Overcoming Personal Statement Writer’s Block

You may need a personal statement, letter of intent, or application letter when applying to graduate or professional schools. This document can be very challenging to write, as you will need to concisely outline your strengths, goals, experiences, and qualifications while demonstrating good writing skills.

This can be a time-consuming project, so allow plenty of time to work on your statement.

Prep Work

Before you start writing, gather documents such as your transcript, resume and application. Brainstorm information you may need to include in your essay: names of past employers, applicable job titles, experiences, past successes, skills and personal traits you want to specifically communicate. Having the information right in front of you may ease the writing process.

Writing Tips

Answer the Question: If the application asks you to state the reason you are applying to a particular academic program, do not spend the entire letter talking about your qualifications. Instead, include details about what attracted you to the school. To keep yourself accountable to answering the questions, keep the questions in front of you as you write, and refer to them often.

Be sure to be truthful and honest. Do not embellish the truth.

Consider The “I” Problem: This letter is about you. It’s okay to use first person occasionally. However, do not start every sentence with “I.”

Avoid Unnecessary Duplication: Do not reiterate information that is available in other parts of your application, resume or transcript. If the reader has access to your transcript, you do not need to list your grades and course titles. You can be more general in mentioning these topics. For example, include “I was on the Dean’s List” or “I have taken several upper-level psychology courses” and then move on to discuss appropriate experiences in more detail.

Make Your Statement Distinctive: To make your letter unique, include at least one detailed example specific to your own experience. For example, describe how an important family member or personal moment influenced your decision to pursue a particular career or degree. Be careful when using humor to connect with the reader. It is difficult to make someone laugh whom we have never met before. The safe option is to avoid any inappropriate humor unless you are absolutely sure that it will work.

Keep It Brief: To keep your essay brief (essays are typically limited to 250–500 words, or one typed page), write concisely, yet be detailed.  Focus each paragraph on a single idea (for example, one paragraph on the strengths of the program, one on your research experience, one on your extracurricular activities) to keep the essay from becoming too long.

Use a dictionary and thesaurus to provide more word variation and to avoid repetition. However, be careful not to be overly zealous in your use of vocabulary.  Don’t use vocabulary you don’t normally use.

Personal Statement Format

Requirements for personal statements differ, but generally a personal statement includes certain information and can follow the format below:

Introduction: Gain the reader’s attention by starting with a catchy opening, such as the distinctive personal example mentioned earlier. Then, connect the example to the actual

program/position for which you are applying. Mention the specific name of the program. Be straightforward and avoid cheesy clichés and egotism. Avoid using famous quotes.

Detailed Supporting Paragraphs: These paragraphs should address specific application questions. Each paragraph should be specifically focused and support a topic sentence. For example, you may be addressing your qualifications or why you are interested in the program. Regardless, keep your examples relevant to supporting your qualifications.

Conclusion: In the last paragraph, tie together the various examples and claims you have stated in the essay, and reiterate your interest in this specific program. You might also mention how this program will support your long-term goals.

General Suggestions: When applying to multiple graduate schools, have at least one paragraph that you edit so that your essay is targeting that specific program. You might specify that you have a similar research interest that matches faculty interests at that institution.

Revising the Personal Statement

Your personal statement is pivotal to your graduate school application, so you must allow yourself enough time to revise it thoroughly. When revising, check both the content (Did I address the question? Is there enough detail?) and for technical errors (Is the writing clear? Are the mechanics and punctuation correct?). Spell- and grammar-checks are helpful, but do not rely on them exclusively. Read through the essay yourself and have at least three other set of eyes review it as well (e.g. faculty, Career Center staff, The Writing Center).

Additional Resources



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