Four Tips for Writing a Personal Statement
It’s the season of graduate school application deadlines, and, for many applicants, writing a compelling personal statement can be unexpectedly challenging. How can you make your application stand out among hundreds of qualified candidates? Two first-year graduate students at Johns Hopkins were happy to share their top tips for a successful personal statement:
1. Don’t write about your research experience.
Rachel Helms, a first-year Ph.D. student in the immunology graduate program, advises applicants to avoid the temptation to summarize their undergraduate or master’s research. Instead, she suggests describing research history separately and submitting it as a supporting document, if it’s not requested elsewhere. Most qualified applicants will have research experience. Make better use of your space to highlight experiences and qualities that make you a unique and well-rounded applicant.
“I focused on specific experiences from my work history that were unique,” says Sarah Youn, a master’s student in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. She also described how those experiences drove her decision to pursue a Master of Public Health degree at Johns Hopkins. Counseling and advocating on behalf of Medicare beneficiaries living in Los Angeles County, she says, “I could help eight people a day.” The desire to create public health changes on a larger scale inspired her to apply to Johns Hopkins, where the school of public health declares its mission to save lives “Millions at a Time.”
2. Make it truly personal.
Helms used the personal statement to give context to her own nontraditional path to research. When she was eighteen, her hopes of dancing professionally were shattered by an injury and reconstructive hip surgery. She “stumbled into research” her senior year in college and knew her academic path was atypical for a Ph.D. applicant. However, she explains, “the things that made me not a typical candidate actually made me a better candidate.” She highlighted personal attributes like innovation and resilience, developed during her dance career and recovery from injury, which would drive her to succeed in research.
3. Choose a great peer reviewer.
Both students emphasize the importance of finding the right person to read your statement and give you feedback. “I’m usually shy about having others read my work,” Youn admits, “but I’m glad I got over it.” She recommends choosing someone who knows you well, ideally someone recently accepted to a similar program.
4. Start early.
It’s easy to underestimate the importance of the personal statement or the time it will take. Put something on paper, put it down for a day or two, and come back to it, suggests Youn. Leave plenty of time for multiple revisions. Helms laughs, “I think I sent six rounds of drafts!”
The personal statement can be intimidating, but it’s also your chance to shine! Start early, ask for constructive criticism and focus on what makes you unique for a top-notch personal statement! Good luck!