At any level of higher education, the ability to convey your candidacy in writing is an essential skill. For prospective graduate students, understanding the ins and outs of a personal statement is the first step toward increasing your chances of admission.

With that in mind, let’s compare a familiar ‘known’ (the college essay) to a relative unknown (the personal statement). Here are three ways in which the two are distinct from one another:

  • A grad school personal statement will tend to have more of a long-term, vocational focus. In other words, how grad school will impact your future goals. Conversely, your past college essay probably adopted more of a short-term lens in regards to your next four years on campus. In both cases, the content and style of your writing needs to reflect the purpose of the education.
  • Many college essays will have a narrative, story-like quality to them. This can include unique experiences that tie into who they are as a person. A grad school personal statement will tend to be more direct – this is who I am, this is why I’m qualified – and this is how I will succeed as a result. It’s a bit more professional and to-the-point.
  • Just as your writing should reflect the purpose of your education, it should also reflect the atmosphere of it. For instance, a college essay will likely speak to a variety of things that come with an undergraduate experience – campus culture, community activism, the student body, location and the principles of the university. It’s important to remember that when applying to graduate school, you are applying to a single program with a single concentration, not the entire university. As such, your essay needs to focus on the specific details of your intended program.

The bottom line: Admissions officers have thousands of applications to read and only so many hours in a day. With an 8-10 minute first read of a student’s application, it’s important to make a lasting impression as quickly as you can.

About the author
Marc Zawel

As author of Untangling the Ivy League, Marc literally wrote the book on gaining admission to highly selective colleges. He earned a BA from Cornell University – where he met AcceptU’s co-founder – and an MBA from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, Marc chaired the admissions advisory board; he has also conducted alumni interviews for Cornell for more than fifteen years.

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