It’s that season when people begin thinking about their applications for graduate and professional school. You need to take all your standardized tests, get your recommendations, spend your savings on application fees, and write a personal statement for your application. I thought I would make it a little bit easier for you and share some insights into writing a killer personal statement. Below is a list of general tips to help you write a personal statement no matter what type of graduate school you’re applying to. Below that, I have pasted an old personal statement of mine to give you an example which may help you in your writing. Applying to graduate school can be daunting, and I wish you all the best of luck.
1. Don’t Try to be Somebody You’re Not – If you try to adopt a writing style that doesn’t resonate with who you are, it will show. Your sentences will seem contrived, and the statement will not flow. Some people are creative, others are direct, and still others are story tellers. Know your strength, and stick with it. Don’t try to write a dramatic story about a life altering experience if you can’t write with good imagery. Don’t try to write a resume-like statement if you have difficulty with clarity and impact organization. Know who you are. That is the first step.
2. Be Concise - Being long-winded is by far the biggest mistake that people make when writing a personal statement, at least from what I have experienced. Too much detail, redundancy, and unnecessary additions are all common problems. Say something once, and say it well. Then move on. You have no reason to laboriously elaborate on any one point. Think about it; if you’re sitting on an admissions committee, and you have to read hundreds, if not thousands, of these things, wouldn’t you want them to be concise and to the point?
3. Seamless Organization - A lot of people try to be creative and organize their essay around a theme or popular reference like The Wizard of Oz, Brave New World, or even sports. Tragically, a lot of people fail miserably at this because their statement loses direction and misses key elements that admissions officers look for. You need to explain how your interest in the field came about. You need to explain why you’re better than everyone else. And, you need to elaborate on your future ambition. You need to organize these elements so they flow seamlessly from one to the next. I usually stick with a chronological organization, but that’s just my personal preference. You can organize it however you want, but make sure your transitions are solid and not forced. The five-paragraph essay with stock transitions you learned to write in middle school will not cut it here.
4. The Importance of Ambition - More often than not, people leave out what they want to do with the degree they will receive. This is particularly true of medical school applicants. Yes, it is assumed that you will become a medical practitioner with an MD. However, there are a lot of different types of medical practitioner. Tell them what you want to be and why. Do you want to conduct oncology research trials? Do you want to work in a trauma response center? Do you want to work in mental health? Do you want to open your own clinic? This advice is not exclusive to medical school applicants. Everyone should demonstrate a desire and drive toward future greatness. Graduate schools love admitting students they think can gain the school prestige. If you’re going to be the next big Nobel Prize winner, what school wouldn’t want to admit you?
5. Demonstrate a Knowledge of Your Field - This is particularly applicable if you’re applying to a program in a social science. Show that you have a working knowledge of the top professionals in your field, that you understand how it operates. You need to show that you have the drive to succeed in your intended field, and there is no better way to do that than showing you already have a grasp on the fundamentals, and you’re ready to get your hands dirty.
7. Focus and Impact - This is the most important element! Everything you say should have a focus and impact. Everything should demonstrate a purpose. Why do I care if you fixed cleft pallets in Namibia? Did you develop any character qualities as a result? How have you grown and changed from the experience? If you can’t find a reason something matters, then take it out!
My Personal Statement
My fall in to the world of bioethics was rather serendipitous. I began my career at Case Western Reserve as a biochemistry pre-medicine student. I decided to take an introductory bioethics course and a philosophy course to complete my breadth requirements. Taking these courses was one of the best decisions I have made in my life. I immediately became mesmerized by the world of philosophy, and I changed my major soon thereafter. I decided very early that I was going to apply for admission into the integrated graduate studies program for biomedical ethics.
I enjoyed philosophical discussions, and I found that I had an aptitude for the critical thinking that philosophy requires. I decided to attend the National Undergraduate Bioethics Conference at Harvard University during the spring semester of 2009, my freshman year. I attended seminars and competed in the Bioethics Bowl with another student, and our team earned the honor of fourth place. I was particularly inspired by a panel discussion I attended about neuroethics. The panel centered around the Trolley Problem and recent neurological research being conducted by Dr. Joshua Greene that may provide a solution to the dilemma. I began to look into the issue on my own, and I proceeded to present at Case Western’s cognitive science conference. I also published an article regarding the same topic in Case Western’s peer reviewed Engineering and Science Review.
I realized that biomedical ethics could potentially impact my personal life as well, and I did not know where I stood on many issues such as euthanasia and human reproductive cloning. I spoke to my parents about end of life decision making and abortion, and I found that they looked to religion for most of their answers. My parents had been born in Pakistan and had been raised Muslim. I had also been born in Pakistan, and I had been raised in Egypt prior to coming to the United States. I felt a strong personal attachment to Islamic biomedical ethics, and I decided to write my undergraduate thesis on that topic.
I am in a unique position to contribute to this particular field of religious bioethics which has been largely untouched in Western scholarship. With the growing number of Muslims in the United States, and across the world, the importance of knowing what Islam has to say on matters of public policy and concern is becoming very pressing. In the future, I plan to cement a career in Islamic bioethics. From my experience with my parents, I suspect many Muslims are unaware of exactly what their religion has to say about biomedical issues emerging in the twenty first century. I would like to be in a position where I can be part of the discussion seeking to shed light on this issue. I plan to continue toward a medical and doctoral education, after which I plan to be a practicing physician and bioethics scholar. Ideally, I would like to practice and teach at teaching hospitals such as Johns Hopkins Hospital, Northwestern Hospital, or the Mayo Clinic Saint Marys Hospital. I also aspire to sit on an ethics review board at a hospital like the Cleveland Clinic.
I have been inspired by ethicists such as Dan Brock, researchers such as Joshua Greene, and philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum. I have an analytical and creative mind, along with unending curiosity. I have the humility to know that my aspirations will require a great deal of effort to achieve, and I have the drive to meet the challenges ahead of me with determination and optimism. I want to cement a career in biomedical ethics, and an MA degree from Case Western Reserve University would be an ideal first step. Thank you for your consideration.