Graduate School Essays Psychology

Your graduate school personal statement may initially get only five minutes of an admissions officer's attention. In those five minutes you have to show that you are a good pick for the school.

Writing an amazing graduate school essay is probably far more straightforward than you might think. Graduate school admissions officers aren't looking for gimmicks. They're looking for passionate, motivated, and prepared applicants who are ready to hit the ground running in their program. Read on for more details in creating your best graduate school essay. If you're looking for one-on-one assistance, check out EssayEdge.com.

Know what the admissions officers are seeking

Don't make assumptions about your graduate school personal statements. Many programs simply ask you to submit a personal statement without any further guidance. Other programs will tell you exactly how they want the essay structured along with word count limits and formatting requirements. Review the prompt thoroughly and plan your essay before you begin writing to ensure that you create an essay that will be an effective and persuasive addition to your application package.

What should you do if the program doesn't give you any specifics? With greater numbers of applicants to graduate programs, the trend is toward shorter essays. This is especially true of graduate programs in the STEM fields. Unfortunately, longer essays tend to be skimmed rather than read thoroughly, and most any admissions officer will tell you that the best essays that they've read are always shorter essays. Think about what is absolutely essential, and write about those aspects of your experience with passion.  

Personal, personal, personal

Did we mention personal? Some graduate programs will ask you to write an additional essay about an issue within your chosen field. However, your personal statement should be about you as an individual. Write about issues only if they relate specifically to your personal experiences. For example, 'In Africa, a child dies every minute. This stark statistic prompted me to join an NGO aimed at providing nutrition and healthcare for children in Namibia.'

Keep your anecdotes focused on your life after you began college

It is common for graduate school applicants to start their personal statements with an anecdote about something that happened during childhood or high school. On the surface, this makes sense because that event was what started the journey that has culminated in an application to the program. However, graduate programs are for professionals, and writing about your childhood is more appropriate for an undergraduate essay than one for graduate school. If you feel that you absolutely must include something from your childhood, use it as the starting sentence of your concluding paragraph. 

Know your program and make connections

Securing acceptance into a graduate program is more about being the best match than about being the most highly qualified. Among applicants who meet the program's minimum requirements, they'll choose an enthusiastic and informed applicant over one with higher test scores and a better GPA who doesn't seem to know much about their program.

During your graduate studies, you'll likely do research, and graduate programs want to know that you can both participate in ongoing research as well as find a mentor for your own project. In your essay, write about professors in the programs whose work interests you and why. Also, there is life outside of the classroom. Does the school have a close-knit traditional college campus? Is it located in the heart of the city? Especially if you will be moving with your family, show the admissions officers that you will thrive in their environment.  

Finish with a strong statement about why the school is your top pick

This doesn't necessarily mean that the school is your only pick. However, generic essays have no place in the graduate school application process. Form letters aren't persuasive, and generic essays won't help your application package. If you can't sincerely write that the school is a top pick, then why are you applying there? Instead, focus on creating stellar essays for the ones that actually interest you. Help the admissions officers understand your overarching vision for your future career and how your time at the school will prepare you to realize these goals.

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Most of those who have been through the process of applying to graduate school will agree — writing the personal statement was the most difficult and stressful part. Part of the problem for many is that they set out to write their personal statement without a clear set of guidelines for what to include, and with some uncertainty about exactly how it will be used in evaluating their application.

This is the first of a series of 5 articles related to preparing a personal statement. We try to give the reader a perspective on how the personal statement is used by members of a selection committee, or by a prospective graduate supervisor. Understanding the perspective of these important decision makers is essential to making good decisions about what to include and exclude from the statement, and appropriate and inappropriate ways to say certain things. (These latter aspects of preparing the personal statement will be dealt with in the remaining articles of the series).

* * *

The personal statement is also sometimes called the statement of purposeletter of intent,or admission essay. Its main purposes are to introduce yourself explain your educational, training, and career goals, and to present those qualities that make you an excellent candidate for graduate school in general, and for the program you are applying to in particular.

Admissions committees and prospective supervisors look at personal statements to see how you think, and how well you express yourself. It provides them with an opportunity to learn who you are through your eyes. It is the component of the application that shows whether you have maturity, good judgment, and a clear plan to get from where you are today, to where you want to be ten years from now.

If you are applying to a professional school in medicine, business, or law, or to a highly competitive graduate program in another field, there might be interviews later, but for most graduate programs you should think of your personal statement as a substitute for a brief personal interview with the admissions committee or prospective supervisor.

If you think this is a good time to figure out what you want to do, then think again… you should have figured this out already. If your main reason for setting out to decide exactly what you want to do for a career is just so that you can prepare a good personal statement, then you probably need to get more serious about your reasons for wanting to go to graduate school at this time.

The most common mistake that students make is to leave too little time for preparing the personal statement. It requires a great deal of thought and planning to write a good one. You should expect to spend several days or maybe even weeks writing drafts before coming up with a good final product. If you spend only a few hours preparing and writing it, then it is almost certain to be an application-killer. And none of the other components of your application will make up for a personal statement that leaves any kind of bad impression. When applying to a graduate program that receives a large number of applicants, success depends not so much on writing an essay that gets you accepted, as on avoiding writing a personal statement that gets you rejected. Keep in mind that your statement will be read by people who are trying to form an impression of who you are and what you are like. If there are a lot of applicants to consider, it may not take a lot of imperfection to get placed into the reject pile.

A generic statement or essay can ruin your application

Do not write a generic statement for several different applications. You will probably be applying to several programs, and it is important that each personal statement you send reflects that you have done your homework and understand what the program has to offer. Although there will be a great deal of overlap in terms of the content of the statements you send to different programs, the point here is that you should not simply send the same statement to each program.

Some applicants underestimate the number of important differences there are between the various graduate programs to which they apply. Admissions officers know this, and when they detect a generic statement that the applicant probably sent to at least a few different programs, then it suggests that the applicant is ignorant of the unique aspects of their program.

Remember, people do not automatically gain admission to a Masters or Ph.D. program just because they have a bachelor’s degree and excellent undergraduate grades. It may be helpful to think of the personal statement as a sales job — one where you are both the salesperson and the merchandise being marketed. As the salesperson, you should think of your personal statement from the point of view of the potential “buyer” — the prospective supervisor or members of an admissions committee. You need to take this approach, because the process of getting into most graduate programs is a very competitive one, and you are not likely to get in if you are outdone by other applicants.

You want to present a logical rationale for wanting a particular career. This will require that you can explain your future objectives in light of your past. Accordingly, much of the content of your personal statement will be a recounting of select and relevant aspects of your past.

If you are in a discipline in which graduate students spend a lot of time engaged in research activities (a majority of disciplines fit this description), then you must strive to make a convincing case that you are not only interested in more general field of study, but also more specifically in the area in which your prospective supervisor does research. Even if it is a program in which you would be assigned to a specific supervisor only after some time in the program, or if you will receive periodic supervision by multiple faculty members on a rotational basis, it should be apparent from your statement where you are expecting to fit in with the research interests of the faculty members who are there.

One of the added benefits preparing your personal statement is that, by the time you are done, you will know how to respond to questions about what you are looking for in a career, how you intend to get there, and how you got to this point in the first place. This is excellent preparation for a pre-selection interview with an admissions committee, or for a face-to-face meeting or telephone interview with a prospective graduate supervisor.

Obvious considerations, but still worth mentioning

You need to be extremely meticulous in proofreading and editing what you write. The people looking at your application will be keenly interested to know about your writing abilities. Even just a few grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, or poorly-worded sentences can leave a very bad impression. Write concisely, and if there is a word limit, be sure not to go beyond it.

If you are required to answer specific questions, make sure you understand what is being asked of you. Think of how it makes you look if you don’t — it raises the question of whether or not you are capable of understanding simple instructions.

In the second article of this series we deal with some of the things to consider when deciding what to include, and exclude, from the personal statement.

[ If graduate school is in your plans, be sure to check out the archives for this blog, as well as the most recent posts. I strive to give you all the best information and advice about what it takes to get into the program that’s right for you. There are other sites out there, but they all provide the same generic information and advice about applying to grad school, and therefore, none of them offer anything that is uniquely helpful. In fact, following the advice of those other so-called grad-school experts can sometimes hurt your chances of getting in! If you want to see an example of what I mean by that, please check out my blog post from August, 2012 — What if the Guru is Wrong About That? ]

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