As a graduate student, you may find that many jobs, internships, scholarships, and graduate/ professional programs ask for a written personal statement. If you're feeling overwhelmed, then rest assured this blog post will explain the purpose of this type of writing and offer helpful tips to get you started on your writing journey.
The first step to writing your personal statement is to understand the purpose. Although requirements vary by program, the general purpose of a personal statement is to highlight your strengths, goals, qualifications, and ability to write clearly and concisely. This is your opportunity to leave an impression on your reader and give them a feel for who you truly are.
The next step is to consider the audience. I usually picture a tired, overworked reader, surrounded by essays and empty coffee cups, who longs to read something interesting.
So now that you've established your purpose and audience, what's next? Working through your personal writing process, of course!
The pre-writing stage is your time to identify and shape the information you want to include in your essay. During this stage, many writers find brainstorming techniques such as listing, clustering, and freewriting a great way to generate ideas. Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you begin gathering ideas.
Once you've come up with ideas, it's time to sort through them and plan a structure. Many students find writing an outline a helpful tool for structuring their paper. The pre-writing stage is extremely important because good writing is focused and clear, so I highly recommend deciding on the message you want to send your reader before beginning the next stage of the writing process, drafting.
The drafting stage consists of putting words on paper. Your goal during this stage is to convey your message in a way that makes your message clear and memorable for the reader. However, give yourself permission to write a terrible first draft because you can always go back and revise.
One genre that fits perfectly with personal statement writing is the narrative. Narrative writing focuses on sending a message through an entertaining story, so you'll want to find an experience from your life that perfectly illustrates your message. For example, if I told you that I was an honest person, you might believe me yet remain unimpressed. However, if I told you about a time when I'd found a purse with a thousand dollars inside and I returned it to its owner, you might think, oh wow! She's really honest. Letting a story convey your message will make your point more memorable for your reader than just stating it.
The best way to tell a story is to think of an experience that illustrates your point and then create a movie version of that experience. You can use some narrative writing tips to help your reader feel like they are right there with you during the experience. For example, using dialogue and descriptive words are great ways to immerse your reader in your experience.
Once you've told your story, you're almost done. You just need that final paragraph to conclude your writing and really cement your message. This conclusion paragraph is your place to summarize your message into one sentence that explicitly states the ideas you've implied through your story. We call this sentence the delayed thesis because it carefully articulates your main point. Often this main point is revealed through a realization that occurred during the experience you described. In the personal statement, it's important that the realization connect to the personal trait, goal, or qualification that makes you a perfect fit for the program or school in which you are applying. You can also use this space to connect your past experience with your future, showing your reader that your skills will transfer to their program and help you to accomplish your goals and be a valuable asset to their program.
I know there is a lot to try to accomplish in one short essay, but keep in mind that readers will learn a lot about you without you having to tell them. That is why the next stage of the writing process, revision, is so important.
The revision stage, is a re-visioning, or re-seeing of ideas. This is a great time to really consider your audience and how they might respond to your words. Also, as you continue to read and reread your writing, you can look for ways to manipulate your story to show those characteristics that you want your reader to see in you. For example, if you want to show that you have a great sense of humor, even though that isn't the main message, you can sprinkle bits of humor throughout without it overtaking the story. During this stage of the writing process, many writers adopt the A.R.R.R. strategy: add, rearrange, remove, replace. Also, remember that you have more than one try at this.You can write first, second, and third drafts and show them to friends, or better yet, bring them into the Writing Center where we are happy to work with any student at any stage of the writing process.
This brings us to the last stage of the writing process, editing. This stage focuses on increasing clarity by going through your writing, line-by-line, keeping in mind the importance of avoiding repetition, using concise language, and eliminating grammar mistakes. Some techniques to help you in this stage are reading your writing aloud and reading from the bottom of the page to the top. Big pictures are made up of minor strokes, so carefully check the small details in your writing to leave a strong overall impression. The writing process isn't always a linear one and allowing yourself to move freely through the different stages can help reduce writing anxiety during the drafting stage.
Good luck with your writing, and I hope to see you in the Writing Center soon!
Jamie Poole, MA
Jamie has both a B.A. and an M.A. in English. She’s taught writing for over 15 years to a diverse body of students from at-risk youth to the CEOs of high profile companies. She believes that writing helps students become more critical thinkers, better communicators, and more persuasive pundits. When not working as a Writing Consultant, she is working on her own writing.
Most writers can improve their academic texts by re-examining the audience that the academic writing style usually presumes. This benefit can be especially useful for those new to this complex process (or newly-returned to it).
While many other useful tools and reflections can help you make use of the concept of the audience at many various stages, this blog article specifically focuses on how the debate about citing Wikipedia articles reveals more than a few key goals for academic writing. Generally, citations enable readers to further explore the sources that contributed to the research. Citations of Wikipedia, in many academic writers’ minds, specifically violate a handful of best practices in our academic writing processes.
All that being said, feel free to use Wikipedia as a tertiary research tool. Use it for quick reminders. Use it when on the go. Use it to explore connected topics between individual article readings.I personally hope that many, many professional academic writers continue to engage with the wikis and sub-wikis in their field, offering improvements as they see fit. Then, somewhat like its bigger siblings the Public Library of Science (PLOS) and Google Scholar, this tool could also come to play a valuable role in future scholarship….just don’t cite it in your class projects!
Dan Roberts, MAR
Dan received his BA and MAR in Religion. These helped him develop a deep respect for the power of communication through the written word. His academic writings have included studies of the Magical Realism literary genre, films using multiple media, and post-existentialism. He loves to assist students in finding better ways to express their thoughts in a clear and effective style.
The day I was told I would not be allowed to complete my undergraduate honors thesis, I most remember feeling my throat clenching and my advisor (then PLNU professor), Dr. Mike Clark, walking into the room shaking his head. It wasn’t far enough along. He vouched for me, but the rest of my committee didn’t believe I could manage the rest of the work in the limited time frame left. And so I would not be finishing my paper. I would not be published. I would not be graduating with honors. Senior year had been rough for me with tumultuous relationships, bouts of illness, and undiagnosed anxiety. It was this anxiety that had paralyzed my writing process the most, and, after failing something so important, it made recognizing my strengths difficult. While my failure made me fear that I was not prepared for life after academia, it is also what pushed me to learn what I needed to do to succeed in the future.
Before that failure, I hadn’t realized how bad of a student I was. Now don’t get me wrong, I have always been great at school, getting good grades and ranking high in my class, but I was a terrible student nonetheless. I relied on my latent abilities instead of honing my talents. I took literature classes but didn’t read all of the texts. I saved studying until the night before an exam and memorized the facts without understanding them. I wrote assignments that required three drafts and just made the first draft worse––twice––to look like I revised it. That process got me As and the occasional B, so I didn’t see the need to question my learning style. Why question talent? Why question learning by osmosis? If I could produce an entire fiction portfolio in a single night and get an A, what could possibly stop me?
But then, as life is wont to do, it gave me the answers to those questions like a push down the stairs. Talent doesn’t help you when you are staring at a blank screen or deleting pages of text that you no longer feel “flow.” You can’t gain perspective through osmosis. And you certainly cannot change directions of your year-long project in January and hope to be ready to edit and proofread by March. Realizing so late in my education that I hadn’t learned to be a better student scared me, but knowing that I was attending grad school in the fall made me determined to do better, if only to prove my worth. This meant I needed to change.
Step 1: setting an end goal
The first step I took was setting my end goal. The MFA thesis requirement was a minimum of 150 pages of either a completed short story collection or an in-progress novel. We had until the end of our first year to write our thesis proposal and select a thesis director, then a semester to reach our directors’ personal requirements before beginning our mentorship. To be honest, I wrote out the timeline, the course requirements, how I could achieve my goals, and how to plan for the next semesters, but my anxiety gave me writer’s block whenever I tried to do something concrete, holding me back from completing those realistic goals. By the end of that first year, I worked too long on perfecting my proposal, and then my preferred director’s load was full. I wanted change, but the goal wasn't enough. I had to move beyond the planning to action.
Step 2: taking care of yourself
That summer, I then began the next step--taking care of myself physically and mentally. I realized that it didn’t matter what boundaries and schedules I set up for myself as long as I was still fighting panic attacks and the physical illness that they caused. The summer after I submitted my proposal, I went to a therapist and learned coping mechanisms. While this helped me, everyone’s self-care will take a different form, whether it is reducing stress, saying no to taking on new responsibilities, or going on a doctor-prescribed medication. Once I was given the tools to deal with my anxiety, I was finally able to work toward my goal and learn how to balance procrastination with work.
Step 3: active learning tools
That third step, balancing procrastination by using active learning tools, was all about retraining myself to do what my professors had lectured about in undergrad. I read novels to better understand how others who came before me created worlds. I created notecards of details and pieces of evidence so that I could plan the plot. I set a weekly page range to reach, a date by which I wanted the work completed, and a schedule in which to write. I was even able to choose my fiction workshops’ due dates around when I thought I would have sections completed. I was no longer writing for a looming deadline but instead for specific gains and in reasonable bursts of time. I was finally making progress.
Step 4: forgiveness
The fourth step then came at the beginning of my final semester—I needed to forgive myself when I did not always meet my new expectations. I know now that I should not have been surprised when I did not make the goal of 150 quality pages in five months; I had created a plan like someone picking up a gym membership on Saturday and expecting to run a marathon Sunday. At first as I saw the potential of not reaching the mark, I beat myself up over it—--Another week and all I did was revise? Two months left and I’m going backward in page count?—--but then I started to recognize the work I was actually doing. I remembered how much my first chapters had changed and that the character development within had been important enough to spend that time on it. I wasn’t wasting away time anymore, I was creating a better foundation.
Step 5: accountability
Once I met with my advisor for the first time, the final step, creating accountability, was easy to implement. I knew that I needed someone pushing me to produce and revise moving forward because I did not yet have that internal discipline. We created a plan: every two weeks, we would meet to discuss the comments on what I had turned in the meeting before, then I would give him a new chapter as well as the revision based on the previous round of notes. The timing kept me on track and the personal relationship kept me both engaged and positive about what I was producing. I found out later that other students were working primarily on their own. They did not all struggle as I would have, but they still had to look elsewhere for their accountability, either from their own internal drive, other professors, or friends who served as sounding boards and readers.
As my academic career came to a close that semester, I could see how differently my grad school and undergrad experiences ended. Failing my undergraduate honors thesis was not just poignant because I had never failed so completely before; I was a Writing major with the dream of writing novels––if I could not complete a 20-30 page thesis, how could I expect to be able to complete anything larger? By setting goals, taking care of my body and mind, using active learning tools, forgiving myself, and creating accountability, I was not only able to reach the 150 page minimum for my Master’s thesis, but my finished novel was an additional 50 pages over that goal. I learned that I could not continue relying on perceived inherent talent, but instead had to learn which tools would best help me and support my learning style. Even now after finishing school, I am still on this journey of becoming a better student and I hope to continue making my mentors and myself proud.
Allie Frazier, MFA
Allie earned her BA in Writing from Point Loma Nazarene University and her MFA in Creative Writing Fiction from Chapman University. Now she uses her past experiences of being a paper editor, writing consultant, and grammar TA to guide APU students through the writing process and develop their writers' voices.
A large-scale study of 70,000 students at 80 colleges and universities showed that students’ use of the writing center is one of the 15 most effective writing practices for learning (Anderson, Gonyea, Anson, and Paine, 2015). Between 22% and 42% more students who benefited from these effective writing practices, compared with students not benefitting from these writing strategies, reported greater college learning.
Writing centers regularly practice most of these effective writing strategies (see chart below), especially those on the Meaning Making writing dimension.
Anderson, P., Gonyea, R. M., Anson, C. M., & Paine, C. (2015). Contribution of writing to learning and development: Results from a large-scale multi-institutional study. Research in the Teaching of English, 50, 199-235.
When you visit the writing center, writing coaches can help you summarize, analyze, describe, argue, or explain your thesis, and to ascertain if it the paper is written it in the appropriate genre. The writing coaches can also help you clarify your instructors’ directions regarding your writing projects.
Writing centers are part of an evidence-based model of effective writing practices associated with college learning. Visit the writing center and we can help you apply the most effective writing practices to all your writing projects.
Jesús Salazar, Ph.D.
Jesús holds a B.A. (Pyschology) from Pitzer College, M.A. from UC Santa Cruz (Social and Development Psychology), and Ph.D. from USC (Educational Research). He taught five years at the USC School of Education, where he read hundreds of term papers. He worked 25 years at the L.A. Unified School District as a report writer, statistician, and database manager. He retired, but chose to work at APU’s Writing Center due to his writing background. His two passions are reading about history, economics, languages, and eschatology; and spending time with his family.
"I’m a terrible writer.” “I was writing this paper at 3am.”
As writing coaches, we often hear students try to warn us that their writing is horrible, but as we read through the papers, we see that is not the case at all. Many students who meet with us in the Writing Center lack confidence in their abilities because of various factors. However, as graduate students, it is vital to learn ways to increase your confidence in order to make the writing process much more enjoyable and effective (especially because you will be doing a ton of writing throughout your program!). Here are some tips to help you develop your confidence as a writer:
Understand that Writing is an Art
Many students writing insecurities have been reinforced over the years by “the red pen”... you know, the one professors use to highlight all the weaknesses in our papers? While writing requires students to understand both the requirements of the assignment as well as the changing expectations and preferences of each professor, assignments don’t define writers. Writing is a creative art form in which beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
Comparing ourselves to others, in any area, more often than not leads to increased self-doubt. This is especially true for writers when they compare their first draft to someone else’s final draft. We can look to others for inspiration and motivation, but as one writer explains, “The only writer you should compare yourself to is the writer you were yesterday”.
Remember that Writing Doesn’t Have to be Perfect
Robert Cormier makes a great point about writing as he states, “The beautiful part about writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time… unlike, say, a brain surgeon.” You can take much of the pressure off of yourself by understanding that it’s okay if your writing isn’t perfect and that you can always make revisions later if needed.
Understand that Writing is a Process
If we had to eat a huge hamburger in one bite, I’m sure we would feel very overwhelmed. In the same way, we easily become overwhelmed when we approach a paper as one large project.That is why it’s vital to approach your paper as a multi-step process. Prewriting, drafting, and revising are all key pieces of the writing process that will assist you in successfully accomplishing your assignments. For more information on how to plan for your paper, click here.
Take a Productive Break
As you’re drafting and revising, spending time away from the paper can help give you clarity and also provides a mental break. You can make your breaks productive by doing activities that help boost your creativity or that are relaxing.
Seek Helpful Feedback
Visiting the Writing Center is also a good way to take a productive break. A writing coach or a peer can help you identify gaps in reasoning, unclear sentences, and other issues. You can then use this feedback to continue revising your paper.
Remember that Change Happens One Day at a Time
Practice makes progress, and improvement happens over time. Have realistic expectations for yourself, track your progress, and celebrate your achievements!
Laci Corzo, MA
Laci is passionate about helping students grow academically, professionally, and spiritually. After earning her BA in Communication Studies from APU, she went on to earn her MA in the same field. She has worked as a Student Advisor, an Online Teaching Assistant, a Professor, and now as a Writing Consultant in the Writing Center.
Finding a balance between talking about other people’s work and your own analysis in an essay can be hard. You want to demonstrate that you’ve done the research necessary to support your points, but avoid accusations of plagiarism. What balance should you strike?
Here are four questions to ask yourself to determine whether or not you need more citations—or if you have too many.
What expectations (e.g. style or genre considerations) are you working with ?
While documentation conventions differ between citation styles, the principle remains the same: give your reader enough information so they can locate the source you used. If you’re not sure about your discipline’s documentation norms, then take a look at the style guide that your discipline recommends. It will often have guidelines for specific citation situations. For example, APA includes guidelines for citing a single work multiple times without sounding (or looking) redundant.
If your discipline’s style guide does not have what you’re looking for, take a look at some of the writing within your discipline. Within that particular genre of writing, how does the author go about incorporating what others have said? You can reverse-engineer their work and use it as a template for your own.
What part of the text are you in?
You want to be transparent about your sources, but you don’t have to append citations to every sentence. When you cite sources also depends on what part of the paper you’re writing:
Is it clear how you know this?
In an academic paper, you want to make sure your readers understand how you know what you know. To illustrate this point, I’ll use original and revised paragraphs from a paper I recently wrote. Here’s the original paragraph:
These girls, known as kamlaharī, are subjected to long hours of domestic labor, not sent to school, and exposed to physical and sexual abuse. Numerous NGOs actively remove girls from such situations, often involving local law enforcement. Many organizations recognize that rescuing kamlaharī is a last-resort tactic, thus proactively work to equip whole communities with income-generating skills. Creating community resources provided families with alternative means to funds, rather than procuring a loan and sending a daughter to repay it.
After reading this draft, a colleague asked me “how do you know that?” and I realized I wasn’t being transparent about my sources—how I knew this to be true. Here’s the revised paragraph:
These girls, known as kamlaharī, are subjected to long hours of domestic labor, not sent to school, and exposed to physical and sexual abuse. Numerous NGOs actively remove girls from such situations, often involving local law enforcement. As I traveled between far western districts during the month of Magh, I saw NGO staff working alongside police and army officials at highway traffic checkpoints to identify girls and young women on public transportation who may have been kamlaharī traveling to their new landlord’s house. The organizations through which I conducted my research recognize that rescuing kamlaharī is a last-resort tactic, and thus proactively work to equip whole communities with income-generating skills. Their programs often include teaching new farming methods to increase agricultural yields, and establishing community savings and credit groups. Creating such community resources provides families with alternative means to funds, rather than procuring a loan and sending a daughter to repay it.
In this case, my own research experience was my evidence. In other cases, including citations might be how you let your reader know where you got your information. If your reader is left asking, “how do you know this?” then you should revise the passage so that it is clear how you know something.
Does it sound like someone else?
If you do not acknowledge your sources up front, then your writing may end up sounding like someone else wrote it. Some readers might then think you stole, or plagiarized, someone else’s ideas. Here’s an example of one such situation.
I recently read an article concerning modernity, ethnicity, and social change in Nepal—big themes within ethnographic literature for the geographic region in which I conduct research. In the article, the author used the term “suitably modern” multiple times. That phrase is the main title of a book by another scholar, Mark Liechty, whose work also focuses on Nepal. This author did not cite Liechty in text, so I turned to the bibliography expecting to see a citation (since the article’s documentation was in accordance with CMS, the bibliography would include titles consulted but not directly cited). It was not there. I was miffed because, other than the obvious borrowing of the phrase, Liechty’s work supported the ideas that the article synthesized. Why was Liechty not cited? Was this plagiarism?
Basically, if you sound too much like another author and don’t directly reference their work, then you could be accused of plagiarism. This situation is especially problematic if you’ve submitted your work to a professional journal for publication. If an expert sees an unacknowledged source, then the editor may send it back for revision—or decide not to publish your work.
So the next time you’re wondering if your citation use is balanced, ask yourself these four questions to determine if you’ve made it clear to readers how you know what you know and where you got your ideas from.
Tori Dalzell, PhD
Dr. Tori Dalzell holds a PhD in ethnomusicology (UC Riverside) and a BA in Music and English (Hollins University). She has worked with both undergraduate and graduate students in writing centers since 2012, and views writing as an integral part of professional development for any chosen field. Tori conducted her dissertation research in Nepal on a Fulbright IIE grant (2012-2013), and remains involved as an alumna in UC Riverside’s Latin American Music ensemble, which performs folk and popular music from the Andean region of South America.
"HELP! I’ve been out of school for 20 years. Now I’m in graduate school, and I feel lost. It’s been so long since I’ve written a paper that I feel like I’ve forgotten everything!"
Does this sound familiar to you? If so, rest assured that it will be ok. And, congratulations! You’re doing an amazing thing by going back to school! You’ve already shown that you have the courage and skills to get this far. You also do already have a degree, so you must have known what you were doing at some point, right?
That said, you do need to be aware of and prepared for the writing expectations you will face as a graduate student. Graduate level writing expects you to more deeply analyze and synthesize the research while keeping your own voice, rather than rehashing the research. You are also expected to successfully paraphrase your sources rather than simply quoting them; this shows your depth of understanding.
Overall, you should use a formal, academic tone, which means avoiding the use of cliches, contractions, first person, and passive voice. For each assignment, truly make sure you understand the prompt, with no questions lingering. Do you know exactly what your professor wants you to do? Who your audience is? What types of sources you need to incorporate? What style (APA, MLA) will be required? Clear up all questions or ambiguity immediately, rather than hoping to figure it out later. Plan your paper early, and make deadlines for drafts. This will ensure that you stay on track, have time to take breaks from the writing, and allow time to revise and edit.
Yes, the expectations can feel intimidating, but relax; you are in good hands, and we have some resources and tips that we hope you find immensely helpful as you navigate your graduate school career:
Seek out the professionals.
Check out online resources.
We hope you find these tips and resources valuable as you embark on this exciting journey of graduate school, and we look forward to being a part of it with you.
Nicole Dow, MA
Nicole works as a writing coach/ESL specialist and also teaches ESL here at APU. She holds a B.A. in Theatre Arts and an M.A. in English, with concentrations in TESL and Rhetoric and Composition. She cares deeply for her students and writing center clients and aspires to encourage confidence, authenticity, and success.
A common challenge that working professionals encounter when going back to school is knowing who their writing audience is and how to write for them. Today, we'll look specifically at the field of social work and some of the common writing scenarios that social workers encounter. These scenarios include (but are not limited to) writing:
The genre (and the attendant audience) determine how you should write. For example, if you're writing an article for the Journal of Social Work, you should write and format your document in APA style. (How do I know this? It's listed in the journal's submission guidelines.) This is the same style that you use when writing most course assignments at APU, which means that your writing should be very similar in each.
If you're writing an application letter of some sort, keep in mind your audience. In most cases, applications don't include formal citations outside of your resume or curriculum vitae. If you were writing an application letter for example, you might mention that you've done work using a particular model of care, but without a citation. Compare these snippets of text:
If you're used to switching genres and audiences in your writing, this is easy to navigate. If you've mostly been writing in one genre for a long time, however, it's helpful to remind yourself of these things:
Looking for the IRB handbook? The style and format guide for dissertations and theses? Look no further: https://den.apu.edu/forms
Writing a paper in APA style or Chicago Manual of Style? We now have pre-made APA and Chicago-style course paper templates that you can use to start with the cover page, margins, footnote styling, etc. already setup for you.
Note that students writing in Turabian or SBL can also use the Chicago-style course paper template (both of these styles are based on Chicago style).