Graduate School Application Tips

Personal Statement

The personal statement is a notoriously difficult genre, in part because nobody seems to know how “personal” it should actually be. Many potential graduate students make the mistake of trying to cram an entire life-story into only one or two pages, a futile task from the outset. In other cases they focus narrowly on their qualifications, and let too little personality come through. Because students who apply to graduate school have good GPAs and letters of recommendation, the personal statement may be your only opportunity to distinguish yourself. Some graduate committees regard it as the most important part of the application package. One way to avoid missteps is to conceptualize the personal statement as an explanation of why you are personally invested and passionate about your chosen field of study, and why you are a particularly good fit for the specific program you’re applying to. In order to do this effectively and efficiently, we recommend a rhetorical approach.

Consider your Audience

You are writing to a graduate committee that is looking for students who have clear goals and can add value to their program.
Some useful questions to ask include:

You should also consider and try, as much as possible, to appeal to the intellectual and ethical values of the field, especially the values of scholars from the specific program you are applying to. By situating the work you intend to do in relation to these values, you can indicate ways that you will add value to the program without appearing to boast about the worth of your potential scholarship.

Select and Frame Information Judiciously

You cannot tell the committee everything about yourself. Instead, you need to focus on details that are necessary. Some useful questions to ask include:

It is also important that you demonstrate some familiarity with scholarship from your new potential field of study, especially scholarship written by faculty you might want to work with if you’re accepted into the program.

Present Yourself as a Scholar and a Professional

The graduate committee needs to know about who you are as a potential scholar and professional. The term personal statement can be misleading because you might think that anything about yourself fits the genre. But the point, rather, is to focus on those aspects of yourself that are most relevant to your course of study. So, for example, when talking about your interests and passions, focus on intellectual interests and passions relevant to the field, and how they might motivate your research if you are accepted.

Organize and Deliver Information Effectively

There are a number of useful and effective ways to organize your personal statement. One method is to organize your statement using an over-arching conceit or narrative framework. In the humanities, for example, this often takes the form of an epiphany or “ah-hah!” moment, wherein the potential graduate student describes a realization (either theoretical or pragmatic in orientation) that altered his or her professional trajectory and led them to apply to the program. Ideally, this would be couched within contemporary conversations in the field and align with the stated values and philosophy of the program, as well as the scholarship of specific faculty the student would like to work with. Another organizational tactic is to focus on a specific area of research you would like to pursue that will add value to the program. Don’t worry though – you won’t be expected to follow through with these aims, and your research interests may shift entirely after only one semester. Another way to begin is by stating a deeply held value or goal that you are motivated to enact as part of your life’s work – connect this longer term goal to your studies in this program – emphasize the alignment of your lifelong achievement goals with the program.


No matter how you organize your personal statement, the important thing is that you appear to have a clear plan, preferably an ambitious one that aligns with the program to which you are applying.

Howe Writing Initiative ‧ Farmer School of Business ‧ Miami University

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