Opinion: Applying to grad school — making the most of your personal statement

Passion and the ability to link that drive to your future goals are what set a decent application apart from a great one. Photo by: Green Chameleon

As director of admissions for a master’s program in international development at Duke University, I have reviewed hundreds of applications. The many hours spent poring over resumes, essays, and transcripts have given me a definite perspective on what makes a strong application.

Many applicants assume good grades and lists of awards are key to getting into the school of their choice, but high grade point averages and numerous accolades are not as important as you might think. Instead, passion and the ability to link that drive to your future goals are what set a decent application apart from a great one. The need to clearly communicate this in your personal statement is what ties it all together.

That’s why the statement of purpose is the most important part of your application to graduate school. I cannot say it enough: the best way for you to convey who you are and why you are interested in a particular graduate school program is to clearly state why you are a good fit for the graduate program you are applying to and how the program will help you to achieve your goals. The rest is gravy and should not be included.

Here is a list of the top 10 things NOT to say in your personal statement:

1. Your life story. This is simply not the place for it. However, if you have had a particular experience that led you to consider graduate school or influenced your career path, by all means, include it as a short story. Keep it to-the-point, and remember that if there is a humorous side, don’t leave it out. Stories are memorable and will make your personal statement stand out.  Most readers are reviewing hundreds of applications. Help them remember you by lightening their load with an appropriate anecdote about why you are a great match for their program.  

2. Your desire to make more money. Regardless whether this is one of your motivating factors for applying to graduate school, leave it out.

3. Your vision to change the world. If you do in fact want to make a difference, delineate how you will do so with the help of this program.

4. Your mother, sister, or grandmother attended this program. If this is the case, mention it elsewhere on the application, not in the personal statement. However, if you have a letter of recommendation from an alumnus of the program, mention that person in your personal statement in order to highlight that connection. Perhaps the alumnus is someone whose work you admire. Make that connection, detailing how this person and her work inspired you to explore the program and ultimately decide to apply.

5. Your desire to attend this school because of its ranking. The school is well-aware of its ranking. This will not help you get in.

6. Your excellent GPA in undergrad. Unnecessary: Your transcripts will tell the story.

7. Your awards and accolades. List them in your resume. Nobody likes a braggart.

8. Your company wants you to get more training. This is obvious: Most people return to school to acquire new or additional skills.

9. You are bored with life and need a change. Too much information!

10. You have not been able to find a job and have no other option but to go back to school. Again, too much information. Graduate schools are affected by changes in the economy just as individuals are. They are keenly aware that downturns in the economy usually translate to an increase in applications!

Speak sincerely about why the particular school and program you are applying to will help you to take the next step in your life’s journey, what you hope to accomplish with the degree, both personally and professionally, and how you will be able to contribute once you graduate.

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree and specialization can be overwhelming. In partnership with the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, Duke Center for International Development, American University Kogod School of Business, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore and the MPA/ID Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, we are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a postgraduate education here.

About the author

  • Cheryl Bailey

    Cheryl Bailey is the assistant director of admissions for Duke University’s mid-career Master of International Development Policy Program at the Duke Center for International Development in the Sanford School of Public Policy. In this role, she manages admissions and recruiting. She has read thousands of files from candidates around the world and brings a solid understanding of what makes a strong application.

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