I have been teaching for the McNair Scholars Program at UC Davis for five years (that’s every quarter and every summer without a break). I run through everything from basic essay writing to writing for the GRE to the much-feared personal statement for graduate school applications. The McNair Scholars program is a federally-funded two-year long research internship (paid!) that helps low-income, under-represented, first-generation college students prepare for doctoral study. It’s am amazing program; I myself was a McNair Scholar.
The summer after the junior year is the most intense time in the program and this week my students are scratching out their personal statements. Some will also have to write letters of intent. We try to shoot for about 500-1000 words and I try to emphasize flexibility since every program will want something slightly different. It’s probably the most difficult essay my “McNuggets” will write. I give them a heads up that they will probably cry. Hell, sometimes I cry. I’ve worked with students writing about escaping ethnic cleansing, Sierra Leone diamond minds, and unbearable poverty. They are also students who are in 15 clubs, honors programs, volunteer groups, and all while taking graduate courses as undergraduates. They are pretty much the best students you will find and they can’t really fit it in to 500-1000 words. So when we get started I share my own personal statement. (No, I’m not sharing it here! Daughter of a German immigrant, first-generation to college, etc. It still makes me cry!) You can Google myriad samples in any number of fields. They need to have a general idea of how it 1) explains how your experience made you a Comparatist/Sociologist/Immunologist (your academic history), then it 2) explains what you will continue to contribute to your field (specializations, lab work to be done, discourses to enter into, etc). Then, I tell them to list the top ten things their graduate school programs need to know about them.
This little list is key to conquering this monster of an essay. Nothing on the list is to be longer than one brief sentence (they will try to write entire paragraphs otherwise).
The next point is key–arrange the ten points in order from 1 being the most important to 10 being the least important. This step will take a ridiculously long time (20-30 minutes). I think they sense what comes next…
Cut the bottom five. Cut them and plan on not being able to mention them in your personal statement at all.
It is truly like making them cut their limbs off–I assuage their fears by assuring them that most of these things will appear in their C.V.
Getting down to the five most academically-important things about you is pretty amazing. It absolutely bars them from the parent-centered personal statement (the personal statement focused on how much they overcame–through their parent’s immigration, while never actually explaining anything they’ve done, which might just leave your graduate school wishing mom and dad had applied instead of you). It keeps them from wandering aimlessly from achievement to achievement like it’s a long-form C.V. It helps them find the next most important thing–the frame to their stories.