Here’s an example of a common prompt: ”A personal statement of 1,000 words or less from the nominee describing his or her background, interests, plans for graduate study and career aspirations. The statement should include a discussion of some experiences and ideas that have shaped those interests, plans and aspirations.”
As Mary Tolar has noted, “If you are applying for nationally competitive scholarships, for graduate school, or for a number of post-graduate service or employment opportunities, you have seen the vaguely phrased request; in one form or another, it comes down to “tell us something about yourself… You are asked to share your “academic and other interests. A clearer charge might be: compose an essay that reveals who you are, what you care about, and what you intend to do in this life. Tell this story in a compelling manner, and do so in less than a thousand words. What’s so hard about that? Simply make sense of your life. (right.) But what does that mean?”
The personal statement is more like a genre than a rubric; there are set of constraints, but no formulas. This means that we need to triangulate our understanding of what it will be with more than one piece of advice rather than a single definition.
For that reason, I recommend you begin by printing out Mary Tolar’s advice. Highlight the phrases that strike you as helpful. Chances are, these are the phrases that surprise you or confirm what was a hunch. Noticing what stands out will help reveal assumptions you may not have even known you had. (This is a stage in the process that should not be overlooked in your rush to master the personal statement. The more you notice what you are learning, the easier the process will become.)
Now that application deadlines are just around the corner, today we’ll take a look at the main types of admissions writing. These terms get thrown around a lot at this time of year, so it may be helpful to dissect each and provide a bit more in-depth information.
Application Essay, Admissions Essay, and Admission Essay
These three terms are often used interchangeably when describing an essay featured as part of an application. These essays can range from 100 to 1,000 words in length and almost always have a very specific prompt or question, which vary widely depending on the specific school:
- Why do you want to attend our school?
- Write page 273 of your autobiography.
- Describe a time when you failed at something. What did you learn?
Admissions essays are most commonly found on college and MBA applications.
Tip: When writing an admissions essay, make sure that you read the prompt or question carefully and fully. Many have multiple parts, and you need to address everything in your response.
A personal statement is a general type of admissions essay, most commonly found on applications to medical schools, residencies, graduate programs, and law schools. The average personal statement is 500-1,000 words in length and is meant to provide a fairly broad overview of the applicant. Topics covered include where an interest in the field of choice developed, how skill and experience have been built in that field, and goals/plans for the future.
Tip: Avoid covering information in your personal statement that is included elsewhere in your application. Things like grades, employment history, and test scores should not be included unless you are elaborating on them.
Statement of Purpose
While the terms “personal statement” and “statement of purpose” are sometimes used interchangeably, there is technically a difference between these types of admissions writing. While a personal statement provides a fairly broad overview of an applicant, covering elements from the past, present, and future, a statement of purpose is usually more tightly focused on the future. In a statement of purpose, applicants have the chance to detail their plans for study in a given field along with their short- and long-term career goals. Length, as with a personal statement, is most typically in the 500-1,000 word range.
Tip: When writing about goals, use language that emphasizes your readiness to accomplish those things. Instead of saying, “I hope to do X” or “I plan to do X,” pick a specific skill that you have or will earn and use it to present the goal: “With the finance abilities I build through my internship, I will be ready to do X.”
Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.
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