The Art & Science of Personal Statement-Writing (Part # 1)

This article is the first in a series presenting tips to write a kick-ass personal statement for your grad school application. Next time you find yourself in front of a web browser’s google search bar, try out the following demonstration. First, make sure your device’s web browser settings are configured to provide search engine suggestions. Then, try typing the search phrases listed below—sans ellipses—or some variation of them:

  • “how to write my p”;

  • “how to write a p…”;

  • “help writing my p…”;

  • "grad school p…”;

  • college application p…; or,

  • "what should I include in my p…”, etc.

Obviously, the point I’m making is not profound and no surprise. However, I believe it’s a useful demonstration. Google suggests that all of these incipient, letter p-hanging phrases are really personal statement-related inquiries. The consistency is actually striking—I wouldn’t have anticipated Google to offer “personal statement” as a top-5 possibility for completing “how to write a p…” To ensure this occurrence didn’t just reflect my online curiosities, I generated a new user account on my Mac and searched using “private-mode.” Here’s a screenshot from earlier today:

Of the 10 suggestions proffered, “personal statement” ranked 3rd, illustrating just how common looking for guidelines and insight about this topic is. This makes a lot of sense. Your personal statement’s quality—it’s suitability to the prompt and prospective program, linearity, style, grammar and mechanics, what it reveals about—can influence admissions outcomes enormously. Furthermore, developing the competencies needed to compose an impeccable personal statement—justifying your position with a rationale, assuming a confident yet humble tone, “showing instead of telling,” being persuasive—translate directly to other writing contexts. As such, if you were to choose to master only one type of essay, the personal statement would be a shrewd investment.

The remainder of this piece elucidates the dimensions of a well-written personal statement. Some recommendations are universal. They apply across variation in essay prompts, applicants, and prospective programs. Comparatively, other pointers are conditional. Individual circumstances will dictate whether and how the strategies should be implemented. Taken together, GAI Consulting’s articles in this series instruct on both “science” and “art” of personal statement writing. This piece focuses on (a) Pre-Writing Preparation, while upcoming articles in the series emphasize (b) Essay Structure, (c) Content “Don’ts” and “Do’s”, (d) Style, Flow, and Tone, as well as (e) Grammar, Mechanisms, & the Writing Process

Pre-Writing Preparation

Well-written pieces—personal statements included—are founded upon great planning. Accordingly, all serious applicants should carefully consider which personal anecdotes and professional experiences they want to integrate. Most applicants intuit early-life anecdotes that shaped their career aspirations represent great fodder for introductions. Most also recognize the essay should unfold in a relatively linear fashion. For some reason, integrating these dimensions into one’s essay planning comes naturally to most. However, other areas of planning are typically not grasped so easily. To illustrate, ask yourself, how deliberately you planned out which personal qualities (e.g., abilities, achievements, attributes etc.) you wanted underscored in the essay? This area is key and often overlooked.

At GAI, we encourage applicants to use the personal qualities they want to underscore as the centerpiece—and then use anecdote to flesh out a narrative around them. The “Big Rocks, Small Rocks/Jar of Life” metaphor of prioritization helps justify this position. In the picture below, the “✔” Jar of Life represents prioritizing your major duties (i.e., “Big Rocks”) first, causing smaller concerns (i.e., the “Small Rocks”) to mostly take care of themselves. By contrast, the “X Jar of Life represents the downfall of attending to small issues first—you end up with insufficient enough space (e.g., time, energy) remaining for your most important tasks.

This provides a useful metaphor for personal statement planning. As I just mentioned above, most applicants conceptualize anecdotes (i.e., personal events/narrative) as their “big rocks.” Upon deeper consideration, however, what are you trying to show admissions committees with a personal statement—interesting personal experiences, or the traits that make you an ideal candidate for their program? I believe the latter represent the true “big rocks” in writing a personal statement. While it may feel counterintuitive initially, notable personal attributes/accomplishments are actually much more structurally-advantageous “Big Rocks.” Putting this theoretical notion into practice, GAI advised clients to identify ~5 standout attributes to serve as core themes. Subsequently, relevant personal and professional anecdotes can be selected to provide breadth and context. The chart below provides a good template for brainstorming salient attributes you want to emphasize. I’ve identified sample attributes well-suited for a psychology grad program applicant to show using key attributes as centerpieces:

As you can see, each step rightward further contextualizes the attribute. You start with the attribute on the left and move through this process to identify specific anecdotes to use as illustrators in your personal statement.

This piece provided an overview for developing a personal statement outline. The subsequent artile in this series attends to structuring paragraphs within the essay.

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