You can skip this step if you’d like. I didn’t. Despite being an English major, a writing tutor, and a published poet, writing graduate school statements is a scary thing.
All of a sudden, who I was and am and want to be, my past, my present, and my future plans, as well as my academics, were all supposed to fit onto a two to four page statement.
Before I started to write the personal essays required for graduate school, I had to get rid of my panic.
You’re okay. Text some friends. Go on Facebook and vent. Contact a mentor or parent and have them remind you why you’re applying to graduate school. You want to do this. Writing a statement or two (or three, or four) ain’t all that bad. Don’t freak out over it. Sip some tea and find your center before you continue.
It’s time to use the internet. You should, before getting to the step of writing your graduate school essay, already be familiar with the application requirements of the program you wish to apply to. Go to the program’s website and check out what their specific requirements are.
All programs are specific about what you need to get into their program, even before you start your online application. There are lists. Write them down for yourself so you won’t forget.
Some schools only ask for a statement of purpose. Here’s an example from University of California Davis’s application:
Statement of Purpose
This should be a concise, well-written essay about your background and your reasons for pursuing graduate study in the field you have chosen. Selection committees place particular importance on the statement of purpose. It exhibits your ability to present ideas in clear, coherent language. Your statement of purpose should indicate:
- How knowledgeable you are in the desired field of study
- How your undergraduate studies and other experiences (work, community involvement, and so forth) serve as a foundation for graduate study
- How and why you intend to build on this foundation of knowledge and apply your graduate training to social or theoretical problems
Recommended length is a concise two–four pages, single-spaced.
Some schools also ask for additional essays to be included, such as personal history statements or as University of California Santa Barbara does, a personal achievement statement:
Personal Achievement Statement
UC Santa Barbara is interested in a diverse and inclusive graduate student population. Please describe any aspects of your personal background, accomplishments, or achievements that you feel are important in evaluating your application for graduate study. For example, please describe if you have experienced economic challenges in achieving higher education, such as being financially responsible for family members or dependents, having to work significant hours during undergraduate schooling or coming from a family background of limited income. Please describe if you have any unusual or varied life experiences that might contribute to the diversity of the graduate group, such as fluency in other languages, experience living in bicultural communities, academic research interests focusing on cultural, societal, or educational problems as they affect underserved segments of society, or evidence of an intention to use the graduate degree toward serving disadvantaged individuals or populations.
A few applications also ask for a resume or curriculum vitae (CV). If you don’t have or haven’t updated yours, you should do that first because it will help you with the next step of this process. While my two examples are California universities, I am applying to other places as well, and schools in other states have similar prompts and requirements.
Generally, these descriptions include word or page counts. Sometimes they include what content should make up the composition of your essays. Some schools are vague about this and wish for you to write your essays without a preconceived notion of what should go into that essay.
I don’t know about you, but I think this can make the writing process harder. While some schools tell you what they want to hear, other schools give you enough rope to hang yourself. But don’t worry, later in this piece I’ll have solutions for vague essay prompts.
Make a List
This is when you should have your resume or curriculum vitae open and in front of you because it will be helpful at this stage in the process.
Make a list and try to group things together that make sense. My list had personality traits, background, scholarly interests, research (if you have any undergraduate research), special projects, presentations, publications, employment, volunteer work, and, just for fun, hobbies.
Here’s the fun part—now you get to pick a few of these items and try to link them together. I’ll pick three things off of my list as an example—low-income background, scholarly interests in Shakespeare, and I’ve volunteered to help middle school kids put on Shakespeare plays.
If my personal statement were centered around those three items only, it’d probably look a little like this:
Shakespeare is often considered one of the finer things in life. People dress up when they go to plays—it’s an event. It’s an experience. It costs money. Money I didn’t have growing up. I am a low-income, first generation student that fell in love with Shakespeare’s texts early in high school and this interest has driven me through school, and even to engage within my community. From 2011-2012, I volunteered to help children at Beechwood Middle School perform Shakespeare plays. In the future, with my Ph.D. in Literature, I hope to not only teach, but to enrich communities through similar programs. I want to make Shakespeare an experience for all students of all income levels to enjoy.
With a list like this, you’ll be able to make connections about yourself and create a very strong statement even without a prompt. So put the rope away—or, better yet, use it to tie back your hair (if you have long hair) and get ready to write.
Just do it. Try. It’s okay if it’s not perfect the first time. It’s alright if your phrasing is awkward. Just get it all out on paper.
Proofing and editing are different processes. Editing is like operating on what you’ve written—you’re cutting it up, taking something out, putting something back in, and leaving it in an altered state. Proofing is simply making sure there are no errors. These are not the same thing. What you need to do now is edit. Cut that statement up, rip it apart, get rid of extra words. What is that sentence doing in there? That makes no sense. Get rid of it. Oh, now you have another dozen words you can include before you hit the word count. Now, what can you stick in there?
Ask For Help
Got a friend who’s a good writer? Run it by them. Got a professor you’re close with? Run it by them. Have a writing center at your school? Run it by them. Got a cousin who had a poem published in high school? Why not—run it by them. Met a random stranger at the bar that’s giving you a come-hither stare? Ask him or her to read your statement and give you feedback too.
In short, ask everyone and anyone who is willing to help you. Probably not that random stranger in the bar, though. In fact, don’t go to bars while you’re writing. That’s generally a good rule.
That’s right. Just one writing and editing session isn’t enough.
Make this essay into your own personal Frankenstein.
Ask For MORE Help
Go to different people if you can. The more people who read your statement and find that it reads and flows well, the better you’ll feel when it comes time to upload it to your graduate school of choice.
Different schools require different lengths and contents in the essays that you write for them. While it’s good to have a strong general statement, be sure to leave room and make it adaptable. If you have a 1,000 word statement and a school is asking for a 2,000 word statement—beef it up. If one school wants to hear about your background, write about that. If a different school prefers for you to talk about how you will use your degree for the community, talk about that. Answer the prompt you are writing for.
Do not just submit one general statement to all schools. Just don’t.
Repeat Write/Edit/Help/Write/Edit/Help As Much As Needed
Unless the deadline is approaching, you want whatever your writing to be the best piece(s) of writing you’ve ever done.
Congratulations. You just wrote one (but most likely, more than that) essay required in the application process for a graduate degree program, just as I have.
Coming in three–five years, how to write a dissertation.