Writing a Stellar Personal Statement:
For those of you who’ve written a personal statement before, or have just started a rough draft, here’s a situation you’ve probably encountered.
You sit down to write your personal statement. They say, ‘Write about your story’. You’re probably in two minds here.
‘My story is so big; how do I choose what to talk about?’
‘I’ve done nothing interesting, what can I possibly talk about?’
You’ve already heard time and again that this is the most important aspect of your application, and can potentially steer your entire admission process in either the right or wrong direction.
In fact, a personal statement is – An essay that is your opportunity to bring yourself to life for universities, showcase your talents, talk about significant experiences and accolades, as well as your potential to show that you can soar through their program.
No pressure, right?
As someone who wrote my Personal Statement for the Advanced Standing Program just a year ago, I know exactly what you’re going through. This was definitely an aspect to the admission process that brought on a lot of stress, but also the one that I had the most fun with.
I encourage all of you to do the same and consider this a canvas to paint your picture, talk about yourself and draw the admissions’ committee to your personal story. This is the only time that you are given the opportunity to write about ‘You’, and ‘Sell yourself’ to the admissions’ committee.
It should be taken seriously but also; I encourage you to have fun with it 😊
Let’s start off by talking about why the personal statement is so important.
What is a personal statement, and why is it so important?
ANS: To keep it simple, a personal statement is an essay that tells the reader who you are as a person, as well as some significant qualities, experiences, and accolades which allow the admissions’ committee to understand ‘who you are’ and decipher as to whether they believe you will be a good ‘fit’ into their program. The role of the personal statement is to make candidates stand out from other applicants.
Many a times, students come in with similar attributes (GPA, TOEFL Score, Years of experience, and equally good letters of recommendation). So how do schools select candidates in these circumstances? The personal statement is your time to shine and differentiate yourself as a candidate.
In fact, the personal statement is so important that it can ‘make or break you as a candidate’. A top-notch SOP (Statement of Purpose/Personal Statement) that is well written, tells the reader who you are and impresses the reader with your story, can secure even a candidate with ‘average stats’ an interview. But at the same time, a poorly written SOP will bring even the most ‘exceptional candidate’ down to the ‘unimpressive pile’.
You want to be in that ‘Impressive pile’.
So, take your time and draft a notable SOP that leaves the reader ‘wanting more’. This will require a great deal of preparation and planning.
Let’s talk about the steps to take, in order to write that ‘First draft’ of your SOP
Steps to writing your personal statement:
1.) Plan: As with any good essay or paper, planning is a key first step. Make sure you develop a detailed framework of everything you want to discuss and what you want to portray.
2.) Outline your academic or professional ambitions: The focus of your personal statement should be your academic ambitions and the reasons why you wish to enter this program or school. It’s not enough to simply give a vague answer such as “this program will help open career doors upon graduation.” While this may well be your motivation, the admissions committee is looking for candidates who are passionate about their subject of study and have a clear idea of how the advanced degree program will help them both deepen their knowledge and progress, either academically or professionally.
3.) Brainstorm your most significant experiences/accolades: Spend some time brainstorming some of your most significant experiences (Professional and non-professional), accomplishments in your academic and professional life, as well as, personal qualities that make you stand out as a candidate. Some of these experiences and attributes include:
• Work experience (Home country, and in the United States)
• Assisting jobs
• Research experience (Published papers, clinical research project)
• Community service, and volunteer work
• Seminars and Conferences
• Project Organizer
• Member of any Student Clubs (Student Council, Academic Clubs, etc)
• High GPA (3.6 above)
• Graduating in the top 5% (Or better) in your class
• Other professional degrees (Masters, MPH, etc)
• Social accomplishments
• Extra-curricular activities
Choose 3-4 of the most important/significant experiences or accolades, and talk about them in your personal statement.
4.) Stories: The best way to draw the attention of a reader, is to tell stories. Think about some significant stories in your life that contribute to who you are as a person. Start thinking about answers to these questions:
• Why did I choose the profession I am in (Dentistry/Medicine)?
• Who am I as a person?
• Why do I want to continue my education in the US?
• What do I hope to gain by continuing my education into the DDS/DMD program in the US?
• If you are already a specialist, ask yourself why you want to continue your education as a general dentist, despite already being a specialist in your home country.
Paint yourself as a good candidate with the help of these significant experiences, accolades, and stories that you have thought about. By using personal stories and experiences, it will not only help you differentiate yourself as a candidate, but will also help you to stand out.
5.) Show, don’t tell: When using words to describe yourself, always back it up with real life examples. For e.g. If you mention that you were a ‘great student’, use examples to back it up, and show that you truly are a ‘great student’, and you’re not just saying it. We will delve more into this, further into the blog.
Now, let’s talk about how to write a structured personal statement
How to write a personal statement
To keep it simple, I have broken up the personal statement into five paragraphs, each of which gives you the chance to address important questions. Make sure to keep your answers clear and concise; after all, you usually only have around 4000-5000 characters to play with (Varies depending on the university and program you are applying to).
Paragraph 1: The hook
Grab the reader’s attention right away by starting off your statement with a catchy sentence or introduction. This is a great opportunity to highlight your unique personality with something that is both memorable and intriguing. Explain why you chose this field and this particular degree or program.
Paragraph 2: Academic pursuits
This paragraph is all about your academics. Go into detail about what you have studied in the past, and when. Remember to outline the skills that you’ve gained along the way, focusing on how these will help you complete the next phase of your studies or the program you are applying to. You want to make an argument for how your past studies will have a positive impact on your future studies, something which becomes even more important if you’re already a specialist in your home country, and are applying for the DDS/DMD program (General dentist).
Paragraph 3: Work, work, work
In this section, make sure you outline the work experience you’ve gained so far. This could be anything from significant home country clinical experiences, US work experience, significant research experiences or interesting volunteer/community service. Again, it’s important to focus on the skills that you’ve gained through these experiences, always linking them to how they will be beneficial to you in taking on the degree or program you’re applying to. Also, take the opportunity to explain how your work experience has helped shape your interest in your chosen program or sparked a desire to further your education.
Paragraph 4: Beyond the basics
Now for the fun part! Use this section to express who you are outside of your work and academic achievements. Talk about your hobbies, interests, volunteer activities or any additional courses you may have completed along the way. Whether you’re a musician, national level sports player, chess enthusiast, etc, this is your chance to bring your personality to life on paper. It’s your chance to show that you have more to bring to the table than the average applicant – but make sure that you emphasise how these interests and skills will complement your studies. This is also your chance to show the school that you have a life outside of your profession, which is very important in the eyes of the admissions’ committee.
Paragraph 5: Toward the future
Your final paragraph should focus on the future. Write about how studying this new degree will prepare you for your future career or set you up to achieve your long-term goals. It is also important to explain why you have chosen to study in that country as opposed to staying in your home country. Are there opportunities there that you simply don’t have in your home country? Are they the leaders in your field? Do you feel that immersing yourself in a new culture will enhance your university experience? Whatever your reasoning, this is your chance to argue your case, so make sure you do it well!
What are the biggest mistakes encountered when writing a statement of purpose? Or,
What are some reasons your SOP may not stand out?
Reasons your SOP may not stand out:
1.) Bad grammar and poor flow: Bad grammar and poor flow of writing is probably one of the worst mistakes you can make in your personal statement. It shows the lack of attention to detail. You could probably have one of the most interesting stories, but grammatical errors can pose a huge red flag to any reader. It shows that you did not care enough to review your own personal statement, which shows lack of motivation. Try to get your personal statement reviewed by 3-4 trusted people.
E.g. of common grammatical and spelling errors:
Using ‘Your’ instead of ‘You’re’
Or, ‘Colour’ instead of ‘Color’: Even though ‘colour’ might be the correct way to spell the word in countries that use European English, remember, you are applying to American schools. Make a conscious effort to use the correct spelling, accordingly.
To help you avoid this critical error, always write multiple drafts. Remember that the personal statement is also your opportunity to showcase your writing skills. Indeed, most higher education programs require at least a moderate ability in extended writing. That’s why it’s so important to complete at least several drafts of your paper. Have a professor or writing professional review the statement for errors and argument structure, to ensure that the whole piece comes together and flows well.
Ensure that the language you utilize is professional. Avoid colloquial terms such as “like,” as well as clichés and stock phrases – “I’m a go-getter” or “since a child I’ve always wanted to be.” Also eschew any language that is overly emotive, such as “love,” “incredibly,” “extremely” and so on.
Don’t include humor or other tactics that could distract the reader from your central message.
2.) Pretentious quotes and gimmicks: If you’re going to use a quote, make sure it is related to what you are saying. Make sure it is related to you and your story and is not just present to be impressive.
Gimmicks: ‘There was a boy who grew up from a poor family and worked hard to become the first doctor in the family. That boy is me!’ This phrase is too commonly used and may not stand out
3.) Bragging and arrogance: The personal statement is no time to be coy. It’s important that you speak about your accomplishments and stress why you believe you are a deserving candidate.
For e.g. This involves discussing past research projects in depth and the critical reception the work received.
The admissions’ committee is typically composed of academics in your field, all of whom need to see that you are capable of the work that lies ahead. Of course, keep an eye on your tone: It is possible to list your many achievements without coming across as arrogant.
Always remember, ‘Showing is always better than telling’.
Always backup your claims with situational examples.
For e.g. ‘I am an incredible student’.
How are you an incredible student? Is there any proof?
Instead, a better way of putting it can be ‘I am an incredible student; I won the best student award at my previous dental school’
Or, ‘I have incredible hand skills, I won the 1st place for best hand skills in my class in dental school’
Put another way, the more examples you offer to strengthen your case, the more likely an admissions’ officer will be impressed.
4.) Unremarkable experiences: You only have a limited number of words permitted to sell yourself as a potential candidate to the school. Do not use this valuable space to talk about unremarkable experiences.
For e.g. ‘Passed part 1 and 2’,
‘Required post BDS internship’
You do not want to use the precious words that you’re given for your personal statement to write about mundane or mediocre experiences. Unless any of these experiences are ‘One of a kind’, or ‘Exciting’, do not waste valuable space writing about it. Instead pick any 3 remarkable experiences/accolades that speak about who you are as a person and professional, and talk about them.
5.) Weak opening: The opening paragraph of your personal statement should always draw the reader. Have a strong opening and use a hook which shows them that this is going to be an interesting read. Admissions officers will be tasked with reading hundreds of personal statements. As you can imagine, such an assignment can be tiring and the committee will likely grow increasingly impatient with every paper. That’s why it’s imperative to arrive at your main point early on. Grab the attention of the reader within the first paragraph and then expand your argument there on. Ensure that your opening paragraph is the strongest and most engaging.
6.) Negative language: Always use positive language when writing your personal statement. Try to eschew mentioning anything negative about your academic past unless it is absolutely unavoidable. The goal of the statement is to leave a positive impression in the mind of the reader. If you decide to discuss a personal challenge, for example, be sure to find a way to reflect how the experience led to a positive change. In essence, although negative discussion is unavoidable in some circumstances, be sure to make the overall theme of the paper an uplifting and positive one.
7.) CV in paragraph form: Do not use your personal statement to write an essay that sums up your CV. That is not what a personal statement is. At the end, the reader should be able to understand who you are as a person, and why you’re a candidate whom they should choose.
8.) Cannot sum you up in 2-3 words: After reading your personal statement, if the reader cannot sum you up in 2-3 words, then you have not done your job as a writer. Your personal statement should be inviting and the reader should be excited to read it until the very end. The worst thing that can happen is, after reading your entire essay, the reader can’t remember, is indifferent to or feels unexcited about you as a candidate. You want to make your personal statement compelling to the reader, draw their attention, show them exactly who you are and why they should choose you, among thousands of applicants, for their program.
·9.) Not Following Instructions: This may seem like an obvious step, but it’s surprising how many people will dive into a task without reviewing the instructions. Each institution will likely have a slightly different idea of what they want from the personal statement. Some may want longer pieces, while others may prefer more condensed essays. Many schools will likely provide questions and prompts for you to answer and follow. It’s crucial, therefore, to review the instructions in detail before you even begin the writing process. After all, a sure-fire way to receive a rejection notice is to disobey the requirements of the task.
So, I conclude this blog by encouraging you to take your time with your SOP. By now, you must’ve clearly understood the importance of a ‘Stellar SOP’. However, I hope that you also do enjoy yourself in the process. We all have some unique attributes, qualities, and stories that define us. I encourage you to delve into these aspects, and use them to shine in your SOP 😊