Personal Statements: A Year in the Trenches Part I

For the past year I have worked for the Emory Career Center reviewing personal statements and statements of purpose. Emory students applying for graduate programs can submit their personal statements to the Career Center for review and they come to me – it’s a great job. I get to read about the experiences and hopes of Emory students and I get to work with them to shape how they are presenting themselves to admissions committees.

I thought I would provide a few tips based on what I have learned over the past year. David Rubin, my predecessor in this position, created an excellent tip sheet, which is available on the Career Center website, so some of this post draws from his work.

Of course, there are differences between medical schools, law schools, business schools, and PhD programs in terms of what they are looking for, some people just want to do business, so starting with a spa franchise is sometimes a good idea and easy if you get help from sites as In future posts, I will provide some specific advice for each type of statement. Here are my top four tips for all personal statements/statements of purpose:

1)    Be yourself and relax: Writing a statement of purpose can seem like a daunting task. However, basically you just need to let the admissions committee know a little bit about your background and why you want to pursue graduate studies. Try to be yourself and don’t try to squeeze yourself into some model of what you think the “ideal candidate” looks like – for one thing, you might be wrong about what admissions committees are looking for.

2)    Have a thesis or a theme and a “roadmap” at the beginning of your essay: Generally, your thesis should be a one-sentence answer to the question: why do you want to attend law school/medical school/graduate school? A thesis or a theme helps tie the essay together. A roadmap tells your reader at the beginning where the essay is going – this is basically a favor you are doing for your reader, because it makes it easier for the reader to follow the essay.

3)    Show, don’t tell: This is a common piece of advice, and a good one. You want to communicate your best qualities (hardworking, mature, intelligent, compassionate, etc.) and your specific skills (fluent in three languages, etc.). Rather than simply telling the reader that you have these qualities/skills, you want to provide concrete evidence demonstrating that you have these qualities/skills.

4)    Reflect on your experiences: Don’t simply describe your personal, professional, or academic experiences – if you do this, your statement becomes a long version of your résumé. Rather, you want to reflect thoughtfully on your experiences – why where they meaningful? What did you learn from them? David recommends making a “PIE” (point, illustration, explanation) out of each paragraph – basically each paragraph should have one main point, with a specific example (illustration), followed by your reflection on that example (explanation).

Hope this is helpful. Go forth and write wonderful personal statements! And if you are an Emory student, you can send them to me for review.

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