Grad School & Personal Statements

By: Luiza Goncalves Oliveira Benvenuti, Senior Psychology Student from Brusque, Brazil, and Senior Peer Career Guide with University Career Services

If you haven’t started thinking about it yet, whenever you start feeling your graduating day coming closer, you will! Graduate Schools application processes can be very daunting and complicated. A few questions you may be asking yourself while thinking about graduate school are what program should I choose, who can review my materials, and mostly, how do I write a personal statement?! In this post, the Career Coaches Meagan Savage and Kristen Aldrich are going to be answering some of these questions and sharing a few tips and resources on campus that can assist you during your Grad School journey.

Meagan Savage is a College of Arts & Sciences Career Coach Kristen Aldrich is a College of Arts & Sciences Career Coach
  1. Can you share a little bit about your roles in the College of Arts and Sciences?

When it comes to Graduate School, Meagan and Kristen can help students:

  • Explore and consider if Grad School is the right fit for them based on their career goals.
  • Find Grad programs that are interesting to them by using resources and other means.
  • Understand what it takes to apply to Grad school – application materials needed, timeline, and revisions.
  • Identify who will be writing letters of recommendation and how to ask for those.
  • Address questions or concerns regarding the process and direct them to the most appropriate resources.
  • Understand alternative options and plans such as gap-year, virtual and remote work, short-term job, or even if Grad School is the right option.
  • Identify what they could and should be taking and/or doing to be a competitive candidate – either while in school or during a gap/OPT year.
  1. What advice do you have around researching graduate programs and finding the right fit?
  • Talk with a Coach – since undergraduate degrees are so broad it might take a conversation to understand what your goals and interests are
  • Start with your faculty members – someone that you know because of research or you’ve been inspired by them. Some have colleagues all across the U.S., some even internationally, which means they can get you connected and get your ideas started by giving recommendations.
  • Research online there are website that have broad listings, such as U.S. News & World Report and Princeton Review.
  • Look into Professional Associations connected to your major, area of study, or future profession – a lot of times they have really good recommendations for graduate programs. If you don’t know where to start, you can always start with a Career Services professional like Kristen and Meagan or you can google “Professional Associations in …” and research more about them
    • A Professional Association is just like a grown-up RSO. On campus, you are surrounded by like-minded people who are really interested in the topic of the organization. They are like that but times 100 since you get to start working with some of those members, going to conferences together, etc.
  • Make sure that Grad School is necessary or appropriate for your long-term career goals – many international students may see a graduate program as a way to stay in the U.S., however, if that is their only reason and they go into a program that isn’t connected to their long-term career goals, they might have a harder time positioning themselves as a really competitive candidate while applying or even identifying programs that are exciting to them.
  1. Preparing a personal statement can be daunting for any student, but especially for many International students where English may not be their first language. Do you have any tips on how students can get started on personal statements?
  • You may start writing on your native language – if it helps you generate ideas for what to say and how to present yourself. Later you can work on translating or ask a Coach, the writing center, ESL support lab, a peer, etc. for suggestions on how to phrase their statement in English.
  • Just get started – sometimes the hard part is looking at an intimidating blank word document. Start on why you are applying for the program, why you think you are qualified, what you hope to gain, and how it will support your long-term goals, that is if the program does not require you to answer a specific set of questions. So, just “word-vomit” it out, just start generating ideas. Then you can take it from there and go through several rounds of revision, which is a common process even for domestic students whose first language is English.
  • You can think of it almost as a persuasive essay – they need to know how you are intending to further your degree, what areas interest you, and how are you prepared for this next step. You are almost trying to convince them why you think you would be a good investment.
  • Most importantly, you DON’T have to do it by yourself – there are many resources on campus that might be able to help such as Coaches, the writing center, ESL lab, etc. So, write a rough draft or a list of topics you want to discuss in each paragraph and have someone take a look at it. They are here to help you with the flow and structure of your statement and make sure you go from one draft to another until you are ready to submit it.
  • Use the pursuing graduate school guide! – it has plenty of resources to get you started on some of those questions.
  1. Can you share some Dos and Don’ts around personal statements?
  • DON’T write one personal statement for every school – they need to be individualized. Your experiences and stories will be the same but your intent to go to that specific program or work with that specific professor need to be targeted and individual to each school.
  • DO get multiple perspectives on your personal statements – don’t just take to Career Coaches or just the writing center. Getting input from faculty, especially the ones writing your letters of recommendation, can be a big help. They may not only be able to help you with the more technical language (if you are in a technical major), but since they most likely have reviewed lots of graduate applications, they may also be able to give you more specific feedback; however, there will always be things to change and improve so know when to stop.
  • DO be authentic and descriptive – but also be aware of the word/page limit.
  • DON’T overshare – don’t get hung up on a lot of personal details and storytelling that is not relevant to your long-term goal and/or the program; however, sometimes it can be hard to determine what to keep so if you are drafting just write it and then you can work with someone to figure out what are the details that can be cut for the sake of time and space.
  • DO pay attention to what each school is asking for the personal statement – some programs might not give you any type of prompt at all, but others are very specific about topics, format, or page/word limit and if you cannot follow the directions that is not a good sign for them.
  1. What else should students know about preparing personal statements and preparing for graduate school?
  • Personal statements and resumes should be complementing each other and not be the same document. Personal statements let you have that narrative while resumes show your qualifications and the things you have been able to contribute so far.
  • Read personal statements out loud to yourself, friends, etc. since sometimes by doing that it becomes easier to identify awkward parts you may want to change or work on.
  • The Grad School process is not something to take lightly or to just jump into because you have no other plans – if you end up doing so, you might spend a couple of years in a program that you are not even motivated by and then afterwards you still need to figure out what you’re going to do.
  • Build relationships with faculty – it will make your application process smoother since they may be able to refer you to programs and write strong letters of recommendation
  1. What should International Students do during their OPT/gap year to make sure they can still request letters of recommendation from faculty?

Keep the line of communication open – if you stay local, have a coffee once in a while with faculty members you may already have a good relationship, or go visit them during their office hours. If you don’t stay local, drop an email to update them on your accomplishments and new opportunities, connect with them on LinkedIn – and know when to mention a letter of recommendation – if you already have a relationship with faculty and want to go to grad school after your OPT, mention your plans to them and that you hope you can reach out for a letter of recommendation in the future. So, when you do request it, it will be a lot easier and feel less weird. However, be careful not to ask too early for those faculty members you don’t already have a relationship. They may decline your request because they don’t know you enough. If you already want to do something that they are really knowledgeable about, of course they will want to sit and geek and talk to you about it, so start there. Also, don’t be afraid to be persistent, feel free to message them again if you feel like you are not getting a good response, just give them a little bit of time.


If you want to watch the full video, click here.

By Luiza Benvenuti
Luiza Benvenuti Career Connections Intern