Writing Personal Statements Online

Seeking Help as you Apply for Graduate Study and Scholarships


Obviously, as you apply for graduate school and scholarships you are not alone in the process, with your primary help coming from your mentors, references, and designated academic and scholarships advisors at your school. However, in working with these individuals, you must understand the realities and ethical responsibilities that they uphold in the process of helping you.

Mentors and References

First of all, please understand that your references and mentors feel an obligation not only to you but to the program or scholarship to which you are applying. Many in academia feel that they should be guardians of their discipline, upholding high standards for those who work within it. Even supportive mentors sometimes say no to students seeking a letter of reference, in that they may feel they are too busy to write a letter, may not be fully supportive of you in relation to what you’re applying for, or may not have been approached by you in a way that makes them comfortable writing a fully positive letter. More often, though, you will not be turned down by anyone you ask to write a letter of recommendation, but your references will probably have these ethical expectations of you:

  • That you give ample time for the letter to be written before the deadline—typically 3-4 weeks if possible. Often, those most willing to write letters are also simultaneously writing them for others, under similar deadline constraints.
  • That you clearly understand and communicate the application protocol regarding the letter of recommendation. Some programs ask references to mail the letter directly to them, some ask references to give the letter back to the applicant in a sealed envelope, and some don’t specify any protocol and it is up to the student to sort it out.
  • That you waive your rights to see the contents of the letter, thus allowing it to be confidential. Selection committees typically expect you to give up your access rights by signing a waiver on the application form. Some references might nevertheless share the letter with you if they trust your maturity, but the choice is theirs to make.
  • That you understand that the recommendation—especially if it is written to support your application for a national scholarship—might include some criticism as well as praise. Increasingly, selection committees are calling for honest and full assessment of a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses both.
  • That you follow up with the recommender by keeping him or her informed of the progress of your application. Few students actually do this, which can frustrate professors who have worked hard to be supportive.

Along with these expectations, which often make both you and your references equally uncomfortable, you may need to partner with your references in the reference letter and application process. Some professors will readily review and critique your personal statement and application materials, and in many cases, such as in the sciences where you are working on a team research project, you may require the help of a professor or graduate student to faithfully represent a full project description. Some professors ask to review your resume or a past essay you wrote to help them write a recommendation letter, and some will even ask you directly what kind of detail you would like to have included in the letter, suggesting that you write some of the text down for them in an e-mail. After that, it’s up to the reference to reshape that material effectively in a letter.

Academic Advisors, Career Counselors, and Scholarships Directors

When you apply for a national scholarship, in particular a scholarship where the institution internally assesses and nominates its top candidates, your school will usually have a designated academic advisor, career counselor, or scholarships director to help you through the process. Understand that this person’s role is to coax forth the best from you rather than write your application materials for you, and that schools are limited as to how many students they can put forth for each nominated scholarship. The role of the scholarships director is to be both cheerleader and judge—a precarious tightrope indeed. Even if the director from your school personally “recruits” you for the scholarship because of your academic record, the director must ultimately view you in context of all the other potential scholarship candidates, both at your school and nationally, and must also be concerned with the reputation of the school you are representing. Just as one example, for the graduate scholarship awarded by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, each accredited college and university in the US may nominate up to two students only, and in 2009 the Foundation expected to award just 30 scholarships from a pool of over 1,000 applications. In making choices about which students to nominate for a national scholarship, your school’s designated advisor must serve as a motivator and writing coach to you, while keeping in mind the odds against success, and maybe even deciding against putting you forth as a candidate in favor of one of your peers.

In short, you must understand the ethical and practical concerns of anyone helping you prepare your application, recognizing that the above concerns are typical rather than invented, and that your responsibility is to prepare an application of maximum efficacy, respecting and partnering with those who choose to help you.

Helping Yourself

Clearly, as a user of this handbook, you understand the value of using online resources to educate yourself. To educate yourself further about graduate programs, I recommend that you visit these sites:

  • Discover Business, which publishes resources for "best value" business and accounting degrees, a list of business degree scholarships, and SAT and ACT preparation resources.
  • Top Accredited Online Business Degrees, which publishes a guide for business degree students who wish to continue their studies towards earning an MBA degree.
  • Education Index at PhDs.org, which uses publicly available numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics to help you pick the best graduate program to suit your needs.
  • accreditedonlinecolleges.org, which helps  you choose among online programs that offer master's degrees.


In seeking help as you apply to graduate school, look for advice that comes from within your field. As examples, here are two starting points for students in the sciences and the humanities:

"Preparing for and Applying to MD/PhD Programs" (download) advice from a graduating senior at Emory University

"Graduate Study - By Category" advice from about.com