Thoughts on writing a personal essay for graduate school Cecilia Solano, Associate Professor of Psychology

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Thoughts on writing a personal essay for graduate school
Cecilia Solano, Associate Professor of Psychology
All of you will have already been through an application process, the one for college. One of the more important points you need to recognize is that the process is similar in some ways but quite different in others. The personal essay is one of those areas which look similar, but in fact, is not.
The essays you wrote for undergraduate college may have covered a range of topics. You probably had to write several. These essays were part of your application packet which was sent to an admissions office that selected students for the entire college. The admissions professionals were interested in creating a freshman class as a whole, considering such issues as diversity and balance. Individual applicants, who had not yet declared a major, were assessed on general characteristics such as overall academic ability, leadership, and civic responsibility,
The graduate school application process is much more specific. First, you probably will write only one or two essays. Second, these essays will be part of your application packet which will be sent to the relevant department for evaluation. A graduate school office may act as the processing center, but evaluation is usually done by faculty in the department. So when you write your essay, you need to be aware you are addressing professionals in your chosen field. They typically are not interested in how the class looks as a whole.
What are they looking for? Faculty are looking for applicants who have a strong academic background in the relevant area, who have a strong motivation towards the profession so they will finish the program and go on to a career, and students who will probably come if accepted. They are specifically interested in their discipline, not in you as a well-rounded person with leadership abilities. This leads to several specific points you should consider while writing your essay.
First, realize you are trying to persuade a committee to accept you. Therefore, structure your essays not as a simple list of abilities, but structured in a way that creates the strongest impact.

Be aware that for faculty members being on a graduate selection committee is one more responsibility among a variety of others. Therefore, it is your best interest to see yourself as a folder in a pile of folders on a busy person’s desk. Make your strong points toward the beginning and capture their interest early.

Next, realize that the faculty are primarily interested in your statement as it relates to the graduate degree you are pursuing. Anything that is not relevant to that point, such as leadership, your social group memberships, or sports activities should probably not be included. The essay is called a “personal” statement but it really is a “professional” statement.
The faculty want to see that you have the ability to succeed in their program. This is demonstrated by your grade point average and, if required, standardized test scores. They will have looked at these in your application packet before they read your statement. If you have done well in both, there probably is no need to emphasize this. If, however, you feel that your in-department performance is better than your overall, academic performance then you might mention this toward the end of your essay. Noting briefly that you had a higher grade point average in relevant courses or that your performance improved after a difficult semester or first-year would be acceptable. Phrase this positively, not as if you are making excuses. If they request a writing sample, be sure it is one best able to demonstrate your performance in you specific field. Also be sure to create a clean, clear copy of this writing sample.
The faculty also need to know that you have the motivation to finish the program and go on into the career. Graduate school is not like undergraduate college with its emphasis on a general education and social development; it is professional training. The way they know you have the appropriate motivation is not by telling them that you have always wanted to be in their field since a child or that you want to be in their field because your father is. The way to emphasize your motivation is by how you have gone above and beyond the standard course work to develop yourself in the field. Tell them about opportunities you have sought out and activities you have pursued. In the sciences, this would be describing research projects you have worked on, showing your interest for the work and your knowledge of the research process. In the humanities, this would be describing how you worked with a professor on a project or work you did in a related college activity such as a poetry publication. If you are interested in a helping profession, this would be describing the experience you have had working with people in a structured professional setting.
When selecting students, faculty need to decide who the best candidates are, but they also need to fill the class. Therefore, they are interested in students who seem likely to come if accepted. You can convince them by indicating that you are knowledgeable about their program in particular. If the program has a specific theme, you should make it clear this is the theme you are interested in. Another approach is to indicate specific faculty whose work you find interesting. It is best to mention more than one faculty person on the off-chance that one of the faculty you name is on leave or elsewise unavailable.
All of the above emphasizes that you are addressing faculty when writing the personal statement. This leads to the thought that knowing how faculty think and react is important to the success of your essay. Fortunately you have such a sounding board available. You should seriously consider asking a faculty person in your department to take a look at your essay and give feedback. Assume they are busy so you might not get a line by line edit, but you probably can get a general response and that will help.
A few thoughts on style
Keep the tone as formal as you would use addressing a faculty person you don’t know well.
Be sure the grammar and spellings are correct. Even one typographical error mars the impression you are trying to project. You should probably check with the Writing Center or a faculty member if possible.
If you are cutting and pasting text to multiple schools, be very careful to send the right name to the right school. Faculty do not appreciate your sending the wrong one. If nothing else, it implies a student who is not careful with detail.

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