On Writing A Dope Graduate Program Personal Statement

We often receive emails from students asking for pointers on the graduate program personal statement. As a doctoral student and active mentor in my community, I review doctoral and undergraduate personal statements often.

While the specific form/prompt may differ depending on the program, I offered some general advice and thought I’d share it with you, in the event that some of you were seeking this information also. Here are my Eight Points:

  1. To begin, start well in advance and take your time.
  2. Tell a story that is deeply personal/meaningful to you, and settle in the discomfort of vulnerability. The passion that sits in that space is tangible from the way you tell the story, and the reader will be able to feel it. Let it expose a bit of who you are, even if indirectly. A lesson I’ve learned from the very best personal statements over the years is this: If you are not uncomfortable with the level of vulnerability of your sharing, you aren’t doing this part correctly.
  3. Think of your story as an arc or hill-– set it up, show the problem, solve the problem. In the process of doing that, make sure you’re revealing something about yourself, why medicine, why you, why this* school/program, etc. Why do you have the fortitude/determination/conviction to do this? Why is your story worthy? Why are you special? What has your experience taught you?
  4. Write at length first, then cut it down. A lot. For example, write an essay that’s 2-3 times as long as your target length, then cut out all the extra language (even some of the language you didn’t think was extra) so that what you have left is absolutely critical– so that what’s left really holds the meat of what you’re trying to convey.
  5. Be strategic. What does each piece of your application add to the picture you’re trying to paint of who you are, and why you’re the best candidate for this program? Plenty of folks have grades/scores, so why you (other than “why not you”)?
  6. Be clear. Before you begin writing, be clear (maybe draw a linear strategic map) on what you want to do with your career. What do you want to do? Who do you want to serve? Do you know (it’s okay if you don’t)? Are there study, practice abroad or travel opportunities you want to participate in? Do you want to serve a particular population? Why? What are the barriers to care for them? Why do you want to serve them?
  7. Challenges & Blockages. Are there any challenges that you have experienced that you’d like to explain, but haven’t had the opportunity to elsewhere in your application? Anything you’d like to include? For thought: What do you foresee as your challenges for achieving your goals, and what personal measures are you putting in place to help mitigate those roadblocks? Any system-level challenges you can side-step?
  8. Finally, identify your review team. Can you think about what stage you want each person to review for you? For example, can you have a creative friend review your concept early on, just from the point of storytelling, and have someone technical review your second-round to make sure you’re touching on the major points in your field? Can you have someone who’s a grammatical guru read your work last, and a close friend/family read in between (ie, if you’re debating between topics, if you’ve forgotten things or are debating between phrases). I recommend having a few folks to review. It may be that you know someone who went to the programs you’re targeting and can help you to emphasize specific things in each program’s draft (ie, if one is more focused on people and culture/patient populations, or another is more focused on technical items like whether you have the methodological chops).

What advice do you offer for students writing personal statements for advanced degrees?

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Has one comment to “On Writing A Dope Graduate Program Personal Statement”

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  1. Glen - January 14, 2019 Reply

    The one piece of advice I would add about being strategic, which comes from admissions officers, is to customize to fit the school and program you are applying to. Ideally candidates are applying to programs whose mission, faculty research interests etc. align with the candidate’s values and career goals. Showing in your personal statement how all of this makes you an ideal fit will help you get in. Additionally, I highly recommend connecting with faculty who you might like to work during your tenure in the program. Networking with faculty in this way, can help clarify if you click with this faculty member in a way that would be comfortable for you to work with them. It can also help your cause in the admissions process as many faculty either sit on an admissions decision making committee or can easily share their recommendations to those who do (don’t forget that admissions staff are not the decision makers, program directors and faculty committees are). Faculty want RAs/TAs who will support their work and some might be willing to give advice to a well qualified candidate on an application to remove any barriers to entry. I’m not suggesting they will review your personal statement but they might point you in a direction or away from another.

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