Graduate school personal statements can be challenging, often because they don’t specify what exactly they want you to write about. For instance, the prompt might read as follows: Personal Statement (500 word limit).

This can create a lot of anxiety in grad-school candidates. “So, I can write about...anything?” my client, Ryan, an aspiring speech pathologist asked. “It says ‘personal’ – does that mean that I should tell them about how my mom had a stroke when I was in tenth grade?”

I gave Ryan the same answer I give all of my candidates who come to me with that confused puppy dog look: “Yes and no.”

If you’re applying to a speech pathology program because you want to work with stroke victims, then yes, by all means, include the story about your mother’s stroke in your personal statement. Discussing the impact that moment had on you would be the perfect set-up for the essay. BUT, be careful not to end up writing an essay about your mother. Remember, you only have 500 words, so talk about you. Your mother is only a launching point for a discussion about a defining moment in your development as a future speech pathologist.

Let me break it down for you:

Paragraph 1. This is where you get personal. No, this doesn’t mean empty the contents of your diary. This means write about the moment that you realized you wanted to pursue your goal. For the speech pathology example, this paragraph could be about how your mother had a stroke and then how you watched her struggle to relearn how to speak—and how you worked with her to improve her speech and found that you had a passion and a talent for it. Be specific.

Why? Graduate programs want students who are passionate about what they want to do, not students who are just looking to avoid the real world for another few years. This is your opportunity to show them why you want it.

Paragraph 2. What have you done thus far to pursue your interest in speech pathology? This is an opportunity to discuss specific classes you’ve taken in college—talk about a particular professor you learned from, clubs you started or joined. Discuss internships or observation hours. But DO NOT simply list them, you don’t want to regurgitate your resume. Remember, they have your resume! Tell them what’s not on your resume. For instance, discuss specific moments within your observation hours where you learned something significant and how you plan to apply what you learned.

Why? Graduate school want students who have already been seeking knowledge; show them what you’ve learned so far.

Paragraph 3. Why do you want to go to grad school? What do you still have left to learn that you need NYU for? Discuss skills that you need to obtain, improve or expand. For instance, you might want to work with stroke victims in a hospital—therefore you are looking to apply to a medically-based speech pathology program. Perhaps the majority of your observation hours were spent in a classroom with young children. Therefore you lack the medical knowledge needed to obtain a job as a speech pathologist in a hospital.

Now here’s the part where Ryan asks, “But Kirsten, don’t I want to appear confident? Won’t it make me look weak to admit that I still have stuff to learn?”

The answer? No. Schools want students who are self aware–they know their strongest and weakest areas. You want to show the school that you know what you need to work on and what experiences you need to gather in order to accomplish your goal. This also demonstrates that you actually will benefit from graduate school—and proves to the school even more that you are a serious candidate.

Paragraph 4. The school-specific portion of your essay. Why NYU, specifically? Here, it is important to be extremely specific in order to show enthusiasm for a particular school. Research classes, professors and clubs, and discuss how they will help you accomplish your goal.

Why? You must prove that you want to go to the school. By getting specific about the school you also demonstrate your ability to research and gain knowledge—good traits for a prospective student. Additionally, when you get an interview—you’ll have lots to discuss.

Last paragraph. Your conclusion. A few short sentences about how NYU is going to help you, and you are going to help them, change the planet (by using your speech pathology degree to work with stroke victims).

Don’t worry, it’s completely normal to feel anxious about writing a personal statement. It can feel like the be all end all—when you start to feel overwhelmed, just remember that you already know all of the answers. You’ve been living this essay—just dig down deep and start typing.

--Kirsten Guenther