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Whether you’re applying for an undergraduate school or trying to get into graduate programs, many applications require a letter of intent or personal statement. Personal statements are one of the most important parts of the application and sometimes the deciding factor for admission.
Personal statements give a better understanding of who you are, beyond the rigid constraints of the “fill-in-the-blank” application.
Like many around this time of the year, I am finishing my graduate school applications. Looking for advice and guidance, I decided to compare different schools’ personal statement requirements and ask admissions offices for advice. Here’s what I found:
1. Be yourself
The Columbia Graduate School for Journalism encourages students to write about family, education, talents or passions. They want to hear about significant places or events in your life; about books you have read, people you have met or work you’ve done that has shaped the person you have become.
Schools want to know about you so don’t portray someone else in the essay. It’s almost like going on a first date. You want to display your best qualities but be yourself at the same time. You want the other person to like you, not someone you’re pretending to be.
2. Show diversity
Rayna Reid, a personal statement guru, received her undergraduate degree at Cornell, Masters at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently pursuing a Law degree at Columbia. Reid says a personal statement is really just a way to make the college fall in love with you.
“The essay is where you really get a chance to differentiate yourself from the other applicants,” she said. “Explain why they should accept you. What will you contribute?”
Sean Carpenter, University of Southern California Student Services Associate and undergraduate student, reiterates the importance of differentiating yourself from other applicants.
He works in the Annenberg School for Communication admissions office and deals with prospective students daily. Carpenter says USC or any major school want to see diversity.
“They want to see how you’re different from all other applicants, especially through diversity. What makes you unique out of all the other applicants?” Carpenter said, “Tell things that has helped you grow as a person and built your character.”
3. Do research and tailor each essay accordingly
Every college is different, so each personal statement should be different. Many students try to get away with having a universal essay but admissions departments will notice.
“Do research to give concrete reasons why you’re interested in particular program,” Carpenter said. “Speak with a faculty member that you’re interested in working with or doing research for and mention that in your statement. It would also be beneficial to say what classes you’ve taken that were relevant to the field of study.”
4. Be concise and follow directions
Make sure you read the directions carefully. One of the biggest red flags for an admissions office are students who don’t adhere to word limitations. Don’t give them a reason to throw out your application.
Believe it or not, there is a way to say everything you want in a page or less. If you need some help, ask several faculty members to read over your essay and give you feedback.
5. Go beyond your resume, GPA and test scores
Many students worry about how their GPA and test scores will affect the admissions process. The personal statement is an opportunity to explain any strengths or weaknesses in your application — such as changes in major, low GPA or lack of experience.
For instance, Reid was worried about not having a 4.0 GPA. Since Reid didn’t have the perfect GPA, she explained what she did with her time to make up for that fact. Being on the Varsity rowing team and a Teach for America Corp member are great examples of how devoting her time to other things made an impact on her GPA.
6. Tell a story
“Nothing makes someone fall in love like a good story. It does not have to be the next Pulitzer winner,” Reid said. “For college, one essay I wrote was about how I have often felt like my life was a movie and how Dirty Dancing (yes, the movie) changed my life. My sister who currently goes to Princeton even wrote about killing a fly!”
One of the worst things you can do is bore the admission officer. Make yourself memorable by telling a story about something distinctive from a creative or different angle.
With this advice, your personal statement will be the highlight of your application. Good luck!
Alexis Morgan is currently a senior at Penn State University. She has extensive experience in public relations, broadcast journalism, print journalism and production. Alexis truly believes if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.
Alexis Morgan, Columbia University, Cornell University, grad school, Penn State University, the application, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, COLLEGE CHOICE, VOICES FROM CAMPUS
Eleven weeks before Election Day we can’t know who will win the presidency. But we can know with near certainty that voter turnout will be abysmal and that the results will be not so much a mandate as a skewed sampling of about half the electorate.
Many reforms could increase turnout, from same-day registration to voting on weekends. But the most basic is also the most appropriate: making voting mandatory. Here’s why.
Mandatory voting would make elections truly valid. “Protecting the integrity of our elections” is the rationale Republicans give for the cynically restrictive voter ID laws they’ve enacted in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. But if we truly cared about the integrity of elections, we should ensure that they reflect the will of all eligible voters.
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Second, as William Galston of the Brookings Institution argues, it would temper the polarization of our politics. In today’s electorate, hardcore partisan believers are over-represented; independents and moderates are under-represented. If the full range of voters actually voted, our political leaders, who are exquisitely attuned followers, would go where the votes are: away from the extremes. And they would become more responsive to the younger, poorer and less educated Americans who don’t currently vote.
Third, mandatory voting would prompt more Americans to pay attention to the choices. Those of us who lament the decline of civic knowledge generally focus on the supply side of the equation: more civics education. A mandate would stimulate the demand side, motivating more voters to learn what they were voting on (just as a draft makes the drafted motivated to learn what they’d fight for).
There are many arguments against mandatory voting; each reflects a lack of faith in democracy itself. One says that increasing the number of uninformed voters will lead to worse policymaking. That presumes, however, that policymaking today sets a high-water mark of enlightenment. It also sets up a viciously antidemocratic circle: if you don’t vote you must be stupid and if you are stupid you mustn’t vote.
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Another critique claims that requiring the vote devalues it, and that compelled voters will protest by voting carelessly. But in Australia, where voting became compulsory in 1924, that’s been a marginal issue. The existence of a mandate has made voting a meaningful shared national experience.
Some Republicans will oppose mandatory voting for the reason they now push voter IDs: to win. (Conventional wisdom says the more people who vote, the worse the GOP does). But if a tactic of disenfranchisement and electorate-amputation makes sense for the party (which is debatable), it is terrible for the country. As former director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orzsag has pointed out, we can’t know what the ultimate partisan impact would be. One day Republicans could benefit.
The most visceral critique is that mandating voting is just un-American. Yet jury duty, the draft, going to school, and taxpaying all have been compulsory without being called communist (OK, three out of four). At issue is what makes something American — and what makes liberty liberty. The Revolution and the framing of the Constitution were not about the right merely to be let alone or to do whatever one pleased. They were about our liberty to govern and represent ourselves. Core to that liberty is electing representatives and voting on public issues.
That is why the best reason for mandatory voting has nothing to do with today’s politics. It’s about redeeming the central promise of American citizenship. Generations marched, fought and died for the right to vote. The least we can do now is treat that right like a responsibility.
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