How to Start Your Personal Statement for Graduate School

28/02/20223 minute read
How to Start Your Personal Statement for Graduate School

My last blog on “How to Write a Personal Statement for Grad School: US Edition” explored the purpose of the personal statement and some methods of making a merely decent statement into a good one. This blog will help you jump-start your statement. I’ll also offer some tips about how to stay organized while editing your essay to suit different schools.

If you’re planning to submit your graduate school apps in December, then you should begin thinking about your personal statement no later than October—and much sooner if you’re also applying for fellowships. How can you start writing, when you’re months away from the deadline? Begin by replying to some short prompts that may remind you of why, exactly, you are motivated to apply in the first place. Here are some options:

  • What academic project or related work experience has most inspired you? Write a paragraph about how it shaped your present interests and goals.
  • Make a list of the top five scholarly experiences that you’ve had to date and, in a sentence, describe why they qualify as your favorite or most influential projects.
  • Describe why you’ve decided to include one of your research samples in your application. How does it speak to your larger personality as a scholar?
  • Have you completed an internship, career experience, or extracurricular endeavor that has influenced your scholarly personality for the better? Reflect on it in a paragraph.
  • What is your ultimate career goal, and how will going to graduate school help you achieve it? One paragraph.

Once you’ve had a chance to work through these prompts, you should start thinking holistically about the ingredients and structure of your personal statement. The main ingredients of a personal statement are: 

  • your backstory: the story of how you came to care about your scholarly field 
  • your scholarly autobiography: specific examples of projects that you’ve undertaken to immerse yourself in this field, with attention to your research sample[s]
  • your plan: a description of how you would like to build on this work in graduate school
  • your dream: how (and why) you would ultimately like to use the knowledge and skills that you will gain in this program

Once you’ve drafted a basic version of your statement, checking off all the items above, it’s time to start thinking about particular schools’ limitations, advisors, and programs. To stay organized, create a spreadsheet with the following columns: school, word limit, potential advisors, classes of interest, benefits of program, downsides to program, university opportunities (beyond the program, e.g., study abroad), scholarships / funding. Use your research from when you were “Shopping for Programs” and each program’s website to fill in this spreadsheet with specificity. The more details, the better.

Before you begin implementing these details, let’s return to your personal statement draft. Your first round of editing should be to create two versions of your basic statement: one a bit shorter than the lowest word limit in your spreadsheet and one around the median length. Try to be as concise as possible. 

With these two starter-statements drafted, you can begin creating school-specific versions, using the details from your spreadsheet. It can be a challenge to balance all of this information in one short statement, so I recommend reaching out to a friend, mentor, colleague, or one of Crimson’s Graduate Advisors for guidance and motivation in the editing process. Happy writing!