Writing the Personal Statement – Start by Brainstorming

By Jack McDermott – Top Admit Consulting

One of the most difficult elements of a graduate school application to the United States, Canada or Britain is the personal statement.  Although  some specialized graduate programs have specific questions (to ensure you do not send your generic personal statement) the personal statement is generally very similar: it asks you to tell something about yourself.

In some ways, it may be the most important element.  Generally your GPA, Undergraduate College, Extracurricular Activities, Awards, Work Experience and Graduate School Admissions Tests have already been decided (or soon will be).  Your personal statement is the one thing that you can still perfect that will make a difference in the admissions process. 

Regardless of the essay question, the theme is very simple: it is about you.  The key to the essay is to tell something about yourself that cannot be determined by your GPA, Test Scores, and Coursework.  It is your opportunity to tell about your beliefs, your goals, and your personality.  Even though the essay is about you, sometimes writing about yourself is one of the most difficulty writing dilemmas.  Quite often a brilliant student in history has written a 50-page honors thesis on the Chinese Civil War, but cannot write a simple 750-word essay about themselves.

Just like a research paper, you must first begin by researching yourself.  Begin by making multiple lists about different aspects that could potentially be in your essay:

  • Ø      Extracurricular Activities
  • Ø      Leadership Roles
  • Ø      Unique Educational Opportunities
  • Ø      Group Projects or Team Events
  • Ø      Internships
  • Ø      Special Research Projects or Published Work
  • Ø      Involvement in Political Events (elections, public works, charity, Beijing Olympics)
  • Ø      Travel
         Foreign countries visited
         Meeting people from different cultures
         Historical, religious or culturally significant things you have seen
  • Ø      Unique Family Circumstance
  • Ø      Conferences / Seminars you have attended
  • Ø      Inspirational Speakers you have heard
  • Ø      Unique Childhood experiences
  • Ø      Language Skills
  • Ø      Work Experience

Although these elements all pertain to accomplishments (which is important), the best essays take it to a different level – your ideas, thoughts, and beliefs about yourself, your society, and your field of interest.

  • Ø      Ideas about the future of your field
  • Ø      Ideas or Beliefs that Inspire you
  • Ø      Predictions about the future of your country, region, or the world
  • Ø      The affects of technology on your life
  • Ø      The affects of globalism and multiculturalism on your beliefs
  • Ø      Your personal beliefs about society, religion, and your culture
  • Ø      How your experiences have influenced your career goals
  • Ø      Your philosophy about achieving happiness and success

Finally, when you have written a lengthy list about yourself, try one simple exercise.  Imagine there is another student, who attended the same college, majored in the same program, had the exact same GPA, and had the same test scores.  Then look at your list and decide what makes you personally different from this student?  Once you can answer that question – you can begin to write a college essay about yourself.  

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