One of the free events we run regularly is a personal statement workshop. I’ve gotten to host a few, and one of my favorite questions to ask during the event is, “What’s the most important question that your personal statement needs to answer?”
Most of the replies I see in the chat are, “Why do I want to go to grad school?”
Indeed, the notion that the grad school personal statement is a “Why I Want to Go to Grad School” essay has become a staple of common “wisdom” which, like the idea that you should leave your recommenders alone, is false and detrimental to your application. Should you explain, at some point in your personal statement, why you want to go to grad school? Of course. Grad schools don’t want to admit someone who applies grudgingly, or who only wants to attend because the real world is scary and grad school seems like a good way to pass the time. But is that the primary goal of your essay? Absolutely not.
You see, “why I want to go to grad school” is a fundamentally forward-thinking question. To answer it, you have to talk about what you want to do and who you want to become. You might have promising visions and compelling aspirations, but grad schools don’t admit the person you’ll become. They admit the person you are right now. It’d be therefore pretty crazy not to provide them information about that person. Your dreams for the future give hints about your identity in the present, but hints aren’t enough.
The question you primarily need to answer is, “Why should you accept me into your program?” You don’t want your personal statement to sound like a sales pitch, because nobody likes being sold to and grad schools aren’t stupid. But a sales pitch is exactly what your personal statement is. Grad schools want someone who’s hardworking, competent, and mature, and going on and on about, “why I want to go to grad school” won’t give admissions officers reason to believe you’re any of those things.
If anything, an essay devoted entirely to explaining why its author wants to go to grad school runs a risk of making that author seem less mature. Such an essay makes its author sound like a child listing all the reasons why she wants to be a doctor when she grows up, rather than a mature, responsible adult making an informed decision about her future.
“How to write a personal statement,” is a topic too big to fit into a single blog entry. Heck, we barely fit it all into a 90 minute event. I can, however, suggest to you an easy-to-remember structure for brainstorming and planning your personal statement. The fundamental question that your essay needs to answer — “Why should you accept me into your program?” — can be broken down into three sub-questions. These questions are “Why me?”, “Why you?”, and “Why now?”
In your personal statement, you need to explain why you’re an excellent candidate (“why me”). You should also explain why you want to go to that grad school, specifically (“why you”). Finally, grad schools want to know why you’re applying to grad school now, as opposed to three years from now or three years ago (“why now”). Successfully answer these three questions, and you’ll have a strong personal statement.
I occasionally present Kaplan’s Grad School Admissions Do’s and Don’ts event, and there’s one piece of advice in it — one of the “Do’s” — that attendees consistently meet with disbelief and suspicion. It’s a point I consider fundamental about recommendation (“rec”) letters, and since the word seems not to be getting out, I thought I’d share it with you here.
What you need to do is this: help your recommenders help you. In other words … talk to them! Set up a meeting with each of them. Talk about what you’ve done, what you’ve accomplished, how you’ve grown. Give them information. In short, help them figure out what they should put in the dang letter.
When I applied to grad school, I didn’t do any of this. I got my recommenders, thanked them profusely, gave them all the envelopes and packets and everything else they needed to make the task as painless as possible … and then I left them alone. I didn’t want to influence the content of the rec letters in any way. I didn’t want to be unethical.
At the Do’s and Don’ts event, I see that many of you are like me: your fear of being unethical drives you away from your recommenders. But put yourself in your recommender’s shoes for a moment. Imagine that you’re a professor, that you had a student you liked, and that you agreed to write a rec letter for the student. Now what? What do you put in the letter? You’d like to help the student get into grad school, of course, or else you wouldn’t have agreed to write the letter for them. But without specific information, you’re hard pressed to write a letter that will do your student justice.
By all means, be ethical. Don’t write any rec letters yourself. Don’t read them after they’ve been written. Don’t ask your recommenders to lie.
But if you possess a positive quality, and your recommender agrees you have that quality, there’s nothing wrong with telling your recommender, “Hey, remember that positive quality I have!” or “Hey, remember that cool thing I did!” It might have been a long time since you interacted with your recommender. She might have forgotten something about you that, if she leaves it out of her rec letter, she’ll regret. Failing to apprise your recommender of your strengths, experiences, accomplishments — in short, of any piece of information that might be relevant to a letter of recommendation — does you and your recommender a disservice.
You don’t need to be bossy about it. Simply write your recommender something like, “Hey Professor Snorflepants! Thank you so much for agreeing to write me a rec letter. I know you’re incredibly busy, and I appreciate your time enormously. Would you like to meet for 15-30 minutes sometime next week to catch up and to talk about the letter some more?”
Do it tactfully and do it ethically, but do give guidance to your recommenders. Don’t ship them off to write letters for you blind. Your assistance will not only help your recommenders write a stronger asset to your application, but also to feel better about the service they’ve agreed to perform for you.
In honor of Women’s History Month, one of my Kaplan colleagues sent me a recent article on the most popular master’s degrees, broken down by gender. While you might expect these lists to be very different, what jumped out at me were the following two data points:
- The MBA is the most popular degree for both men and women.
However, the percentage of each group that pursues this degree is very different: 22.3% of men get an MBA, while only 11.4% of women do.
- Various degrees in education appeared multiple times in the top 5 lists of most popular degrees for both men and women.
Once again, though, there is a big difference between the specific degrees that men and women obtain. For example, men are more likely to get a degree in Education Leadership and Administration (#4 on the men’s list, with 2.7%), while women are more likely to get degrees in Elementary Education or Curriculum & Instruction (#4 and #5, respectively, on the women’s list, with 3.8% and 3.6%).
What do those numbers say to me? One very important thing:
3.6% of women or 2.7% of men (for example) may not sound like a lot of people, but those percentages represent thousands upon thousands of people competing for spots at the same programs that you want to attend. And even if you’re pursuing a less-popular degree, that doesn’t take any of the pressure off – those programs tend to be smaller by nature, so schools still have the power to be very selective in whom they choose to accept.
So what’s the best way to make yourself stand out of the crowd and gain acceptance to the program of your choice? The two biggest factors are:
- Your GRE scores: This is the measuring stick by which admissions committees can evaluate all candidates, regardless of their backgrounds. Simply put: Schools take it seriously, and so should you.
- Your personal statement: This is your first, and often only, opportunity to communicate directly to admissions officers – make sure that it’s compelling.
And if you’re just now at the beginning of the grad school research process, also make sure to check out my recent entry on how to road-map your applications.
What are you planning to go to grad school for? What career are you hoping to pursue with your degree? Let us know in the comments!
- During the peak testing period from August through December, the greatest increase in test administrations was in international markets – China and India saw a 30% increase in test volume over the same period in 2011. The article speculates that “This trend may impact upcoming admissions cycles as the globally diverse GRE test-taker population applies to graduate and business schools in 2013.”
- More schools outside of the United States are using GRE scores. According to the press release, 2012 brought a 14% increase in the number of schools that use the GRE, and “[m]any of these new score users were Asian and European institutions”. What does this mean for you? If you’re considering attending graduate school abroad, there’s never been a better time to take the plunge, as this piece of the admissions process becomes increasingly standardized.
- As more and more business schools accept GRE scores, they like what they’re seeing. Says an admissions officer at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, “The candidates who take the [GRE] are extremely diverse which provides the opportunity for us, as an institution, to work with candidates from a wide array of backgrounds and undergraduate focus areas”. Clearly, the GRE is continuing to grow in prominence as an alternative to the GMAT for b-school admissions.
- Overall test administrations decreased from 2011, and are at their lowest point since 2008. The number of GRE administrations dropped from more than 800,000 in 2011 to about 655,000, in 2012. The article does note, though, that the 2012 peak testing period of August through December was the second-heaviest in the GRE’s history, which could potentially signal a surge in grad school applications this year.
What does this last data point mean? Well, everything and nothing, depending on how you look at it. Given the overarching changes made to the GRE in 2011, many people naturally decided to take advantage of the last opportunity to take the old version of the test and have those scores available for use for 5 years from Test Day. However, overall testing volume isn’t nearly as important to you as are the numbers of applicants in your target field and programs.
While for some programs, the drop in GRE takers may lead to a less competitive applicant pool, what we’ve heard from admissions officers from top Graduate programs is that they expect this admissions cycle to be as competitive as ever, with more highly qualified international applicants.
To begin researching the stats of schools in your field, check out our recent entry on U.S. News’s Graduate School Road Map. And, of course, check back here regularly for updates on how to best tackle your GRE prep!
For many people, new year’s resolutions include beginning the process of applying to grad school. If you’re planning to apply later this year for admission to begin school in the fall of 2014, it’s time to begin researching programs, visiting schools, and preparing to put together the strongest application possible. US News is currently publishing to a blog series entitled the “Graduate School Road Map”, with entries on what to do each month within the year before your applications are due. Some interesting tidbits from the series include:
- 12 months before deadlines: “Make an alphabetical list of between 10 and 20 programs, regardless of what you presently know or have heard about them. Write them all down or put them on a spreadsheet.
Be very careful about believing everything you hear about a school. You have your own unique needs, expectations, and experiences—and this is your educational experience, not anyone else’s.
Start by gathering a robust list of programs, and don’t eliminate any of them at this point in the process. You want to get as much information as possible, so you can decide which options are the most appealing. Doing this 12 months ahead gives you the time you need.”
- 8 months before deadlines: “Read school newspapers… You will get firsthand information about what is going on at an institution from the student point of view, such as reactions to the appointment of new dean of students, or responses to proposed changes in the way financial aid will be awarded. You will also find information about student governance and the types of social activities taking place.”
- 7 months before deadlines: “Contact alumni… Ask the admissions office (or the alumni office) for the names of graduates who live in your area. Look for individuals who have been out of grad school for 5 to 10 years… Key questions to ask alumni [include]:
- How do you believe your graduate school experience most helped you with your career?
- How much contact have you had with your former classmates? Do you believe the alumni network is strong?”
All of the existing entries in the Road Map can be found here. New entries are still being added, so check back for more information on how to tackle the application process with confidence and efficiency!