You have mailed your transcripts and finished celebrating the completion of your graduate school admissions test. With your application in hand, one final task remains: writing a biography – sometimes called a personal statement or statement of intent – for the screening committee. This intellectual exercise requires thought and planning, as you assume correctly that your biography should be purposeful and meaningful – far weightier and impressive than simply a recitation of the schools you have attended and your favorite subjects. Think of your biography as the story of you – as only you can tell it.
Give yourself plenty of time to write, edit and revise your biography, expecting that it will be a recursive process. If ever there was a writing assignment that deserves your time and careful attention, this is it. Schedule some time every day to work on your biography, then allow it to “go cold” for at least a day before you review your work with a fresh outlook. Try to give yourself a week – from brainstorming to completion – to write your biography.
Brainstorm a story arc for your biography or a theme that you will carry throughout. In doing so, you will display a sense of purpose that is vital to this intellectual pursuit. For example, if you are applying for admission to a graduate science program, you may wish to amplify those key moments when a science project or achievement in your academic life influenced your interest in and passion for the field.
Map out these pivotal moments on a timeline, being sure to mention one incident from elementary school and high school and several from college. Connect these incidents to your quest to seek an advanced degree, and stay on-topic. Weave your theme consistently throughout your biography. Invoke the journalist’s quest to “show, not tell” so that the reviewing committee quickly gets the idea that you have evolved from a serious student to an ardent scholar.
Begin your biography with a revealing anecdote that sets the stage appropriately. Be mindful that you are playing the role of storyteller who wants to keep your audience’s attention, so choose lively verbs and craft sentences that are specific and illustrative.
Demonstrate your interest in and capacity for research by singling out several faculty members in your program of interest and what you would most want to learn from them if you were a student in their classes or if they were guiding your research efforts.
Lead your biography to an obvious conclusion: that you wish to advance your career and fulfill your personal ambitions by obtaining a graduate degree. Without sounding solicitous, explain why the graduate program appeals to you. Consider linking your introduction with your opening anecdote to create a clean symmetry of ideas.
Edit your biography carefully during the week, deleting both vague and flowery words and phrases. It’s great to show enthusiasm for higher learning, but be sure you sound sincere. Let trusted friends and family members – those who know your history – read your biography and elicit their feedback.
Proofread and edit your biography with the meticulous attention to detail that you will reveal time and again once you are formally accepted into graduate school.
- Do not confuse writing an intellectual biography with one that contains big, impressive words. While you should expose your vocabulary skills to some extent, keep showboating to a minimum. It’s more important that you tell a compelling story than flaunt your vocabulary IQ.
- Stay close to the allotted word count for your biography. Coming up a few words short or going a few words over is acceptable, but do not unwittingly convey that you do not follow instructions.
- Peterson’s: Write a Graduate School Essay that Will Knock Their Socks Off
- Grad Schools.com: What Is a Personal Statement?
- The Chronicle of Higher Education: Dos and Don’ts of Graduate School Essays
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab: Writing the Personal Statement
- Essay Edge: How to Write a Personal Statement
- The New St. Martin’s Handbook; Andrea Lunsford and Robert Connors; 1999.
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