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How to Spoil Your Personal Statement for Graduate or Professional School Applications

When you applied as a college student, your personal statement probably didn’t make much of a difference, because undergraduate admissions are largely based on numbers (GPA, test scores, etc.). Graduate and professional school admissions are different! Your competitors will have grades and test scores similar to yours, because most people who are motivated to pursue an advanced degree did well as college students. As the number of applicants increases and academic budgets are cut, each year there is more competition for fewer admission openings.

How does the committee determine that you have what it takes to be successful in advanced studies? You guessed it. Your personal statement will play a determining role in whether or not your application is successful.

So you know you need to write the strongest, most persuasive personal statement you can. But here are two facts you may not know. First of all, most reviewers will spend only a couple of minutes skimming through your personal statement. Second, because their job is to screen out most applications, reviewers look for reasons not to recommend you for admission.

Avoid the common mistakes that will get your application rejected. Read on for 10 easy ways you can mess up your personal statement:

1. Say thank you

Your parents and elementary school teachers taught you to be courteous when writing, and you know it’s a good rule to follow. But don’t waste words thanking the committee for reading your application. It is not the same situation as applying for a job, because you are paying the school to review your application and hopefully you can pay them to educate and train you. Starting or ending your statement with phrases like “Thank you for reviewing this app” or “I appreciate your consideration” can make you seem immature, obsequious, or ignorant of academic culture.

2. Apologize

Many applicants have weaknesses in their application files, especially their transcripts. Maybe you got poor grades your first year. Maybe you had to drop out of school and work for a while. Maybe you got an F in that stats class and had to take it again. Or maybe you earned a degree in one field and are applying to graduate school in a different field; or you didn’t pass your medical residency exams the first time.

Whatever your weakness, don’t make excuses and don’t speak ill of anyone. So it wasn’t your fault that the professor missed your final exam and failed you, or that jobs sold out in your original field of study, or that you had the flu when you took the GRE. Don’t say anything that sounds like an excuse or sounds like you’re blaming someone else for not accomplishing a goal. Even when it’s true, it can make you seem whiny and unable to accept responsibility for your actions. Instead, address the weakness at the end of her statement and explain how he overcame it, learned from her, and is now a better candidate because of her.

3. Summarize your resume and transcripts

Many applicants try to summarize their professional resume and academic records in the personal statement. All of this information is requested on the application itself and will be seen by reviewers. Personal statements are too short to waste space explaining that you got A’s your senior year. Instead, describe experiences and accomplishments that are relevant to your development as a potential professional in your chosen field.

4. Be cute or funny

Maturity is one of the most common adjectives used by admissions committees to describe the ideal graduate or professional school student. You are applying to eventually become their colleague, a professional partner. Show them that you are serious about their time, your schedule, your future, and yourself by keeping a positive, professional tone. Unless the application tells you to submit a creative writing sample, save the stand-up routine for the comedy club.

5. Suggest that the program can correct a bug by admitting it

Remember that committee members are busy professionals who take just a couple of minutes to skim through your statement. On the one hand, stating that you will make a unique contribution to your program and bring a new perspective by adding to the diversity of your student body is a smart move and shows you as a professional and positive team player. On the other hand, applying for admission on the grounds that it will correct a previous injustice risks making you appear incompetent and/or confrontational.

6. Be sarcastic

This one doesn’t need much explanation. Your ironic comments and sarcastic jokes make your Facebook friends laugh because they know you. The admissions committee no. They can easily misunderstand sarcastic comments or decide that you’re creepy, cynical, pessimistic, or a know-it-all.

7. Say something potentially offensive

Again, not much explanation is needed in this case. You don’t know anything about the people who are reading your personal statement. Assume that they are very sensitive on all subjects and write accordingly. Don’t assume they agree with any of your political, social, or religious views.

8. Show your inferiority complex or your superiority complex

Many applicants have trouble striking the balance between promoting themselves and not appearing arrogant on their personal statement. A personal statement is a marketing document and it has to show your strengths. However, many applicants err on the side of humility, such as using self-deprecating language; or describe past weaknesses and failures without explaining how they have worked to turn those weaknesses into strengths. The admissions committees do not admit candidates out of pity!

Other applicants err on the side of presumption, giving the impression that they don’t really need any advanced training because they know a lot about the field and have a lot of experience. They fail to describe what they hope to gain from a specialized course of education. You want to walk the line between these extremes. Affirm that you are highly qualified to begin this course of study and that you have the preparation, motivation, maturity, and focus they seek. Then, emphasize your planned major, what you’ll gain by attending your program, and how you need the training they offer to be successful as a professional.

9. Plagiarize your statement or submit content you paid someone to write

Most graduate and professional school applicants haven’t read hundreds of personal statements and don’t know how unique each person’s writing style is. It really doesn’t take much for admissions committees to notice that the language and style of a candidate’s personal statement is different from the writing found elsewhere on applications. There are also a few dozen examples of personal statements on the Internet that are often copied and submitted as the applicant’s own essay. The committees are well aware of this! You can also hire someone to write a personal statement for you. It may sound cool to you, but you need to realize that such essays are based on a template that they simply customize for you, using the same organization of paragraphs and sentences. It’s a smart move to hire an expert to help you proofread and polish your words in a persuasive statement. It is risky to plagiarize a statement from the Internet or hire someone to write the entire statement for you.

10. Use bad spelling or grammar

This one should be pretty obvious. Academics on admissions committees are generally high achievers with high standards who won’t ignore even simple typos. If your personal statement isn’t technically perfect, it can make you seem careless, lazy, or absent-minded, qualities no one wants in a future colleague. Remember that people skimming through your essay are looking for a reason to decline your application and to make the pool of potential applicants smaller. Always find someone with good writing skills to proofread your essay.

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