repost: narrative tips from a grad school applicant

Since it’s grad school application season for undergraduates, I thought I’d repost some narrative tips about how to go about writing a personal statement for graduate programs in psychology. This is an old, old post from a long-deceased blog; it’s from way back in 2002 when I was applying to grad school. It’s kind of a serious piece; if I were to rewrite it today, the tone would be substantially lighter. I can’t guarantee that following these tips will get you into grad school, but I can promise that you’ll be amazed at the results.

The first draft of my personal statement was an effortful attempt to succinctly sum up my motivation for attending graduate school. I wanted to make my rationale for applying absolutely clear, so I slaved over the statement for three or four days, stopping only for the occasional bite of food and hour or two of sleep every night. I was pretty pleased with the result. For a first draft, I thought it showed great promise. Here’s how it started:

I want to go to,o grajit skool cuz my frend steve is in grajit and he says its ez and im good at ez stuff

When I showed this to my advisor he said, “I don’t know if humor is the way to go for this thing.”

I said, “What do you mean, humor?”

After that I took a three month break from writing my personal statement while I completed a grade 12 English equivalency exam and read a few of the classics to build up my vocabulary. My advisor said that even clever people like me needed help sometimes. I read Ulysses, The Odyssey, and a few other Greek sounding books, and a book called The Cat in the Hat which was by the same author as the others, but published posthumously. Satisfied that I was able to write a letter that would impress every graduate admissions committee in the world, I set about writing a second version of my personal statement. Here’s how that went:

Dear Dirty Admissions Committee,
Solemn I came forward and mounted the round gunrest. I faced about and blessed gravely thrice the Ivory Tower, the surrounding country, and all the Profs. Then catching sight of the fMRI machine, I bent towards it and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in my throat and shaking my head.

“Too literary,” said my advisor when I showed him.

“Mud,” I said, and went back to the drawing board.

The third effort was much better. I had weaned myself off the classics and resolved to write a personal statement that fully expressed what a unique human being I was and why I would be an asset to the program. I talked about how I could juggle three bean bags and almost four, I was working on four, and how I’d stopped biting my fingernails last year so I had lots of free time to do psychology now. To show that I was good at following through on things that I started, I said,

p.s. when I can juggle four bean bags ( any day now) I will write you to let you know so you can update your file.

Satisfied that I had written the final copy of my statement, I showed it to my advisor. He was wild-eyed about it.

“You just don’t get it, do you,” he said, ripping my statement in two and throwing it into the wastepaper basket. “Tell you what. Why don’t I write a statement for you. And then you can go through it and make small changes to personalize it. Ok?”

“Sure,” I said. So the next day my advisor gave me a two-page personal statement he had written for me. Now I won’t bore you with all of the details, but I have to say, it was pretty bad. Here’s how it started:

After studying psychology for nearly four years at the undergraduate level, I have decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the field. I have developed a keen interest in [list your areas of interest here] and believe [university name here] will offer me outstanding opportunities.

“Now go make minor changes,” said my advisor.

“Mud,” I said, and went to make minor changes.

I came back with the final version a week later. It was truly a masterpiece; co-operating with my advisor had really helped. At first I had been skeptical because what he wrote was so bad the way he gave it to me, but with a judicious sprinkling of helpful clarifications, it turned into something really good. It was sort of like an ugly cocoon (his draft) bursting into a beautiful rainbow (my version). It went like this:

After studying psychology (and juggling!) for nearly four years at the undergraduate level (of university), I have decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the field. Cause I need it to become a Prof. I have developed a keen interest in [list your areas of interest here Vision, Language, Memory, Brain] and believe [university name hereStanford Princeton Mishigan] will offer me outstanding opportunities in psychology and for the juggling society.

“Brilliant,” said my advisor when I showed it to him. “You’ve truly outdone yourself.”

“Mud,” I said, and went to print six more copies.