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Applying to Graduate School: Preparing a Personal Statement

Most graduate schools require a personal statement as a part of the application. This statement is often centered around your interests in psychology, your personal background, the reasons you are applying to a particular graduate program, and your career and personal objectives. Although a well-written personal statement will not overcome poor grades or a low score on the Graduate Record Examination, a poor one will surely hurt your chances of acceptance. Fretz and Stang (1980) cite the following example:
Take the case of the student with a competitive grade- point average and good references who was not accepted to any of the 11 programs he applied for. One cannot be sure, but the biographical statement included with his application is the suspected reason. First, it was poorly typed, with many smears and crossed-out words. The spelling and grammar were both appalling. Finally, the content left much to be desired. It was far too long--about 15 pages--and stressed emotional agonies and turning points in his life. Hoping to cure the world of all its evils, this person tried to indicate how a Ph.D. in psychology was necessary to fulfill that end. In short, it was an overstated, ill-conceived essay that may have been received so badly that it overshadowed his other attributes and data. (p. 45)
Plan and produce your personal statement as carefully as you would a crucial term paper. The following tips will help you produce an effective personal statement.

1. Prepare your personal statement on a word processor. It will require a series of drafts, and the inconvenience of rewriting each draft with a conventional typewriter can make you willing to settle for a less-than-perfect final product.

2. Before you begin your statement for each school, read as much as possible about their program so that you can tailor your statement to the program and convince the admissions committee that you will fit well there. Many applicants will write, for example, that they want to attend the counseling psychology program at University X because they want to learn how to counsel emotionally handicapped children--even though the program specifies in its brochure that it does not provide training for work with young children. Any selection committee immediately rejects such candidates.

3. Prepare an outline of the topics you want to cover (e.g., professional objectives and personal background) and list supporting material under each main topic. Write a rough draft in which you transform your outline into prose. Set it aside and read it a week later. If it still sounds good, go to the next stage. If not, rewrite it until it sounds right.

4. Check your grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization carefully. Nothing detracts from the content of a statement more than these types of errors. Avoid slang words that make you sound uneducated, and overly elaborate words or stilted language that will make you appear pompous or pretentious.

5. Ask two of your instructors to read your first rough draft and make suggestions. Incorporate these suggestions into your second draft. Ask for another reading and set of suggestions, and then prepare your final statement.

6. Your final statement should be as brief as possible--two double-spaced pages are sufficient. Stick to the points requested by each program, and avoid lengthy personal or philosophical discussions.

7. Do not feel bad if you do not have a great deal of experience in psychology to write about; no one who is about to graduate from college does! Do explain your relevant experiences (e.g., field studies or research projects), but do not try to turn them into events of cosmic proportion. Be honest, sincere, and objective--that is the only way to impress the evaluators that you are a person who is already taking a mature approach to life.

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Adapted from Appleby, D. C. (1990). Handbook of Marian College Psychology Department. Indianapolis, IN: Author and Fretz, B.R., & Stang, D. J. (1980). Preparing for graduate study in psychology: NOT for seniors only! Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


APA-style reference for this page:

Lloyd, M. A. (1997, August 28). Applying to graduate school: Preparing a personal statement. [Online]. Available: http://www.psywww.com/careers/perstmt.htm.
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