Personal Statements for Graduate or Professional School

The application essay is often the only part of your application where you tell your story in your own words, and is important to the admissions committees. It needs to be thoughtful and well-written, with emphasis on what is important to you that they should know about you.

Organize Your Thoughts

Clear writing is the result of clear thinking. Read the question(s) carefully and decide what you want to say in response.

  • This is a short essay, so be highly selective. Consider which two or three points you wish to impress upon the reader as you answer the questions.
  • Stick to those few points.
  • The statement reflects your priorities and your judgment about what you consider important. The organization of your piece will reflect the organization of your thinking.
  • Each paragraph should deal with one main idea; each sentence should lead naturally to the next. The logical flow of ideas should be clear, with movement and progression from one sentence to the next throughout the piece.
  •  Write in an active voice, as if you're having a conversation with the graduate admissions committee.   "I am interested?" At Hampshire, my thesis research ?"

Hampshire Cautions

  • Respond to the questions or prompts for each school. These can very widely from school to school.
  • Read the web pages for each program carefully. Sometimes further information about the essay or even a different set of questions is provided there, rather than with the graduate application materials for the larger university.
  • Take care not to write your essay as if it were a retrospective, i.e., "I have wanted to be a marine biologist since I was seven. Then in middle school I went on a whale watch and my interest was confirmed. Then I did this. Then I studied that . . . etc." This is too much about your developmental process and presents you initially as a seven-year-old. If you choose to tell how your interest developed, you need to write the account with maturity and support it with accomplishments.
  • Follow the directions and answer the questions. If you are considering going over stated limits on number of words or pages, call the school and ask how that would be seen; some schools are fine with essays that go over to a certain degree, but some will view that negatively. In terms of length, if no direction is given, the default is generally two pages, double-spaced with clear paragraph spacing; some schools are fine with two pages, single-spaced. If limits are not stated, or if you plan to go over, the prudent thing to do is call the program and ask.
  • You want to give the impression that you will fit in with the department/program to which you are applying. Hampshire students tend to be interdisciplinary in their approach to any study. If you are applying to a geography program, however, it needs to be clear why you are choosing geography and not urban studies; if applying to law school, why law and not social work; and so on.

What to Include, or not Include

What to Include

  • Understand and explain yourself: Make it interesting, insightful, revealing; how is your story different? Make it personal; possibly include information rarely shared with others. Be analytical; assess your life and experiences more critically than usual. Make it memorable; add drama (if appropriate) in the form of obstacles or challenges.
  • Who you are: More about your background and experiences than appears elsewhere in your application. What makes you tick? How are you different from other applicants?
  • Exposure to the field, accomplishments, experience: Through paid or volunteer work, research, classes, seminars, etc.
  • Why this particular school/program: The admissions committee wants to know that you did not apply randomly, but did your research and made an intelligent choice. Include information any specific faculty you'd like to work with and why.
  • Your academic and career goals: For most essays, you will be asked about these goals. Even if you are not 100% sure, give them an idea of potential careers and what you want to pursue in graduate school, and include specific faculty that you want to study with and why.

What Not to Include

  • Activities and jobs from high school (or before): In a graduate school essay, these often sound juvenile.
  •  Editorial commentary: For example, "Lawyers should be . . ."
  • Divisive commentary: Be aware and judicious when you talk about areas of potential controversy, e.g., religion, politics, personal information.
  •  Complaints: Don't whine. Address a deficit with a positive spin in terms of the effective resolution, learning and growth, resiliency, etc.

Essay Tips

  • Be yourself, not a person you think the committee seeks.
  • Be careful that your essay is not generic/could go to any school (unless you are, in fact, using a centralized application service and have no choice but to write one essay for all schools).
  • You do not want your essay to sound dry and boring. Is the information you are choosing to include interesting, relevant, and memorable?
  • The essay is not a simple list of accomplishments; reflect on your accomplishments, showing depth and self-awareness in your evaluation of experiences and the personal meaning of accomplishments.
  • This is a personal statement; thus it is often appropriate and useful to include personal information as context for learning and growth.
  • Make sure you are including what is important, in light of your plans for graduate study and career.
  • Write in a positive and upbeat tone; project confidence and enthusiasm. Reframe any negativity as a positive statement.
  • Be clear about why you want to be at that particular school
  • Be honest. Are you being yourself and revealing yourself? Sometimes it is helpful for the committee to hear about setbacks, and what it took to rebound.

Refine, Simplify, and Polish

When you have written a first draft, start the work of editing: refine, simplify, and polish! 

  • Do you say exactly what you mean and mean exactly what you say?
  • Is any section, sentence, or word superfluous, ambiguous, apologetic, or awkward?
  • Are your verbs strong and active?
  • Have you removed most, or all, of the qualifiers? (no apologies, no whining)
  • Have you removed any apologies, whining, or inflation of your accomplishments?
  • Are you sure that each activity or interest you mention supports one of your main ideas?
  • Remember that the reader has a record of your activities and your transcript readily at hand; be sure you have added qualitative information so as not to be redundant.
  • Write as an adult, a peer, and potential contributor, someone they'd want in their academic community.

Your thoroughness demonstrates that you have learned and mastered the language and that your future peers will not be troubled by illiteracy or sloppiness.

Feedback and Proofreading

Get feedback from a few trusted readers. Does the essay relay your strengths, passion, enthusiasm, uniqueness?  What about the grammar? Do they notice any glaring errors?

The final details:

When you send in that application, it is the program's only representation of you. 

  • Check and recheck spelling, subject-verb agreement, and syntax.   
  • Keep uniform margins; you do not wish to create a crowded impression.
  • Proofread very carefully before you send it. We suggest you let it rest a day so you can proof it once again when you are fresh. Reading it out loud to yourself or another is a great way to catch errors.

You are a serious student and a thoughtful and interesting person. You have enjoyed a fabulous undergraduate education and have completed a Div III project that helps you to stand out. You will be an asset to your graduate program and to your chosen profession. A beautifully prepared essay will confirm this.

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