5 things you need to know about getting into Professional & Graduate School

I remember when I first contemplated graduate school. I was a sophomore in college on track to graduate a year early. I had already struggled for weeks to write my personal statement. I had the mindset that all I had to do was tell a story about myself. Little did I know there was a lot more to it.

Over the years, I have learned a thing or two about graduate and professional school admissions. Five degrees down, half-way done with my last two, I never knew getting ‘into’ school was as much a skill as actually graduating. While each type of program has a different constellation of requirements, one part remains the same: the personal statement.

Whether you are applying to Medical School, Law School, or a Graduate program (PhD and Masters programs included) the same advice applies. Your personal statement is arguably the most important part of your application.

But there are a few things you should know about your personal statement and how it ties into the rest of your application. These are things I wish someone had told me; things I wish my high school or college advisor would have known; things I wish I had learned before going through all this schooling.

5 things you should know when writing a personal statement:

  1. They won’t always read your Personal Statement:

If you think that just because you write a personal statement they will read it, you are wrong. Most professional programs follow a three or four step process in selecting students for admissions, whether they acknowledge it or not.

For one, they use your GPA and entrance exam scores as a qualifier. If you fall below their threshold, they will weed out your application; yes, they will do so without reading your personal statement. They want to make sure you are capable of academically handling their curriculum. Next, they read through your Personal Statement and Application looking for three things: what is your motivation for applying to their program, are you a well-rounded student — someone who would fit in their program, and will you, with all of your various extra-curricular and work experiences be a good fit for their student body. Lastly, some programs invite you to the campus for an interview to better understand your personal motivation, your ability to connect, and who you are as an individual.

Personal Statements are the most important part for most applicants. If you are strong enough academically, then it is often times the differentiating section between candidates.

2. It is not always WHAT you say, it is HOW you say it:

I have always found it ironic that admission committees, full of academics, prefer that you write in active voice not academic voice. While what you say is important, yes, I would argue that how you say it matters just as much, if not more.

A few things you should do in your personal statement: be clear and concise, write in active voice, avoid passive voice, avoid academic voice, and avoid hedging. Admissions Committees like well-articulated pieces written in active voice where the subject performs the action. Avoid passive voice where you dissociate the subject from the verb; it slows down the pace of the statement and can distract from the thesis.

I know your counselor and advisor said “what” you write is more important, but the reality is, if you cannot keep a reader’s attention or convey your message in an easy-to-read format than it doesn’t matter what you say.

3. Express your Internal “why”

Most students assume that if they are applying to a program, the admissions committee should understand their motivation to apply. Quite the contrary is true, this part of your personal statement is the most important part! If you are applying to a Master’s in Business Administration, but you still do not know what you want to do after you graduate, how can they be sure you are willing to sacrifice the time, money, and effort that it takes to complete the program? Whether it is medicine, law, or graduate school they want driven individuals who know exactly what they want and they know exactly how to get themselves there.

4. Highlight your Weaknesses

Time and time again, I have watched students shy away from glaring holes in their application. They think, ok so I failed a few classes, maybe if I do not mention it they will not see it.

The reality is we all have failures and weaknesses, but sometimes these weak moments provide the best learning experiences. For anyone applying to school, I recommend you use any weakness in your application to your advantage. Address it in your personal statement and if it is big enough, it may serve as a strong opening. Explain what happened, without giving excuses, then articulate what you learned from it, how you plan to use this experience going forward, and why it is no longer a weakness.

5. You are the artist, so paint the perfect narrative

In your application, I liken your Personal Statement to the eggs and flour in baking. It builds the structure of who you are as an applicant and pulls the rest of your application together. It is the perfect opportunity for you to articulate the narrative of your life. You want to highlight your internal ‘why’, discuss how you overcame adversity and learned from your mistakes, discuss a few relevant experiences that shaped your ambition along the way (do not just list your resume), then use the rest of the canvas as space to create a beautifully scripted narrative painting the picture of a perfect applicant!

This last part is no doubt, the hardest of them all. But with a little practice, advice from friends and family, or some outside help; you can leave a lasting impression on the application committee begging them to either accept you into their program or invite you for an interview.

The personal statement really is your chance to shine. Your chance to stand out. Your chance to paint the perfect picture of a student they want in their program.

There is a lot more to writing a personal statement than just writing a story about yourself. I always recommend finding an objective reviewer who can go through your entire application and personal statement and identify potential weaknesses or questions that may arise in a committee’s mind. Make sure you address these questions and convince readers that you are a well-rounded applicant.

As always, if you have questions or you need help writing a personal statement, feel free to reach out me.

(Frank owns a company School Acceptance that focuses on getting students into Medical School and Graduate School. Email him: HERE or follow the company’s social media account!)

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