Personal Statement Preparation, Outline, Style, Content, and Voice
by Ben Frederick MD
on November 13, 2013
Outline & Preparation
Although your first impulse may be to just jump headfirst into the writing stage of your personal statement, resist the urge to speed through! A little preparation and a thoughtful outline may seem time-consuming, but the small time investment will pay off hugely in your final product. Use these questions to get your thoughts flowing as you prepare to write:
- Why this school?
- Why this program?
- What traits do I possess that will help me excel in this field? Have I overcome any obstacles or hardships in order to succeed?
- What do I already know about this field?
- Who in this field do I admire, and why?
- What do I offer this program and profession?
In addition to the above questions, there is one more crucial element to keep in mind during your preparation and outlining process: your intention with the personal statement. Remember when we said to consider your reason for attending a program the “theme” of your essay? Well, here’s where that really comes into play. When doing the outline, keep this theme always in mind, and make sure that everything points back to it. That will make your personal statement much more cohesive.
Style, Content, & Voice
Chances are, by the time you are applying for a college program, you have likely written at least a few essays in life. You may already have a clear idea of what your tone is as a writer. Maintaining that original voice is significant—but these few points on style and tone will help make the design spot-on for the personal statement.
Show Don’t Tell
Most relevantly, remember the importance of showing over telling. Don’t just tell your reader, “My strong work ethic has gotten me far and will suit me well in graduate school.” Instead, show you are ready—through a story and other personal details—how a strong work ethic guided you through a situation. By doing the latter, you are painting a picture of yourself that the reader will remember instead of just jotting down a sentence that any applicant could have written.
Avoid Filler Content
The personal statement is not a time for “fluff” writing. By that, we mean filler content that doesn't serve a purpose—except may be to make your statement longer. That is, actually, the exact opposite of what admissions committee members are looking for in an individual report. As David P. Giovanella of New York University’s Graduate Enrollment Services in the Graduate School of Arts & Science explains (appropriately succinctly), an applicant “should not repeat him or herself, be grandiose, or be too long.”
Keep your word count in mind and consider it an absolute rule, not a suggestion. Average word count for college statement of purpose tends to be between 400 and 800 words. This will depend, however, on the story theme and the guidelines set by the program you are applying to.
For the tone of your essay, avoid sounding condescending or overly funny. Your personal statement is neither the time to be arrogant nor a stand-up comedian. Trying to be funny and falling flat may make you memorable, but not in a good way. Be entertaining and engaging, but don’t be silly.
First of all, the personal statement projects an image of you to the reader. Just as a resume does, this composition is not just a story about you, but a reflection of you. Subconsciously, people do judge you based on appearance, and the look and feel of your paper will be no exception. In this day and age, admission committee members will most likely be viewing your document on a screen, not a paper. Keep this in mind to assure that your presentation is eye-catching.
If you need more help, check out The Ultimate Guide: How to Write a Personal Statement.