by Rich Carriero
There’s no denying that GPA and test scores are the most critical elements to being considered for admission to a graduate program or business school. But once your grades and GRE/GMAT scores are in the competitive range and you have an admissions committee’s attention, the personal statement is one of the key factors that will help determine whether you are chosen over other qualified applicants. As such this task is a crucial opportunity to make your mark as a real person with a compelling story to tell, an admirable vision for the future and the potential to get there. Here are some guidelines to help you craft the kind of essay that admissions officers will remember when it comes time to make their decision:
1) Your personal statement is a marriage proposal. Remember that if admitted to a program, you are going to be attending that school for years and you will be an ambassador of its brand for the rest of your life. So, fit is important. Like a marriage proposal there are two questions you want to answer: why you and why them. In terms of the former, make sure your statement conveys your strengths and achievements without gushing or false modesty. Regarding the latter, you want to make the admissions officers feel like you actually want to attend their school, so make sure you convey specific knowledge of the program in question—its specialties, star faculty, resources, campus, famous alumni, etc.
2) Strive for authenticity. The main purpose of a personal statement is to provide a narrative to back up the data from your transcripts. One effective way is to focus on the formative experiences of your life. These aren’t just any obstacles and achievements, however; they need to be the experiences that molded you. For example, if you are a child of divorce, you can focus on the self-reliance that you had to develop in a single-parent family, often responsible for yourself and younger siblings because your mother frequently had to work late. You relate the tale of how working a part time job for a year in high school to save up the money for a school trip to Spain provided your first concrete example of the value of hard work. More than just the development of your character, however, you also want to make a connection with the field in which you seek to make a career. If you aim to become a psychologist or manage your own business, there’s going be some compelling story in your background about how you came to that path. Mine your life story for the most interesting and detailed examples of how you came to be a serious candidate for graduate level education.
3) Articulate a vision for your future. Schools are invested in the success of their students. They want to know what you plan on doing with your MBA or master’s. If you’re applying for a history master’s program, for example, it’s not enough to just talk about how much you love history. Your graduate degree will put you on the front line of your field’s quest for ever greater knowledge and understanding. They want to know what you’re going to do in that position. So a clear vision might sound more like this: “I want to expand our understanding of how the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s had its immediate origins in World War II, particularly in the contributions of African Americans in the war effort and on the home-front. I look forward to studying under Professor Y, one of the foremost experts on this topic and learning how to reconstruct contemporary attitudes through examination of recorded media and economic activity statistics.” If you are applying to business school, it’s OK if your goal is to be successful, but you still want to explain exactly what career arc is going to produce your success. Are you looking to help a corporation expand by forming international partnerships? Are you looking to manage an investment company that provides capital for environmentally responsible startups?
4) Explain your mistakes. Another purpose of a personal statement is to explain any black marks on your record. If your transcripts reveal lost semesters during which your grades were sub-par, you can use this space as an opportunity to explain any outside factors—sickness, injury, family tragedy or financial troubles—that might have temporarily brought down your grades. Short of that, you can also point out how your poor grades came before you decided to change your major from biology to English literature, with a contrite explanation that you realized that your heart wasn’t in your initial field of study. You should highlight any upward trend in grades as a reflection of your growing maturity and commitment to your career path. What you don’t want to do here is talk about how hard the classes were or how you had a difficult time balancing school work with an active social life. The goal is simply to make a case that these blemishes had a reasonable explanation and that since you have made the necessary adjustments, they are firmly in your past.
5) Your statement is an ongoing project. This is not a timed essay on the GRE, which merely serves as a sample of your writing skill. Your personal statement needs to be a thoughtful and polished expression of who you are, where you came from, where you’re going and how the Mudville School of Business is going to help you get there. So you’ll want to do some brainstorming to come up with the key talking points of your essay and some planning to determine its structure. A key to effective writing is to have substantive examples about which you can write a great deal without having to resort to clichés or fluff. Once you have your essay planned, then you can turn to writing and focus on clothing your essay in effective language. Focus on your subjects and verbs and keep the adjectives and adverbs to a minimum. Use sophisticated vocabulary—but choose your words precisely and only use words that you have mastered. Don’t worry about the word count when constructing your first draft: over-write and then whittle down, like a sculptor removing excess material and polishing what remains. When a draft seems finished, have multiple people read it for content, rhythm and grammar. Then revise. Occasionally, it helps to step away for a few days so that you can come at it with fresh perspective.
It’s easy to get caught up in your GPA and GRE/GMAT scores as these are critical to acceptance, but the personal statement is an important piece of your application as well. Your personal statement helps the admissions committees view you as a real, three-dimensional person and not just a list of attributes on a piece of paper (or several). If you follow these guidelines and spend time crafting your essay, you can make an impact that will help you stand out from the crowd.
Rich Carriero is the Director of Next Step’s GMAT and GRE programs. He has over twenty years of experience working with students and has contributed to many pedagogical resources in addition to authoring Next Step’s GMAT Strategy Guide. To learn more about our GRE program, click here. To learn more about our GMAT program, click here.