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Writing a Personal Essay for Graduate and Professional School

The personal statement is a labor of love and hate, often requiring many drafts and several weeks of work in order to complete a specific, accurate, and vivid portrayal of the author in two pages or less. Personal statement essays represent a graduate or professional school's first encounter with the applicant, and must, therefore, show evidence of both the intellect and the character of the author. These essays should define who the author is, why they want admission to the school, and why they are seeking a certain career. They are "clear, succinct statements that reflect clarity, focus, and depth" (Steltzer 12).

To begin your essay, brainstorm using the following questions:

  • What might help the evaluating committee better understand you? What sets you apart from other applicants? Who will be applying for the same program?
  • Why are you interested in this field? What things have stimulated and reinforced your interest?
  • How did you learn about this field (classes, seminars, work experience)?
  • What are your career aspirations?
  • Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that need to be explained?
  • What skills or personal characteristics do you possess that would enhance your chances for success in this field?
  • Why should an admissions committee be interested in you? (Steltzer 4-5)

Write the first draft from this, then try to find an angle or a hook which can sink into the admissions committee; a good place to start is with an original and provoking opening paragraph. "One of the worst things you can do with your personal statement is to bore the admissions committee, yet that is exactly what most applicants do" (Steltzer 6). Admissions committees see thousands of "I have always wanted to be a..." opening paragraphs, so a good way to make the essay more interesting is to write about an anecdote or memorable incident that led you to choose the particular profession. This can help add drama, vitality, and originality to the statement. It is important, however, that the anecdote is related to the questions asked and not just a retelling of a catchy life drama.

After you have written the first, second, or third draft, there are another set of evaluative questions that you can work through to help you revise your essay.

  • Does the opening paragraph grab your attention?
  • Is the statement interesting or does it put you to sleep?
  • Is it a positive portrayal? Is it upbeat and confident?
  • Is it an honest portrayal?
  • Have you answered all the questions thoroughly?
  • Has anything relevant been omitted? Work or academic experience?
  • Does the statement provide insight into your character?
  • Is it well-written? Is the grammar, tone, and verb agreement perfect?
  • Are there any typos? (Steltzer 107)

For your final draft, be sure to avoid sloppiness, poor English, spelling errors, whining, manufacturing a personality, avoiding the questions that are asked on the application, high school experiences, personal biases about religion, ethnicity, politics, sexist language, revealing of character weaknesses, and arrogance (Asher 46-47).

The personal statement is extremely important in gaining admittance to graduate and professional schools. Although it can be frustrating to write an original and well devised statement, through time and drafts it will be written. "The ones that are good take time. The ones that are bad can sabotage your chances for success" (Steltzer 1). It is also important that you show your drafts to a Writing Center tutor, your academic advisor, Career Planning advisor, and friends; they will help you write an essay that reveals the right balance of personal and academic characteristics and specifics.

By Kerry Neville, Colgate '94, and Bruce Pegg.


Asher, Donald. Graduate Admissions Essays--What Works, What Doesn't, and Why. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 1991.

Steltzer, Richard R. How to Write a Winning Personal Statement. New Jersey: Peterson, 1991.

Source: Colgate University Writing Center: Handouts