With the economy in the slumps, more and more students and displaced workers are forgoing the job market and seeking admittance to graduate and professional school programs – making the admissions process much more competitive today than ever before. Undergraduate grades and entrance-exam scores don’t always tell the entire story. Graduate and professional schools are looking for applicants who are interesting/unique, articulate and distinctive, and who provide different points of view, ambitions, backgrounds and career interests. So how can you help yourself standout among other applicants in the graduate or professional school application process? The answer: by making a ‘statement’ with your personal statement.
I will outline below a unique strategy for applicants considering graduate and professional school that provides a unique, yet introspective and memorable approach to writing a personal statement. I have used this unique style in writing personal statements for the past 8 years when working with students that has resulted in a 98% acceptance rate to graduate and professional degree programs. By following these simple steps, your personal statement will not only allow you to sell yourself to admissions committees, but will also help you in developing a statement that is easier to write, enjoyable to read and stands out among all other applicants.
STEP 1 (Reflection)
Once you have identified the type of program (or field of study) you are interested in, I encourage you to answer and reflect on the following questions. Writing down your responses to these questions will help in determining your ‘theme’ for your personal statement.This ‘theme’ will be used to determine what content should be included in your statement.
- What were the 3 most influential experiences that lead you to pursue your field of study/interest?
- Once these experiences have been identified – what variables or characteristics do they ALL have in common?
- What hobbies or non-academic interests are you most passionate about (i.e. scrapbooking, swimming, fishing, running, etc.)
For example, say your ‘theme’ is social change. Identify what experiences or stories in your life that have proven your commitment to social change or have influenced your interest in social change.
STEP 2 (Identify Theme)
Now that you have answered these questions, it is now time to select your ‘theme.’ Start by reviewing your responses to the first question – do any of the commonalities standout to you as a topic you would be interested in writing about (i.e. community outreach, compassion, diversity, etc.)? If not…don’t panic, you can also use one of your responses to the third question (hobbies and interests). The key for selecting a quality ‘theme’ is to select one that you are passionate about, you would enjoy writing about, and relates somehow to your field of interest. For example, say you are interested in medicine and you have a hobby in cooking. Your theme for your medical school personal statement would be cooking. You would then use this theme to introduce your passion for medicine (in a metaphorical-kind-of-way) and how it relates to your two or three most influential experiences that lead you to pursue medicine. I will use this example to help explain Step 3.
STEP 3 (Develop an Outline)
Do you have a theme in mind (or even a couple viable options)? This next step is what will help you frame your writing. This outline will include 4-5 paragraphs (Introduction, Story 1, Story 2, Story 3 (optional), and Conclusion).
The Introduction is definitely one of the most important sections of your statement as it will try to grab the reader’s attention and provide a perspective on what the reader can expect to read about. Lets revert back to the example I used in Step 2 (Medicine and Cooking). With ‘cooking’ as my theme, I have several avenues I can take to introduce my theme. For instance, I could use a quote, definition, story or step outline to introduce ‘cooking.’ According to Wikipedia, cooking is defined as follows: “Cooking is the process of preparing food by use of heat. Cooking preparation, techniques and ingredients vary widely across the world, reflecting unique environmental, economic, and cultural traditions… the method chosen greatly affects the end result. Cooks themselves also vary widely in skill and training. ” If you haven’t noticed already, the description above sounds very similar to the variables, characteristics and processes involved in preparing you for medical school. You would then describe how the process of ‘cooking’ (a strong hobby of yours) is similar to why you are interested in medicine.
You now should be ready to bring your stories into play. Reflect back on your 3 most influential experiences and put them in chronological order – most recent last. For each of the three experiences, identify how they relate to your theme description (in this case – cooking). For example, say your first influential experience was a study abroad trip to South Africa. It was here where you were exposed to a variety of cultures and traditions, while also discovering who you are (passions, goals, strengths). As mentioned previously, cooking techniques and ingredients vary across the world. Your first story would introduce this concept of cooking and how your study abroad experience allowed you to learn about and from different cultures (a.k.a. cooking preparation and techniques) and who you are and want to be as a person (a.k.a. cooking ingredients). After outlining Story 1, you can repeat this approach with Story 2 and 3.
How should I structure each story and what content should be included? One easy strategy I find helpful in answering these questions is to break each story into 3 parts: Part 1 (10%) – introduce the story and how it relates to your theme; Part 2 (40%) – share a detailed story about one specific experience you had while immersed in that experience (one moment in time); and Part 3 (50%) – what were the take-aways. For instance, if you were carrying a backpack along your journey what skills, experiences and lessons learned did you put in your backpack that has or will prepare for your field of study (i.e. medical school).
Similar to the introduction section, the conclusion section is also very important as its goal is to leave a lasting impression on the admissions committee. For this section you want to narrate how the aforementioned experiences have prepared for this next chapter of your life (i.e. graduate or professional school) and how, together with your theme, you will continue your journey toward your passion (field of study) and the areas you hope to gain. For example, if your theme is ‘cooking,’ you would narrate that as the final step in the cooking process you are looking to add the last ingredient (graduate or professional school) to your meal before you offer the meal to others to sample (i.e. your patients).
STEP 4 (Write)
Let the writing process begin. Now that your theme has been identified and your outline is in place, you can start the drafting process. The easiest way to start is to not worry about content flow, structure or character limits and to just write from the heart as it relates to each outlined section. Remember – it is easier to condense than to add, so I encourage you to write as much about each section as possible. With the help of friends, family, peers/colleagues, faculty, writing centers and career centers – you can begin the editing process of fine-tuning the flow, structure and character limit of your statement. Don’t be surprised if you go through more than 5 drafts – this is common. However, by following the steps above you will finish with a high quality product that would ‘wow’ any admissions committee and help you to achieve your educational dreams.
Good luck and happy writing!