Personal Statements & Admissions Essays
You found the school that's right for you. You're a
perfect candidate. But there's a lot riding on that
personal statement! What do you want to say? What do
they want to hear? How should you present your message?
In a way, it's not fair — your expertise is about
medicine, or programming, or business, or art... You're
not a writer! It's not fair that the admissions
essays are all about writing!
And yet, in the end, it is fair... The people
reviewing admissions essays don't just care if you are
an expert or a genius. They are looking for a leader
— they are looking to see if you recognize the
connection between your experience and your aspirations,
and whether you are able to convey the power of your
And it's worth doing this right; even beyond just producing
these essays, good writing is empowering. The process
of writing helps you explore ideas in an organized,
robust manner. In fact, writing is so helpful that the
systematic exploration of ideas in writing will likely
become an integral part of your analytical process!
Also beyond just writing essays, a final benefit of
writing your personal statements is that the skill of
bringing together anecdotes, distilling experience,
and drawing lessons learned is not just about gaining
admission to grad school. It is about telling your
story — something you will be called upon
to do time and time again, in writing and in person.
It's a valuable skill to develop for its own sake.
So, where to begin?
1. What's Your Prompt?
While it may seem obvious, it is often overlooked.
The prompts you are given for your personal statements
are sometimes rambling — details can get lost!
But even the most powerful personal statement will fail
if it doesn't comply with the requirements. The best
way to keep the prompt in mind is to copy it into the
top of your essay, and highlight the specific details
it asks for.
2. Consider Your Audience
It's easy to just do a "brain-dump" to express
everything you know about a subject. But that is not
good writing. Instead, think for a minute about who
will be reading your essay — likely a professor
with significant knowledge of the program you are applying
to, someone who might not be knowledgeable about various
areas of your experience, someone who is professional,
and who is seeking candidates with whom to work. Your
job, as a writer is not simply to talk to your audience
— your job is to engage, seduce, and delight it!
Reflect on your audience from time to time — this
will help you choose and express points in a meaningful
and relevant way.
List various anecdotes and perspectives you might want
to describe. Note key aspects and insights. Consider
whether there are "themes" you can develop
or a "progression" you can describe. Don't
worry about word limits or appropriateness at this point.
Let the ideas flow.
4. Streamline & Distill Ideas
Organize your ideas, and develop an articulation of
their meaning — their implications, lessons learned,
or how they shaped your perspective. Think back about
your audience and the nature of the program you are
applying to. What narrative themes are likely to be
most compelling? Don't be afraid to delete ideas that
don't serve your purpose. And don't be exhaustive —
you can surely say a great deal about every aspect of
your experience, but keep it focused. Your aim is to
make your point in a clear, continuous, and concise
5. Save Drafts
A good piece of writing evolves. You will add, delete,
re-phrase, and move content, you will develop different
perspectives. This is documentation of your thinking
process! But even though you'll want to explore many
angles, not all will be successful. Save various drafts
as you work, so that you can always go back to recover
language that may have been edited out.