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Alternative Graduate School Experience Essay

(By Tracy Bennett, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures)

A filmed personal statement might have helped Elle Woods get into Harvard Law School, but in the real world, you’re better off sticking to these tips.

If you have seen the 2001 film, Legally Blonde, you might remember that Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, creates a video for her admissions essay to Harvard Law School. As she sits in a hot tub, she states that she will be an “amazing lawyer” because she can discuss important issues, such as the brand of toilet paper used in her sorority house, and she uses “legal jargon in everyday life” to object when men harass her. She can also recall details at the “drop of a hat,” including the recent events on a soap opera. (If you haven’t seen the movie or simply want a good laugh, you can view the clip on YouTube.)

Although the Harvard committee granted Elle admission, you will probably want to take your essay in a different direction. While you cannot change your grade point average or entrance exam scores, you have complete control over the contents of your personal statement. There are many applicants and few spots, so work diligently to persuade readers that you fit their program given your qualifications, interests and professional goals. Use the tips below to prepare and refine your essay.

1. Just get started.

Yes, your first sentence should be compelling and attention-grabbing, but if you attempt to identify your opening line immediately you will probably induce writer’s block. Make an outline or free write. You can tweak the introduction later once you are more aware of your noteworthy accomplishments or the defining events that have led to your career interests.

2. Articulate your reasons for selecting your chosen career.

Although these essays are often called personal statements, they are not an autobiography. Instead, view it as an essay about your journey as an emerging scholar. Provide evidence to demonstrate that you have actively confirmed your interests and that earning an advanced degree will help you achieve these goals. Describe the courses, articles, professors, research, service projects, internships, shadowing or co-curricular activities that have shaped your aspirations. Avoid references to high school accomplishments, gimmicks or clichés such as, “I have always wanted to be a _________.” Cautiously address controversial topics. It is one thing to demonstrate your knowledge of the field by referencing a current debate. It is quite another thing to offend your readers with excessive political or religious rhetoric.

3. Be specific.

For example, it is not enough to say that you aspire to be a social worker because you want to help children. You could do this in a variety of occupations. Similarly, anyone can say that they are interested in law. Earn credibility by demonstrating this passion. Have you worked at a law firm or participated in student government, Model UN and/or mock trial?

4. One size does not fit all.

Unless it is a common application system, such as those used by law, physical therapy and medical schools, you should describe your rationale for selecting the program among other alternatives. By the way, most of the schools that use a common application system will require supplemental essays that inquire about this. For the time being, you may omit it from your initial personal statement. Each institution has its own values, mission and faculty. What led you to select its particular program over others? Was it an emphasis in a particular area (e.g., rural practice, technology) or the research interests of a professor? Was your interest heightened by a conversation with its alumni?

5. Whatever your reasons for applying, be sincere.

Briefly mention any noteworthy and appealing features that attracted you to the program or institution, but do not go overboard. Committee members already know the prestigious awards that they have won, and most of your competition will mention these same attributes. If you offer excessive praise, you may only appear disingenuous.

6. Describe your professional interests, particularly as they relate to research.

If you identified faculty members who share your interest in a topic, describe your desire to work with them. Be specific, but keep your options open, too. Committee members will roll their eyes if you say you are interested in every research area of its faculty. On the other hand, if your interests are too narrow, they may question your ability to collaborate with professors.

7. Demonstrate your motivation and capacity to succeed.

Graduate schools are not only selecting students, but they are also choosing future ambassadors of their program. Persuade them that you will contribute to their reputation as an institution throughout your academic studies and professional career. Avoid summarizing other parts of your application. Instead, you should provide them with concrete examples including relevant publications, presentations, classroom assignments and employment experiences. For example, describing a service project could demonstrate your compassion, which some medical schools value. If you collaborated with others on a research topic, describe your specific contribution. Research in particular is valuable to your readers because you will more than likely need to immerse yourself in this activity during your graduate studies, especially if you are a Ph.D. candidate.

If you have any blemishes in your application, such as low test scores, criminal convictions or poor grades, think carefully before you offer a rationale. If you were to survey career coaches and faculty, some would advise you to describe anomalies because, if you do not, you leave it open to imagination. Others, however, would only encourage you to share details if the graduate program requests it. Advisers on this side of the camp fear that graduate programs may perceive such descriptions as potential liabilities or excuses, especially if your grades were repeatedly low. For example, while committee members may empathize if you reveal that you struggle with test anxiety, they may still question your ability to succeed. Most graduate programs entail tests, and many occupations require individuals to pass licensing examinations before they can enter the fields. Applicants’ inability to perform in this arena may jeopardize the professional standing of the institution.

If you elect to include this information, be brief and positive. Keep it simple and do not be defensive. Perhaps your academic ability improved once you discovered your passion. Maybe you persisted despite a serious illness or death in your family. If you decide not to address these anomalies yourself, consider asking one of your trusted references to include the topic from a positive standpoint in your letter of recommendation.

8. Be concise.

Personal statements are generally no more than two pages. If the sentence is not essential to your thesis, remove it. Also eliminate unnecessary words, such as “in order to,” “I believe” and “the fact is.”

9. Carefully proofread and refine the essay.

Any errors reflect your ability as a writer. Confirm that you used transitions, diverse sentence structures, first person and active voice. Substitute weak words, such as “love,” with a more professional, powerful alternative. Let it sit overnight. Then, read it aloud or backward. Have a consultant at your campus writing center or a professor critique the essay.

10. Enjoy the writing process.

Preparing a personal statement confirms your desire to attend graduate school and clarifies your interests or goals, which is why professional schools require it. A few years from now, this will prove helpful in your professional job search as you write cover letters and respond to interview questions.

Billie Streufert is director of the Academic Success Center at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota. With nearly 10 years of experience in career and academic advising, she is passionate about helping individuals discover and achieve their goals. She is eager to connect with students via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and her blog.

Billie Streufert, grad school, Harvard, personal statement, University of Sioux Falls, CAMPUS LIFE, CAREER PATH, VOICES FROM CAMPUS 

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Brian Rybarczyk has written two previous articles on how to write your personal statement for a graduate school application; you will find his earlier articles here and here.

As I review drafts of personal statements from prospective graduate school applicants, some issues arise over and over. The drafts often seem like resumes in narrative form, lists of activities without much context or meaning. This article highlights the points of feedback I most frequently provide, focusing on ways to add substance to your personal statement. 

Why do you want to go to graduate school? Why do you like this particular graduate program?

Ask yourself “why?”

The competition for entry into graduate programs is increasing. Your graduate education requires a large investment of other people’s time and money. It’s up to you to convince the admissions committee that if they let you in, that time and money won’t be wasted.

The best way to achieve that is to convince the committee that you have a vision—that admission to their graduate program is an obvious and useful next step in your career trajectory. But before you can convince the admissions committee, you need to figure it out yourself: Why do you want to go to graduate school? Why do you like this particular graduate program? If you don’t have a convincing answer, maybe you should wait a while—maybe look for a job in a research lab and apply for admission in a year or two, when you have a clearer vision of your future. A clear conviction that this graduate degree will move you toward your career goals is essential.     

Intentionality

We’ve all had experiences that sparked interest in a new area of research or changed how we think about science. Such experiences are important for conveying your basic science story—for convincing the admissions committee that you have a vision of your future that has emerged over time. You need to show that your record of success in college and research isn’t random but, rather, a record of opportunities exploited as you work toward a desired end: the particular career in science that you’re pursuing.

Even much older scientists spend some time exploring, and that’s OK; there’s no need to try and hide your explorations. But your application will be much stronger if you can convince the graduate admissions committee that you have an increasingly clear vision for your future and a plan for how to get there. So place your experiences in context: Why did you decide to participate in that summer research program? Why did you choose your undergraduate research mentor? Why did you spend extra time in the lab despite a heavy course load? Why did you attend and present at a national conference, and what did you learn from that experience? How did your engagement with mentors shape your scientific identity? How does graduate school—this particular graduate program—fit that bigger picture?

Enhancing a description of your research

I use the metaphor of the hourglass to help writers shape a description of a research experience: big, small, and big. Start with the big-picture background, move toward the specifics of your project, and then connect the two together: How do the results of your research contribute to the field? Your ability to explain this clearly and succinctly—to place your particular research in context—demonstrates your command of the big picture. You need to communicate the rationale for pursuing a particular question and choosing a specific experimental approach, and you need to explain why the results matter. Describe your role in the project and what you learned about science from experience. A strong personal statement may also include a proposal for next steps in the project, which demonstrates that you are forward thinking, an important skill as a future graduate student. 

More skills

Graduate studies are expected to develop advanced cognitive skills. When asked, “What skills do you bring to the table?” many young scientists respond with a list of laboratory techniques they used in their undergraduate research projects. Those skills are valuable, but that list isn’t what the admissions committee is looking for. Analytical thinking, problem solving, and synthesizing and evaluating information are among the higher-level skills needed to be successful in graduate school. Your essay should convey your progress toward mastering such skills. Here are some questions that may help you to achieve this, along with some skills that your responses should demonstrate: 

  • What experience do you have working in a collaborative environment? How do you contribute to the effectiveness of a team? (Skills: team science, collaboration, communication)
  • How have you demonstrated your commitment to seeing a project through to completion? (Skills: project management, initiative, leadership)
  • Have you encountered opportunities to solve problems? What strategies have you employed? How did it turn out? (Skill: problemsolving)
  • What alternatives have you proposed to address a research question? Were your alternative approaches successful? (Skill: criticalthinking)

Key intangibles

Motivation, maturity, independence, and enthusiasm for and commitment to science are crucial to success as a graduate student, so they should come across in your personal statement. There’s no formula for conveying these intangible traits, but providing examples of your character, work ethic, and professionalism will help highlight them. 

Addressing challenges and deficiencies

Many students have faced personal and professional challenges. Personal or family health issues, child care issues, financial crises, and so on may have affected your academic progress or state of mind, contributing to deficiencies in your academic record or productivity. An applicant can write about these challenges in the personal statement, but it’s important not to dwell on them too much. The best approach is to describe how these challenges were addressed and what you learned from the process. Emphasize how you managed them and continued to make progress.  

Tailoring

A generically written personal statement won’t get you far in the application process. It won’t sound authentic, and it won’t be convincing. Just like a cover letter for a job application, graduate school applicants should tailor their personal statements for the programs they are applying to. Here are a few suggestions.

  • Highlight an area of research that the program is strong in, and describe how it matches your scientific interests.
  • Identify faculty members, collaborative groups, institutes, initiatives, projects, and resources that fit your research goals.
  • Explain how a program’s structure fits your expectations and needs. You may choose to emphasize options for course selection or sequence, the interdisciplinary nature of the program, flexibility for arranging lab rotations, the program’s length, support for academic and professional development, or the presence in the program of particular researchers.

Get critical feedback

Obtaining feedback on your personal statement (or any piece of writing) can be intimidating, but feedback is essential for creating a polished and readable document. Asking a best friend for feedback may result in a canned response—“sounds good,” or “I like it”—which isn’t helpful.  Instead, seek feedback from trusted scientific peers, advisers, and mentors. Reading critiques of your writing can be disheartening and frustrating, but such feedback will continue throughout your career and is important for improving your communication skills—so get used to it.

You may find that comments on your personal statement vary widely and even contradict each other. Pay attention to all of them, and decide for yourself whether they make sense—but if there are consistent patterns in the critiques, i.e. the same suggestion made by all (or most) reviewers, that is certainly an area to revise.

To receive more meaningful constructive feedback, it may be helpful to ask your reviewers questions, such as these:

  • Is my personal statement convincing? Do you believe I really want to go to graduate school—to this graduate school—and that I understand why I want to go?
  • Are the examples appropriate? Does the statement hook the reader in and make them want to read more?
  • Does it answer the essay prompt?
  • Are the explanations of the research experiences clearly understandable for a nonexpert?
  • Does it convey the skills that I’m developing as a future scientist?
  • What about the writing? Is it well organized? Does it make sense? Are the transitions effective?

Proofread

Precision is an important part of science, and no graduate program is interested in candidates that don’t take (or appear to take) their admissions process seriously. An error-riddled essay sends precisely that message: Either you aren’t precise or you don’t care. Even a single typo can be a turnoff. So try to eliminate all obvious errors.

*          *          *

Even if you follow all this advice, I still can’t guarantee that you’ll get accepted to all of your dream graduate programs—that depends on the quality of all the work you’ve done up to now—but I can guarantee that your personal statement will improve and that you will look like a more authentic and substantial candidate. Good luck.

doi:10.1126/science.caredit.a1400252

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Brian Rybarczyk

Brian Rybarczyk is director of academic and professional development at UNC Chapel Hill's graduate school. He has a Ph.D. in pathology and laboratory medicine from the University of Rochester.

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