Writing the Personal Statement
This handout provides information about writing personal statements for academic and other positions.
Contributors:Jo Doran, Allen Brizee
Last Edited: 2018-03-07 02:18:40
The personal statement, your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process, generally falls into one of two categories:
1. The general, comprehensive personal statement:
This allows you maximum freedom in terms of what you write and is the type of statement often prepared for standard medical or law school application forms.
2. The response to very specific questions:
Often, business and graduate school applications ask specific questions, and your statement should respond specifically to the question being asked. Some business school applications favor multiple essays, typically asking for responses to three or more questions.
Questions to ask yourself before you write:
- What's special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?
- What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
- When did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
- How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
- If you have worked a lot during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed to your growth?
- What are your career goals?
- Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
- Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
- What personal characteristics (for example, integrity, compassion, and/or persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
- What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
- Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school—and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?
- What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?
Answer the questions that are asked
- If you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar.
- Don't be tempted to use the same statement for all applications. It is important to answer each question being asked, and if slightly different answers are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.
Tell a story
- Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. One of the worst things you can do is to bore the admissions committee. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you'll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.
- Don't, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer, or whatever should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.
Find an angle
- If you're like most people, your life story lacks drama, so figuring out a way to make it interesting becomes the big challenge. Finding an angle or a "hook" is vital.
Concentrate on your opening paragraph
- The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader's attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.
Tell what you know
- The middle section of your essay might detail your interest and experience in your particular field, as well as some of your knowledge of the field. Too many people graduate with little or no knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the profession or field they hope to enter. Be as specific as you can in relating what you know about the field and use the language professionals use in conveying this information. Refer to experiences (work, research, etc.), classes, conversations with people in the field, books you've read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of specific information about the career you want and why you're suited to it. Since you will have to select what you include in your statement, the choices you make are often an indication of your judgment.
Don't include some subjects
- There are certain things best left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally not a good idea. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (for example, controversial religious or political issues).
Do some research, if needed
- If a school wants to know why you're applying to it rather than another school, do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.
Write well and correctly
- Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good written skills and command of correct use of language are important to them as they read these statements. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.
- A medical school applicant who writes that he is good at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away from often-repeated or tired statements.
For more information on writing a personal statement, see the personal statement vidcast.
You have a limited amount of time to make an impact on the reader (no more that 30 seconds to be precise) therefore the effect has to be immediate. A personal statement is usually situated at the top of a cv under your personal information and is one of the first sections of a cv that the reader will come across. There are various formats and types of cv that are useful dependant on the job role or your skill set, however almost all include a personal profile. In addition generally most application forms will also include a personal statement section.
“This is your banner heading summarising your main selling points"
So what should this heading or opening paragraph include?
- A brief overview of who you are and what personal qualities you have to offer.
- Reference to your skills ensuring they are specifically tailored to that of the position
- Outline your areas of expertise and experience
In addition it should entice the reader to want to know more and go on to read the rest of your cv or application form.
How long should a personal statement be?
There is no definitive answer providing the information is relevant and interesting, however generally a profile will consist of between 30 – 60 words. No more than a few short sentences around 5 lines long.
How do we go about writing a personal profile?
- Firstly you should think about compiling a list of descriptive words or phrases that you may wish to use when explaining the above mentioned bullet points.
Some sample words; Approachable, Analysed, Caring, Challenging, Creative, Diplomatic, Experienced, Flexible, Helpful, Influential, Inspiring, Motivated, Organised, Professional.
Some sample skills; Effective listener, Good at motivating others, Training, Writing, Public Speaking, Completing Forms, Cooking, Innovative thinker.
- Your personal profile should be written in third person narrative, as written in first person will appear as only your opinion of yourself.
- Compile a few short sentences combining your pre - selected words and key skills. It is recommend you have two versions of your profile, one which targets a specific job or industry sector and a general multi - purpose version which you can adapt dependant on your requirements. This will also help if you are applying for a range of different jobs.
- You must feel comfortable in explaining and justifying the points included and be mindful of not sounding “too good to be true”.
It is not uncommon to be asked questions in relation to points included within your profile for example;
Q: You state that you are a good problem solver can you provide an example of a problem you have solved and how?
Q: You mention you are an innovative thinker, can you explain an idea that you have suggested that was successful?
- Where possible have someone proof read or help suggest points for you to include as it can sometimes be difficult to write in a positive and descriptive manner about yourself.
To conclude here are some example profiles and important Do’s and Don’ts:
- Set the tone appropriately and word in a positive manner that will help precondition the reader.
- Contain only appropriate and relevant information.
- Keep it within the recommended length or you run the risk of waffling.
- Pigeon hole yourself to one type of person or profession (unless your intention is to achieve one very specific objective).
- Include and information in relation to your life eg, married, single, age, how long you have been unemployed.
- Go over the top, try where possible to keep it simple and do not include anything negative in this opening paragraph.
A responsible, intelligent and experienced retail professional with an extensive background in fashion and children’s wear both in large departments and small boutiques. Highly creative, adaptable and bright individual with an excellent eye for visual detail and design.
A skilled and adaptable Project Manager, with experience in implementing and overseeing change. Has a proven track record of exceeding performance expectations, remaining customer focused and adhering to budgets and timescales. Ability to bring about the fundamental changes needed in response to changing commercial, legislative and financial factors. Strong strategic vision; along with the ability to successfully deliver complex multi-track projects.
An energetic, ambitious individual who has developed a mature and responsible approach to any tasks undertaken. As a Finance graduate who also possesses three years’ managerial experience, now seeks a senior financial management role. Has the ability to organise people and systems in order to achieve objectives and is used to working under pressure and meet strict deadlines.
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