Each year thousands of ambitious undergraduate students sit down in front of a blank word document and endeavor to explain who they are in less than two pages. Graduate applications are often pretty strict affairs but the personal statement is your chance to be creative, interesting, expressive, and personal. This can be a daunting task but one that must be approached with a couple of deep breaths and a dose of reality. The creativity implicitly encouraged in the essay does not include fictitious prose and flights of fancy. A personal statement is not an opportunity to create a fictional super-student who doesn’t exist. Instead it is a chance to show the graduate school selection committee that you have an interesting perspective to contribute to their program; that you have experiences that ensure your success in graduate school; and that your commitment and enthusiasm will likely sustain you through the trials and tribulations of a graduate program. A personal statement is not an opportunity to create a fictional super-student who doesn’t exist.
Graduate school selection committees tire quickly of the unrealistic career goals of Sally Student and Norman Notebook. Although it is a wonderful sentiment, it is unlikely that a Ph.D. in English is meant to prepare you to solve world hunger, stop global warming, and realign the Earth’s axis. Phrases like “I want to make a difference” and “I want to help people” are vague and overused. It is more realistic and reassuring to a committee to explain how your work may contribute to ongoing efforts to some particular end. For example, the English student who wishes to solve world hunger may propose research into late 20th century west African literature on agricultural strikes and what it implies about the politics of food distribution. Reading this a committee member would have the impression that the student has thought critically about how they can contribute to current efforts, not single-handedly solve issues of hunger.
It is also a good idea to explain why you became interested in a particular profession, but it can distract from your point when you express indefinite and unrealistic career goals in the process. For instance, many students will cite the unfortunate passing of a family member as motivation for entering a medical profession and express a desire to “never let this happen again.” As Don Asher put it in Graduate Admission Essays “such sentiments reveal a lack of sophistication…a lack of understanding the harsh realities and tough decisions that go with a career in medicine.” Although this is certainly a worthy cause, it reads more like fantasy than a grounded understanding of the profession. Application readers don’t expect students to have such lofty goals and often view them as naïve. It is more realistic and reassuring to a committee to explain how your work may contribute to ongoing efforts to some particular end.
Graduate committees are more interested in learning about how certain experiences have made you grow and how you would like those experiences to contribute to a realistic career path. Long before you get to the point of applying for graduate school I would suggest you research the likely careers of graduates from your chosen academic field so you know if it is what you’d like to pursue. If you cannot articulately express what you’d like to do with a particular degree, the application readers will realize that you haven’t even taken this fundamental first step and will question the entirety of your application. Give them something realistic upon which to base their evaluation of your application…and let it be a surprise if you go on to save the world.