statement that is included elsewhere in your application. Things like grades, employment history, and test scores should not be included unless you are elaborating on them.
Statement of Purpose
While the terms “personal statement” and “statement of purpose” are sometimes used interchangeably, there is technically a difference between these types of admissions writing. While a personal statement provides a fairly broad overview of an applicant, covering elements from the past, present, and future, a statement of purpose is usually more tightly focused on the future. In a statement of purpose, applicants have the chance to detail their plans for study in a given field along with their short- and long-term career goals. Length, as with a personal statement, is most typically in the 500-1,000 word range.
Tip: When writing about goals, use language that emphasizes your readiness to accomplish those things. Instead of saying, “I hope to do X” or “I plan to do X,” pick a specific skill that you have or will earn and use it to present the goal: “With the finance abilities I build through my internship, I will be ready to do X.”
Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.
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