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How to Write a Personal Statement for Grad School

October 21, 2021
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You’re confident in your decision to pursue a graduate degree but haven’t actually applied yet because your personal statement just isn’t composing itself. Don’t be frustrated if you’re stumped at how to start this task. Many smart and talented people have trouble telling stories about their own lives, but it doesn’t have to be difficult.

If you’re questioning how to write a personal statement for grad school, look no further. We enlisted Dr. Elizabeth Churchich, Director of Graduate and Adult Recruitment at Creighton University, to help us compile this comprehensive list of tips for composing a standout grad school personal statement.

First, what is a personal statement?

The personal statement for grad school is an essay that tells the story of a candidate’s unique motivations and aspirations for entering a chosen field or program. It is a requirement to apply for most graduate programs in the United States.

The requirements and specifics vary significantly depending on the university and field of study. It is typically one to two pages in length, double-spaced. In Dr. Churchich’s experience, a personal statement is the student’s way of introducing themselves to the committee. “While your resume and transcripts can speak to your accomplishments, your personal statement allows you to speak more to your goals and the way in which this next degree can help you reach those goals,” she explains.

Tips for crafting a compelling grad school personal statement

“The best personal statements are well-written and informative, while simultaneously reflecting a bit of the personality of the applicant,” Dr. Churchich explains. She’s read thousands of grad school applications — both good and bad — so she’s picked up plenty of pointers along the way.

“Steer away from generalizations or statements that could be true of any applicant,” she recommends. “Focus on your individual skills and experience.”

While there’s no single template or type of essay that’s guaranteed to impress an admissions team, you should approach this as a storytelling assignment. In any good tale, the main character has talents, flaws, challenges and triumphs. For this story, you have to identify a narrative from your own life that highlights why you’re right for the program.

What to do:

  • DO read the instructions carefully. This is especially important if you’re applying to multiple programs. The requirements vary from school to school, so don’t assume that you can write one personal statement and submit the exact same document several times. 
  • DO have your essay reviewed by someone else. For something as important as a personal statement for grad school, you should have at least two other people assess it. Seek out people you trust and/or people who are stronger writers than you. This is a great opportunity to practice receiving and implementing feedback and constructive criticism. 
  • DO strive to be concise yet illustrative. Choose your words carefully, there’s not much room for long anecdotes or repetitive sentiments. Your goal is not to hit a minimum word count; it’s to tell the story in a way that is interesting, succinct and complete. 
  • DO consider talking about a failure, error or disappointment. Showing humility and the ability to learn from mistakes is an underrated quality. “It’s tempting to gloss over the parts of your professional or academic history that you’re not proud of, but it’s important to address them,” Dr. Churchich advises. “If your transcripts or resume are likely to give a committee pause, this is your chance to get ahead of those questions.” 
  • DO take time to reflect. Before you sit down to write your first draft, try answering some of the following questions.
           
    • When did I become interested in this topic/field and why?
    • What motivated me to apply for this program specifically?
    • What challenges or setbacks did I have to overcome to get where I am today?
    • Are there unique or noteworthy aspects of my life story that influenced my decision to earn a graduate degree?
    • What have I learned through work experience that will help me thrive in grad school?
    • How might I set myself apart from other applicants?
    • What are my career goals and how will this degree help me achieve them?
    • Which traits or characteristics (compassionate, hardworking, organized, etc.) do I have that will help me thrive in this field?
    • What am I most excited to learn and do in this program if I’m accepted?

What NOT to do:

  • DON’T begin your statement with an inspiring quote. No matter how much inspiration you get from the words of a famous leader’s speech, starting your essay off this way is a huge cliché. Think twice before going this route. 
  • DON’T wait until the last minute. For something as important as a grad school personal statement, procrastination is NOT your friend. Give yourself at least two weeks to write and edit multiple drafts. Don’t forget to build in time for others to give feedback.
  • DON’T write extensively about achievements from high school. Generally speaking, you want to focus on more recent experiences and accomplishments. Of course, if you did something incredibly noteworthy in high school and it’s directly relevant to your motivations for earning a master’s degree, that might merit inclusion.
  • DON’T exaggerate or invent something you think the committee wants to hear. There’s a big difference between carefully crafting a narrative and fabricating a story. Honesty is the best policy in these situations. “Committees always appreciate candor,” Dr. Churchich affirms. “Addressing strengths or weaknesses head on allows us to see a well-rounded picture of you as an applicant.”
  • DON’T send your statement with typos or grammatical errors. This is your chance to stand out and make a positive first impression — don’t let that be “the person who didn’t proofread.”

Put your best foot forward

Now that you have a better idea of how to write a personal statement for graduate school, you’re more prepared to apply. If you haven’t found your ideal program yet, start your research with one of Creighton University’s hybrid, high-quality graduate programs. With dozens of on-campus, online and hybrid courses to choose from, you just might find your perfect match.

Want to know more about what else goes into building a top-notch graduate school application? Review the requirements for Creighton University by visiting our How to Apply page.