Tips on Writing a Personal Essay for a Doctoral Degree Program

A compelling essay can make your application stand out.
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Even the best writers can end up stumped when it comes to a personal essay for a doctoral program. Admissions offices want to see not only that you can write well but that you can contribute something valuable to the program. Consequently, your essay should stand out instead of just being a generic but well-written paper. Your essay should emphasize specific personal achievements and ways in which the program can help you expand upon your talents. If you've overcome any major personal struggles, such as a severe illness, being the victim of a violent crime or experiencing the death of a parent, these can provide opportunities to highlight your persistence.

1 Central Point

When faced with the prospect of writing a personal statement, it can be easy to forget one of the basic rules of writing. Your essay should be tightly focused, with a clear thesis statement. Don't try to fit everything into one essay. Instead, focus on the most compelling information and leave anything unnecessary out. Keep your essay free of fluff. This will help you stay under the word count and also display your ability to clearly argue your point -- an important skill in doctoral programs.

2 Answering Generic Questions

Many graduate schools offer generic questions for students to answer as part of their admissions packets. It's easy to get caught up in simply answering the question. Instead, take the opportunity to tell a great story. Think about the most interesting way you can answer the question that highlights what you can offer the school. For example, a question about ethics or politics could be turned into a discussion of the ways in which you've applied your personal ethical code to your own life.

3 General Essays

If your school simply asks for a personal essay without giving you a particular question to answer, you might quickly find yourself facing writer's block. The purpose of the essay is to display your uniqueness, your writing skills and the specific talents and achievements you can offer to the school. Consider writing about a personal achievement or struggle, discussing the ways in which your previous studies could contribute to the program or addressing what you intend to do with your degree. Avoid making your essay dry. Instead, demonstrate plenty of enthusiasm for the brighter future you'll create with your doctoral degree.

4 Emphasizing the School

Although graduate schools want to see that you are intelligent and thoughtful, they also want to see that you've researched the school and program. Keep your essay focused on why this specific school and program will benefit you. If, for example, you're seeking a doctoral degree in community psychology, emphasize how you would benefit from the school's community outreach programs or mention some programs you'd be interested in starting. The essay should be positive, focusing only on the school's strong points and the ways in which you can expand upon those strengths.

5 Perfect Writing

Your personal essay is not the time to dash off a quick statement. Your grammar, structure and wording should be flawless. Don't overuse unnecessarily large words, but ensure you're not repetitive and your essay does not read as overly simplistic. Ask several people to proofread for grammar and spelling, and consult with a university writing center or writing tutor for advice on any changes you should make before you submit the final product.

Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.