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Grad school personal statement - how can I stand out?

webbkswebbks Registered User Posts: 9 New Member
Hey everyone!

One thing that I see emphasized regarding personal statements for graduate school is standing out, and being unique. There is one event that I think was the most influential in my life academically, professionally, and personally, so I would love to write about it. However, I'm not sure if it's unique enough to put in an application!

I studied abroad for one year in Rome, Italy, and was able to grow as a historian, academic, and person during this time. Studying abroad is pretty common, so would this even stand out to admissions counselors?


Replies to: Grad school personal statement - how can I stand out?

  • happy1happy1 Registered User Posts: 18,196 Senior Member
    Like any essay it will be more about how your write it than the topic that will make you stand out. Use the essay to show your energy and passion.
  • webbkswebbks Registered User Posts: 9 New Member
    That's true! I saw an example that worked that was about the student playing piano as a child.
  • juilletjuillet Super Moderator Posts: 11,579 Super Moderator
    I don't know what advice you read or where you read it, but being "unique" isn't really...that necessary for graduate school admissions. The way that you want to "stand out" is the same way you'd want to stand out for a job applications: as an outstanding student and budding researcher who has the potential to excel in the program and do great things in the field in which you're hoping to get your degree.

    So you don't need to include cute anecdotes about playing the piano as a child or studying abroad or anything like that (in fact, unless you were applying to a music program, I think talking about playing piano as a child might be detrimental instead of helpful). The four main components, broadly speaking, of a graduate personal statement are:

    1) Why you are well prepared to study this field/in this program at this point in time (academic preparation, research experience, work or internship experience where appropriate, special programs, etc.)
    2) Your research/academic interests as appropriate, and how they align well with what's offered at the program
    3) Why you are interested in the specific program to which you apply (this is the 1-2 paragraphs you tailor specifically for each school)
    4) Briefly, your intended career goals with the degree

    The ways in which you would "stand out" positively in these areas are

    1) Outstanding academic and other preparation for the program. For example, 3 solid years of progressively responsible research experience; or an excellent clinical internship; or a job that has you exploring the same issues that you would in the graduate program; or graduate-level coursework in the field in which you performed very well.
    2) Strong, well-defined research interests that align really well with 2-3 faculty members in the department - and ideally maybe some special programs or offerings (like if they have a Center for Racial Justice, being interested in racial justice issues).
    3) A well-detailed paragraph that shows you have done your research on the program and are familiar with the resources they offer, and can explain how they are well-aligned to your interests and career goals. Bonus points if you identify something the program, school, or university is very proud of and integrate that into your statement. (For example, when applying to Columbia, I noted that "in the city of New York" was in its official name and talked about using New York as a laboratory for the kinds of research I wanted to do. It worked because the things I studied tended to affect urban populations more frequently.
    4) You don't need to stand out here, but be mindful of norms and caution areas. For example, if the program is an academic PhD program and graduates generally go into academia - or at least that's the expectation - you don't want to talk about how you want to be a banker when you finish.

    If your study abroad will help you talk about any of these areas in more depth then you can mention it, but don't try to shoehorn it in or make it the central premise of your statement of purpose. FWIW, in my first drafts of my statement of purpose I made this mistake - I tried to open with some pithy anecdote about my study abroad (in Amsterdam). I kept wondering why it wasn't working. I finally realized that while the study abroad was very personally relevant to me as a person, I was incorrectly spending a lot of time waxing poetic about how it changed me as a person - and not enough time elaborating on how it made me a better researcher/scholar.

    In the end, I think I only had 1-2 sentences in passing about my study abroad experience - I alluded to how the topic I did an independent study project on there strengthened my research interests in the particular area and gave me stronger independent research skills.

    So if you can talk about how Rome made you a better historian in a very concrete/specific way, do that. Otherwise, leave it out.
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