Although the undergraduate admissions period is coming to an end, many graduate schools, such as those in law and business, will continue to accept applications well into the spring. This post is for you if you’re applying to one of those schools and haven’t yet completed your personal statement essay.
This article is actually intended for those who haven’t yet created a personal statement but may do so in the future. It is also for people who have already written a personal statement but want to make it better. Hmm. It must be for a lot of people. In all honesty, the advice is timeless and will still be useful long after the application period for this year is over.
What does that advice entail? I’m going to concentrate on content in a personal statement that you should stay away from today. I’m going to concentrate more on a few categories of information that many candidates mistakenly think are appropriate for a statement but actually do nothing to help you.
1. Achievements, grades, honors, and other similar things
This is a simple error since applicants think that talking about their accomplishments will look good, such as a high GPA, awards, and extracurricular activities. Nevertheless, everything that is crucial enough to mention in a personal statement should actually be addressed elsewhere in your application, most likely in your transcript and resume/CV.
Some applications even have a place where you can highlight your most impressive achievements, like being a leader or getting an award. Because of this, you should stay away from stuff like this in your statement unless you’re focusing on one or two specific examples—discussing the rigorous research process that resulted in an academic prize, for example—and it contributes to your overall narrative.
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2. A detailed personal history, especially regarding your family.
The focus of a personal statement should be on the applicant, not their parents, brother, friend, coworker, boss, hero, or any other person. Even if your father is your mentor, role model, and overall source of inspiration, spending a paragraph on how he rose from poverty to become a Fortune 500 CEO isn’t going to impress or even peak their attention. There are a few instances when you must provide a small amount of information like this, but it should never make up a sizable portion of your statement or be the primary focus of your introduction.
3. Basic information regarding the program was taken from its website.
A strong personal statement must unquestionably explain why you think a certain school or program is a wonderful fit for you and why you have chosen to apply there. Most candidates know this, but many of them do it inefficiently by looking through course descriptions, professor biographies, and course offerings before trying to cram it all into a few sentences or a short paragraph at the end of their statement.
It’s simple to add a few professors’ names, the name of an extracurricular group, and a factoid (such as the statement’s location, exclusivity, goal statement, accessible resources, etc.) to it. Unfortunately, admissions officers can tell right away that you only spent five minutes looking this information up and giving it to them, which gives them a bad impression of you. Instead, learn more about the program and come up with a creative, detailed argument for why you would be good for that position.
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4. Overly detailed or ambitious plans.
You might believe that your career is set for the foreseeable future. You deserve it! But if you’re just now applying to graduate schools and have a detailed plan for the next 50 years, it’s definitely too much. No matter how certain you are about where you will work, what positions you will hold, and how you will contribute to your community, the truth is that if you are still in school, what you expect to happen after graduation is merely a hypothetical. A strong personal statement doesn’t talk about big or complicated goals. Instead, it shows that you’ve thought about your future and that you have direction and goals.
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On our planet, there is not a single applicant who is flawless. Schools know this and expect that every applicant will have struggled, made mistakes, and even — gasp! — failed at least a few times in their lives. On the other hand, applicants often feel that any flaw, no matter how minor, is a huge black mark on their application that needs to be hidden or defended in some way. Due to this, they explain in their personal statement, taking up valuable space, how they got the flu, fractured their leg, and lost their dog the night before the GRE, thus lowering their analytical writing score by half a point from what it would have been.
Avoid falling for this trap. Accepting and owning your mistakes will make you appear more rational and even confident. This is especially true if your application as a whole demonstrates that you have succeeded despite unavoidable difficulties and mistakes. Some applications also let you write an extra essay where you can go into more detail about problems like these (struggles, failures, etc.). Only submit that kind of essay if
- you have a genuinely exceptional condition or aspect of your application that requires further explanation, and
- sharing that knowledge would considerably improve the reader’s comprehension of you. That kind of optional essay is not the place to whine about a professor you believed didn’t like you, argue that your life has been extraordinarily difficult since you’ve had to juggle work and education at some point, or make claims about how unfair standardized tests are.
A 3.1 GPA is not an average of an A-. Being a varsity athlete does not result from attending 12 practices your freshman year. You wouldn’t learn about the inner workings of corporate M&A business through a six-week unpaid internship in which you answered the phone for two hours every day.
A one-time commitment to community service is not the same as a lifetime of volunteering. You are not automatically the club secretary just because you are on the email list for an extracurricular group. You are not an entrepreneur if all you do is sell your old PC on eBay. I could go on and on like this, but the point is this: don’t make things into something they are not. Don’t lie or try to be someone you’re not.
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