What the essay should accomplish

photo of a student

The personal statement is one of the most critical components of the application. Why is this the case? Well, imagine yourself as one of the people sifting through hundreds fabulous applications - all with high GPA's, stellar community service, glowing letters of recommendation, and excellent internship or lab experience - and having to choose a small number of recipients from a large pool. It's like being in a candy store, or rather a gourmet chocolate shop; everything looks good and choosing is difficult. How would you choose? The personal statement is the place where you have a chance to add a distinguishing ingredient that makes your application one that cannot be refused. Here is where you make your individual mark by weaving your personal experiences with your professional aspirations.

The more you can picture yourself as a reader and not simply a writer of your essay, the more successful your essay will be. Below are some guidelines for writing the personal essay.

The anecdotal beginning

The personal essay should not simply regurgitate information already contained in the transcripts, resume, etc. It should present a picture of you as an individual. The best way to grab a reader's attention is with a personal story. You might begin with a defining moment from your past, a pivotal occasion, a revelatory experience, or an encounter that shaped or changed you and informed the direction you have taken.

Your academic objectives

Your personal anecdote should lead easily and logically into a description of your academic and professional objectives. In this description, you should define both the individual significance of your proposed work and its potential contribution to human well-being. Frame your project in terms of the current concerns within the discipline. How does your planned study or research extend or expand or enrich the field? How might it change understanding in the field? How will it address current limitations or repair current deficiencies or open new doors in the field? How does it reach beyond the field to affect the culture at large? Why is it important to do what you propose to do? And why is it important that you do it? Your plan of study should be detailed enough to demonstrate your serious investigation of the question but not so technical and specialized as to become boring.

Provide compelling academic reasons for your choice of institution and program.

It is useful to know something about the faculty you plan on studying with and their research interests. The strongest scholarship applications frequently cite encouraging correspondence from faculty in the program where you plan on studying.

Your qualifications

The account of your qualifications should go beyond the data given on your resume. It might include, for example, evidence of any research skills or employment training relevant to your anticipated graduate studies. Advanced language skills, governmental internships, tutoring, editorial experience, emergency-room volunteerism, "shadowing" professionals, publishing and writing, travel, and similar activities may have distinctively formed you to pursue your chosen educational and professional paths. Make the most of these.

Your character, values, and work

As a whole, your essay should provide a clear sense of your human character. Your personal anecdotes, your objectives, and your qualifications should present a seamless picture of a unique individual with particular aspirations, values, as well as the talent to carry out these aspirations and values. Providing these seamless connections, however, is no easy task. This is why so much of your time should be spent on revision. Polish your essay as if it were a jewel. You need it to shine as brightly and deeply as possible.

Revise, Revise, Revise

Has this been emphasized enough? Important in the revision process is outside input. Do not be shy about asking professors, mentors, and friends for critical analysis of your draft. While the essay must be written by you - it is, after all, your essay - outside readers will provide important insight. Think about who you ask to read your draft. Make sure this person is interested in and capable of giving you valuable critical feedback, and not merely in praising you or shooting you down.

When revising your essay ask yourself and have your readers ask the following questions: 1) Is the author someone I'd like to chat with? 2) Does she understand where she's been and know where she's going? 3) Do her plans make sense? Do they make sense for her? 4) If I had the money, would I fund a scholarship to support these plans?