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Personal Statement

Personal Statement Rubric

Tips for Writing a Winning Statement of Purpose for Law School, Medical School, or Graduate School


The statement of purpose is one of the most important components of your application. Thefollowing “tips” can help you avoid making some common mistakes. In addition, they can alsohelp you develop critical thinking skills and writing techniques that will not only improve yourstatement, but will also make you a better overall writer.

1. Where to Begin? Be Purposeful

Remember, it’s called a “Statement of Purpose” for a reason: the aim of a well-written statement of purpose is to inform your readers (primarily Admissions Officers) of your PURPOSE in applying to law, medical, or graduate school. In this sense, your statement of purpose is NOT and should NOT be written as your lifestory. This is the most common mistake, by far. Your statement should not be about your kinder-garden or high school experience, your new Nikes, your favorite Kanye West song, how much you love Taco Bell, your parents, or playing online poker, etcetera. It should be about you, but—and this is the KEY—not just any or every aspect of you. Rather, it should really only be about ONE major aspect of you: YOUR PURPOSE! Why are you applying? What do you want to do and be, professionally speaking? What inspires you? What makes you passionate about learning medicine,law, comparative literature, sociology, et cetera? Your statement of purpose should propose a coherent and clear answer to the question, “Why are you applying to medical, law, or graduate school?” To answer this question, you want to be sure that you…

2. Have a Well-Developed Thesis Statement

Your thesis statement generally comes near or at the end of the first paragraph. A thesis announces what you will argue for and generally provides the reader with an indication of how/why you will argue for it. In other words, like any piece of writing,your statement of purpose should MAKE AN ARGUMENT and PROVIDE EVIDENCE to support that argument. Your thesis is a one sentence answer to thequestion, “Why are you applying for Law, Medical, or Graduate school?”

3. Be Clear

Throughout your statement, but especially in your thesis, you should strive to be as clear as possible. There are several reasons for this, but the most important one is that medical, law, and graduate schools want students who have the ability toCOMMUNICATE CLEARLY and DIRECTLY. So, how do you know if you are being clear? First off, have other people (professors, peers, friends) read your statement and ask them. Second, as you revise your statement, you should ask yourself if your word choices, sentences, and paragraphs are working in aCOHERENT and LOGICAL fashion. You should be able to explain why all your words and sentences are there on the page in that particular order and you should know the exact functions they are serving. In addition to being clear, you should also strive to be CONCISE and to avoid overly repeating yourself.

4. Avoid Cliches and Generalizations

Cliches (statements that everyone repeats but that have almost no specific meaning,such as “Live and learn,” “Laughter is the best medicine,” or “Today is the first day of the rest of your life”) and generalizations (statements that are so abstract as to haveno content whatsoever, such as “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus,”“Everyone loves Raymond,” or “Emory students are the best” ) are worthAVOIDING because they work against you. That is, cliches and generalizations suggest that you tend to rely upon the status quo (things other people say) rather than upon your own UNIQUE ideas. In this respect, clichés and generalizations tell your readers that you aren’t really interested in thinking for yourself, on your own terms.Tips for Writing a Winning Statement 3Thus, you want to avoid clichés and generalizations because they offer no evidencethat you are an original and creative writer who has the ability to think outside orbeyond the status quo or, as the cliché goes, “outside the box.” (To all of those wholove a good bit of irony I say: ha!). Now, I’m not necessarily saying that all clichesand generalizations are “bad” or “wrong.” As with any rule, there are alwaysexceptions. Touché! My point, then, is that cliches and generalizations are GENERALLY worth avoiding because they simply cannot provide a specific,complex, and dynamic picture of you as an independent thinker. Conversely, youshould always strive to be an original, creative, and critical thinker!

5. Make a PIE of Each Paragraph

PIE stands for Point, Illustration, Explanation, which is the general structure thatyou want to employ in your paragraphs. Each of your paragraphs should have ONEcentral point, should provide a clear illustration/piece of evidence (or example) of thatpoint, and should close with an explanation/analysis that proves how your illustrationdemonstrates your point.

6. Show, Don’t Tell

Declarations such as “I am smart,” or “I am naturally detail-oriented” do not tell yourreaders anything. In fact, such sentences do not prove even their point. Suchsentences “tell” rather than “show.” That is, they exclaim or declare rather thandemonstrate. These kinds of sentences are worth avoiding because they do notprovide illustrations and explanations the points you are trying to make. Thus, youwant most of your sentences to be “show” sentences, sentences that show anddemonstrate the qualities you have cultivated, the experiences you’ve had, the thingsyou’ve learned, and the reasons that have inspired you to apply to law, medical, orgraduate school.

7. Provide Just Enough Details

In your statement, the goal should be to provide “just enough” details to make thedocument coherent on its own, without reference to your other application materials.Tips for Writing a Winning Statement 4This is because the admissions officer reading your statement often has 500 or soother applications stacked on her desk and doesn’t have the time to look back at yourMCAT, LSAT, or GRE scores, your transcripts, et cetera. Thus, you want yourstatement to be able to “stand on its own two feet.” This means that any generallyliterate person should be able to read it and “get” its meaning. To achieve this, youdon’t want to provide so many details that the reader gets stuck in them, BUT youalso don’t want to provide so few details that the reader has no idea what you aretalking about/ Finding the right balance is the challenge. Names of institutions youattended are recommended, but you don’t need to repeat them more than once.Likewise, you don’t need to list every lawyer or doctor you interned with orshadowed or researched, or every piece of writing you’ve published, but one or twonames and or specifications can help provide a greater sense of specificity. The keyis: you always want to be specific, but you don’t want to be so specific that the“forest” gets lost for the “trees,” as the saying goes. You want just the right balance ofspecific details with larger points.

8. Be Humble

It’s okay and even encouraged to acknowledge that you don’t know everything. Theadmissions folks know this, and you should too! Like anyone, you still have things tolearn. Otherwise you wouldn’t be applying in the first place! Thus, one goal to strivefor is to demonstrate a balance of intelligence regarding what you already know and asense of humility regarding the limits of your knowledge. Try to show that you careabout learning new things, that you are capable of self-reflection and even selfcritique—to acknowledge, in other words, that you and your professional career arean ongoing “work in progress.” Admissions committees are looking for open minds,students that are open to, and even excited about, learning new things, revising andreshaping their ideas, and becoming intellectually transformed. The more excitementyou can convey about learning, the better!Tips for Writing a Winning Statement 59. Strive for Coherence and FlowThe paragraphs after your intro and before your conclusion, often termed “bodyparagraphs,” should, like your intro and conclusion, have a logical and coherentflow, both internally and externally. They should relate to each other and to yourstatement’s thesis in a way that is self-evident and that SHOWS A CLEAR LINE OFDEVELOPMENT.

10. Intros and Conclusions: Hooks and/or Bookends

You want your statement to open with a bang! You want to begin in a way that pullsyour readers in and makes them want to read more. This is called a “hook.” Todevelop a good hook, you’ve got to be creative and original. Neither cliches norgeneralizations will do the trick. Once you’ve finally got your hook and a draft of therest of your statement, another useful tool is to bring your hook back at yourconclusion, which creates what is called a “bookend.” This technique gives yourstatement a sense of having come full circle, a sense that the reader has been taken ona journey, and a sense of closure.Finally, this brings us to your conclusion. The conclusion is the last thing you leavethe reader with. As you write it, the question you should ask is: what feeling do youwant your readers to leave your statement with? What kinds of words and sentencescan you use that will leave them feeling excited about you as a potential law,medical, or graduate student? In addition, and simultaneously, be sure that yourconclusion returns to the main thesis of your statement. But you don’t want to justrepeat what you’ve already said. Rather, you should try to state your thesis in a new and different way that takes it one step further and thereby brings your statement tonew plateau.

11. Honesty Matters

Be honest, be straightforward, be respectful; and don’t try to play tricks on yourreader. From a reader’s perspective, there is nothing worse than reading a statementTips for Writing a Winning Statement 6of purpose and getting the sense that the author thinks he or she is smarter than his orher reader. Treat your reader with respect and she/he will do the same for you.

12. Don’t Dwell on the Negatives, but Accentuate the Positives

There’s no need to shoot yourself in the foot. No need to mention that you are “bad atmath” or are “not a very good cook.” Focus upon what is most unique about you, onthe special qualities you can contribute to the law, medical, or graduate schools youare applying to. Accentuate the positives! And just leave out what isn’t relevant.

13. Revision Is the Key to Success

Writing a great statement takes a lot of time and work, so—above all—the rule to followis: REVISE, REVISE, REVISE! …and then REVISE some more!


Revised On 8/16/06 by David Rubin.