Getting started on a graduate school personal statement

graduate admissions personal statements

You’re applying to graduate school. You have to write a personal statement. If that blank page is looking a little daunting, here are a few ways to jumpstart your process. 

Lower the bar.

Personal statements typically go through many rounds of revisions, so there’s no need to create something submittable on the first try. Adjust your goal: you want to get something on the page that you can show to a friend (or your tutor) to start the revision process.  

Do some stream-of-consciousness writing.

Write whatever comes to mind, giving yourself permission to be messy, write in bullets, ignore the wordcount, and move on from ideas when they bore you. Nothing you write has to end up in the actual personal statement—but by the time you’re done, you’ll have a few pages of raw material to start playing with. 

Study yourself.

Look back through old resumes and cover letters that you’ve used for other applications. Copy and paste old paragraphs that you still like into your stream-of-consciousness file, or write a few new sentences about internships and activities you haven’t thought about in a while. Once again, it’s all about creating some raw material to play with. 

Start prioritizing.

Once you’ve spent a few days away from your raw material, open the file and read it over. What are you excited to continue writing about? What seems most aligned with your specific prompt? Keep the fragments that you like, and move the rest into a separate document (just in case).

Write some topic sentences.

Considering what you have left on the page, jot down a few topic sentences. Ask yourself: what are three to five main ideas I’d want a reader to take away from all this? What order should they go in? You’ll end up with some rough topic sentences that you can organize the rest of your content under. 

By now, you’ll have a first draft of your personal statement that you can show to a friend or tutor to get their initial reactions, or come back to yourself in a few days with fresh eyes. And just like that, you're not writing your personal statement anymore: you're revising it. 

Celine graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Johns Hopkins University with a BA in English and Public Health Studies. After working as a consultant at The Bridgespan Group, she is now pursuing a PhD in English at Harvard.


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