If more students considered the personal statement to be their one chance to sell themselves in a pseudointerview, and wrote their personal statements with that in mind, more of them would get accepted.
Many students anticipating graduate school spend a significant number of hours preparing for the Graduate Record Examination. They also spend a vast amount of time preparing applications and developing their resumes. It is somewhat paradoxical, then, that so many of these same students neglect to give the same degree of attention to the personal statements most graduate programs require. Since these statements are listed by most graduate programs as of medium to high importance in reaching admittance decisions, it would behoove graduate school-bound students to put more emphasis in their writing.
I asked a representative from the Graduate Admissions Committee at a major research-oriented graduate program what he felt was the primary weakness in personal statements written by students. He did not even hesitate a second to respond. "Most students," he suggested, "forget that we call them 'personal statements' for a reason. We do not simply want a written version of the application or resume. When I have finished reading a personal statement I want to know the person. If more students considered the personal statement to be their one chance to sell themselves in a pseudointerview, and wrote their personal statements with that in mind, more of them would get accepted."
Reflect on the significance of those statements. Most personal statements are ineffective because the student fails to be 'personal.' The level of personal information that is provided needs to be extensive enough for the committee to feel confident with the kind of person you are but not reveal so much that it violates norms about personal disclosure. The student, therefore, should spend a significant amount of time writing, rewriting, and rethinking the personal statement. His or her referees should be asked to review draft versions and make suggestions for changes. As you consider the level and type of information to put into your personal statement, it would be wise to con-sider the following issues.
What yardstick do you use to determine if your personal statement has struck an appropriate balance of personal details?
If the personal statement reads more like a resume than a letter, it is too impersonal. On the other hand, if it reads more like a "this is my tragic life" excerpt, it is probably too personal. Rather than trying to develop a formula for level of personal detail, however, you should ask yourself a few fundamental questions.
Do the personal details I have included in the statement seem relevant to my ability to be a successful graduate student? If the answer to this question is no, you may want to strongly consider eliminating those details.
Do the personal details I reveal demonstrate characteristics of my "self" that reflect maturity, adaptability, and motivation? These are buzzwords that many graduate programs consider to be important qualities in incoming students.
Do the personal details convey a convincing portrayal of my abilities to succeed in this school's graduate program? If you are applying for a clinical psychology program, for example, your experience with a family member who was raped may be significantly more telling than your experiences as a lifeguard.
A second major issue to consider involves whether any of the personal details revealed should reflect weaknesses or mistakes you have made.
In some fashion you want to put your best foot forward in these statements. But many of the events that have the most impact on whom we become are the negative ones. To the extent that we can learn from those negative events and become a stronger person because of them, that may reflect well on us. Again, the pivotal word is caution. If the event seems relevant to the skills necessary for that graduate program, you should consider including it.
Relevance becomes the filter through which you process your personal statement. As long as the events seem relevant to the program for which you are applying, they should probably be included. If the events you mention illustrate, for example, that you are the kind of person who can handle adversity and reach successful resolutions, that bodes well for you as a graduate student. If, however, it seems that you are a magnet for disaster, that won't make the committee too optimistic about your ability to adapt successfully to graduate school.
One of my students who successfully gained admittance to several PhD programs started her statement by discussing the identity crisis she went through when her husband died. The picture she painted of this reformulating of her "self" was both convincing and moving. She came across as an individual who can ask herself hard questions, reflect on possible answers, and develop and successfully carry out a serious plan of action.
Another student, however, wanted to convey in her statement the breadth of her interests in psychology. She reflected on experiences that made a variety of areas in psychology fascinating to her. When she did not hear from the last program to which she had applied, I called them. They stated that she was on the short list, but they were unsure about offering her acceptance because she seemed to be interested in everything. This created doubts in their minds that she "truly" wanted to be in and would be happy with a clinical psychology program. After a telephone interview with this student, she was offered acceptance and a fellowship.
A final issue to consider involves "understatements."
Many students are hesitant to make statements about their strengths. In some ways this humility is endearing. At the same time, however, if you don't say it, who will? You can't be sure what your referees will say about your assets. If what you are skilled in is relevant to their program, tell them. Any proof you have about your abilities should be included. If you were handpicked by a faculty member to become a research assistant, mention that. Many students make statements like, "I was lucky enough to be asked to work on a research project with Professor Smith." Did luck really have anything to do with your being asked? Although you may "feel" lucky for having been asked, it was undoubtedly Professor Smith's perceptions of your abilities that motivated her to ask.
Other students make statements about working while going to school. If you worked 40 hours per week, carried an average course load of 15 credit hours, and still managed to volunteer for the suicide hot line, that is impressive. So make the statement speak as "loudly" as possible. Don't say, "Hey, look at me, aren't I amazing?" but do state the simple facts. A student who can work a full-time job, successfully complete an undergraduate program, and still contribute to the community would seem to be a good candidate for graduate school. The point being made is that understatements can be just as damaging as overstatements. Don't "underwhelm" your reader. If this committee is going to get an accurate picture of the kind of person you are, and from this they will be trying to predict what kind of a graduate student you will be, give them the facts they need to do so.
When all is said and done, the committee reading the personal statement wants to be able to make a competent decision about your ability to complete their graduate program successfully. They are motivated to bring in students who will be successful. The experiences, awards, tragedies, etc. that you have had are the information they need to make that judgment. Don't exaggerate your accomplishments, but do not minimize them either. If you feel something is especially relevant for the committee's understanding of you as a person, point that out to them. If you feel there is something within your record to which they should give less credence, you might even consider pointing this out.
Another student recently was accepted into a master's program with a very low GPA and a very average performance on the GRE. I think the primary reason was his ability to portray convincingly in the statement that he started his education off on the wrong foot. He deftly drew the committee's attention to his work within the major, illustrated the vast improvement in his performance over the last two years, and ended with statements about feeling that he had hit his stride and was ready to hit the ground running in graduate school. The proof is in the acceptance.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Randall E. Osborne, PhD, is assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University East, where he also serves as Psi Chi faculty advisor and advisor to the campus psychology club. Dr. Osborne received his PhD in social psychology from the University of Texas at Austin in 1990. His special area of interest is the field of service learning, particularly the assessment of the impact of service learning. Besides his work as a professor and advisor, he also finds time to write one fantasy adventure novel per year. His first novel, Ring of Destiny, Ring of Fate, was recently published by Northwest Publishing.
Fall 1996 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 14-15), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 1996, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.