Personal Essays Sample

The overall application package will represent who "you" are to people whom you will most likely not know personally. The written expression of your qualities as an applicant will often be a very important way for committee members to get to know why you are an acceptable candidate for their program. Thus, it is essential to take great care in preparing this part of your application. Because graduate schools make important selection decisions that are partly based on what you say in this essay, the writing of it can be an intimidating prospect.

To begin your essay, brainstorm using the following questions:

  • What might help the evaluating committee better understand you? What sets you apart from other applicants? Who will be applying for the same program?
  • Why are you interested in this field? What things have stimulated and reinforced your interest?
  • How did you learn about this field (classes, seminars, work experience)?
  • What are your career aspirations?
  • Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that need to be explained?
  • What skills or personal characteristics do you possess that would enhance your chances for success in this field?
  • Why should an admissions committee be interested in you?

Write the first draft from this, then try to find an angle or a hook which can sink into the admissions committee; a good place to start is with an original and provoking opening paragraph. One of the worst things you can do with your personal statement is to bore the admissions committee, yet that is exactly what most applicants do. Admissions committees see thousands of "I have always wanted to be a..." opening paragraphs, so a good way to make the essay more interesting is to write about an anecdote or memorable incident that led you to choose the particular profession. This can help add drama, vitality, and originality to the statement. It is important, however, that the anecdote is related to the questions asked and not just a retelling of a catchy life drama.

After you have written the first, second, or third draft, there are another set of evaluative questions that you can work through to help you revise your essay.

  • Does the opening paragraph grab your attention?
  • Is the statement interesting or does it put you to sleep?
  • Is it a positive portrayal? Is it upbeat and confident?
  • Is it an honest portrayal?
  • Have you answered all the questions thoroughly?
  • Has anything relevant been omitted? Work or academic experience?
  • Does the statement provide insight into your character?
  • Is it well-written? Is the grammar, tone, and verb agreement perfect?
  • Are there any typos?

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For your final draft, be sure to avoid sloppiness, poor English, spelling errors, whining, manufacturing a personality, avoiding the questions that are asked on the application, high school experiences, personal biases about religion, ethnicity, politics, sexist language, revealing of character weaknesses, and arrogance.

The personal statement is extremely important in gaining admittance to graduate and professional schools. Although it can be frustrating to write an original and well-devised statement, through time and drafts it will be written. The ones that are good take time. The ones that are bad can sabotage your chances for success. It is also important that you show your drafts to a Writing Center tutor, your academic advisor, Career Planning advisor, and friends; they will help you write an essay that reveals the right balance of personal and academic characteristics and specifics.

Once you have developed a sense of the faculty's interests and the department's special features, you can make it clear in your application exactly why you want to attend that particular school. What is it about the department's curriculum structure or general approach to the field that makes you interested in being a student there? Don't waste your valuable essay space, or your reader's valuable time, telling the reader how wonderful or prestigious their institution is; people on the admissions committee already know this. They want to know about you.

Nonetheless, if there are special programs or institutes at the school that seem appealing to you, briefly mention that you are interested in becoming part of them. For example, state that you "want to be a member of the XYZ Group for Blank and Blank Studies because ...", but don't tell them how great, well respected, and world-renowned this part of the school is.

If, during your research on the department's faculty, a faculty member strikes you as someone whom you might be interested in working with, indicate this in your essay; be concise and specific about why you want to work with this person in particular. A word of caution here: Do not try to use this as a way to "butter up" the admissions committee, because if there is any reason to believe that you are not sincere, your application may be adversely affected. Again, mention the person and how their work relates to your interest, but don't load this statement with what might be interpreted as false or superfluous praise.

Personal Information

Some applications may ask you to give a personal history, telling about experiences that you have undergone which have led you to decide to pursue graduate education in a certain field of study. (If personal information of this sort is not required, then you are under no obligation to provide it.)

The information that could be included in a personal-type statement is limited only by your own imagination and life history, but you should be highly selective about what you include. There are two things to watch out for: (1) saying too much and/or (2) not saying enough.

Some applicants may ramble on about themselves in a manner that may appear self-indulgent and not very appealing to the committee. Remember, this is an application essay, not an autobiography. Conversely, some applicants tend to say too little, perhaps hesitating to promote themselves too explicitly or not knowing what about themselves would be interesting to people whom they don't know. In such cases, perhaps focusing more on what you want to do than on what you have already done (let your record speak for itself) may help in getting beyond self-inhibition.

Generally, keep in mind that the points about your life that you highlight should be somehow relevant to both your own interest in the field of study, as well as to the concerns of the admissions committee. In judging what information to include or exclude from your essay, try to balance academic, work-related, and personal information in a manner appropriate to your situation, goals, and the application requirements.

Additional Considerations

If you have additional, relevant information about yourself that does not easily fit into the essay, or into any other section of the university's application, you may want to include a condensed resume or curriculum vitae with your application package. This is especially applicable to those who have worked professionally since having graduated from school. Relevant items here might include work experience, publications, and presentations, as well as language and computer skills.

Also, if you have experienced times of great hardship or extenuating circumstances that have negatively affected your academic performance at any time, provide a short explanatory statement. This is another one of those places where caution should be exercised: you want to explain the cause of your poor grades, etc. without alienating the reader by overdoing it. Once again, be specific and concise.

Tips for Writing a Personal Essay for Your College Application

Do start early. Leave plenty of time to revise, record, and rewrite. You can improve on your presentation.

Do read the directions carefully. You will want to answer the question as directly as possible, and you'll want to follow word limits exactly. Express yourself as briefly and as clearly as you can.

Do tell the truth about yourself. The admission committee is anonymous to you; you are completely unknown to it. Even if you run into a committee member in the future, he will have no way of connecting your essay (out of the thousands he has read) to you.

Do focus on an aspect of yourself that will show your best side. You might have overcome some adversity, worked through a difficult project, or profited from a specific incident. A narrow focus is more interesting than broad-based generalizations.

Do feel comfortable in expressing anxieties. Everybody has them, and it's good to know that an applicant can see them and face them.

Do tie yourself to the college. Be specific about what this particular school can do for you. Your essay can have different slants for different colleges.

Do speak positively. Negatives tend to turn people off.

Do write about your greatest assets and achievements. You should be proud of them!

But...

Don't repeat information given elsewhere on your application. The committee has already seen it-and it looks as though you have nothing better to say.

Don't write on general, impersonal topics-like the nuclear arms race or the importance of good management in business. The college wants to know about you.

Don't use the personal statement to excuse your shortcomings. It would give them additional attention.

Don't use cliches.

Don't go to extremes: too witty, too opinionated, or too "intellectual."

Choosing the essay topic for your personal essay is easy as you are well familiar with the subject. Here are the most popular personal essay topic examples:

  • Describe Your Grandparents
  • My 10-Seconds Car
  • The Place I Want to Return
  • My Mother’s Hands
  • The Movie That Motivates Me
  • Me in Ten Years.

Below is a pdf link to personal statements and application essays representing strong efforts by students applying for both undergraduate and graduate opportunities. These ten essays have one thing in common: They were all written by students under the constraint of the essay being 1-2 pages due to the target program’s explicit instructions. In such circumstances, writers must attend carefully to the essay prompt (sometimes as simple as “Write a one-page summary of your reasons for wanting to pursue graduate study”) and recognize that evaluators tend to judge these essays on the same fundamental principles, as follows:

  • First, you are typically expected to provide a window into your personal motivations, offer a summary of your field, your research, or your background, set some long-term goals, and note specific interest in the program to which you are applying.
  • Second, you are expected to provide some personal detail and to communicate effectively and efficiently. Failure to do so can greatly limit your chances of acceptance.

Good writers accomplish these tasks by immediately establishing each paragraph’s topic and maintaining paragraph unity, by using concrete, personal examples to demonstrate their points, and by not prolonging the ending of the essay needlessly. Also, good writers study the target opportunity as carefully as they can, seeking to become an “insider,” perhaps even communicating with a professor they would like to work with at the target program, and tailoring the material accordingly so that evaluators can gauge the sincerity of their interest

Overview of Short Essay Samples

Geological Sciences Samples

In the pdf link below, the first two one-page statements written by students in the geological sciences are interesting to compare to each other. Despite their different areas of research specialization within the same field, both writers demonstrate a good deal of scientific fluency and kinship with their target programs.

Geography Student Sample

The short essay by a geography student applying to an internship program opens with the writer admitting that she previously had a limited view of geography, then describing how a course changed her way of thinking so that she came to understand geography as a “balance of physical, social, and cultural studies.” Despite her limited experience, she shows that she has aspirations of joining the Peace Corps or obtaining a law degree, and her final paragraph links her interests directly to the internship program to which she is applying.

Materials Sciences Student Sample

For the sample from materials sciences, directed at an internal fellowship, the one-page essay has an especially difficult task: The writer must persuade those who already know him (and thus know both his strengths and limitations) that he is worthy of internal funds to help him continue his graduate education. He attempts this by first citing the specific goal of his research group, followed by a brief summary of the literature related to this topic, then ending with a summary of his own research and lab experience.

Teach for America Student Sample

The student applying for the Teach for America program, which recruits recent college graduates to teach for two years in underprivileged urban and rural public schools, knows that she must convince readers of her suitability to such a demanding commitment, and she has just two short essays with which to do so. She successfully achieves this through examples related to service mission work that she completed in Ecuador before entering college.

Neuroscience Student Sample

The sample essay by a neuroscience student opens with narrative technique, telling an affecting story about working in a lab at the University of Pittsburgh. Thus we are introduced to one of the motivating forces behind her interest in neuroscience. Later paragraphs cite three undergraduate research experiences and her interest in the linked sciences of disease: immunology, biochemistry, genetics, and pathology.

Medieval Literature Student Sample

This sample essay immerses us in detail about medieval literature throughout, eventually citing several Irish medieval manuscripts. With these examples and others, we are convinced that this student truly does see medieval literature as a “passion,” as she claims in her first sentence. Later, the writer repeatedly cites two professors and “mentors” whom she has already met, noting how they have shaped her highly specific academic goals, and tying her almost headlong approach directly to the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, where she will have flexibility in designing her own program.

Beinecke Scholarship Student Sample

The Beinecke Scholarship essay is written by a junior faced with stiff competition from a program that awards $34,000 towards senior year and graduate school. This student takes an interesting theme-based approach and projects forward toward graduate school with confidence. This writer’s sense of self-definition is particularly strong, and her personal story compelling. Having witnessed repeated instances of injustice in her own life, the writer describes in her final paragraphs how these experiences have led to her proposed senior thesis research and her goal of becoming a policy analyst for the government’s Department of Education.

Online Education Student Sample

Written during a height of US involvement in Iraq, this essay manages the intriguing challenge of how a member of the military can make an effective case for on-line graduate study. The obvious need here, especially for an Air Force pilot of seven years, is to keep the focus on academic interests rather than, say, battle successes and the number of missions flown. An additional challenge is to use military experience and vocabulary in a way that is not obscure nor off-putting to academic selection committee members. To address these challenges, this writer intertwines his literacy in matters both military and academic, keeping focus on applications of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), his chosen field of graduate study.

Engineer Applying to a Master’s Program Sample

This example shows that even for an engineer with years of experience in the field, the fundamentals of personal essay writing remain the same. This statement opens with the engineer describing a formative experience—visiting a meat packaging plant as a teenager—that influenced the writer to work in the health and safety field.  Now, as the writer prepares to advance his education while remaining a full-time safety engineer, he proves that he is capable by detailing examples that show his record of personal and professional success. Especially noteworthy is his partnering with a government agency to help protect workers from dust exposures, and he ties his extensive work experience directly to his goal of becoming a Certified Industrial Hygienist.

Click here to download a pdf of ten short essay samples.

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