Graduate School Bound Program

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Graduate School Bound Program

  • Module #5 Personal Statement & Letters of Recommendation
  • Presented by:
  • Amanda Carpenter, M.S.
  • Coordinator for Career Development Services &
  • Henry L. “Hank” Lacayo Institute Internship Program

Graduate School Bound Program Objectives

  • To provide undergraduate CI students with assistance in the exploration and preparation process for graduate school through a series of online self-guided modules
  • To connect undergraduate CI students with the resources provided by Career Development Services

Module #5 Learning Objectives

  • Identify the basic components of the personal statement/application essay.
  • Describe a method to obtain a letter of recommendation.
  • Outline potential topics for the personal statement/application essay.


  • During this module we will be covering the following topics:
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Personal Statement
  • Writing Exercise

What is an Admissions Essay?

  • The admissions essay is written by an applicant to graduate school in response to an assignment posed in the graduate application. Graduate programs will often assign specific topics that applicants must address in writing their essay. Sometimes they ask for a generic "autobiographical statement" in which the applicant discusses his or her life, experiences, and goals. The admissions essay is sometimes referred to as a personal statement. The graduate admissions essay is a critical part of the graduate application because it is through this essay that applicants can speak directly to the committee and demonstrate their unique fit to the program.

Purpose of Graduate School Admissions Essay

  • Sell Your Skills:
  • Admissions committees deal with countless stacks of applications: faceless GRE scores and GPAs. How do they differentiate among applicants with similar scores and academic backgrounds? The personal statement. Your personal statement reveals a great deal about your ability to write to determine the purpose of the essay
  • to construct a document which clearly explains why you're a good match to the program.
  • Speak Directly to Admissions Committee:
  • Essentially, the essay is your opportunity to talk directly with the admissions committee, to call attention to important parts of your application that might otherwise be overlooked, and to explain any discrepancies or potentially negative aspects of your application. It's your chance to help the admissions committee see you as a person instead of a grade point average and a clump of standardized test scores.

Preliminary Writing

  • Step 1: Organize Experience & Goals
  • Before you start writing, organize your thoughts, goals and experiences by answering the following questions.
  • What is the most unusual/unique thing about you?
  • Who and what were intellectual influences to you?
    • Which writers, articles or books in your field of study have impacted you?
    • Who were your favorite college professors and why?
    • What is the best paper, exam or lab you wrote in your major and why?
    • What is the most important concept you have learned in college?

Preliminary Writing (contd)

  • Step 2: Self-Assess
  • Define your career goals as specifically as possible.
    • What are your plans?
    • How will graduate education facilitate those plans?
    • What is your five-year goal? Ten year?
  • What is the historical background to choosing said goal?
    • When and why did your interest in the field begin?
    • What work/volunteer experiences influenced your choice?
    • How has family impacted your choice?

Preliminary Writing (contd)

  • Step 3: Reflective Questions 
  • How have you prepared yourself to succeed in graduate school?
  • What personal attributes make you likely to succeed in the profession you have chosen?
  • Discuss any research you've been involved in.
    • What were the outcomes?
    • What are the ramifications of the research?
  • Is there any other information relevant to your career goals, educational plans, interest in field of study, etc.?

Consider the Audience

  • The audience for your "personal essay" is an admissions committee composed of members of your future profession or academic discipline. When they read your essay, they will be seeking depth and substance, along with a true passion and commitment to your area of study. They will also be looking for individual traits or characteristics that make you an outstanding graduate school candidate.

Consider the Audience (contd)

  • Through the personal essay, you have a unique opportunity to:
    • Convey your long- and short-range career goals.
    • Present yourself as an individual with desirable personal abilities, background, interests and plans.
    • Describe the nature and significance of your relevant experiences, and give concrete evidence of your knowledge, competence and motivation in the field of your choice.
    • Explain your special interest in this particular graduate program.
    • Account for any conspicuous weaknesses in your record.
    • Demonstrate your writing ability and communication skills in general.

How to Get Started

  • Step 1: It is imperative that you conduct a thorough self-assessment of your interests, motivations and career goals before you begin to write.
  • Consider these questions about your own abilities, background, interests and plans:
  • Why do I want to pursue a graduate school program?
  • What are the special features, approaches, or values of this particular program?
  • How do my interests, values, strengths, experiences, ambitions and plans relate to what this program offers? Why do I want to be a part of this program Why would this program want me?

How to Get Started (contd)

  • What is my interest and motivation in this field? What have I gotten out of it so far and what do I hope to get out of it? Can I trace my interest and motivation to any concrete experience?
  • What are my strengths related to this field, personal, academic, and experiential?
  • What experiences demonstrate my competence and motivation in this field?
  • Do my relevant experiences fall into any pattern? Broad exploration? Increasing focus? Tackling greater and greater challenges?
  • What kinds of experiences have taught me the most?

How to Get Started (contd)

  • Step 2: Make a draft/outline.
  • Step 3: Edit/Revise. Ask a faculty/career counselor to review the paper and provide feedback.
  • Step 4: Final Edits/Revision.

How do I Choose a Theme?

  • It may be helpful to make a list of all of your experiences and interests at first and then try to find an overlapping theme or connection between the different items on the list. However, your underlying theme should be why you should be accepted into graduate school or specifically accepted into the program to which you are applying. Your job is to sell yourself and distinguish yourself from other applicants through examples.

Tone of Essay

  • The tone of the essay should be balanced or moderate.
  • Don't sound too cheerful or too morose but keep a serious and ambitious tone.
  • When discussing positive or negative experiences, sound open-minded and use a neutral tone.
  • Remember not to hit the extremes (too high or too low) and remain in balance.
  • Additionally, do not sound too casual or too formal. Portray confidence and use an active voice.
  • First-person acceptable.

Research Interests

  • First, it is not necessary to state a specific and concise dissertation topic in your personal statement. You are only to state, in broad terms, your research interests within your field.
  • The reason you are asked to discuss your research interests is because the program would like to compare the degree of similarity in research interests between you and the faculty member you wish to work with. Admissions committees are aware that your interests will likely change over time and, therefore, they do not expect you to provide them with a detailed description of your research interests but would like for you to describe your academic goals.
  • However, your research interests should be relevant to the proposed field of study. Additionally, your aim is to show your readers that you have knowledge in your proposed field of study.

What if I don’t have any unique experiences or qualities?

  • Everyone has qualities that can distinguish themselves from other individuals. Make a list of all your qualities and think of how you utilized them in the past.
  • Discuss the ones that will make you stand out but will still have some connection to your field of interest. If you do not have many experiences within your field, then try to make your other experiences relate to your interests.
    • For example, if you are interested in applying to a psychology program but only have experience working at a supermarket, then find a connection between psychology and your experiences at the supermarket that can show your interest in and knowledge of the field and portrays your ability to become a psychologist. By providing these connections, your experiences and you will be depicted as unique.

Should I mention which faculty members I would like to work with?

  • Yes. It makes it easier for the admission committee to determine if your interests match with the faculty members you’re interested in working with.
  • However, if possible, it is recommended that you mention more than one professor you wish to work with because it is a possibility that the professor you are interested in working with is not accepting new students for that year. By mentioning only one professor, you are limiting yourself, which can decrease your chances of being accepted.
  • Additionally, if you only wish to work with a specific professor, then you are more likely to be rejected by the admissions committee if that professor is not accepting new students. Alternatively, it may be helpful to contact professors and find out if they are accepting new students before applying. This reduces the chances of being rejected.

Volunteer & Job Experiences

  • You should only mention volunteer and employment experiences that are relevant to your field of study or have helped you develop or acquire a skill that is necessary for your field of interest. However, if there is a volunteer or job experience that is not related to your field of interest yet has helped influence your career and academic goals, discuss it in your personal statement as well.

Structure: Introduction

  • The introduction is the most important part of the essay, especially the first sentence. The first sentence introduces your essay and a bad introduction, in person or in writing, is detrimental to your admissions chances.
  • Keep the reader interested by making them continue to read your essay after reading the first paragraph.
  • The first sentence should be unique and compelling, possibly thought provoking or attention-grabbing.
  • First sentences may explain your desire to study the subject of interest or discuss the motivation that influenced your desire to study the subject of interest. State it in a creative manner.
  • The sentences following the first sentence should provide a brief explanation that supports the claim stated in the first sentence.

Structure: The Body

  • The body should include several paragraphs (usually about 3) that provide detailed evidence to support the statement made in the introductory paragraph. The paragraphs should flow by using transitions and resolutions.
  • Each paragraph should have a transition, which starts each paragraph with a topic statement that will be the theme of that paragraph (See more on transitions and resolutions below).
  • Each paragraph should have a resolution, which ends each paragraph with a meaningful sentence that provides a transition to the next paragraph (See more on transitions and resolutions below).

Structure: The Body (contd)

  • Experiences, accomplishments, or any other evidence that can support your claims should be included in the body. Future goals should also be mentioned in the body.
  • A short summary of your educational background can be discussed in the 1st paragraph.
  • Personal experiences and the reasons for wanting to attend the school can be discussed in the 2nd paragraph.
  • Do not repeat what was stated in the application.
  • The last paragraph should explain why you should be accepted.

Structure: The Conclusion

  • The conclusion is the last paragraph of the personal statement.
  • State why you are interested in studying the subject of interest.
  • State the key points mentioned in the body, such as your experiences or accomplishments, that explain your interest in the subject. State it in a conclusive and brief manner.
  • End on a positive note with one or two attention-grabbing sentences.

Structure: The Conclusion (contd)

  • It is crucial that your paragraphs have transitions and resolutions. Transitions start a paragraph by providing a statement that suggests the theme for that paragraph. This allows the reader to be aware of the direction the essay is heading in. Transitions connect paragraphs to other paragraphs (usually preceding paragraphs), which causes the essay to flow smoothly.
  • Your essay should include enough detail, be personal, and specific. The purpose of a personal statement is to show the admission committee what makes you unique and different from other applicants. Your job is to display your distinct personality and provide evidence that confirms your passion and desire for the subject and the school.

Writing Exercise

  • List 5-10 of your closest held values that shape your daily life and your choices.
  • Separately, consider two or three of the most defining moments of your life, and what you learned from them—about yourself, about what you believe, and about the world.
  • Choose the one moment that best encapsulates some of the values you listed earlier.
  • Write the story of that moment, detailing the effect it had on you, how it shaped your values, and who you are as a result. How does this story reveal what you will do in grad school and in your career?

Letters of Recommendation

Letters of Recommendation Tips

  • Nearly every graduate program requires applicants to submit recommendation letters. Don't underestimate the importance of these letters. While your transcript, test scores, and personal statement or admissions essay are vital components to your graduate school application, an excellent recommendation letter can make up for weaknesses in any of these areas. A well written recommendation letter provides admissions committees with information that isn't found elsewhere in the application. A recommendation letter is a detailed discussion, from a faculty member, of the personal qualities, accomplishments, and experiences that make you unique and perfect for the programs to which you've applied.

Who to Ask?

  • Most graduate programs require two or more recommendation letters. Consider faculty members, administrators, internship/co-operative education supervisors, and employers.
  • The persons you ask to write your recommendation letters should:
  • know you well
  • know you long enough to write with authority
  • know your work
  • describe your work positively
  • have a high opinion of you
  • know where you are applying
  • know your educational and career goals
  • be able to favorably compare you with your peers
  • be well known
  • be able to write a good letter
  • Keep in mind that no one person will satisfy all of these criteria. Aim for a set of recommendation letters that cover the range of your skills. Ideally, letters should cover your academic and scholastic skills, research abilities and experiences, and applied experiences (e.g., co-operative education, internships, related work experience).

Provide Information

  • The best thing that you can do to ensure that your recommendation letters cover all the bases is to provide your referees with all the necessary information. Don't assume that they will remember anything about you. (I know, you're quite memorable, but think about what it must be like to have 150 or more students each semester!)

Provide Information (contd)

  • Make an appointment to speak with your letter writers. Give your letter writers plenty of time (three to four weeks at minimum). Provide a file with all of your background information:
    • transcript
    • resume or vita
    • admissions essays
    • courses you've taken with them
    • research experiences
    • internship and other applied experiences
    • honor societies to which you belong
    • awards you've won
    • work experience
    • professional goals
    • due date for the application
    • copy of the application recommendation forms (if provided by the institution to which you're applying)


  • Career Plans: What are your long-term career goals? Where do you see yourself, career wise, 10 years from now?
  • Academic Interests: What would you like to study? Describe your academic interests. Which professors in the department would you like to work with?
  • Research Experiences: Discuss your research experiences. What areas would you like to research?
  • Academic Objectives: Why do you plan to attend graduate school? Explain how graduate school will contribute to your career goals. What do you plan to do with your degree?
  • Clinical and Field Experience: Discuss your clinical and other applied experiences. How have these experiences shaped your career goals?

Topics (contd)

  • Academic Achievements: Discuss your academic background and achievements.
  • Personal Experience: Write an autobiographical essay. Is there anything in your background that you think would be relevant to your application for admission to graduate school? Describe your life up to now: family, friends, home, school, work, and particularly those experiences most relevant to your interests in psychology. What is your approach to life?

Writing Tips

  • Here are some general tips to help you write an effective personal essay:
  • Before you put pen to paper, make lists of information that may be pertinent to the admissions decision. Lists may include professors, courses, books, research projects, ideas, travel, and other experiences that have been important. You should also list work, extracurricular and volunteer activities, special skills, honors and awards.
  • Give yourself plenty of time. Start thinking about your essays early. The admissions committee reads essays thoroughly and carefully. Make sure you've given it your best effort.

Writing Tips (contd)

  • Be sure to read the essay questions on the application carefully. What information, approach or emphasis is the question asking for? Make sure you answer all questions and address issues outlined.
  • Although you may formulate a general essay in advance, make certain that each application contains an essay which specifically answers the questions asked by that school.
  • Each essay should contain at least a sentence or two which tells why you have chosen that particular institution. Does it have an excellent specialization in your area of interest? Is there a particular faculty member with whom you expect to work? Is the program recommended to you by a faculty member?
  • Strive for a strong opening line or paragraph. Look for something beyond the predictable, something that demonstrates the qualities that set you apart from other candidates.

Writing Tips (contd)

  • Specific knowledge, skills and insights acquired through internships and other work experiences--paid or volunteer, and related to your proposed field of study--are particularly strong material.
  • Any experience that demonstrates interpersonal talents, entrepreneurial skills, ability to perform under stress, unusual background, some important lessons learned, or a genuine commitment to a worthy cause could be appropriate if you demonstrate the relevance.
  • Draft! Draft! Draft! Good writing is writing that is easily understood. Have one good writer critique your essays, and another proofread them.

Show vs. Tell

  • Telling:
  • I have fabulous networking and facilitation skills!”
  • Showing:
  • I bring people together from the community to create productive collaborations. For example, in my position as program assistant for the nonprofit Art in Schools, I reached out to seven community leaders—including the county sheriff, a former mayor, the artistic director of the local ballet, a librarian, a radio show host, and school board members—to plan the first-ever city-wide children’s arts symposium. I led the small team that I assembled in months of planning, and helped members identify key ways to contribute. For example, the ballet director donated space and the radio host publicized the event. In your program, I will put my networking and facilitation skills to work both in the classroom and in the field—and will continue to network with community leaders for the benefit of my work and that of my classmates. My love of bringing people together for a cause will hopefully also help me succeed as the head of a nonprofit one day.

How is my Essay Reviewed?

  • First Step: Screening Does the applicant meet the minimum requirements? Standardized test scores? GPA? Relevant experience? Is the application complete, including admissions essays and recommendation letters? The purpose of this initial review is to ruthlessly weed out applicants.
  • Second Step: First Pass Graduate programs vary, but many competitive programs send batches of applications to faculty for an initial review. Each faculty member may review a set of applications and identify those with promise.

How is My Essay Reviewed? (contd)

  • Third Step: Batch Review In the next step batches of applications are sent to 2-3 faculty. Now applications are evaluated with regard to motivation, experience, documentation (essays, letters), and overall promise. Depending on the size of the program and applicant pool the resulting set of applicants is reviewed by a larger set of faculty, or interviewed, or accepted (some programs do not conduct interviews).
  • Fourth Step: Interview Interviews may be conducted by phone or in-person. Applicants are evaluated with regard to their academic promise, thinking and problem solving skills, and social competence. Both faculty and graduate students evaluate applicants.

How is My Essay Reviewed? (contd)

  • Final Step: Post Interview and Decision Faculty meet, gather evaluations, and make admissions decisions.
  • The above process varies depending on the size of the program and number of applicants. What's the take-away message? Make sure that your application is complete. If you're missing a recommendation letter, essay, or transcript, your application will not make it through the initial screening.

Questions on this Module? Preparing for graduate school is a multi-staged process. Visit Career Development Services during Drop-In Career Counseling to get your questions answered. Every Thursday 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Career Development Center Bell Tower 1548 (805) 437-3270

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