Tackling the Dreaded “Personal Statement”

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This post was written by Anne Grieves, the Pre-Law and Graduate School Advisor at Northeastern University Career Development.

Personal Statements.  Two words you might be dreading if you are thinking about enrolling in graduate school.  As the Pre-Law / Graduate School Advisor, I have not yet met a student who was eager to write one (but maybe after reading this blog, some of you out there will be).  Why do we dread them?  Two of the biggest reasons are that 1.  it’s hard to write about yourself and 2. you may not know where to start.  So, if this is something that is looming in your future, let’s reframe it and break it up into steps.  A personal statement is an opportunity for you to share something personal and meaningful with the admissions committees.  It should make the reader want to meet you.  Some people may encourage you to read some sample statements before attacking your own.  I would not.  You will, in some way, be influenced either by the content or the formant such that yours won’t be completely yours.

First: What to Write (what makes you YOU):  If you are stuck because you don’t know what to write about, don’t worry. There are a number of topics to consider but each of them needs to create a positive impression of you.   For example, are there any hobbies that represent who you are? Is there something about your personality that you admire? Do you have an opinion about something (make sure it’s a “safe” topic – no politics, religion etc.)?  Is there a person in your life that may have influenced you in some way.  Any topic could be made into a GREAT statement but any topic can also be a bad one.  Make sure that the statement is not simply an essay or a story that’s  engaging and interesting to read but does not go into depth about you.  By letting yourself write freely, you are unlocking and unraveling your stories.

Second : How to Start (start typing, get scribbling):  Don’t think that you are writing a statement, just let the sentences flow.  In your words you will find the meat of your statement and after that you can add the necessary reflection and context.  It will come together.  I promise.  The more freely you can write, the more reflection you will show.  That’s what the admissions counselors want to see; introspection.  So what should you start with? A memory, a person, something about where you grew up, an experience (study abroad, an incident etc.), what you love(d) to do in your spare time.  Take that first thought and see where it takes you.

Third: The Next Step (revise, review, reread):  A personal statement can take up to 7 drafts.  So, pick out the relevant pieces of your story (still, at this point, don’t worry about the length) and make it flow.  Your “hook” may come when you get to the end.  Sometimes the beginning is the last piece to write.

Fourth: Condense  (balancing the statement with the resume): How much of your statement is a recounting of your resume versus your reflection about the experience(s).  How can you take a snapshot of a piece of your past that brought you to this point and made you who you are?  Be careful to not describe an experience with details pertaining to what you did (like you would in a resume).  Instead, focus on what you learned, how you have changed, what you gained etc.

Fifth: What Not To Do (6 of these):

  1. Don’t use quotes.  They have seen them ALL!.
  2. Don’t talk about your lofty goals – you may want to become a judge or a doctor that makes an incredible discovery someday but your next immediate step is getting admitted to the graduate school.
  3. Don’t write about something that puts you into a negative context – if something has happened, show how you overcame that experience.
  4. Don’t be a victim.  Many people have had awful experiences in their lives.  These are the tricky statements.  While you want to share a bit about the experience and how that has become part of who you are today, you want to make sure that your strength and determination are evident throughout and that you came out stronger, wiser, more confident from this experience.
  5. Don’t use humor (unless you can do it well).
  6. Don’t write to impress – be sincere, be yourself.

Sixth: Finishing Touches  (proofread and proofread again):  Find readers to JUST check for grammar.  Find reader you don’t know very well to see what sense they have of you after reading it (and will they want to meet you?).  Find readers that know you.  Do YOU come through in your statement?

Some schools may want you to talk about why you want to go to this particular school.  If they do, yes – answer that question.  If they don’t, your intent and motivation should be implied.

Similar to how I wrote this piece, I just wrote and it came together. Good luck!

Anne Grieves is the Pre-Law and Graduate School Advisor at Northeastern University Career Development. She’s happy to meet with potential future graduate and law students on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Call the front desk of make an appointment with Anne through MyNEU.