Writing Personal Statements Online

Chapter 1: The Realities of Graduate Study


Education has really one basic factor,
sine qua non--one must want it.

—George Edward Woodberry

To begin to discuss the realities of graduate study and the related issue of writing personal statements, I put to you three cases:

Case 1:

A student applies to graduate school simply because he’s not sure what else to do with his life. As he naively writes in his personal statement when defining his long-term goals: “I’m open to limitless possibilities!”

Case 2:

A student plagiarizes material in a graduate application essay, reasoning that the same rules of citation that applied in college papers are not relevant, and that no one would bother checking her source anyway.

Case 3:

A 4.0 student competes for and wins a national scholarship, attends graduate school for one semester, then drops out. He relishes the spirit of competition in winning the scholarship, but finds graduate school to be more unfriendly and less fulfilling than he expects.

As a writing tutor who has worked with thousands of students on their graduate applications, I have witnessed variations of all three of these cases. Saddest and worst of all, at least to my lights, is the disappointment posed by Case 3. Students who accept national scholarships are literally taking someone else’s seat from them, and the idea that they would then drop a scholarship that could have gone to someone else could be viewed as unconscionable.

Unifying all these cases is one guiding principle and a key reason why graduate schools and scholarship committees ask students for personal essays in the first place: self-definition. What you’re really asked to do in writing a personal essay is to define yourself: your motivations, your conscience, your aptitude, your history, your commitment, your confidence, your responsibility, your decision-making—in other words, your personal ethic. Any discussion of writing in relation to personal statements begins best with a consideration of guided self-reflection, self-motivation, and ethics. Grounded in these principles, this chapter will help you to consider whether or not graduate study is right for you.