Your Graduate School Personal Statement: 4 Tips for Success

Content sponsored by MPA@UNC

Applying to graduate school, like applying for a job, requires a personal statement—but don’t confuse it with a résumé. Although they contain similar information, a résumé tends to fragment your experiences into constituent parts. A personal statement, on the other hand, should synthesize those parts and form a compelling, future-oriented story that connects your background and aspirations to your pursuit of a graduate degree. This is why MPA@UNC refers to the document as a statement of purpose and asks the question: “Why do you want to earn an MPA from UNC-Chapel Hill?” Your statement must be about you, and it must also demonstrate clarity of purpose. The goal of a personal statement is to present yourself as a unique and qualified individual, who has thoughtfully considered a public service career, supported by research and self-assessment, to establish that the program is the most fitting route to pursue.

With this goal in mind, here are four tips for making your statement more personal and purposeful.

Don’t hold back.

People with a clear purpose tend to exude passion for their work. Failure to portray sufficient desire and drive into your statement could inaccurately represent your commitment. While you should avoid sounding boastful, you must demonstrate confidence, enthusiasm, and ambition. Describe how you will be an asset to UNC and add value to the communities you plan to serve after graduation.

Before you begin writing, spend time contemplating what motivates and inspires you. The more in touch you are with your core values and motivations, the easier you will find writing about them. Find a story angle or “hook” from your experiences that crystalizes who you are. Concentrate on crafting an opening that draws readers into your narrative and establishes a theme that holds the entire essay together.

Give examples.

A writing maxim is “show, don’t tell.” Use concrete examples to personalize your points. Instead of simply saying, “I am committed to nonprofit development,” you can say, “Fellowships helped my mother achieve her dream to be a violinist. I want to ensure aspiring artists get that same chance.” Consider the difference between a banal sentence (“I’m a people person.”) and a poignant one (“My three years as intake coordinator for a congregate meals program taught me the value of empathy.”).

Choose examples that clarify how your experiences have shaped you. Describing specific examples of what you want to accomplish in the short and long term further helps establish your strong sense of purpose. By doing so, it will be easier for the admissions team to envision your projected path and how the MPA degree can support your goals. Choose your words carefully, but beware of over-reliance on your thesaurus; use language that sounds like you.

Leave some subjects out.

While striving for vivid, concrete examples, remember the advice offered by the French philosopher and writer Voltaire, who said, “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything." Like cropping a photograph, trimming extraneous details from your personal statement will enhance its focus on your intention. Personal statements are only one to two pages, so plan your story arc appropriately.

Stick with subjects directly related to the MPA degree and your goals for earning it. Part-time jobs and childhood experiences may not be relevant. Some topics may be unsuitable. Since you are writing for multiple unknown readers, be especially cautious about attempting humor or broaching sensitive, partisan, or controversial topics. As an applicant, you want to stand out, but, to be selected, you must fit in.

Proofread.

Admissions committees form first impressions while reading applicants’ personal statements. Make sure they see your best work. Don’t let typographical errors, poor grammar, or confusing sentences diminish the quality of your story. The MPA@UNC admissions committee seeks articulate students who can express themselves clearly in prose. The statement should be considered as a writing sample as well.

Set your completed draft aside for a while, so you have time to re-read it with fresh eyes. Reading aloud can also help you spot errors. If anything interrupts the flow or leaves way for assumption or misinterpretation, revise it until you’ve resolved the issue. Ask people you trust for feedback, but do not enlist others to help write your personal statement. Admissions officers want to see only your own, honest work.

Like any endeavor, if you invest sufficient time and effort and follow proven strategies, then your personal statement should be an accurate and compelling representation and introduction of your candidacy to the MPA@UNC admissions committee.

Learn more about the MPA@UNC admissions process.

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