Writing Personal Statements and Cover Letters
First off, take a deep breath. You can do this! Second, start thinking about the personal statement early. Check to be sure, but most grad school personal statements should be a combination of "personal statement" and "research statement." Take the time to reflect on why you are interested in and passionate about the field you are planning to devote a great deal of time to: what questions, concepts, or issues draw you in? Were there particular moments or projects that helped you know that you wanted to pursue this field? In general, think about connecting your personal story and passion with the specific areas and questions you think you might want to purse, as well as how your academic and research experiences have prepared you to go forth and produce your own work.
It's also a good idea to research the program you're applying to- this will not only make you more confident that this is a program you'd actually be interested in committing to, but citing particular people in that department whose work is of interest to you shows that you know what you're getting into.
Remember that the Writing Center and your professors are great resources, and best of luck! You can do it! -- Annette Martin '14
No matter what you're applying for, there will always be lots of other very qualified applicants. Therefore, it's important to make your personal statement original so it will stand out. Tell your reader something about you that can't be read from your resume and that makes you different from all the other smart, capable people, applying for whatever you're applying for. Be sure to mention all of your accomplishments, but don't list them. Develop a story, include LOTS of details, and don't be afraid to be creative. Instead of stating "Ever since I can remember, I have been passionate about helping orphans," describe one particular orphan you helped when you were seven. Try and start with a memorable first sentence (something funny/quirky/jarring) to draw your reader in.
Writing a personal statement is hard so start early, don't plan on using your first or second draft, and ask as many people as possible for help. Good luck! -- Julia Greenwald ('14)
The key thing is that make sure that whatever you are applying for, you are truly passionate about it because people can tell from your application whether your heart belongs to it or not. Communicate your motivations clearly. If possible, ask from the people who will be reviewing these applications what they are looking for. A lot of the time, what you think is important might not be the thing they are looking for. Start early and make sure you get advice from a lot of people. For grad school apps, definitely try to visit and learn as much as possible about the research people are working on. --Xin Chen ('13)
Revisions are the most important aspect of a successful personal statement. Revisions are the only way to change your ordinary statement into one that will not only answer the prompt, but also one that will show your fit for that particular graduate program. Although this process can be discouraging in the beginning, I found that revisiting my previous drafts gave me the energy to work toward a statement that I am proud to reread. Plus, having multiple people read drafts of my statement opened my eyes to a variety of ways to improve in minor ways. In short, revise, revisit, and rejoice! –Jeweletter “Jewel” Johnson (‘13)
Cover letters are tricky, which is why when writing one you will need to be prepared to revise, revise, and--then--revise some more. To write a successful cover letter, you need to illustrate your credentials with precision, show off your writing ability, and illustrate to an employer why you’re worthy of their position in under a page. You also have to keep in mind that you submit a cover letter to someone who will be reading cover letters from many other worthy candidates. Therefore, you need to be sure that when you send your cover letter off, it is as good as it possibly could be. I found that going over my cover letters with Kathy made writing them much less stressful and was pivotal in my success with getting internships. My advise to you, then, is go into the writing center and get help with writing your cover letters; it might just be the thing that separates you from the competition. -- Sam Eckmeier ('13)
Stay on task, plan to revise many drafts, and ask for all of the help that you can. When starting my fellowship proposal, I discovered how difficult it was to explain in writing how much my internship and this fellowship truly meant to me. So, I quickly wrote an undeveloped cover letter and sought help from a number of writing assistants and friends. Multiple visits with Kathy at the Writing Center, Susannah the TRIO writing assistant, and Brent from the Career Center drastically transformed my cluttered paper into a complete written reflection of my life goals and aspirations, which they helped me magically fit into less than 1000 words. Not only did these people have seasoned and experienced eyes and advice, but they provided me with new insights by echoing back my enthusiasm. I found that they really understood how I felt and were able to help me find the right words that were hidden in my excited blabbering. I'd say that the toughest part of proposal writing for me was this translation of describing my internship as "really awesome" into a compelling and persuasive proposal that highlighted how crucial this fellowship would be to my short and long term goals. It may sound daunting and intimidating at first, but you don't have to do it alone! There are people here at Carleton who want to see you succeed and have the exact expertise that can help you make it happen. -- Dennis Ea ('13)
My biggest piece of advice would be to guard against complacency. Be ready to revise, and revise again, and revise three times after that. Be ready for people you care about to hate your personal statement, and tell you to start from scratch. Keep all of your old drafts and reread to get a feel of where you've been, and it will help you succeed in the end. -- Lingerr Senghor ('11)
If there is any one piece of advice I can impart on writing personal statements, it would be to give yourself sufficient time to meditate, reflect upon, write and revise your statement. Personal statements are challenging because they're so complex and demanding. On one hand, they're deeply personal, exposing your past, your ambitions and your values. On the other hand, they're also formulaic, requiring you to address multiple (sometimes absurdly unrelated) prompts and to paint an apparently natural connection between yourself and the opportunity for which you're applying. It may be difficult to think about all these factors at once, so the more time you allow yourself to write (and receive feedback), the most polished, cohesive and stronger your statement will appear. Good luck!!! -- Iris Yin ('08)
If you're applying to school to obtain an advanced degree, you have to tackle writing and developing your personal statement. Although this is not an easy task, I found that there are many things that can be done to alleviate some of the stress that comes from trying to make the perfect statement. For starters, it is important to allow yourself time to write the "personal statement." Although some websites recommend starting a year in advance, I found that starting four months in advance was sufficient. It all depends upon your working style. I could not imagine looking over a piece of writing as short as a personal statement (3 pgs) for more than four months. Also, it is vital to allow yourself time to produce drafts in enough time to receive critiques and constructive criticism. Send your drafts to people who know you and have heard you talk about wanting to obtain your advanced degree, such as friends, family members, teachers, etc. In addition, during your draft and editing process, make sure your are able to meet with one or two people who see personal statements on a regular basis; such as someone from the Writing Center or the Career Center. I found this step crucial in my writing process. People at the Writing Center or the Career Center may not know anything about the field you are interested in going into; however, they do have the knowledge of what a good personal statement looks and sounds/reads like. For instance, they can critique your structure, grammar usage, and the overall effectiveness of your statement. Furthermore, allowing people to read your personal statement will give you a chance to see if "YOU" are coming across on paper. When a reader finishes with your personal statement, ask what they were able to get from the personal statement, in terms of content (are you as passionate as you want to be?; are you too over the top?; etc.). Also, this will help you omit information if you are too wordy or insert missing information is you are not selling yourself enough. Although having people to read over your drafts is critical, remember not to get too many opinions on your work; you may never get it completed. Remember to answer the question(s) being asked. It is important to the the admissions committee that you can write and follow directions. In addition, have fun writing about you, your passions, and why you would be a good fit for that particular program (this is essential). Last but not least, be you and have fun! When you have written all that you can and you are finished editing, make sure that who you are has come across on paper. This may be the only contact that you have with the school/program before they decide if you should receive an interview or not. So have fun, start early, share your drafts with others, and be you! -- Maya Warren ('07)
When you are doing your statement of purpose, first read the prompt. Keep in mind that answering that prompt is your goal. Even though they may never explicitly ask for all of this, the general format is: tell us who you are (that the application reader cannot learn from the rest of your application package), tell us why you are qualified, and tell us why you would be a good addition to our team. You should think of this essay as a way for you to personally introduce yourself to the reader and to convince the application reader that you are the perfect candidate. Keep in mind that this essay is only as good as the effort you put into it. After reading the prompt and taking the time to fully understand what they are asking, make an outline to answer the question. I find it helpful to give generic answers the first time around. Then, go back and find specific instances within your life that illustrate each of the points within your essay. I found that talking to my mom was really helpful because she reminded me of some life examples that I had not thought of. Since you want to stand apart from the crowd, pick aspects of your life that are unique and unusual, and focus on them. Rather than restating what you said in your resume and the rest of your application, either say new stuff or expand on what you have already said. After you are done thinking about your own life, it is time to do some research. Go online and find out as much about the company/school that you are applying to as you possibly can. Flag aspects that you are particularly interested in. Keep in mind: the more you read, the better your essay will be. If you are applying to schools, you should find a few professors that you are interested in. Now, you want to think about actually writing the essay. Keep in mind that your goal is to stand out from the crowd (in a good way, of course) and catch the reader's attention. The majority of the candidates will likely write a basic formulaic high school English essay answer. They will give introductory sentences to each of their paragraphs, then proceed to give a set of generic points and examples, and then summarize their points. They will likely have a rigid structure to their essay, and they will tell the reader explicitly that they are the best applicants for the job. After reading hundreds of these in a day, the reader is probably going to be a little cranky; the last thing (s)he wants to do is to read another generic essay. You DO NOT want to write your statement of purpose in this format. This is not a high school English essay. Your essay still has to flow, but the structure is going to be more fluid. Launch right into your essay; no need for a structured introduction. I like to throw a small anecdote at the start of the essay to catch the reader's attention from the start that makes my first point while easing the reader into my essay. The essay should then flow effortlessly from point to point. While the essay should have a structure, it should not feel forced or rigid. Furthermore, instead of trying to sound overly ambitious, be genuine and excited! Each of the points you make should be examples from your life rather than generic points. In the background section of the essay, make sure to covertly state how you fulfill the qualities that the reader is looking for in a candidate. Also, NEVER sell yourself short. Don't say anything negative about yourself. If you have some shortcoming that you feel the reader will notice and wonder about, address it by stating what you are doing to overcome that problem. It's okay if you have gone a little over the word limit on your first pass. Once you have finished your draft, put it aside for a day or two. Get a few people to read over your essay, and ask them to look specifically at which parts of your essay worked and which ones are not relevant. Then, read it for yourself. This time, you want to clean up your essay. Reading aloud helps me identify confusing parts. Now, shorten it. You are looking for fluff and repetition. Since the reader has to read many essays, you keep his/her attention best if you keep yours short. Eliminate weak and generic examples. Cut introductions. Tighten examples. Avoid repetition. Re-evaluate word choice. Repeat. Now would be a good time to give it to someone else to read. By this point, a professor, the Write Place director, and the career center can help perfect your essay. However, while reading others' comments, keep in mind that this is YOUR essay, not theirs. As a result, you can choose to accept or reject their advice. Finally, pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Kareem El Muslemany ('09) Writing a successful fellowship application is a lot about being detailed and specific, not just about dates and information, but about ideas and how they're connected. Answering the who, what, when, where, why questions will take you a long way to a coherent and forceful application. Then you've also got to write with excitement and enthusiasm: your reader has to know you're really curious and pumped about doing the research or embarking on the experience you've set out for yourself. Also, don't think too quickly that you have to do a fellowship alone. Many fellowships lend themselves to working in a team, so try brainstorming with friends about projects you could tackle together. -- Terin Mayer ('08)
1. Revise, Revise, Revise.
2. Revise with at least two people who know you really well (e.g., they know your history, your future goals, how you want to get there).
3. Based on the prompt, add details related to your future goals and how you realized what you want to do. Basically, include enough information, and if it's well written, you can use that personal statement as a template for others.
4. People who are reading your essay don't know who you are, and your essay is the only way to convey that to them. So really express your passion and interest in that field. Make your essay stand out of from the rest: What makes you unique from everyone else? Why should they give the money to you?
5. Stay with the prompt.-- Tam Do ('09)
The most important aspects of writing a personal statement are knowing your audience and writing from your heart. It is crucial that you know who will be reading your statement and what they will be looking for. Often times, there are a group of initial reviewers that your application must pass prior to going onto the final stage, and you must wow these individuals enough to be considered by the people who matter. You should also write responses from your heart. If you don't do this, either your statement will be extremely difficult to write, since you're not writing about yourself, and if you should be accepted using that statement, the program might not be the best fit for you. It's important to remember that the places that accept you are probably the places that you would fit into the very best. A rejection should not be looked on as a bad thing, but rather something that saves you from something less than desirable. You should also read the questions carefully and make sure that you answer them explicitly. If the application asks for something and you don't address that point, even if the rest of your application is great, you probably won't be accepted. To facilitate this process, I've found it useful to consult with several individuals who applied (and were admitted) to see the strategies they used to get the scholarship or admission. Never be afraid to ask for help! Once you have drafts done, you should run these by people who know you well to see if they are representative of you and of the scholarship you are trying to achieve. Remember that revision is good, but revision is infinite and at some point you will have to call your composition good enough. Also, people will give multiple (and often time contradictory) opinions of your drafts, but in asking many people, you can get a good sense of what you should consider changing and what you wouldn't need to change. Always remember that this is your piece and never lose ownership of it. No matter what people say, you have to decide what advice to listen to and have the final say on the content of the final composition. Finally, though it can be difficult, relax! The best statements are generated by a relaxed and unburdened mind--write from the heart, know that you're lucky to have all the opportunities before you, and see what comes of it. Good luck! -- Michael Duyzend ('08)
My best advice would be this: show, don't tell. Also, I would recommend having someone who knows you really well read your statement as well as someone who is familiar with the requirements for the field you wish to enter or with the application process but who doesn't know you well. That way you can make sure that your personal statement reflects you and also the requirements. -- Amanda Krueger ('08)
When applying to non-professional graduate school, mention particular professors that you might be interested in working with. Familiarize yourself with their work and be able to articulate what exactly it is about their work that appeals to you. Also, look out for specific things about the school that make it the right place for you. For instance, if you're interested in Southeast Asian history, a school that has an Institute of Southeast Asian Studies that will support your area of interest, mention it in your application. A successful personal statement is one that you cannot duplicate for another school.-- Dashini Jeyathurai ('08)
The most important part of a person statement obviously is that it be personal, rather than what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. I've met so many people in my med school who have come from non-traditional backgrounds that it seems admissions committees aren't as concerned that students follow a particular path as they are that you gained something from doing what you love. Students should write in their own voices about experiences they've had that specifically have drawn them towards their field of interest and shaped them into the kind of student who would thrive in that program. I wrote about working as a sales representative for a lab--not really a typical job premeds take. So I talked about how working with and listening to my customers is very similar to the way that medical professionals listen to their patients and that the skills I learned in sales are actually pertinent to my future profession. Whatever the student's situation, it's always best to be honest because admissions committees know what you've done and can see through fake stories. -- Liz Downing ('06)