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Foreign Admissions

Graduate schools often list personal statements as a part of the requirements for submitting an application. Typically, the aim is to learn more about you, your struggles and weaknesses, your strength and interests, and the things that motivated you to opt for grad school at this stage in your life.

These essays help them understand your person on a more intimate level than your recommendation letters and transcripts will allow them to.

Even if you were the kings of essays and the lord of compositions in your high school and undergrad days, you want to know what your prospective graduate schools require or look out for in applicants’ personal statements.

Because we knew you’ll get to a point in the application process where you need to answer the question on what graduate schools want to see in a personal statement, we went the extra mile to get all the answers you need and we put them all in this article just for you.

Here they are:

  • Your Ability to Tell Your Story in a Compelling Way

There are thousands of applicants or even more applying for a spot in the school you are applying to. This means the selection panel will have to read the same number of personal statements. One thing you don’t want to do with your personal statement is to bore your reader(s) to the teeth.

In fact, a boring essay may be all your reader needs to throw your application into the box labelled “rejected”.

One way to engage your reader is to allow your essay tell a story. It is your autobiography anyway. So you should tell a story with it. It should zero in on your personal history riding from your failures to your successes. Not just for the fun of it but so that at the end of it all that you talk about leads your reader to the reason you have chosen the program.

It’s an essay about you, right? So, in your storytelling, you should maintain a conversational tone while using an original voice – your voice. Share your experiences and throw in a witty joke to liven it up a bit. You could also use a little informality while telling your story even though the essay is a formal one. 

However, there are a few things you shouldn’t even think of doing while writing your statement of purpose.

  1. Don’t start your essay with a quote: The professor reading must have come across that quote in the several decades he has spent on earth. And the last thing you want is for your reader to roll his eyes at the opening paragraph of your essay.


  1. Control the flow your creative juices: While we mentioned earlier that your essay could you a little informality, we don’t want you to lose touch of the essence; which is to add a little light to the seriousness of the essay. You want to ensure your image as a committed and serious applicant is still intact by the time your reader gets to the end of your essay. So, avoid superfluity and irrelevant things like fanciful fonts, images, and colours.


  1. Don’t use clichés: Cliches also have the ability to produce the rolling-my-eyes effect. So, ensure you avoid them by telling your story in a unique but honest.


Use strong and encouraging words wherever you write about challenges and setbacks. And it is fine to mention failures but you must also write about how you got or plan to get over them.


  • What Inspires Your Research Interests

It’s one thing to have defined research interests and it’s another thing to be able to tell why you have chosen those areas. Most graduate schools want to hear about these two things. And more importantly what inspired them.

Granted that statements of purpose shed more light on your professional goals, personal statements should explain what drives your interests.

PS: Don’t go all the way to the beginning just because you want to explain what motivates you. Opening statements like “I was sitting under a mango tree one sunny afternoon when a bird sat on my shoulders and whispered into my ears ‘Joyce, the world will be a better place if you study criminology’”. Please permit us to roll our eyes on behalf of your reader.

Now, broad statements of this sort are often lacklustre and don’t have what it takes to help you win a spot in the hearts of your reader.


  • What Motivates You to Apply to Grad School

In writing your personal statement, you should be able to tell your readers why you thought going to graduate school was the next step in career plans. Here are some guidelines:

  • Why is a graduate degree the next step for you?
  • How will it help you achieve your career goals?
  • If it’s been a while since you earned your bachelor’s degree, why didn’t you go to grad school earlier?
  • Did you have any challenges that didn’t allow you apply for a graduate program when you wanted to?


  • Your Writing Skills

Submitting a great personal statement is an indication that you can write your thoughts coherently. Besides, you need strong writing skills to be an excellent grad student.

So, you should ensure that you employ proper grammar usage, punctuations, spellings, and capitalization. You should also use paragraphs to break your thoughts and make your essay readable.

Don’t forget that good writing doesn’t mean you should show off new words you’ve added to your vocabulary. Moreover, because the essay requires you to be unique but original you are better off using words that come naturally to you. You don’t need high-level vocabulary to pass your message across to your readers. In fact, big words can be huge turnoffs for professors and sometimes reeks of a certain level of pride or arrogance.

You should also avoid colloquialism. Run from words like “gonna”, “gotcha” “gimme” etc. Or you’ll lose respect.

Stay in the middle of both worlds and stay safe there.


  • Reasons for Hitches in Your Academics 

If you have a remarkable academic record, you may not need this as much as someone else who doesn’t. But if you had a few challenges in your academics, personal statements are good places for you to point them out.

If a bad grade sits ugly on your transcript, there’s no way to know why it got there in the first place even if the selection committee uses the most sophisticated lenses. The only way to learn about the problems and/or changes you have had to make in your academics is by explaining them in your personal statement. Challenges of the sort may include bad grades and gaps in your education. 

Your readers ultimately want explanations for that errant grade and the gap in your education or why you made abrupt changes in your career path.

Not only should you include them in your personal statement, you should also share how you were able to overcome these challenge in your education and in your life.

For instance, if you struggled with anatomy class and earned a very poor grade on the course. The admissions committee will like to know what caused it and how you were able to get past that. If you retook the course and got a better grade, you should let them know. You should also let them know what you did to improve your grades when you retook the course.

Remember, personal statements should focus more on your strengths than your weaknesses. So, you should take advantage of the freedom to express yourself by laying more emphasis on your successes.


A Quick Recap:

It’s been quite a ride on this article, but a quick recap will help you remember the salient points about what grad schools expect to see in your personal statement.

First and foremost, the idea of a personal statement is to help the grad schools to know you better – your struggles, achievements, motivation and values. These are information about you that they can’t get on your transcripts and to some extent, letters of recommendation.

The important things to note while putting your essay together in order to meet the expectation of your grad school are:

  • Your creativity in telling a compelling story about yourself in a way that places your desire to be enrolled for the program at the centre of the story.
  • What inspires or inspired your decision to get an advanced degree in the area of specialization you have selected.
  • What motivated you to apply to the grad school at this point in your life including any challenges you may have faced that may have cause a delay or an abrupt change in your career or academic plans.
  • Your ability to write coherently and clearly by using correct punctuations, grammar, spelling, and capitalization.
  • Strong explanations for breaks and hitches that may have occurred in your academics or career

Now that you have learnt what you need to know about what grad schools expect, you want to obey the first rule of applying to grad schools: start early!

So go ahead and write your first draft.