Questions to ask yourself
before you write:
- What's special, unique, distinctive,
and/or impressive about you or your life story?
- What details of your life
(personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee
better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
- When did you become interested
in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced
your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
- How have you learned about
this field--through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
- If you have worked a lot during
your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed
to your growth?
- What are your career goals?
- Are there any gaps or discrepancies
in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct
upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
- Have you had to overcome any
unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
- What personal characteristics
(for example. integrity. compassion. persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field
or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
- What skills (for example,
leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
- Why might you be a stronger
candidate for graduate school--and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?
- What are the most compelling
reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?
Answer the questions that
- 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 is important to answer each question being asked, and if slightly different answers
are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.
Tell a story
- Think in terms of showing
or demonstrating through concrete experience. One of the worst things you can do is to 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.
- 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, engineer,
or whatever should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should
emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.
Find an angle
- If you're like most people,
your life story lacks drama, so figuring out a way to make it interesting becomes the big challenge. Finding an angle or a
"hook" is vital.
Concentrate on your opening
- The lead or opening paragraph
is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader's attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework
for the rest of the statement.
Tell what you know
- The middle section of your
essay might detail your interest and experience in your particular field, as well as some of your knowledge of the field.
Too many people graduate with little or no knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the profession or field they hope to enter.
Be as specific as you can in relating what you know about the field and use the language professionals use in conveying 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 specific information about the career you want and why you're suited to it.
Since you will have to select what you include in your statement, the choices you make are often an indication of your judgment.
Don't include some subjects
- There are certain things best
left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally
not a good idea. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (for example, controversial religious or political issues).
Do some research, if needed
- If a school wants to know
why you're applying to it 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.
Write well and correctly
- 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.
- A medical school applicant
who writes that he is good at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away
from often-repeated or tired statements.
Some examples of successful
My interest in science dates back to my years in
high school, where I excelled in physics, chemistry, and math. When I was a senior, I took a first-year calculus course at
a local college (such an advanced-level class was not available in high school) and earned an A. It seemed only logical that
I pursue a career in electrical engineering.
When I began my undergraduate career, I had the opportunity
to be exposed to the full range of engineering courses, all of which tended to reinforce and solidify my intense interest
in engineering. I've also had the opportunity to study a number of subjects in the humanities and they have been both enjoyable
and enlightening, providing me with a new and different perspective on the world in which we live.
In the realm of engineering, I have developed a special
interest in the field of laser technology and have even been taking a graduate course in quantum electronics. Among the 25
or so students in the course, I am the sole undergraduate ate. Another particular interest of mine is electromagnetics, and
last summer, when I was a technical assistant at a world-famous local lab, I learned about its many practical applications,
especially in relation to microstrip and antenna design. Management at this lab was sufficiently impressed with my work to
ask that I return when I graduate. Of course, my plans following completion of my current studies are to move directly into
graduate work toward my master's in science. After I earn my master's degree, I intend to start work on my Ph.D. in electrical
engineering. Later I would like to work in the area of research and development for private industry. It is in R & D that
I believe I can make the greatest contribution, utilizing my theoretical background and creativity as a scientist.
I am highly aware of the superb reputation of your
school, and my conversations with several of your alumni have served to deepen my interest in attending. I know that, in addition
to your excellent faculty, your computer facilities are among the best in the state. I hope you will give me the privilege
of continuing my studies at your fine institution.
Having majored in literary studies (world literature)
as an undergraduate, I would now like to concentrate on English and American literature.
I am especially interested in nineteenth-century
literature, women's literature, Anglo-Saxon poetry, and folklore and folk literature. My personal literary projects have involved
some combination of these subjects. For the oral section of my comprehensive exams, I specialized in nineteenth century novels
by and about women. The relation ship between "high" and folk literature became the subject for my honors essay, which examined
Toni Morrison's use of classical, biblical, African, and Afro-American folk tradition in her novel. I plan to work further
on this essay, treating Morrison's other novels and perhaps preparing a paper suitable for publication.
In my studies toward a doctoral degree, I hope to
examine more closely the relationship between high and folk literature. My junior year and private studies of Anglo-Saxon
language and literature have caused me to consider the question of where the divisions between folklore, folk literature,
and high literature lie. Should I attend your school, I would like to resume my studies of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with special
attention to its folk elements.
Writing poetry also figures prominently in my academic
and professional goals. I have just begun submitting to the smaller journals with some success and am gradually building a
working manuscript for a collection. The dominant theme of this collection relies on poems that draw from classical, biblical,
and folk traditions, as well as everyday experience, in order to celebrate the process of giving and taking life, whether
literal or figurative. My poetry draws from and influences my academic studies. Much of what I read and study finds a place
in my creative work as subject. At the same time, I study the art of literature by taking part in the creative process, experimenting
with the tools used by other authors in the past.
In terms of a career, I see myself teaching literature,
writing criticism, and going into editing or publishing poetry. Doctoral studies would be valuable to me in several ways.
First, your teaching assistant ship program would provide me with the practical teaching experience I am eager to acquire.
Further, earning a Ph.D. in English and American literature would advance my other two career goals by adding to my skills,
both critical and creative, in working with language. Ultimately, however, I see the Ph.D. as an end in itself, as well as
a professional stepping stone; I enjoy studying literature for its own sake and would like to continue my studies on the level
demanded by the Ph.D. program.
Some advice from admissions
of Admissions and Aid
of Chicago Graduate School of Business
The mistake people make most often is not to look
at what the questions are asking. Some people prepare generic statements because they're applying to more than one school
and it's a lot of work to do a personal essay for each school. On the other hand, generic statements detract from the applicant
when we realize that we're one of six schools and the applicant is saying the same thing to each and every school despite
the fact that there are critical differences between the kinds of schools they may be applying to. They don't take the time.
They underestimate the kind of attentions that is paid to these essays. Take a look at what the essay asks and deal with those
issues articulately and honestly.
At least 2, and sometimes 3, people read each essay.
I read them to make the final decision. Our process works so that each person who reads the application does a written evaluation
of what he or she has read and the written evaluations are not seen by the other reader.
of Admissions and Financial Aid
J. L. Kellogg
Graduate School of Management (Northwestern University)
We're looking for a well-written, detailed essay
that responds directly to the question. The questions are about extracurricular activities, motivation, challenges, commitment
to the school that kind of thing. We see a variety and that's fine. Our approach is very individualized. The way the applicant
devises the answer, determines the length, develops the response, is all part of the answer. The level of effort applicants
put into essays varies considerably, which sends messages to the admissions committee as well. Over-involved, elaborate essays
send one message, while very brief and superficial essays send another message.
Trying to second-guess what we are looking for is
a common mistake--which we can sense.
We can tell when applicants use answers to other
schools' questions for our essays; we're sensitive to this. Poorly written essays are a bad reflection on the applicant.
Don't over-elaborate; we're reading a lot of these
kinds of essays. Also, don't be too brief or superficial. We like to have major ideas presented well.
Michael D. Rappaport
Dean of Admissions
UCLA School of Law
Applicants should take the time to look at what the
law school is asking them to write about. At UCLA, we say, "we know you have lots of extracurricular activities--we want to
know how you differ, what makes you unique? What can you bring to the first year class that's going to make you distinctive
from the other 99 people who are already there?" The fact that you were active in your fraternity or sorority is really not
going to do it. What we're looking for is somebody who, in their personal statement, stands out as being so unusual, so diverse,
that they're extremely attractive as a law student for the first-year class. Maybe what's going to make them distinctive is
the fact they spent six months living in a log cabin in Alaska. You try to give the law school
some justification for admitting you. With a lot of people, there's nothing that's going to make them distinctive. If that's
the case, they've got to recognize that, indeed, the essay is not going to make that much difference here at UCLA.
We're also asking if there's any reason their LSAT
or grades are not predictive. You'd be amazed at the number of people who completely ignore this--they don't take advantage
of the opportunity.
Most law schools operate fairly similarly. There's
a certain group of applicants whose grades and LSAT scores are so high that the presumption is that the applicants are going
to be admitted unless they do something terribly stupid to keep themselves out. I have seen applicants whose personal statement
has done that, but it's extremely rare. At the other extreme is another group of applicants who, no matter what they write,
are not going to get in.
The applicant has to realize, first of all, where
he or she stands. If you have a straight-A grade point average and a perfect LSAT score, you don't have to spend a lot of
time worrying about your personal statement. On the other hand, if you know you're in the borderline area, that's where the
personal statement becomes very, very important.
The applicant should take the time to read the application
to see what the schools are asking for. Sometimes the school will ask for a general description of why you want to go to law
school, or why they should admit you, something of that nature. In such case you can be fairly sure that the school is just
interested in the essay to see how well you write. So what you say isn't as important as how you say it. On the other hand,
some schools are more specific--UCLA being a very good example of that.
Make sure the essay is grammatically and technically
correct and well written. Avoid sloppy essays, coffee stained essays, or ones that are handwritten so you can't read them.
You'd be amazed at what we get!
of Admissions and Financial Aid
University of California at Berkeley
School of Law (Boalt Hall)
We're trying to gauge the potential for a student's
success in law school, and we determine that, principally, on the basis of what the student has done in the past. The personal
statement carries the responsibility of presenting the student's life experiences.
Applicants make a mistake by doing a lot of speculation
about what they're going to do in the future rather than telling us about what they've done in the past. It is our job to
speculate, and we are experienced at that.
Applicants also tend to state and not evaluate. They
give a recitation of their experience but no evaluation of what effect that particular experience head on them, no assessment
of what certain experiences or honors meant.
They also fail to explain errors or weaknesses in
their background. Even though we might wish to admit a student, sometimes we can't in view of a weakness that they haven't
made any effort to explain. For example, perhaps they haven't told us that they were ill on the day that they took the LSAT
or had an automobile accident on the way. Such things are legitimate reasons for poor performance. I mean, we understand that
life is tough sometimes. We need to know what happened, for example, to cause a sudden drop in the GPA.
Another mistake is that everyone tries to make himself
or herself the perfect law school applicant who, of course, does not exist and is not nearly as interesting as a real human
Between 1 and 5 people read each application.
Dr. Daniel R. Alonso
Dean for Admissions
Cornell University Medical
We look for some originality because nine out of
ten essays leave you with a big yawn. "I like science, I like to help people and that's why I want to be a doctor." The common,
uninteresting, and unoriginal statement is one that recounts the applicant's academic pursuits and basically repeats what
is elsewhere in the application. You look for something different, something that will pique your interest and provide I some
very unique insight that will make you pay some l notice to this person who is among so many other qualified applicants. If
you're screening 5,500 applications over a four- or six-month period, you want to see something that's really interesting.
I would simply say: Do it yourself, be careful, edit
it, go through as many drafts as necessary. And more important than anything: be yourself. really show your personality. Tell
us why you are unique, why we should admit you. The premise is that 9 out of 10 people who apply to medical school are very
qualified. Don't under any circumstances insert handwritten work or an unfinished piece of writing. Do a professional job.
I would consider it a mistake to attempt to cram in too much information, too many words. Use the space as judiciously as
possible. Don't submit additional pages or use only 1/20th of the space provided.
Committee on Admissions
Washington University School of Medicine
We are looking for a clear statement that indicates
that the applicant can use the English language in a meaningful and effective fashion. We frankly look at spelling as well
as typing (for errors both in grammar and composition). Most applicants use the statement to indicate their motivation for
medicine, the duration of that motivation, extracurricular activities, and work experience. So those are some of the general
things we are looking for in the Personal Comments section.
We also want applicants to personalize the statement,
to tell us something about themselves that they think is worthy of sharing with us, something that makes them unique, different,
and the type of medical student and future physician that we're all looking for. What they have done in working with individuals--whether
it's serving as a checker or bagger at a grocery store or working with handicapped individuals or tutoring inner city kids--that
shows they can relate to people and have they done it in an effective fashion? What the applicant should do in all respects
is to depict why he or she is a unique individual and should be sought after. Of course, if they start every sentence on a
whole page with "I," it gets to be a little bit too much.