Personal Statement Research Position

Nearly all fellowship applications involve writing a personal statement. Sometimes this is the only piece of original writing required of applicants, other times there are additional short statements or project proposals to write. Though the wording of the personal statement requirement may vary from fellowship to fellowship, here are some important things to remember.

Do...

  1. Think of the personal statement as an "intellectual autobiography." The statement should convey to your readers a clear, thoughtful picture or impression of you as a person who has distinct interests, motivations, accomplishments, aims and ideas.
  2. Aim to define a central idea, impression or theme you hope to convey. The most memorable personal statements are ones that have a clear theme or purpose that unifies the ideas and information presented. Sometimes you'll know what this theme should be in advance; sometimes it will emerge as you begin drafting your statement.
  3. Keep it simple. It's easy to over-write a one-page personal statement. Use the words and language you would naturally use in writing a thoughtful, intelligent letter to a friend or trusted mentor. 
  4. Find the "story" in your history. Your life has been a journey, with planned and unexpected turns, with successful and frustrated goals, with hard-earned and accidental insights, with hoped-for but as-yet-unrealized achievements. Your basic challenge in writing a compelling personal statement is to tell the story that makes sense of your life as it has been, is, and could be.
  5. Welcome the reader into your life. Fellowships are looking for promising people, not high-powered profiles. Write to engage your reader, write in a way that invites him or her to want to meet and get to know you.

Don't...

  1. Write to impress. Fellowship selection committees have seen and heard it all. Let your credentials and awards speak for themselves. Use your personal statement to talk to your readers about the things that motivate, inspire and shape you. Help them to understand what your accomplishments have meant to you, or how they have shaped you. Help them to understand why you care about the things you care about.
  2. Write in clichés. Ask yourself if each and every sentence in your draft reflects some thought, fact, reflection or experience of your own. Avoid sentences that could have been written by absolutely anyone. Avoid stock phrases or expressions.
  3. Re-write your resume in prose. Again, selection committees are looking for the person behind the credentials.Avoid laundry lists of activities, etc., and focus on the select few experiences that have meant the most to you, or have had the greatest influence on your development and aims.
  4. Get too frustrated! Distilling your life into a compelling, informative one-thousand word or one-page personal statement is a challenging task. Think of this as an opportunity, all-too-rare in life, to reflect calmly and creatively on who you are, who you want to be, and what you hope to do with your life.

Checklist for Evaluating your Personal Statement Drafts

  • Does your opening paragraph quickly engage the reader? Does it convey a distinct picture or impression of you as a person? 
  • Is your guiding theme or idea clearly expressed? Is there a thread that runs through the essay, unifying it?
  • Are your principal intellectual interests and aims clearly elaborated? Is there evidence of your intellectual engagement and of the ideas that motivate you in your work or studies?
  • Are your leading commitments to community service, campus or off-campus organizations, or leadership roles effectively addressed? 
  • Is the closing paragraph effective? Does it leave the reader with a sense of completeness? Does it suggest to the reader something of the spirit with which you are going forward in life?

Recommended Resources:

Joe Schall, Writing Personal Statements

James M. Lang, "Helping Students to Tell Their Stories"

 

The personal statement can mean the difference between rejection and acceptance.  A well-crafted statement can tip the admission scale in your favor; a poorly written one can leave you out of the running.  Think of the personal statement as a chance for you to introduce yourself—your background, experiences, knowledge of the field, goals and personality—to the selection committee.  It also affords you the opportunity to explain any irregularities or shortcomings of your candidacy.

Some programs will ask you to write one statement covering a number of areas.  Others require a brief response to a series of essay questions. Your best writing comes when you have an actual audience in mind and specific questions. I recommend that you don’t just write a generic personal statement but that you write a personal statement for the school with the earliest deadline.

Here is some advice on how to structure your statement, and what to emphasize and include:

WRITING THE STATEMENT

(by Carla Trujillo, Ph.D., Director, Graduate Opportunity Program, University of California Berkeley)

KEEP IN MIND

  1. Remember that they read between the lines: motivation, competence, potential as a graduate student, knowledge of the field or subfield and fit with the department should all be apparent.
  2. Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in an active, not a passive, voice.
  3. Tailor your response to the particular question being asked, the specific department and program.  Avoid sending generic statements.
  4. Demonstrate everything by example. Don’t say directly, for example, that you’re a persistent person; you must demonstrate it.
  5. You don’t want to make excuses, but you can talk about the mistakes you’ve made as a learning experience.
  6. If there is something important that happened which affected your grades (poverty, illness, excessive work, etc.) go ahead and state it, but write it affirmatively, that is, in a way that shows your perseverance.
  7. Write with authority like a fellow colleague.
  8. Stick to the word limit guidelines.
  9. Single space statement, unless told otherwise.
  10. Understand that writing an effective, flawless statement takes considerable time and several sets of eyes.

GENERAL OUTLINE 

How you arrange your statement and what you include ultimately will be up to you.  The following outline, written by Carla Trujilo, provides a clear sense of the kinds of things to cover and a logical means of organizing that information.

Part 1:  Introduction

This is where you tell them what you want to study.  For example, “I wish to pursue an MS degree in Mechanical Engineering with an emphasis in controls”.  Some applicants begin with a personal story.  Make your opening sufficiently interesting, enticing the committee to read on.  One Augsburg student applying to grad school in physics started his statement, “When I first enrolled in college I wanted to study Asian religions.”   This path is probably atypical for doctoral candidates in physics and thus draws the reader in.  Another began, “I was eighteen years old when I saw my first computer.  Five years later I am applying to the doctoral program in Computer Science at….”  These lines astound the reader while opening the door for the student to talk about being an immigrant, how his interest and aptitude in computer science developed and what goals he has for the future.

Part 2:  Summarize what you did as an undergraduate

  1. Important class or classes you took which stimulated your desire for graduate study, such as a specific project for a class.  Maybe conversations with a professor or a study abroad experience piqued your interest for graduate study.
  2. Research you might have done.  Indicate with whom, the title of the project, what your responsibilities were, the outcome and any poster or oral presentations you might have given.  Again, it’s important not to simply list what you did but the impact it had on you:  what you learned about the field, yourself or the research process, how the experience shaped your decision to pursue graduate work in this particular field, etc.  Write technically; professors are the people who read these statements.
  3. Work experience if it relates to your field of study or more generally, demonstrates preparation for graduate school.  Tutoring or classroom teaching experience, for example, is often relevant, since it shows a more firm grasp of subject matter, and that you might be a good candidate for a teaching assistantship.  Similarly, describe any kind of responsibility you’ve had for testing, designing, researching, extensive writing, etc.

Part 3:  If you graduated and worked for a while and are returning to grad school, indicate what you’ve been doing while working: company, work/design team, responsibilities, what you learned.  You can also indicate here how this helped you focus your intent to do graduate studies.

Part 4:  Here you indicate what you want to study in graduate school in greater detail.  This is a greater elaboration of your opening paragraph.

  1. Indicate area of interest, then state questions you might have which are associated with the topic, i.e., what you might be interested in studying or researching.  You should have an area of emphasis selected before you write the statement.  If you have no idea, talk to a professor about possible areas of interest or current questions in the field.
  2. Look on the web for information about the professors and their research.  Are there professors whose interests match yours?  If so, indicate this, as it shows that you have done your homework and are highly motivated.  (Be sincere, however; don’t make up something bogus just to impress people.)  Ideally you have read some of the professors’ work and have been in contact with them prior to making application and can make reference to that exchange.  Having a faculty member pulling for you from the inside is a winning strategy.
  3. Talk about what draws you to this particular program.  Show that you are familiar with the unique features, focus, field experiences, or faculty, etc. of this program.
  4. End your statement in a positive and confident manner with a readiness for the challenges of graduate study.

OTHER RESOURCES FOR WRITING THE STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

 

How to Write a Personal Statement

by Dal Liddle, Augsburg University English Department

Personal Statements for Graduate School (Humanities) Everything that follows is an elaboration of this one main issue: graduate school is specific career training and apprenticeship for the the profession of academic teaching and scholarship. If you are the sort of person who should be a professional academic. and can say honestly and clearly how you know that your essay will probably succeed. If you aren’t your essay will probably reveal that-saving you and your readers much wasted time and needless sorrow. either way, everybody wins.

1. Although the application process seems cold and impersonal, the human readers who pick up your essay and read it will probably feel hopeful, not hostile, as they start to read. Their goal is to build a good graduate class out of the stack of apps before them, and to bring in students who will enrich their own intellectual lives and lives of their classmates. Despite its high-stakes nature, the, the personal statements should be written sincerely and openly, not defensively.

2. While a personal statement is written to an admissions committee-a group of future colleagues who ideally will like you and want to meet you-it is not really written for the committee. The committee should never have the sense that you are saying what you think they want to hear. The writing should therefore start with the most specified information that you can nail down about yourself, your reason to believe that your vocation and fitness lie in this area, and your choice of this particular school.

3. The personal statement should show the reader/committee four things that are unique to you. These are your individual:

  • Qualifications (of intellect, will, and intestinal fortitude)
  • Commitment (motivation and sense of vocation-this is really what you want to do)
  • Personality and Backstory (those part relevant to this choice of career)
  • Comprehension (of what grad school is and does; what the life and duties of a grad student are; what this particular school-teachers, library-offers you.)

The statements need not do any of these four things exhaustively-it can suggest some while developing others. It need not separate them in the arbitrary way I have, or invoke them in my arbitrary order. But none of them can e obviously missing of inadequate.

4. Despite their optimism, grad admissions readers know very well what can (and very often does) go wrong in grad school, and the following questions will be inescapably present to them. Every essay implicitly offers an answer too them, for better or worse:

“Should this person be in grad school at all (or has he/she perhaps been placed on this earth for some other good and noble purpose)?”

“Has this person chosen the right grad school for the right reasons? Do we have what he she wants-not just reputation, but resources? A bad fit to our program will drop out,transfer,or be miserable and spread misery.”

“Will this person be an asset to our program-will he/she add diversity, collegiality, and intelligent ideas to our classes? Will he/she finish course work on time, write a good dissertation, get a good job, and ass to our reputation in the profession and among our peer colleges?”

“Will this person be interesting and enjoyable to work with and even mentor?”

5. Finally, every admissions reader watches for  “red flags” that signal an unqualified candidate, such as:

  • Lack of basic necessary skill to succeed in the field (to write coherently, to do research)
  • Lack of sophistication in the specialty field
  • Mainly negative rather than positive motives for choosing grad school (e.g., wanting to escape the “real world” or an unpleasant job, wanting to stay in college)
  • Emotional instability and/or security

How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School 

by Richard J. Stelzer

Stelzer offers concise yet informative suggestions for crafting a statement.  At the back of the book is a survey that should help you get started writing.  The thin book includes suggestions on what to include and what not to include, sample personal statements and advice from people who serve on graduate admissions committees across the country, offering a rare look inside the process.

Graduate Admissions Essays:  Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice

by Donald Asher

Donald Asher is a well known figure in the world of graduate school admission. His writing is clear, concrete and often humorous.  He walks the reader through the prewriting, writing, rewriting and editing processes.  The book includes 50 sample essays.

Visit the URGO Office to peruse these books and read sample personal statements written by Augsburg students.

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