A guide to perfecting the personal statement for higher education applications

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A guide to perfecting the personal statement for higher education applications


As Ohio State students prepare for graduation, those planning to attend graduate school are faced with requests about where their journey will take them. Credit: Zachary Riley | Photo editor

For students considering graduate school, the daunting task of writing the perfect personal statement can hold them back.

Most students applying to graduate school haven’t written an entrance essay in at least four years, but writing and career coaches said there are easy ways to navigate the process and make sure your personal statement stands out.

Take plenty of time

One of the most avoidable pitfalls students face during the application process is waiting until the last minute to get started.

Alison Kranek, writing center manager at the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing, said it’s important to plan ahead and allow enough time to draft a personal statement.

“We don’t write things like this often, and we don’t often write for ourselves, so taking a lot of time before the deadline to draft, to get feedback, and to get revisions is really key,” Kranek said.

Kranek said using time wisely is also important because what students need to write will vary by school and program.

“It can be a frustrating part of the process,” Kranek said. “That’s one of the reasons I say it’s really important to plan ahead and give yourself time, because you’ll probably have to make some essays shorter or talk about slightly different things.”

We are getting ready to start

Before students start writing, it’s a good idea to outline their ideas and ask others for advice.

Ryan Wilhelm, assistant director of career education for Buckeye Careers at the Younkin Success Center, said recording accomplishments is helpful.

“Where I would always start is to create a chart and in column A I would put what I think is necessary to be successful in this program and in this field,” Wilhelm said. “Then I would do column B, what experience do I have that helps me check those boxes.”

Wilhelm said students should also state why they are interested in a particular field.

“The biggest thing that people need to do that they don’t always do is say what your career goals are and say why you want to get into this program, but you have to talk about what informs you,” Wilhelm said. .

Kranek said it’s helpful to talk to people about the purpose of going to graduate school and have them jot down some notes while the prospective student talks.

“Just getting off the page or off the screen can be really generative,” Kranek said. “Whether they’re talking to a counselor or a professor, sometimes it can help us overcome what can be a paralyzing fear of getting started or trying to develop the perfect first sentence.”

Make sure the personal statement is persuasive

Many students talk so much about the program they are applying to in the essay that they forget to talk about themselves. Wilhelm said the essay should read like a brochure on why the student is great for a particular program.

Kranek said the essay is often the only space students can speak for themselves because many programs don’t have interviews.

“It’s kind of there to speak for you and give them a glimpse of who you are and really make sense of your experiences in ways that your resume can’t and even your transcript can’t,” Kranek said.

Kranek said it’s important to think of the personal statement as persuasion.

“Personal statements and application essays really make you make the case for yourself, and that’s the part that can feel really off-putting because we’re not used to making the case for ourselves,” Kranek said.

Consider the context

Kranek said it’s important to remember that the personal statement is part of a package.

“It’s not the only document that committees will see, but it’s a way for them to get to know you in a little more detail than your resume suggests,” Kranek said.

Wilhelm said students should go into detail about what’s on their resume in their personal statement.

“Anyone can apply for a program, but I have to be able to show that I already have skills and experience that I can build on as I go through the program,” Wilhelm said.

Kranek said students should also keep in mind that application committees read a lot of essays, so students should think about their personal experiences and discover what makes them unique or different.

Use resources

Knowing what resources are available and using them to your advantage is key in the writing process.

Kranek said looking up sample essays online and talking to both people close to them and those who aren’t can be very helpful for students.

“It’s always good practice to share drafts of your personal statement with people who are writing letters of recommendation for you,” Kranek said. “Not only can this help them as they write their letters, but they can also give you feedback from a more disciplined angle.”

Kranek said students can also make an appointment at the writing center for one-on-one consultations in person or online with synchronous and asynchronous options.

“We work with everyone in the OSU community,” Kranek said. “We work with students, we work with students, and we also work with faculty and staff.”


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