It's that time of the year we all know and love...or dreadː Application season. For most people applying to graduate programs, the end of summer is something like a prolonged version of the Sunday scaries. Fall is here, and that means most of your graduate school application deadlines are coming up in late November and early December. Your personal statement is arguably the hardest and one of the most important parts of your application. You'll want to start drafting it months in advance. This is your chance to demonstrate to admissions committees why you're an excellent fit for their program. Your personal statement is also useful for people writing your letters of recommendation--they can use your statement to learn something about your personal qualities and experiences in a way that's clear and concise. This can help your letter writers make stronger recommendations on your behalf. So open up that blank document and take some notes on how to write a powerful personal statement. 

    There's no formula or guide that will work for everyone's personal statement. So if you're looking for a step-by-step guide on drafting yours, you've come to the wrong place. Instead, what I've written here are three principles that you can apply to communicate your goals and personal qualities.

1. Be Authentic

    In my experience, most applicants focus on saying "the right thing" in their personal statement--"the right thing" being, presumably, exactly what the admissions committee wants to hear. There are two issues with this: First, there is no "right thing." Admissions committees are looking for potential to succeed and fitness for the program, not a singular profile (we're not all robots, after all!). The second issue is that your own, authentic voice will be missing from the personal statement, making it more challenging for the admissions committee to evaluate you. 

    Instead, be authentic about your own qualities and goals. What personal qualities make you a great candidate? If it's your grittiness, then highlight that. Give examples of your grit and show them how that applies to your potential as a graduate student and speech-language pathologist. If you're collaborative, write about how that will make you an integral member of a healthcare team. Are you going to into speech-language pathology because of a personal experience? Write about that and how that's informed your career goals. 

    This is also the place where you can explain less-than-stellar grades. Admissions committees will be looking for an explanation if your GPA is much lower than that of their average accepted candidate. So if you're in that boat, don't wrap up a personal statement without addressing elements of your application that might be considered more negatively, particularly if you have an explanation: i.e., a student who is also working a full-time job and supporting a family should specifically address how their life experience impacted their academic performance (side note: if that's you, definitely talk about your grit and determination because that is no easy task). You want to be sure to frame adversity with a positive lens: how did you grow, what did you learn, and how will that experience make you a successful SLP?

    The personal statement likely the only place in the entire application where you can you to articulate your goals and really be authentic about how you've been working towards them and what qualities you bring to the table. Don't do yourself a disservice by trying to sell a cookie-cutter version of yourself.

2. Be Specific

    Once you've identified the personal qualities and goals that make you a fantastic candidate for an SLP grad program, you need to tie these to specific experiences. Think of it as showing the admission's committee what qualities you have (authenticity) and how that makes you a great candidate (specificity). 

Consider the following scenarios (not from a real personal statement):

A: "I consider myself a very gritty person."

B: "I have a lot of grit. For example, when I failed chemistry the first time, I didn't get discouraged, took it again, and received a passing great." 

C: "Failing chemistry was disappointing. However, I knew that I had the potential to succeed with a new approach to learning the material. The following term, I retook the course. This time, I consistently attended office hours, peer tutoring sessions, and group study sessions. I was thrilled to earn a B+."

Which of the three scenarios gives you the most specific example of this person's grit? Scenario A doesn't show us at all, the person is just telling us they're gritty and we're expected to believe them. Scenario B gives an example, but this doesn't tell us that the person did anything different the second time around. But Scenario C really shows how that person is gritty--they put in extra hours and sought out every opportunity to receive a passing grade in chemistry. As a bonus, they also described a negative experience that addresses their low grade and they spun it with a positive lens, showing how they grew from the experience.

When describing experiences like work or volunteering, you also want to be specific about what your responsibilities were, don't make the admissions committee do the work of guessing. And definitely don't leave them room to assume you did less than what you actually did. For example, someone who worked as an undergraduate research assistant should describe who they worked with, the overarching goal of the project, and the specific skills that they gained from that experience. 

So far we have somewhat of a formula that you might consider thinking about: 

Good personal statement = Authentic qualities/goals + Specific experiences

But of course, that's an over-simplification. I'm happy to entertain additions to the formula if anyone has thoughts. 

3. Be Clear

Imagine you're reading hundreds of essays and trying to narrow the pile down to the top 50. What's going to make your job easier: an essay that's beautifully written with flowing, complex sentences, or one that communicates that same thing in a way that's to-the-point and concise? 

You probably guessed right--the clear and concise one. You have limited space, and the admissions committee has limited attention. Tell your story, and nothing but the story. 

Clarity comes with revision, revision, revision. Ask professors and colleagues to read your statement and give feedback. Is the overall message coming through with clarity? Can the reader identify your strengths as an applicant and the experiences you used to highlight those strengths? Identify lengthy sentences with winding, complex syntactic structures. See if you can break those up in multiple shorter sentences--these will be easier to follow. Identify sections or sentences that don't tie into the big picture. Edit or remove them. 

If you're into analogies, think of your writing style as holding the admissions committee's hand while you guide them through who you are (authenticity) and why you're a great fit (specificity). A clear personal statement is like a straight path. One step naturally leads to the next with no weird, winding roads or confusing forks. 


A final note: notice that I didn't spend any time stating that you should write about why you want to be a speech-language pathologist. That's because this won't make your application stand-out--everyone has their reason, and most reasons are great. Don't get me wrong, you should write about your why. But the large majority of the statement should focus on the what and the how: What are your goal and qualities and how will that make you a successful student and speech-language pathologist? Hope this helps you get started!

Happy Writing!
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