Monday, October 6, 2008

Grad School Apps: Personal Statements

It's that time of year for some.

Many of you have considered going back to school and I'm excited for those who have ponied-up and decided to do it. As you're typing away in a coffeeshop, surfing the web at work looking at programs, or emailing requests for letters of recommendation, sooner or later you will face the dreaded "Personal Statement" or "Statement of Purpose."

You can BS your way through your accomplishments or a time in your life that has been most difficult, but when asked the simple question of "Who are you?" and "Where are you going?," you stare at your computer like a deer-in-headlights. You end up writing a few paragraphs or doing an outline but are not really content with it. Why is this so hard?

You can take comfort in the fact that everyone has trouble with this particular question. It's particularly tough because:
  1. The question is so broad that it's tough to know where to start and what they're looking for.
  2. You're not clear about why you're really going back to school (or don't have a good reason).
Yes, the question is broad and it's tough to know where to start. Does the reader want a short-term answer or a long-term answer? Would they want to hear a "big picture" response or a targeted and well-charted career path?

But the real reason this essay is tough to write is Reason #2. To write a clear and convincing essay, you need to be clear yourself as to why you're going back to school. Some of the real reasons people cite for wanting to go to grad school usually include:

"I'm going back to school so that I can..."
  • Gracefully leave my job or make a career switch
  • Hide away from troubled industries for a few years (Wall St, real estate, etc.)
  • "Network" (i.e. hang out, drink, and socialize) while getting an expensive piece of paper
  • Get another academic/professional notch in my belt
  • Make more money/ climb the corporate ladder
  • Appease my nagging _____ (parents, spouse, significant other, etc.)
  • Feel like I'm making progress, despite not knowing exactly where I'm going
If any of these resonate with you, it's understandable why the Personal Statement causes some anxiety. The reasons above obviously can't be the basis for your essay, so you begin to scramble to craft something compelling. But before you begin spinmeistering, why not sit down and really answer the question?
What do you want to do?
Who are you and what is your statement of purpose?
Why is this a good next step?
It would be helpful both for your essay and for your own personal clarity to take some time to think about it. I believe that guidance in walking through these questions can offer great returns. Even if it's just 1-2 conversations, the structure and accountability will allow you to genuinely answer the Personal Statement question.

Having worked with overachievers and grad school applicants, I can help with this process. Email me at if you're interested in learning more!