Write a Compelling Personal Statement

Most graduate and professional programs require a personal statement as part of the application process. The personal statement is an appropriate place to share your career goals, strengths, experiences, personality, and academic successes and obstacles.

Often time schools require a general, comprehensive personal statement. With the general personal statement, you are allowed maximum freedom in terms of what you write. This is the type of statement often required for medical or law school applications. However, business schools and other graduate schools often ask specific questions, and your statement should respond explicitly to the question being asked. 

Despite the type of personal statement you're asked to write, you need to think of your statement as an opportunity to show how you are unique among all the other applicants. A concise, well-written personal statement is going to carry more weight than one that is long-winded or difficult to read. The following tips will help you craft a compelling personal statement.

Getting Started

Writing a personal statement may sound daunting, and getting started is the hardest part. Where do you even begin? PREPs recommends starting by getting out a sheet of paper and answering the following questions:

  • What is unique or impressive about my life story? 
  • What are my professional goals? 
  • What are my core values? 
  • What is the most compelling reason for the admission committee to be interested in me? 
  • What do I know about the field I am pursuing? 
  • What obstacles, disadvantages, or hardships have I overcome? 
  • How have I involved myself with the community? 

If you need help brainstorming ideas for your personal statement, our PREPs advisors are more than happy to help you get started.

Once you have answered the questions above, begin to fill out the following outline: 

Paragraph I

Begin this paragraph by explaining what motivates you to go to graduate or professional school. You should address some, if not all, of the following questions in your first paragraph:

  • Why do I want to go to graduate or professional school?
  • How does graduate or professional school fit with my career goals?
  • Why do I believe I am an able candidate?

Paragraphs II, III, IV

Your qualifications and participation in extracurricular activities make up the next several paragraphs. This is the body of your personal statement and should answer the following questions:

  • What activities have I participated in that are relevant to my career choice?
  • What are my academic accomplishments, skills, or interests?
  • What have I learned from these accomplishments, skills or interests?
  • What have I overcome? What challenges have I faced? 

Paragraph V

You want your final paragraph to show that you are looking towards your future. Make sure your conclusion answers to these two important questions:

  • In the next several years, how do I see myself evolving?
  • Why will professional or graduate school be an important stepping stone leading to my life’s work?

Tips and Tricks

In addition to the information above, the following advice taken from Purdue's Online Writing Lab can also help you craft a captivating personal statement: 

Answer the questions that are being asked. This seems obvious, but if you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar. Don't be tempted to use the same statement for all applications. It’s important to answer every question as specifically as possible, and if slightly different answers are needed, you need to write separate statements.

Tell a story. Create your application so that it shows and demonstrates who you are through concrete experiences, stories, and examples. One of the worst things you can do is bore the admissions committee. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you'll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.

Be specific. Don't, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, dentist, etc., should be logical and the result of concrete experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as a rational conclusion to your story.

Concentrate on your opening paragraph. The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It’s here that you either grab the reader's attention…or lose it. This paragraph also serves as the framework for the rest of the statement.

Tell what you know. While being as specific as you can in relating what you know about the field, be sure to use the profession’s jargon to convey this information. Refer to experiences (work, research, etc.), classes, conversations with people in the field, books you've read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of detailed information about the career you want and why you're suited for it.

There are certain subjects you should avoid. References to experiences or accomplishments in high school (or earlier) are generally not a good idea to mention in a personal statement for graduate or professional school, focus on something more recent. Avoid potentially controversial subjects (for example, religious or political issues). If your reader disagrees with you, your application may be unfairly scrutinized.

Do your research. If a school wants to know why you're applying to their school rather than another school, do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.

Pay attention to the technicality of your writing. Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good written skills and command of correct use of language are important to them as they read these statements. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.

Avoid clichés. A medical school applicant who says that he’s good at science and wants to help other people isn’t exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away from often-repeated or tired statements and stories.

Editing Your Personal Statement

Always have someone proofread your resume before submitting it. PREPs is a great resource for IUPUI Science students, as well as the University Writing Center and the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL).

While writing your resume, be aware of these formal writing tips:

Try to avoid ambiguous references.

When speaking with friends, it's common to overuse ambiguous words like "this", "these", "his", "it", "they", etc. These words have no meaning in themselves, but in conversation the meaning is usually clear from the context. In written text, however, the intended meaning is often not evident to the reader, because there are many possible interpretations of "it" and "this". Even if the item to which you refer is explicitly mentioned in your paper, ask yourself whether there is any chance that the reader might not know to which of several items you might be referring. E.g. for the word "he", were there two or three people being discussed? If so then state the actual name of each; "he" would be ambiguous.

Watch out for homonyms.

Spell checker is awesome, but it rarely catches homonyms. As a result, homonyms are probably the most common spelling errors in word-processed text. Even if you are lazy and let the spell check fix all of your other words, make certain that you know the differences between words like:
it'sits
theirthere, they're
whetherweather
totootwo
sitecitesight
wastewaist
wholehole
farefair
greatgrate
affecteffect
discretediscreet
forthfourth
pastpassed
rollrole
leadled
lielye
throughout, through out
seemseam
newknew
illicitelicit
complement, compliment
extentextend
obtainattain
pairpare
personalpersonnel
suitsuite
principalprinciple
bearbare

"But" and "however" are not interchangeable.

The words "but" and "however" have similar meanings, but they are not interchangeable. If you take a grammatically correct sentence containing "but" and replace it with "however", or vice versa, the result will almost always be incorrect, mainly because of comma punctuation. Here are correct examples of how to use but and however:
  • "I like oranges, but I do not like tangerines."
  • "I like oranges. However, I do not like tangerines."
  • "I like oranges; however, I do not like tangerines."
  • "I, however, do not like grapefruits."
  • "I like oranges however they have been prepared."

Use caution with capitalization.

Capitalization is appropriate only for specific, named, individual items or people. For example, capitalize school subjects only when you are referring to a specific course at a specific school: math is a general subject, but Math 301 is a particular course. Similarly: Department of Computer Sciences vs. a computer science department, the president vs. President Bush. When in doubt, use lower case.

The above Writing Guidelines were excerpts taken from Dr. James A. Bednar's article, Tips for Academic Writing and Other Formal Writing.