“When applying to study in the US, I would recommend thoroughly researching universities. Personally contact admissions departments or professors because it makes your application stand out when you’ve taken the initiative to find out more about the department.” – Former Fulbright Student
The most important part of any university or scholarship application is the personal statement. A strong personal statement can set you apart from other applicants and give you a chance to explain how you meet the selection criteria. (It is used in place of your personal interview)
Faculty members and scholarship selection committees want to know as much as they can about each applicant. Admissions exam scores, university degree results and letters of reference are all important indicators of an applicant’s academic potential. However, this information does not reveal much about the student’s character, motivation, future academic or career goals or why the applicant is interested in that particular university or field. The personal statement exists to allow applicants to convey something personal about themselves, and to convince the selection committee that the applicant is an especially attractive candidate.
Writing Your Personal Statement
As you download applications, you will quickly find there is no set structure for writing a personal statement. Often the only instruction you will get is on the word count or number of pages.
This is both a blessing and a curse. You have the freedom to be creative – yes, even if you are doing a PhD in Astrophysics! How does one summarize your life into two pages?
- Our best tip is for you to stop and think before you put pen to paper – do you know what your short and longer-term goals are? Are you yourself convinced that this program will help you fulfil these? It will be hard to convince a university if you don’t believe so yourself! Have you done enough research into selecting suitable university programs? or researching the scholarship program? Are you convinced they are a good fit for you? Do you know what the admissions or selection criteria are? Is your CV updated?
- After you have all of this necessary information for writing a personal statement, we encourage you to have a rigorous brainstorming session. Think about your personal statement as a marketing tool. You want to convey all of your strengths, as they relate to the prompt provided and/or the selection criteria. We recommend making a list of the criteria and assigning 1-2 examples of how you have demonstrated these. Think of these as your talking points. Like a politician, no matter what you are asked in the personal statement or essay prompts you will try to address these in your application package. Cross off those that will be covered in other areas of your application such as references or the transcriptor at least note them to avoid overlap.
- Now you know what you want to say. Consider how you will say it. Keep in mind that the personal statement is a creative writing piece. You will also want to have an introduction, conclusion and theme connecting your points. Have a look at some sample personal statements in your field online to get a sense of the typical style.
- Write an introduction: You will notice many students start with a personal anecdote or quotation that illustrates their motivation for studying their degree. This shows the reader a bit more about yourself, and can create a theme connecting paragraphs.
- Take your talking points from #2 and arrange them into three themes: why me, why here and why now.
Why me: Connect the dots between your CV and transcript. What relevant preparation (academic, extracurricular or work) do you bring to the program? Don’t just describe what you have done. Go beyond and talk about what you gained from these experiences and how this will make you an ideal student for the program.
Why here: Describe your academic fit with the university or for a scholarship program, your connection with their mission. Is there a particular concentration or faculty member you’re excited about? Look back at the choosing a degree program page for ideas. If there is not a separate research statement, talk in detail about your plans for research or your intended coursework.
Why now: What are your short/long-term goals? How does doing this program, at this time, at this university help you fulfil these? And how what will you do with this degree or participation in this scholarship program?
- Write a conclusion: Be sure to wrap up your personal statement. What is the main message the reader should take away? Can you connect this back to the theme you introduced in the first paragraph? Try to end on a powerful and positive note.
Other important rules of thumb to keep in mind when composing your personal statements include:
- Address the personal statement specifications fully
- Use clear, concise language – say what you mean
- Avoid vague or empty statements, clichés and cultural references that may not translate well to a U.S. audience
- When you re-use a personal statement, be careful to submit the correct personal statement to the correct university and double-check that all references within the text are to the correct university
- Proof read your work and to ask several individuals to proofread your personal statements and offer their feedback. (Grammar and spelling mistakes will reflect poorly upon your level of effort.)
- Avoid too much overlap with other sections of your application package
- Address any gaps or weaknesses in your application or academic performance – turn them into a positive if you can