Every year, I coach undergraduates and alumni through the graduate school application process. And every year, I read personal statements that aren’t quite the right degree of personal. The personal statement for grad school is ultimately a branding statement.
A Case Study
I remember working with a young alum, a few years out from undergrad, who was ready to apply for a master’s program in international affairs. As an international student, she had gotten her bachelor’s degree in the U.S. and worked at an NGO in the states for a couple of years after graduation. She then returned home to a region that was experiencing enormous transition.
I knew from working with her when she was an undergraduate that the personal story about her childhood growing up in a country with complex economic and political issues was the reason she decided to study economics and political science as an undergraduate. Later on, when she contacted me to ask if I would critique her essays for graduate school, I was not surprised to hear this story again. The story about her childhood would be the impetus for a different trajectory to pursue graduate studies in international development and work in the field in her home country after her completion of the program.
When I read the first of the essays that she emailed to me, I was immediately struck by the profound sense of intellect and maturity that this young woman portrayed through a vivid coming-of-age story. Her personal brand rang loud and clear with every word of the essay. But there was one thing missing, and she knew that something was missing – she just couldn’t put her finger on it.
The Missing Piece
The young woman couldn’t say why she had chosen the particular graduate program and why she wanted to attend that particular school. She knew she was supposed to make each essay specific to the program/school she was applying to, but she didn’t know how to do this without simply telling the admissions committee what they already knew. “Why must a good portion of my 600 words be dedicated to reiterating the hallmarks of the program?” she inquired.
Now, let me say here that, while her essay was really very good, it did lack a certain necessary connection that the applicant needs to make with the program. What she got right was the part where she was supposed to talk about herself, her qualifications, skills, knowledge, career plans, etc. What she didn’t get right was the part where she was supposed to talk about them – the graduate program and the school. The 2-3 sentences that she wrote about the program sounded like it could have come from the front page of the program’s website.
She had done such a superb job of conveying her brand, so I thought it would be easy for her to make the connection between what she wanted to pursue and how the graduate program faculty would supply that training. She couldn’t possibly be applying to programs that didn’t specialize in regional studies surrounding her home country, or could she?
I recommended that she return to each program’s website and review faculty profiles to see whose expertise matches with her geographic region. Furthermore, I suggested that she align herself with these faculty members and their research interests by stating in her essay that she would like to work alongside these great minds, and perhaps support their research as a graduate assistant.
It’s common practice to look at faculty- as well as their areas of expertise- when you are exploring graduate programs, and I had assumed that my young alum had done so. It seems that she was working from reputation rather than research interests when she picked her programs.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to go to a grad school with a good reputation! However, taking a step back when crafting a personal statement for graduate school may be necessary if you can’t seem to articulate why you have chosen this particular program and school. And, one of the most critical factors in choosing a graduate program is pedagogy and the subsequential academic and professional relationships you will have with faculty.
Personal branding is about relationship building
It’s perfectly OK to state in an essay or personal statement that you are applying to a program because of a specific faculty member and their research. That’s the connection I’m looking for in a graduate school personal statement, and it is about predicting the value of the relationships you will have with faculty in the program if you are accepted. I know it’s been said before, but personal branding is all about relationship building.
A personal statement for graduate school is about you and what you want to achieve. Therefore, it’s probable that you’ll mention the work of others who have come before you - experts in the field. If you’re passionate and curious enough about a subject, then surely you’ve come across experts already. So follow them, flatter them, and find yourself in the process.
Nicole Anderson is an Assistant Director/Career Counselor for Tufts University Career Services. With fourteen years of experience in college career services, Nicole’s expertise includes career counseling undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni from liberal arts, science, engineering, business, and education.