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Writing Personal Statements for Scholarship or Graduate School Applications
If you plan to apply for admission to a graduate program or for a grant or fellowship, you will need to write a personal statement. While all applications contain specific instructions, and you should definitely pay attention and tailor your statement to the program for which you are applying, there are some general principles that govern writing personal statements. Remember that you are writing an essay, and like any essay, it should have a clear purpose, strong organization, and impeccable grammar and syntax.
The personal statement should do the following:
(1) Tell the department or organization
Try to say something interesting about yourself, because people like stories and will use their perception of your story to evaluate your application. The structure need not be framed chronologically. Consider what might be a good point of entry.
(2) Explain what has led you to consider your choice of degree (which will lead to some career outcome, e.g., PhD in Rocket Science so I can train NASA astronauts). For a grant or fellowship, talk about why you want to do whatever it is that the grant funds.
(3) Explain what is special (perhaps this is who) about the department that has caused you to apply to them. This means you have to do some homework + tells the department that you've done your homework. Consider if your story arc is relevant to the department. A PhD in Rocket Science is not relevant to a department of history. On the other hand, don’t waste space on statements of the obvious, such as “Oxford is one of the greatest universities in the world.”
The answer to prompt (1) should be well over 50% of your statement; addressing prompt (2) will be perhaps 10-20% and the response to (3) will be the rest.
After you have done a few drafts, ask someone who knows you reasonably well (or several such people), “What strikes you about me?” Ask yourself, “What is the most difficult obstacle I’ve overcome?” Or, “What was my watershed moment?” The answers will produce seeds of what’s interesting about you.
Show your draft to mentors or friends who can help you refine it.
When reading the final draft, ask, would a reader want more, or respond, “We’ve got to get this person here” ?
Keep in mind the following points:
One approach to beginning the personal statement:
Create a story board using post-its, which you can then move around until they are in the right order; then begin composing your story.
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