Writing Personal Statements

The graduate admissions game is more competitive today than ever. Legions of recently unemployed professionals are joining newly minted college graduates in choosing to advance their careers through graduate-level education.

Personal statements (admission essays) have always played an important role in the admissions process for law schools, MBA programs, medical colleges, and graduate-level academic programs. But in today's hyper-competitive admissions environment their role in this process is especially critical.

To help ensure your admission to your top-choice school, your personal statement (admission essay) must make a distinctly positive impression on the school's admissions officials. Accomplishing this objective is largely a matter of heeding some basic guidelines as to content and form.

The Content of Your Essay

Regarding your essay's content, a school's application might ask some very specific questions. If so, by all means answer them, and never stray from the topic. But if the question is more open-ended, do not waste your essay opportunity by rehashing or explaining your academic record or entrance-exam scores, or by boasting about your extracurricular activities. All of this information should appear elsewhere in your application.

Instead, reveal something far more personal, even intimate, about yourself. In doing so, your goal should be to afford the reader some insight into your persona. Consider focusing on a life experience that was truly unique to you; or explain to the reader how a particular book or person (other than a family member) influenced your world view or life course in a surprising way; or share with the reader a personal goal that has nothing to do with your career. These are just a few possible approaches, of course.

The Form and Format of Your Essay

As for the form of your essay, be sure to follow these points of advice:

  • Adhere strictly to the school's specific formatting, page-length, and word-length requirements.

  • There is simply no excuse for sloppy syntax or for spelling, usage, or grammatical errors. Ask at least two qualified people to review your drafts carefully for such problems.

  • Admissions officers want to read conventional prose, and so resist setting yourself apart by resorting to an offbeat form such as a screenplay, poem, or legal brief.

  • Do not submit exhibits, attachments, or other supplements unless the application specifically asks for them. (Admissions officials will probably not look at them in any event.)

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