Good Ways To Start A Psychology Personal Statement

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Personal Statements

How does one write a successful personal statement? There are two main criteria:

  1. Follow directions exactly;

  2. Distinguish yourself from the crowd.

Follow Directions 

This ought to easy, but applicants often miss this one. If ever there were a time when you wanted to impress an audience with how well you can read and understand directions, this is the time. So, read questions carefully and answer what they ask for. Stick to word/page limits!! Some schools have brief, very focused personal statement questions, some have vague questions with no page limit guidelines, and still others favor a series of essays rather than a single statement. Whichever the case, the key to keeping calm is selecting potential schools early and getting together all the admissions material you need. Since it costs nothing to get the materials, go ahead and gather any school which legitimately peaks your interest. Then, at your leisure:

  1. Read each school thoroughly.

  2. select the schools you want to apply to.

  3. throw the other material out to de-clutter your desk.

  4. rank schools from first to last choice

  5. prepare to write!

Distinguish Yourself from the Crowd 

Let's clarify from the very beginning that we are NOT talking about experimental writing styles here. You are not going to write in theatrical dialogue or trochaic feet or an AABB rhyme scheme or haiku or in cartoon bubbles. The personal statement is an essay, not a piece of performance art.

So what are admissions committees looking for? Peterson's EssayEdge.com does a good job of explaining the essay qualities readers are looking for.  Accepted.com is another favorite online spot for help with personal statements. In all, you'll find mention that what admissions committees need to know is who you are -- they are trying to match you to their program and locale. This is a good time to be honest -- to think sincerely about why you are attracted to the profession/field, what you've done to prepare, and what you hope to accomplish. You do this by telling the story of yourself (while minimizing the grammatical first person -- sigh; nothing can be easy!). In other words: Show, Don't Tell -- Demonstrate, Don't Pontificate. (NOTE: both links above offer for-fee services on personal statement drafts. Personally, I find paying for this unnecessary when you've got many resources here at UF to help you: me, your academic advisors, and the Career Resource Center).


Basic Moves of a Personal Statement

        1. Motivation for studying -- opening paragraph -- anecdotal/narrative  (why this field/profession?)

        2. Qualities/Experiences -- told by example -- a few focused, well-developed arguments --  no listing, re-hashing of resume (why you?)

        3. Future Plans -- what populations, organizational settings, research are you interested in?  Not set in stone, but need some indication (what are your plans?)

        4. School Choice -- why this program?  Argument shows "this is me, this is you, this is why we are a perfect match"  (why us?)

    Best Practices

    "Best Practices" is a new fancy term for using techniques with a proven history of working well.  There are a couple of them pertaining to personal statement writing that are missed surprisingly often.  Here are a few of the biggies that will help.

    1. Most Important Rule -- say nothing in your personal statement that isn't directly relevant to helping an admissions committee make a decision about your merit as a graduate student. This especially includes quoting other people (why should they care what Einstein or Maya Angelou or Luke/Mark/ John or anyone else has ever said?  What does it have to do with your ability to succeed?),

    2. Be truthful.  Do not lie.  I know, this one seems obvious...but you'd be surprised.  You can manage vocabularly choice (and you should), but you may not say something that isn't true.

    3. Keep it positive.  Do not write negatively about yourself or your profession or anyone else!  If you need to explain a dip in grades, do so briefly and objectively; do not belabour whatever trauma/situation caused the problem.  Also, do not to say things like "I went into psychology because I couldn't cut in organic chemistry, thereby destroying my dreams of being a pediatrician."  Always find the "positive" (meaning not negative, not meaning ridiculously idealistic) way of communicating the same information.  For instance, another way of expressing the previous example is -- "Though I'd planned on becoming a pediatrician, I found that adolescent psychology provides the sort of sustained, personal contact with teens I really crave as part of my career."

    4. Details sell.  Lists do not.  Do not rehash your resume.  Instead, choose a few experiences that were particularly meaningful and/or can illustrate qualities  that you want the admissions committee to know.  To succeed as illustrative examples, experiences must have the following 3 parts (you can't expect the readers to fill in missing parts -- they have too many essays to read to spend time performing literary interpretation):

        1. Tell the story (what happened)

        2. Tell what you learned (what you got out of it)

        3. Tell how what you learned applies to success in grad school or in your profession (why it matters).



The example statement of purpose linked above is from here: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mooreks/graduatehelp.html


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Odds are, if you are at the stage of writing a personal statement, then you are more than likely preparing applications for graduate schools in psychology. Below find out what it is, why you need one, and get some pointers on crafting a personal statement that will put your best foot forward with the admissions committees.

What is a Personal Statement?

Commonly referred to as a "statement of purpose", and by some as an "application essay", a personal statement is your opportunity to introduce and sell yourself to a desired graduate program or college. In most cases, the personal statement can serve as the defining factor that allows students to stand out in a pool of applicants with equally high GPAs and test scores. Plus, a stellar statement of purpose could also help the applications of students who have unfavorable scores and grades.

Before You Begin...

Consider the type of personal statement required of you:

Personal statements can range from a few paragraphs to several one-page essays that address different topics. They will vary widely between programs and schools, which means that you might craft quite a few of these application essays if you seek admission into various programs.

The objective of these statements all share a common thread: for the graduate committee to get a clear understanding of your career and academic aspirations as well as a sample of your writing abilities (a skill of utmost importance for comprehensive graduate study).

If Topics Are Chosen By You

The specific expectations of a statement of purpose might vary. Some schools might leave the direction and objective of the essay up to the applicant. In cases, you have the freedom to choose what you write about although, as a rule of thumb, essays should take on a professional/ academic focus rather than be personal or autobiographical. Don't confuse personal statement with a long essay about your life growing up.

Instead, demonstrate your best attributes by outlining your fit, interests, previous experiences, servant leadership, research and courses you have taken that affirmed your dedication to the field of study. If you were not given specific questions, then be sure to touch bases with all of these that are relevant to your background in a logical and consistent manner.

If Topics Are Chosen By the Program

Other schools may provide you with a list of specific questions to answer pertaining to your career objectives and how obtaining an education with the particular program may advance you towards your goals.

Examples of specific topics outlined by graduate schools in psychology include:

Explain any previous work experience or teaching experiences you have in the field of psychology and why those experiences make you a strong candidate for our program.

Explain your long-term career goals.

Why do you think this program is a good fit for you?

How do you think this program can help you further your career objectives?

How has your previous education prepared you to take on study at the graduate or professional level?

What experience do you have conducting research? Rate your interest in conducting research.

What practitioners, researchers, or authors in the field of psychology have influenced your interest in this area of study?

Reflect on these questions or topic areas for a while before starting the writing process. Review your resume for direction about skills, experiences, or even lack of experience that you'll want to identify and elaborate on in your paper. Write a list of attributes that you think describe you and consider how they are relevant to your interest in pursuing higher education.

During and After Writing...

Express Your Motivation

When developing a statement of purpose for graduate schools in psychology, you will want to write at length about your particular interests, motivation, and passion for the field of study. Consider what experiences or traits you have that make you a better candidate than the hundreds of other applicants vying to gain admission.

Back up your expression of motivation with hard facts. The admissions committee wants a well-rounded candidate with a number of professional experiences that have helped clarify their ability to handle graduate study. Simply going on and on about how bad you want to be in the program with no relevant experiences that support that claim may not win you any favor.

Be Honest and Clear

When preparing a document that is virtually serving as a personal advertisement, you will write at length about the skills you possess that strengthen your application: academic curiosity, flexibility, maturity, persistence, and professionalism among others. When elaborating on your strengths, be sure to do so with respect to their relevance and importance. Do not go on about a characteristic that could be considered minor or irrelevant.

Also, be mindful of stating your goals and interests clearly and honestly. If you are not interested in a particular area, then leave out that information. Do not express an interest or ability that you do not have. It's significant to discuss your weaknesses as well. If you have low test scores or a less-than-spectacular GPA, point that out in advance. Explain, if appropriate, why these aspects of your application are weak and follow up with a plan to rectify those aspects if you are accepted into graduate school.

Summary Points to Remember

  • At this point, you can't change your college or graduate school entrance test scores or your grade point average. You can, however, make a significant impact during the applications process by developing a well-written statement of purpose.
  • Avoid writing at length about your personal history. Stick to the qualities and experiences that are relevant to your growth and abilities in the field of psychology.
  • Answer all questions from the application and be sure to meet the page or word count requirements.
  • Be sure to clearly and honestly relate your experiences and interests, also taking time to point out both strengths and weaknesses. Share how you plan to overcome those weaknesses or use them to your advantage.
  • Ask someone else to look over your statement of purpose--an advisor or professor in your department--who can give you straightforward feedback on its content.
  • Customize each personal statement to the program or school you are applying. Elaborate on how that particular program can assist you in reaching your goals.
  • During revisions, pay attention to the strength and dynamism of your opening paragraph. Your goal is to hook the readers and give them the desire to keep reading.

About the Author

Ann Steele

This website is co-authored by Ann Steele, a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Diego with extensive experience with children and adolescents. Ann Steele attended American School Of Psychology & Argosy University Online. She especially enjoys using music therapy for mental and emotional well-being.

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