Writing an Awesome Personal Statement: 5 strategies for success

5 Strategies to Writing a Successful Personal Statement

Every student I have ever worked with has absolutely loved writing their personal statement for graduate school. Who wouldn’t, right? Ok, honestly, no one does. It is a notoriously painful process that few people relish; trying to encompass who you are and what you want from life in 5,300 characters. But, it doesn’t have to be such a difficult endeavor! Follow these five strategies for success:

#1. Have other people read it

Listen, I get it. I hate people reading my work before I feel like it is shiny and wonderful. But that is not how a personal statement process works. You need to let other people read it, and you should let them read it early in the process to save yourself time and angst. Why obsess over perfecting sentence structure before you get feedback regarding whether the content you have is on track? People to consider for reviewing your statement: a Knowlton Center Career Coach (Pick me! Pick me!), a faculty member, someone from the Lisska Center, a professional in the industry you have an interest in, or a mentor. However, don’t ask more than 2-3 people to help with the review process. Any more than that, and you have too many cooks in the kitchen (as my grandma loved to say, probably to keep me out of said kitchen and its customary cookie jar).

#2. Start early

I mean it! Not just early, I’m talking EARLY early. When working with a student, I typically go through a minimum of four drafts with them. I reviewed 13 drafts for one student I worked with last year (let me tell you, that was a polished final product!). So, this isn’t something where you sit down, pound back a Vitamin Water “Focus” drink and write the night before you submit. I recommend starting your first draft two months in advance of when you hope to apply, at minimum. This also allows you to provide your personal statement draft to letter of recommendation writers if they want it, which enhances the cohesiveness of your application materials.

#3. Focus on a few things, but tell them well

I 100% understand that you, as a complex human being, have so much you want the admission committee to know about you. However, I strongly recommend not telling your audience ten things broadly, and instead telling them 2-3 things powerfully. Always strive for depth over breadth by focusing on key ideas and expanding on those well.

#4. Create a compelling narrative

Show, don’t tell. Give readers a story to connect with. This means providing examples that expand and connect to your goals and values, not just reiterating your résumé. Your goal is not to just list experiences, but to make meaning of them. Discuss what life events brought you to this decision, the experiences that confirmed it for you. Ask yourself:

  • What kinds of qualities are necessary for the profession I wish to pursue?
  • Where have I demonstrated those qualities?

The personal statement is your chance to show why you are a good fit for the profession and the program in an authentic manner. You don’t have to be “unique”, you just have to be real.

#5. Just get started!

You are never going to feel excited to sit down and bust out a personal statement. The hardest step will be writing the first sentence on a blank word document. Stop, breathe, just begin. Here are some strategies to get started:You are never going to feel excited to sit down and bust out a personal statement. The hardest step will be writing the first sentence on a blank word document. Stop, breathe, just begin. Here are some strategies to get started:

Make a Life Timeline: Outline your life in chronological order. Include anything that is important to you, from running a marathon to conducting research with faculty. Put this aside for a few days, then revisit it and ask: “What are the things that most excite me and relate to my pursuit of graduate school?”

Free Write: Sit down and start writing. Don’t worry about if it is “good”, just write.

Here are some questions to free write in response to:

  • Why am I interested in pursuing this program of study?
  • What experiences have confirmed my commitment to pursuing this program?
  • Who has influenced my decision?
  • What challenges have I faced on the way to graduate/professional school?
  • What kind of impact do I want to have on the world with this degree?
  • Why do I believe I will be a good fit for this program & excel in it?


 Authored by Sara Stasko, Associate Director for Graduate School & Pre-Health Advising