When you applied as an undergraduate, your personal statement probably didn’t make much of a difference, because undergraduate admissions are heavily based on numbers (GPAs, test scores, etc). Graduate and professional school admissions are different! Your competitors will have grades and test scores similar to yours, because most people who have the motivation to pursue an advanced degree did well as undergraduate students. As the number of applicants rises and academic budgets are cut, every year there’s more competition for fewer admissions openings.
How does the committee determine that you have what it takes to succeed in advanced studies? You guessed it. Your personal statement will play a determining role in whether or not your application is successful.
So you know you need to write the strongest, most persuasive personal statement you can. But here are two facts you may not know. First, most reviewers will spend only a couple minutes skimming your personal statement. Second, because their job is to weed out the majority of applications, reviewers are looking for reasons not to recommend you for admission.
Avoid common mistakes that will get your application put in the reject pile. Read on for 10 simple ways you can mess up your personal statement:
1. Say thank you
Your parents and elementary school teachers taught you to be polite in writing, and you know it’s a good rule to follow. But don’t waste words thanking the committee for reading your application. It’s not the same situation as applying for a job, because you’re paying the school to review your application so that, hopefully, you can pay them to educate and train you. Starting or ending your statement with phrases like ‘Thank you for reviewing this application’ or ‘I appreciate your consideration’ can make you come across as immature, obsequious, or ignorant of academic culture.
2. Make excuses
Lots of applicants have weaknesses in their application files, especially in their transcripts. Maybe you got low grades your freshman year. Maybe you had to leave school and work for a while. Maybe you got an F in that statistics class and had to retake it. Or maybe you got a degree in one field and are applying to grad school in a different field; or you didn’t pass your medical residency exams the first time.
Whatever your weakness is, do not offer excuses and do not bad-mouth anyone. So it wasn’t your fault that the professor lost your final exam and flunked you, or jobs dried up in your original field of study, or you had the flu when you took the GRE. Don’t say anything that sounds like an excuse or sounds like you are blaming someone else for you failing to achieve a goal. Even when it is true, it may make you seem whiny and unable to accept responsibility for your actions. Instead, address the weakness at the end of your statement, and explain how you have overcome it, learned from it, and are a better candidate now because of it.
3. Summarize your resume and transcripts
Many applicants try to summarize their professional resume and academic transcripts in the personal statement. All of this information is requested in the application itself and the reviewers will see it. Personal statements are too short to waste space explaining that you got straight A’s your senior year. Instead, describe the experiences and achievements that are relevant to your development as a potential professional in your chosen field
4. Be cute or funny
Maturity is one of the most common adjectives admissions committees use to describe the ideal graduate or professional school student. You are applying to eventually become their colleague, a fellow professional. Show them you take their time, their program, your future, and yourself seriously by maintaining a positive and professional tone. Unless the application directs you to submit a creative writing sample, leave the stand-up routine for the comedy club.
5. Suggest that the program can right a wrong by admitting you
Remember that the committee members are busy professionals who are taking only a couple minutes to skim your statement. On the one hand, asserting that you will make a unique contribution to your program and bring a new perspective by adding to the diversity of their student body is a smart move and shows you as a positive, professional team player. On the other hand, asking for admission on the grounds that it will correct a previous injustice runs the risk of making you appear unqualified and/or confrontational.
6. Be sarcastic
This one doesn’t need much explanation. Your ironic commentaries and sarcastic quips make your Facebook friends laugh, because they know you. The admissions committee does not. They can easily misinterpret sarcastic comments, or decide you’re flippant, cynical, pessimistic, or a know-it-all.
7. Say something potentially offensive
Again, not much explanation needed on this one. You do not know anything about the people who are reading your personal statement. Assume they are very sensitive on all issues and write accordingly. Do not assume they agree with any of your political, social, or religious views.
8. Show your inferiority complex or your superiority complex
Many applicants have trouble striking the balance between promoting themselves and not coming off as arrogant in their personal statement. A personal statement is a marketing document and has to showcase your strengths. Yet many applicants err on the side of humility, such as using self-deprecating language; or describing weaknesses and previous failings without explaining how they’ve worked to turn those weaknesses into strengths. Admissions committees do not admit candidates out of pity!
Other applicants err on the side of conceit, giving the impression that they don’t really need any advanced training because they know so much about the field and have so much experience. They fail to describe what they expect to gain from a specialized course of education. You want to walk the line between these extremes. Assert that you are very well-qualified to begin this course of study, and that you have the preparation, motivation, maturity and focus they seek. Then stress your planned specialization, what you will gain from attending their program, and how you need the training they offer to succeed as a professional.
9. Plagiarize your statement, or submit content you paid someone to write
Most grad and professional school applicants have not read hundreds of personal statements and are unaware of how unique each person’s writing style is. It really doesn’t take much for admissions committees to note that the language and style of a candidate’s personal statement is different from the writing found in other parts of the applications. There are also a few dozen so-called sample personal statements on the internet that are frequently copied and submitted as the applicant’s own essay. Committees are well aware of this! You can also hire someone to write a personal statement for you. It may sound great to you, but you should realize that such essays are based on a template that they just customize for you, using the same paragraph organization and phrases. It’s a smart move to get an expert to help you revise and polish your words into a persuasive statement. It’s risky to plagiarize a statement from the internet, or hire someone to write the whole statement for you.
10. Use poor spelling or poor grammar
This one should be pretty obvious. Academics on admissions committees are generally high achievers with high standards who won’t disregard even simple typos. If your personal statement is not technically perfect, it can make you seem sloppy, lazy, or inattentive, which are not qualities anyone wants in a future colleague. Remember that the people skimming your essay are seeking a reason to reject your application and make the pile of possible admits smaller. Always get someone with strong writing skills to review your essay.