Tom O’Toole, Executive Director of CIPA, offers his perspective on making the personal statement section of your graduate school application truly stand out.
When it comes to graduate school admission, the personal statement/essay represents your chance to truly shine. In addition to providing a tremendous opportunity to convey the quality of your writing to admissions committees, the personal statement allows you to highlight your purpose for pursuing graduate studies. A few tips for making sure your essay reaches its full potential:
1) The Personal Statement is a Writing Sample: Some graduate schools require writing samples as part of their applications, and some do not. For those that do not, the personal statement is the only sample of your writing that the admissions committee will see. For this reason, it is important (particularly for a professional program where writing skills are essential), to tell your story in a clear, coherent manner, and to proofread carefully. Grammatical errors, typos, and colloquial language will severely diminish the professionalism and credibility of your statement. These errors will also indicate that you do not invest much effort into representing yourself well.
2) The Personal Statement is not a Restatement of Your Résumé/CV: One of the biggest missed opportunities that I see in personal statements is when an applicant wastes their entire essay restating, verbatim, every piece of information presented in their résumé/CV. This is a frequent error in cover letters, and it unfortunately carries over to personal statements as well. By simply restating the information on a résumé/CV, applicants miss an opportunity to highlight aspects of their background that are not included in their résumé/CV.
3) Graduate Admissions Committees are Immune to Guilt: Although admissions committees do look for evidence of resilience and perseverance in applicants, many applicants spend their entire statement conveying difficult personal circumstances they have had to overcome, and explaining why, because of these circumstances, they are deserving of admission. This tells the committee very little about whether an applicant has the drive to succeed in graduate school, and many reviewers find being “guilted” into approving an application off-putting. Focus instead on experiences that are directly relevant to your motivation for pursuing a specific graduate degree.
4) Are you Ready for This? Another common error in personal statements is conveying that graduate school is the “logical next step” in an applicant’s career. Graduate schools want to admit bright, capable individuals who have a genuine interest in making intellectual contributions to their field. They are not keen on admitting applicants who are pursuing graduate studies because they cannot figure out what to do with their lives, or are avoiding a difficult job market. Graduate school is a rigorous, challenging commitment, and conveying that it is the “logical next step” in an applicant’s career doesn’t convey a strong clarity of purpose behind the application.
5) Tailor: One of the many problems associated with the “revolution” in electronic applications is that electronic submission encourages applicants to be generic. The “point, click, apply” mentality that yields poor results on the internship/job market also yields poor results for many graduate school applicants. Each statement should be tailored for the strengths of the individual program in question, (convincingly) citing faculty, courses, and specific initiatives that the applicant intends to leverage as a student. Part of what admissions committees are looking for in applicants is intellectual capability, but they are also looking for “fit.” As an exercise, if the applicant can replace the name of our program with any other MPA/MPP program in their statement, and the statement still makes sense, the statement isn’t well-tailored to a specific program.
6) Tell us a New “Story”: After reviewing several hundred applications, admissions officers find that each statement tends to run together because applicants rely on many of the same strategies to tell their story. The trick is to balance professionalism and maturity with creativity. Give us an example of how you resolved a problem using an interdisciplinary, entrepreneurial approach. Discuss a public policy space that you feel would benefit from a new infusion of energy or ideas. However you decide to tell your story, make it innovative.