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Tips and best practices for writing your graduate school personal statement

March 14, 2024
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Your journey to graduate school begins with a single, powerful document—the personal statement. Admissions committees sift through thousands of graduate school applications in a single year, so it’s important to distinguish yourself through your personal statement. This is your opportunity to build a case that you will be a worthwhile addition to their school’s graduate program and explain why. After all, you are much more than a GPA and test scores. So, the story you tell needs to go beyond these metrics.1

Grab the admissions committee’s attention with an anecdote about an event, individual, or work experience that shaped your worldview, challenged you, and confirmed your goal of being a counselor. 2 Give them a glimpse of who you are—your personality, motivations, and the impact you plan to make on the profession. Convince them that your values and reasons for advanced study match this specific counseling program. With a winning personal statement, you can convince an admissions committee to say “Yes!” to your application.

In this post, you will find tips and best practices for writing your graduate school personal statement, including tailoring it to specific programs, seeking feedback, and revising your draft.

Understanding the application prompt

If the thought of writing personal statements for grad school applications makes you nervous, you’re not alone. Many applicants find this to be one of the most challenging parts of the application process. It’s difficult to know what to expect because the prompts for personal statements (also called “statements of purpose”) can vary from one graduate program to another. You could be asked to write a personal essay or given specific questions, such as:

  • What factors have inspired your decision to apply to graduate school?
  • What academic and research pursuits have prepared you for this program?
  • What have you gained from employment or internship experiences?
  • What sets you apart and makes you unique from other graduate school applicants?
  • What setbacks or challenges have you overcome, and how have they shaped your life?

If you are given a specific prompt, carefully review it to avoid common pitfalls. If you rush the writing process, you could neglect to include important details or misinterpret the prompt. Start by dissecting the personal statement prompt and even break out a highlighter to focus on key items, including word limits. Second, be sure to take the time to thoroughly understand the question(s) that the admissions committee wants you to answer. Then, organize your ideas in a bulleted list, a graphic organizer, or other method, which will provide a road map for developing your unique story.

Creating a unique and personal narrative

When you begin writing your personal statement for a graduate program, keep your audience in mind and avoid cliches. Chances are the admissions committee has heard it all before.

While it can be helpful to review personal statement examples for graduate programs, remember that the best personal statements are unique. You can tell your story better than anyone else. However, seeking out the perspectives of a family member and friends could help you to create a more authentic, reflective story. Once you’ve put your ideas on paper, include the most relevant anecdotes that showcase your achievements, goals, and experiences. Build the case that you are a strong applicant who can positively impact the profession.2

If you decide to discuss potential vulnerabilities, such as a low GPA, be sure to communicate the positive lessons learned and what you have achieved since then.1

In addition to vulnerabilities, some applicants have been confused about whether they can discuss diversity in their college applications following a 2023 SCOTUS decision that banned race-conscious admissions.3,4 Despite this decision, universities still seek a diverse student body, and many have changed their application prompts so that applicants can address diversity factors, especially as these factors relate to career choices or other life experiences.3,4

If you are asked to write a personal essay, there are many ways to organize your unique experiences into a compelling story. Consider adapting these guidelines to suit your circumstances:1,5

  • Motivations: In your first paragraph, share a specific anecdote or experience that inspired you to study counseling
  • Potential impact: In your second paragraph, outline your goals and discuss how you might use your counseling degree to embark on new mental health research or positively impact mental health treatment in your community
  • Grit or persistence: In your third paragraph, share how you overcame a challenge or setback in your life or career. Then, you can convince an admissions committee you are prepared for the responsibilities and rigors of the counseling profession
  • Preparation: In your fourth paragraph, discuss prior coursework or relevant experiences to counseling and specific aspects of the university’s program that appeal to you
  • Interests/unique experiences: In your fifth paragraph, discuss recent work or volunteer experiences that shaped your decision to become a counselor. Maybe you had an internship at your local congressional representative’s office or served as a resident advisor during your undergraduate years

Clarity in articulating goals

It’s important to frame yourself as a candidate who will positively contribute to your graduate school of choice and the counseling profession, but be sure to clearly communicate what you hope to gain from the program. Maybe you are a teacher, attorney, or military veteran and seeking to transition into a counseling career based on a pivotal experience. Or maybe there is a professor known for their research on treating trauma, and you have a strong interest in this area.

If you are passionate about making an impact as a counselor, let that passion shine through in your statement. Draw a strong connection between your goals and how unique aspects of their graduate program can help you realize them. Anticipate potential questions the committee might have so they don’t have to fill information gaps.

Proofread, seek feedback and revise

The goal is to send a polished personal statement that gets you admitted to a graduate program. Don’t allow spelling mistakes or sloppy writing to get between you and your acceptance. First, allow enough time to write multiple drafts of your statement. Second, seek feedback during the drafting and revision stages.

Reviewers not only catch errors you may have missed in your personal statement, but they also bring new insights based on their own experiences. Enlist the help of trusted peers, family members, or advisors who can provide suggestions for improving your personal statement. Ask your readers to review for specific elements, such as professional tone, clarity, coherence of ideas, and grammatical errors.1 Then, incorporate feedback to ensure that your writing is polished, error-free, and connects with your intended audience.

Crafting an outstanding personal statement

Now that you have tried-and-true strategies for crafting a strong personal statement, it’s time to put this knowledge into action. Approach your personal statement with confidence and authenticity—these qualities will shine through in your writing. If you follow the tips we have covered, your story will make a lasting impression on admissions officers, opening doors to a rewarding future in counseling.

Become a counselor who makes a difference

You can improve mental health care in your community with the CACREP-accredited online Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Marquette University. You’ll get to study the latest counseling practices by taking challenging courses in multicultural counseling, substance abuse counseling, and group counseling. In addition, you get to apply your knowledge by working with clients during an internship.

Marquette’s clinical mental health counseling faculty are leading experts in in-demand areas like addictions, family counseling, and human development. They provide personal mentorship and connect students with their extensive networks. A master’s degree in counseling from Marquette equips you with the skills and knowledge for a rewarding career in professional counseling.

Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor for more information.