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Graduate School Personal Statement Introduction

Your graduate school personal statement may initially get only five minutes of an admissions officer's attention. In those five minutes you have to show that you are a good pick for the school.

Writing an amazing graduate school essay is probably far more straightforward than you might think. Graduate school admissions officers aren't looking for gimmicks. They're looking for passionate, motivated, and prepared applicants who are ready to hit the ground running in their program. Read on for more details in creating your best graduate school essay. If you're looking for one-on-one assistance, check out EssayEdge.com.

Know what the admissions officers are seeking

Don't make assumptions about your graduate school personal statements. Many programs simply ask you to submit a personal statement without any further guidance. Other programs will tell you exactly how they want the essay structured along with word count limits and formatting requirements. Review the prompt thoroughly and plan your essay before you begin writing to ensure that you create an essay that will be an effective and persuasive addition to your application package.

What should you do if the program doesn't give you any specifics? With greater numbers of applicants to graduate programs, the trend is toward shorter essays. This is especially true of graduate programs in the STEM fields. Unfortunately, longer essays tend to be skimmed rather than read thoroughly, and most any admissions officer will tell you that the best essays that they've read are always shorter essays. Think about what is absolutely essential, and write about those aspects of your experience with passion.  

Personal, personal, personal

Did we mention personal? Some graduate programs will ask you to write an additional essay about an issue within your chosen field. However, your personal statement should be about you as an individual. Write about issues only if they relate specifically to your personal experiences. For example, 'In Africa, a child dies every minute. This stark statistic prompted me to join an NGO aimed at providing nutrition and healthcare for children in Namibia.'

Keep your anecdotes focused on your life after you began college

It is common for graduate school applicants to start their personal statements with an anecdote about something that happened during childhood or high school. On the surface, this makes sense because that event was what started the journey that has culminated in an application to the program. However, graduate programs are for professionals, and writing about your childhood is more appropriate for an undergraduate essay than one for graduate school. If you feel that you absolutely must include something from your childhood, use it as the starting sentence of your concluding paragraph. 

Know your program and make connections

Securing acceptance into a graduate program is more about being the best match than about being the most highly qualified. Among applicants who meet the program's minimum requirements, they'll choose an enthusiastic and informed applicant over one with higher test scores and a better GPA who doesn't seem to know much about their program.

During your graduate studies, you'll likely do research, and graduate programs want to know that you can both participate in ongoing research as well as find a mentor for your own project. In your essay, write about professors in the programs whose work interests you and why. Also, there is life outside of the classroom. Does the school have a close-knit traditional college campus? Is it located in the heart of the city? Especially if you will be moving with your family, show the admissions officers that you will thrive in their environment.  

Finish with a strong statement about why the school is your top pick

This doesn't necessarily mean that the school is your only pick. However, generic essays have no place in the graduate school application process. Form letters aren't persuasive, and generic essays won't help your application package. If you can't sincerely write that the school is a top pick, then why are you applying there? Instead, focus on creating stellar essays for the ones that actually interest you. Help the admissions officers understand your overarching vision for your future career and how your time at the school will prepare you to realize these goals.

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Writing a good introduction can feel as intimidating as introducing yourself to a pack of rabid wolves, but never fear! Soon you will be sitting down to teatime with aforementioned wolves, inquiring after each other’s elderly aunts.

The introduction is where you set the tone for the rest of your personal statement. You want to start things off right. That may go without saying, but what people don’t think about is that boring your reader initially can be very difficult to recover from. Even if your essay gets better as it goes along, the reader will take time to recover from their first impression of it.

In This Guide:

Where to Start

5 Rules to Write By

  1. Avoid Cliches
  2. Use Active Voice
  3. Use Strong Verbs
  4. Paint an Image
  5. Keep the Story in the Intro

Where to Start

Here are two easy, surefire ways to begin your introduction:

  1. A story about yourself.
  2. A story about someone else who affected you.

After all a personal statement is, at its core, a story about you and the people and things that are related to you. If you feel weird about starting your statement with a story about yourself (Easy Introduction Idea #1), you could begin your statement by writing about someone who profoundly affected your life, like a grandparent or childhood hero (Easy Introduction Idea #2). There are other ways to start a personal statement: a broad issue or problem that is relevant to your course of study, a quotation, a joke. Those can be more difficult to attempt, however, because unlike a story, they don’t automatically show relevance. A story is about you; a personal statement is about you. You could argue that even the weirdest story shows your development as a human being.


5 Rules to Write By

1. Avoid Cliches

In the Bulwer-Lytton contest, thousands of applicants submit enteries of sentences based on the most famous literary cliches of all time: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Cliches are generally not a good idea. They lend an inauthentic and tired air to whatever it is you’re writing. If you can say part of a phrase or sentence aloud to someone else and they can finish it without much thought, it’s a cliche. For example, “To be or not to be…”  We all know the answer to that one.  However, Cliches can have their uses. You may find that using a cliche gives you a launching pad for your statement, but you should either put a really good twist on it, or ditch it later.

2. Use Active Voice

Beginning with active voice is a sure way to engage your reader. Consider the two sentences:

1. I poured the coffee down the drain for the sewer people.

2. The coffee was poured down the drain for the sewer people.

The first sentence gives the reader more information. In the second sentence, the reader is left wondering who poured the coffee down the drain, and the emphasis of the sentence is placed on the action (the coffee was poured) rather than the person engaging in the action (I). That’s not to say writing sentences is passive is wrong. It can be very useful, especially when relaying information in which the subject of the sentence is not clear, but save it for later.

3. Use Strong Verbs (but appropriate verbs)

Picking the right verbs is an artform. You want verbs that catch the readers attention, but not completely obscure verbs that he or she will have to look up. You also want verbs that will give you the most bang for your buck. For example, if you say that someone is “sitting,” that could mean anything. If you say they are “crouching” or “lounging,” that tells the reader much more about the situation or the scene.

1. After Rhonda debellated the race, she palpebrated at George.

2. After Rhonda ran the race, she looked at George.

3. After Rhonda conquered the race, she winked at George.

Sentence #1 uses distracting verbs. If the reader doesn’t know what they mean, they are going to be frustrated. If the reader does know what they mean, they will wonder why you used such odd words.

Sentence #2 is O.K. Nothing wrong with it, but not much that grabs me either.

Sentence #3 uses the strong verb “conquered”. It tells me what sort of emotion Rhonda is feeling. I don’t have to say she “felt victorious” in another sentence because the verb implies that. “Winked” is the same. I have more information about Rhonda and George’s relationship and how Rhonda was feeling after the race.

4. Paint an Image

Thinking about the story you are trying to tell as a picture. If you were trying to describe a picture to someone, you wouldn’t just call it “pretty.” You would talk about the colors, the medium, the subject. Picking concrete details and describing how things looked, felt, or even smelt can help engage your reader and make them feel invested in the outcome of your story. A thesaurus is a great resource for this, but if you don’t even know where to begin, check out this table of descriptive words. Looking at a big word list like this may also help you with your statement at large by jogging loose an important (and useful) memory that could be turned into a story.

If Raja the elephant can do it, so can you!

5. Keep the Story in the Introduction

Even though you may be starting off with a story, don’t get carried away and continue a storybook-type narration throughout the rest of your statement. Remember to establish some factual information about yourself and your credentials.

If you can tie in the story at the end too, great! That usually makes your statement seem even more polished, like your bone china teapot your new wolf friends now are admiring.

This article is an excerpt from the edityour.net Ultimate Guide to Writing Personal Statements.
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Writing a Personal Statement?

Ben Frederick M.D.
During my fourth year of medical school, I was faced with writing yet another personal statement, this time for a radiology residency. I'm not a strong writer, but after sending my personal statement to our founding editor, Sam Dever, I had to turn down interviews because I was getting too many. True story!

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