Writing Personal Statements Online


The name of my favorite teacher, first and last, is Experience.

When I think back to the days when I wrote my first personal statement, after teaching for five years at a high school for juvenile delinquents (a deadening experience that inspired me to return to school), I am grateful that I did not have a computer at the time. If I had, I might have saved my personal statement to this day, and surely to my embarrassment. What little I recall about it is that it was typed in all italics (my typewriter had a fancy italic print that I thought looked cool), and that most of what I wrote about was how much I disliked my job. Nevertheless, somehow I managed to get into grad school, landing in Penn State’s graduate program in English, then opting for a master’s degree after three years instead of entering the PhD program (mostly because I saw how unhappy and penniless the PhD students in the Department of English were). Despite being self-motivated throughout the process, I also felt alone and uncertain.

What I now realize, after teaching and tutoring in academia for two decades, is just how much help has emerged for students applying to graduate school since I went through the process. Not only are there voluminous print and online resources, even the graduate applications themselves have evolved to emphasize the importance and detail of the personal statement. The number of full-time academic support people and scholarships advisors seems to grow every year, and no student today should feel that they can’t readily find help with the process of applying for graduate study.

This new electronic edition of Writing Personal Statements Online is designed to help ensure that your path to graduate study is an informed one. With advice ranging from the cynical and cautionary to the hopeful and idealistic, I’ve done my best to capture the experience I’ve gained from reading thousands of personal statements, guest lecturing on the subject at dozens of schools, and reading everything from academic articles to student blogs on the subject. To help you along the way, I provide examples from many students, some of whom I’ve worked with over the years and some of whom I’ve never met except through their work, and you’ll find plenty of “Self-Study” boxes linking you to additional resources as well, ranging from print material to youtube videos. As an online work in progress, this handbook can change and grow with the times, so your comments, suggestions, and even sample documents are welcome. Feel free to contact me directly with feedback at schall@ems.psu.edu.

—Joe Schall, January 2016