In a field that stresses the importance of effective communication, it’s no surprise that personal statements for graduate programs often play a pivotal role in the admissions process. To ease any anxiety you may feel, (trust me, I know the feeling!) I’d like to share a few tips I’ve found helpful in strengthening my command of the written word. By the way, you can also apply these tips to scholarship essays or the GRE!
5 Stages of Writing
The most important thing to remember when writing your personal statement, is to give yourself time. This statement may determine your graduate school admissions, so it should not be rushed or left undone until a few weeks before the deadline. I suggest initiating the process of writing your statement the summer before (now!) the application cycle begins.
Excellent writing occurs in 5 stages:
Though you may feel tempted to avoid tackling the first stage of this process, don’t! You can begin the prewriting stage by reading your program’s prompt months ahead of the deadline, thus sparking a rush of ideas to write about and connections to make. So, as you lackadaisically lounge by a pool in July, you may be struck with an epiphany on how to seamlessly incorporate your volunteer work at a hospital into your statement.
Though often overlooked, this step can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. Once you determine the focus of your statement, create an outline of your main points. Think of this step as your game plan that’ll help you organize your thoughts, understand the flow of your story, and ensure you nail down each of your key points. Here’s what you need for an outline: introduction, body, and conclusion (create a nice summary of your overarching statement). Bullet points are a wonderful place to start!
Now’s the time to fill in those bullet points. This step involves parsing through abstract thoughts to effectively communicate through the written word. Remember, your first draft never wholly represents your true writing abilities. Don’t feel discouraged if you stumble to explain an idea that seemed perfectly logical in your head, or struggle to transition between two points. Personally, I find the use of stream of consciousness writing incredibly useful in this stage, because though much of it may never make it to the final draft, it often reveals an overarching theme that serves as the foundation for a cohesive essay.
Here, you painstakingly examine and dissect your essay. Ask yourself: Do I support my ideas with concrete evidence? Does including this particular anecdote reinforce my main idea, or is it irrelevant? Are there clear, logical transitions from one point to the next? Do I directly address all aspects of the prompt? Is my overall statement authentic, persuasive, and concise?
Beware of skipping this stage, as a few misplaced commas or misspelled words may distract a reader from your overall message. But don’t simply scan your essay for grammatical errors or rely on spell check. Print your statement out to catch mistakes, or send it to someone whose opinion you trust. Also, distance yourself from your essay, then return to it after a few days. This may expose mechanical or stylistic errors you hadn’t noticed originally.
General Writing Tips
Don’t Overuse “To Be” Verbs
If you feel a particular sentence lacks meaning, try eliminating “to be” verbs. These verbs, also known as “copula verbs,” (be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being) can significantly weaken the tone of your writing when relied upon too heavily. In one of my most challenging (yet invigorating!) general education courses, my professor penalized us for every use of a “to be” verb in our essays. This experience tremendously honed my writing abilities! Use action verbs in their place, and don’t shy away from reconstructing entire sentences.
Consider the following sentences:
- “I have always wanted to be a speech-language pathologist,” versus
- “Since childhood, I harbored dreams of a career in speech-language pathology.”
Notice the first sentence is dry and conveys little information, while the second compels the reader to continue reading.
Be Precise and Concise
Don’t underestimate the power of precise diction in your writing, especially when writing for a prompt with a stringent word limit. Utilize online dictionaries to find the perfect word to encompass your thoughts. I also suggest Purdue University’s guide to tightening your writing.
Pay Attention to the Flow of Your Writing
This varies based on your personal writing style, but a general rule of thumb includes varying short and long sentences within a paragraph; as well as long and short paragraphs, themselves. You should also avoid run-on sentences and comma splices. Reading your essay aloud is a great method to check for awkward transitions or stilted sentences.
Read, Read, Read!
Many well-established writers attribute much of their success to a lifelong love of reading. It plays a critical role in strengthening their relationship with the written word. Try to devote a few hours each week to reading anything that piques your interest, such as a bestselling mystery novel, The New York Times, or this blog! Do keep in mind, however, that each “genre” of writing has its own tone based on the intended audience, so your personal statement should not read like a blog post!
Don’t Let Fear of Failure Debilitate You
Graduate school applications are stressful! My biggest regret is that I put off beginning my personal statements, sacrificing precious writing time, because I felt afraid. Like exercising, the hardest part of writing your personal statement is initiating the process, and once you’ve set the foundation for your essay, the rest will come naturally with resilience and dedication.