Personal Statements and Application Letters
The process of applying for jobs, internships, and graduate/professional programs often requires a personal statement or application letter. This type of writing asks writers to outline their strengths confidently and concisely, which can be challenging.
Though the requirements differ from application to application, the purpose of this type of writing is to represent your goals, experiences and qualifications in the best possible light, and to demonstrate your writing ability. Your personal statement or application letter introduces you to your potential employer or program director, so it is essential that you allow yourself enough time to craft a polished piece of writing.
1) PREPARE YOUR MATERIALS
Before you sit down to write, do some preparation in order to avoid frustration during the actual writing process. Obtain copies of documents such as transcripts, resumes and the application form itself; keeping them in front of you will make your job of writing much easier. Make a list of important information, in particular names and exact titles of former employers and supervisors, titles of jobs you have held, companies you have worked for, dates of appropriate work or volunteer experiences, the duties involved etc. In this way, you will be able to refer to these materials while writing in order to include as much specific detail as possible.
2) WRITE A FIRST DRAFT
After you have collected and reviewed these materials, it is time to start writing. The following is a list of concerns that writers should keep in mind when writing a personal statement/application letter.
Answer the Question: A major problem for all writers can be the issue of actually answering the question being asked. For example, an application might want you to discuss the reason you are applying to a particular program or company. If you spend your entire essay or letter detailing your qualifications with no mention of what attracted you to the company or department, your statement will probably not be successful. To avoid this problem, read the question or assignment carefully both as you prepare and again just prior to writing. Keep the question in front of you as you write, and refer to it often.
Consider The "I" Problem: This is a personal statement; using the first person pronoun "I" is acceptable. Writers often feel rather self-conscious about using first person excessively, either because they are modest or because they have learned to avoid first and second person ("you") in any type of formal writing. Yet in this type of writing using first person is essential because it makes your prose more lively. Using third person can result in a vague and overly wordy essay. While starting every sentence with "I" is not advisable, remember that you and your experiences are the subject of the essay.
Avoid Unnecessary Duplication: Sometimes a writer has a tendency to repeat information in his or her personal statement that is already included in other parts of the application packet (resume, transcript, application form, etc.). For example, it is not necessary to mention your exact GPA or specific grades and course titles in your personal statement or application letter. It is more efficient and more effective to simply mention academic progress briefly ("I was on the Dean's List"; or "I have taken numerous courses in the field of nutrition") and then move on to discuss appropriate work or volunteer experiences in more detail.
Make Your Statement Distinctive: Many writers want to make their personal statements unique or distinctive in some way as a means of distinguishing their application from the many others received by the company or program. One way to do this is to include at least one detailed example or anecdote that is specific to your own experience—perhaps a description of an important family member or personal moment that influenced your decision to pursue a particular career or degree. This strategy makes your statement distinctive and memorable.
Keep It Brief: Usually, personal statements are limited to 250–500 words or one typed page, so write concisely while still being detailed. Making sure that each paragraph is tightly focused on a single idea (one paragraph on the strengths of the program, one on your research experience, one on your extracurricular activities, etc.) helps keep the essay from becoming too long. Also, spending a little time working on word choice by utilizing a dictionary and a thesaurus and by including adjectives should result in less repetition and more precise writing.
Personal Statement Format
As mentioned before, the requirements for personal statements differ, but generally a personal statement includes certain information and can follow this format (see following model).
Many personal statements begin with a catchy opening, often the distinctive personal example mentioned earlier, as a way of gaining the reader’s attention. From there you can connect the example to the actual program/position for which you are applying. Mention the specific name of the program or company, as well as the title of the position or degree you are seeking, in the first paragraph.
- Detailed Supporting Paragraphs
Subsequent paragraphs should address any specific questions from the application, which might deal with the strengths of the program/position, your own qualifications, your compatibility with the program/position, your long-term goals or some combination thereof. Each paragraph should be focused and should have a topic sentence that informs the reader of the paragraph’s emphasis. You need to remember, however, that the examples from your experience must be relevant and should support your argument about your qualifications.
Tie together the various issues that you have raised in the essay, and reiterate your interest in this specific program or position. You might also mention how this job or degree is a step towards a long-term goal in a closing paragraph. An application letter contains many of the same elements as a personal statement, but it is presented in a business letter format and can sometimes be even shorter and more specific than a personal statement. An application letter may not contain the catchy opening of the personal statement but instead includes detailed information about the program or position and how you found out about it. Your application letter usually refers to your resume at some point. Another difference between a personal statement and an application letter is in the conclusion, which in an application letter asks for an interview.
3) REVISING THE PERSONAL STATEMENT/APPLICATION LETTER
Because this piece of writing is designed to either get you an interview or a place in a graduate school program, it is vital that you allow yourself enough time to revise your piece of writing thoroughly. This revision needs to occur on both the content level (did you address the question? is there enough detail?) and the sentence level (is the writing clear? are the mechanics and punctuation correct?). While tools such as spell-checks and grammar-checks are helpful during revision, they should not be used exclusively; you should read over your draft yourself and/or have others do so.
Produced by Writing Tutorial Services, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
The personal statement can mean the difference between rejection and acceptance. A well-crafted statement can tip the admission scale in your favor; a poorly written one can leave you out of the running. Think of the personal statement as a chance for you to introduce yourself—your background, experiences, knowledge of the field, goals and personality—to the selection committee. It also affords you the opportunity to explain any irregularities or shortcomings of your candidacy.
Some programs will ask you to write one statement covering a number of areas. Others require a brief response to a series of essay questions. Your best writing comes when you have an actual audience in mind and specific questions. I recommend that you don’t just write a generic personal statement but that you write a personal statement for the school with the earliest deadline.
Here is some advice on how to structure your statement, and what to emphasize and include:
WRITING THE STATEMENT
(by Carla Trujillo, Ph.D., Director, Graduate Opportunity Program, University of California Berkeley)
KEEP IN MIND
- Remember that they read between the lines: motivation, competence, potential as a graduate student, knowledge of the field or subfield and fit with the department should all be apparent.
- Emphasize everything from a positive perspective and write in an active, not a passive, voice.
- Tailor your response to the particular question being asked, the specific department and program. Avoid sending generic statements.
- Demonstrate everything by example. Don’t say directly, for example, that you’re a persistent person; you must demonstrate it.
- You don’t want to make excuses, but you can talk about the mistakes you’ve made as a learning experience.
- If there is something important that happened which affected your grades (poverty, illness, excessive work, etc.) go ahead and state it, but write it affirmatively, that is, in a way that shows your perseverance.
- Write with authority like a fellow colleague.
- Stick to the word limit guidelines.
- Single space statement, unless told otherwise.
- Understand that writing an effective, flawless statement takes considerable time and several sets of eyes.
How you arrange your statement and what you include ultimately will be up to you. The following outline, written by Carla Trujilo, provides a clear sense of the kinds of things to cover and a logical means of organizing that information.
Part 1: Introduction
This is where you tell them what you want to study. For example, “I wish to pursue an MS degree in Mechanical Engineering with an emphasis in controls”. Some applicants begin with a personal story. Make your opening sufficiently interesting, enticing the committee to read on. One Augsburg student applying to grad school in physics started his statement, “When I first enrolled in college I wanted to study Asian religions.” This path is probably atypical for doctoral candidates in physics and thus draws the reader in. Another began, “I was eighteen years old when I saw my first computer. Five years later I am applying to the doctoral program in Computer Science at….” These lines astound the reader while opening the door for the student to talk about being an immigrant, how his interest and aptitude in computer science developed and what goals he has for the future.
Part 2: Summarize what you did as an undergraduate
- Important class or classes you took which stimulated your desire for graduate study, such as a specific project for a class. Maybe conversations with a professor or a study abroad experience piqued your interest for graduate study.
- Research you might have done. Indicate with whom, the title of the project, what your responsibilities were, the outcome and any poster or oral presentations you might have given. Again, it’s important not to simply list what you did but the impact it had on you: what you learned about the field, yourself or the research process, how the experience shaped your decision to pursue graduate work in this particular field, etc. Write technically; professors are the people who read these statements.
- Work experience if it relates to your field of study or more generally, demonstrates preparation for graduate school. Tutoring or classroom teaching experience, for example, is often relevant, since it shows a more firm grasp of subject matter, and that you might be a good candidate for a teaching assistantship. Similarly, describe any kind of responsibility you’ve had for testing, designing, researching, extensive writing, etc.
Part 3: If you graduated and worked for a while and are returning to grad school, indicate what you’ve been doing while working: company, work/design team, responsibilities, what you learned. You can also indicate here how this helped you focus your intent to do graduate studies.
Part 4: Here you indicate what you want to study in graduate school in greater detail. This is a greater elaboration of your opening paragraph.
- Indicate area of interest, then state questions you might have which are associated with the topic, i.e., what you might be interested in studying or researching. You should have an area of emphasis selected before you write the statement. If you have no idea, talk to a professor about possible areas of interest or current questions in the field.
- Look on the web for information about the professors and their research. Are there professors whose interests match yours? If so, indicate this, as it shows that you have done your homework and are highly motivated. (Be sincere, however; don’t make up something bogus just to impress people.) Ideally you have read some of the professors’ work and have been in contact with them prior to making application and can make reference to that exchange. Having a faculty member pulling for you from the inside is a winning strategy.
- Talk about what draws you to this particular program. Show that you are familiar with the unique features, focus, field experiences, or faculty, etc. of this program.
- End your statement in a positive and confident manner with a readiness for the challenges of graduate study.
OTHER RESOURCES FOR WRITING THE STATEMENT OF PURPOSE
How to Write a Personal Statement
by Dal Liddle, Augsburg University English Department
Personal Statements for Graduate School (Humanities) Everything that follows is an elaboration of this one main issue: graduate school is specific career training and apprenticeship for the the profession of academic teaching and scholarship. If you are the sort of person who should be a professional academic. and can say honestly and clearly how you know that your essay will probably succeed. If you aren’t your essay will probably reveal that-saving you and your readers much wasted time and needless sorrow. either way, everybody wins.
1. Although the application process seems cold and impersonal, the human readers who pick up your essay and read it will probably feel hopeful, not hostile, as they start to read. Their goal is to build a good graduate class out of the stack of apps before them, and to bring in students who will enrich their own intellectual lives and lives of their classmates. Despite its high-stakes nature, the, the personal statements should be written sincerely and openly, not defensively.
2. While a personal statement is written to an admissions committee-a group of future colleagues who ideally will like you and want to meet you-it is not really written for the committee. The committee should never have the sense that you are saying what you think they want to hear. The writing should therefore start with the most specified information that you can nail down about yourself, your reason to believe that your vocation and fitness lie in this area, and your choice of this particular school.
3. The personal statement should show the reader/committee four things that are unique to you. These are your individual:
- Qualifications (of intellect, will, and intestinal fortitude)
- Commitment (motivation and sense of vocation-this is really what you want to do)
- Personality and Backstory (those part relevant to this choice of career)
- Comprehension (of what grad school is and does; what the life and duties of a grad student are; what this particular school-teachers, library-offers you.)
The statements need not do any of these four things exhaustively-it can suggest some while developing others. It need not separate them in the arbitrary way I have, or invoke them in my arbitrary order. But none of them can e obviously missing of inadequate.
4. Despite their optimism, grad admissions readers know very well what can (and very often does) go wrong in grad school, and the following questions will be inescapably present to them. Every essay implicitly offers an answer too them, for better or worse:
“Should this person be in grad school at all (or has he/she perhaps been placed on this earth for some other good and noble purpose)?”
“Has this person chosen the right grad school for the right reasons? Do we have what he she wants-not just reputation, but resources? A bad fit to our program will drop out,transfer,or be miserable and spread misery.”
“Will this person be an asset to our program-will he/she add diversity, collegiality, and intelligent ideas to our classes? Will he/she finish course work on time, write a good dissertation, get a good job, and ass to our reputation in the profession and among our peer colleges?”
“Will this person be interesting and enjoyable to work with and even mentor?”
5. Finally, every admissions reader watches for “red flags” that signal an unqualified candidate, such as:
- Lack of basic necessary skill to succeed in the field (to write coherently, to do research)
- Lack of sophistication in the specialty field
- Mainly negative rather than positive motives for choosing grad school (e.g., wanting to escape the “real world” or an unpleasant job, wanting to stay in college)
- Emotional instability and/or security
How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School
by Richard J. Stelzer
Stelzer offers concise yet informative suggestions for crafting a statement. At the back of the book is a survey that should help you get started writing. The thin book includes suggestions on what to include and what not to include, sample personal statements and advice from people who serve on graduate admissions committees across the country, offering a rare look inside the process.
Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice
by Donald Asher
Donald Asher is a well known figure in the world of graduate school admission. His writing is clear, concrete and often humorous. He walks the reader through the prewriting, writing, rewriting and editing processes. The book includes 50 sample essays.
Visit the URGO Office to peruse these books and read sample personal statements written by Augsburg students.