When you applied as a student, your personal statement probably didn’t make much of a difference, because student admissions are largely based on numbers (GPA, test scores, etc.). Graduate and professional school admissions are different! Your competitors will have test scores and grades similar to yours, because most people who are motivated to earn an advanced degree did well as undergraduates. As the number of applicants increases and academic budgets are cut, each year there is more competition for fewer admission openings.
How does the committee determine that you have what it takes to be successful in advanced studies? You guessed it. Your personal statement will play a determining role in whether or not your application is successful.
Then you know you need to write the strongest and most persuasive personal statement you can. But here are two facts that you may not know. First, most reviewers will spend only a couple of minutes reviewing your personal statement. Second, because your job is to remove most applications, reviewers look for reasons not to recommend you for admission.
Avoid common mistakes that will put your application on the reject pile. Read on for 10 easy ways you can mess up your personal statement:
1. Say thank you
Your parents and elementary school teachers taught you to be courteous when writing and you know it’s a good rule of thumb to follow. But don’t waste words thanking the committee for reading your application. It is not the same situation as applying for a job, because you are paying the school to review your application so that, hopefully, you can pay them to educate and train you. Starting or ending your statement with phrases like ‘Thank you for reviewing this application’ or ‘I appreciate your consideration’ can make you appear immature, obsequious, or ignorant of academic culture.
Many applicants have weaknesses in their application files, especially in their transcripts. Maybe you got low grades in your freshman year. Maybe you had to drop out of school and work for a while. Maybe you got an F in that stat class and had to take it again. Or maybe you earned a degree in one field and are applying to graduate school in a different field; or you did not pass your residency medical exams the first time.
Whatever your weakness, make no excuses and don’t badmouth anyone. Therefore, it was not his fault that the professor missed his final exam and failed it, or that papers dried up in his original field of study, or that he had the flu when he took the GRE. Don’t say anything that sounds like an excuse or that sounds like you’re blaming someone else for not achieving a goal. Even when it’s true, it can make you appear whiny and unable to accept responsibility for your actions. Instead, address the weakness at the end of your statement and explain how you have overcome it, learned from it, and are now a better candidate because of it.
3. Summarize your resume and transcripts
Many applicants try to summarize their professional resume and academic records in the personal statement. All this information is requested in the application itself and will be seen by reviewers. Personal statements are too short to waste space explaining that you earned A in your senior year. Instead, describe experiences and accomplishments that are relevant to your development as a potential professional in your chosen field.
4. Be cute or funny
Maturity is one of the most common adjectives admissions committees use to describe the ideal graduate student or professional. You are applying to eventually become your colleague, a professional colleague. Show them that you take their time, your program, your future, and yourself seriously by keeping your tone positive and professional. Unless you are directly asked to submit a creative writing sample, leave the routine standing for the comedy club.
5. Suggest that the program can correct an error by admitting it
Remember that committee members are busy professionals who only take a couple of minutes to read your statement. On the one hand, stating that you will make a unique contribution to your program and bring a new perspective by adding to the diversity of your student body is a smart move and shows you as a professional and positive team player. On the other hand, applying for admission on the grounds that it will correct a previous injustice runs the risk of making you appear unqualified and / or confrontational.
6. Be sarcastic
This one doesn’t need much explanation. Your ironic comments and sarcastic jokes make your Facebook friends laugh, because they know you. The admissions committee does not. They can easily misinterpret sarcastic comments or decide that you are creepy, cynical, pessimistic, or a know-it-all.
7. Say something potentially offensive
Again, not much explanation is needed on this one. You don’t know anything about the people who read your personal statement. Assume that you are very sensitive on all subjects and write accordingly. Don’t assume they agree with your political, social, or religious views.
8. Show your inferiority complex or your superiority complex
Many applicants have trouble finding the balance between promoting themselves and not appearing arrogant in their personal statement. A personal statement is a marketing document and should show your strengths. However, many applicants are inclined to humility, such as using language of self-criticism; or describe past weaknesses and failures without explaining how they have worked to turn those weaknesses into strengths. The admissions committees do not admit candidates out of pity!
Other applicants are presumptuous, giving the impression that they don’t really need any advanced training because they know a lot about the field and have a lot of experience. They do not describe what they hope to gain from a specialized education course. You want to walk the line between these extremes. Affirm that you are highly qualified to begin this course of study and that you have the preparation, motivation, maturity, and focus they seek. Then emphasize your planned major, what you will gain from attending their program, and how you need the training they offer to be successful as a professional.
9. Plagiarizing your statement or submitting content that you paid someone to write.
Most graduate and professional school applicants have not read hundreds of personal statements and are unaware of how unique each person’s writing style is. It really doesn’t take much for admissions committees to realize that the language and style of a candidate’s personal statement is different from the wording found elsewhere on applications. There are also a few dozen so-called sample personal statements on the Internet that are often copied and submitted as an applicant’s own essay. The committees know this very well! You can also hire someone to write a personal statement for you. It may sound great to you, but you should realize that these essays are based on a template that they simply customize for you, using the same paragraph and sentence organization. It’s a smart move to hire an expert to help you review and polish your words into a persuasive statement. It is risky to plagiarize a statement from the Internet or to hire someone to write the entire statement for you.
10. Uses bad spelling or grammar
This should be pretty obvious. Scholars on admissions committees are generally high achievers with high standards that don’t ignore even simple typographical errors. If your personal statement isn’t technically perfect, it can make you appear sloppy, lazy, or inattentive, which aren’t qualities that no one wants in a future colleague. Remember that people who read your essay are looking for a reason to reject your application and reduce the number of possible admissions. Always get someone with strong writing skills to review your essay.