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Personal Statement / Letter of Intent

When you apply to graduate or professional schools, you will likely be required to write a personal statement (also referred to as an autobiographical essay, personal profile, or essay) or a letter of intent. Although there is no clear distinction between a personal statement and a letter of intent, the former tends to emphasize historical information about how you have arrived at your current educational goal whereas the latter is more future focussed.

A personal statement, usually several pages long, should provide details about how your experience (e.g., volunteer work, job shadowing, or personal background) has contributed to your interest in and knowledge of the profession. The statement should also demonstrate that you have the characteristics required of participants in the field. Candidates are usually asked to answer either one broad question or a number of specific questions.

A letter of intent is usually required with an application for an academic research program. Details concerning your research interests, reasons for choosing the department or program, and post-degree plans are often included. A letter of intent should be no longer than two pages unless the guidelines state otherwise.

Preparation

Before writing your statement, review everything you have done in your life. In chronological order, list your volunteer/research/personal/job experiences, awards, achievements, involvement in extracurricular activities, and relevant challenges or difficulties. Completing the "Self assessment" module will also help you to determine your personal attributes, values, skills, and interests. Think carefully about traits and experiences that would be helpful to your application: applicants often omit important factors or discount relevant accomplishments.

Purpose

Your written statement is the part of the application that allows you to market yourself. Ensure you have researched the institution so you can tailor your application to the admissions committee's requirements. A committee wants to know the genuine reasons you are applying and why you should be admitted. As you prepare your statement, imagine that you are in an interview and have the opportunity to explain what makes you unique and well suited to future work in a particular area. Since the statement is an opportunity to provide information not found elsewhere in your application, avoid repeating information unless you are expanding on, or providing more proof of, a particular point.

The statement must be well written because it will also serve as an example of your writing skills. When reviewing your statement, the committee will be seeking answers to the following questions:

  • What are your goals? What motivates you to complete the program?
  • Have you chosen the program for the right reasons?
  • Do you demonstrate that you have a good understanding of the profession and why you will be a good fit?
  • Do you have the potential to be successful in the program?
  • Are you aware of the challenges that you will face in the program?
  • How will you add to the program and classroom discussions?
  • Is your statement interesting? Remember that committee members often read hundreds of applications
  • Is your statement personal? Will committee members get a sense of who you are?

It is important to address any concerns that committee members may have when they read your application. If you had low grades or switched programs or fields, for instance, you need to explain what happened and what you learned from the experience. Do not blame others, complain, or make excuses. Discuss the timeframe and provide details about the situation, demonstrating your ability to cope with difficulties. Your ability to overcome personal obstacles may add weight to your application.

Writing guidelines

Many online resources and books provide sample statements and step-by-step advice on how to write yours. Often, the sample statements contain accounts of dramatic experiences or life-changing events. Do not worry if you have not had such an experience; most applicants haven't.

Although services are available for a fee to assist you in writing your statement, hiring one is not recommended. Not only can admission committees detect differences between the style in which your statement is written and that of other samples of your writing, but they are also often able to recognize the particular style of the service you have used. If committee members detect the influence of a writing service, they will tend to view an application unfavourably. They may even consider the application to have been plagiarized.

Consideration of the following will increase your success in writing an effective statement:

Research 

  • Check the program's website and contact the department for specific guidelines on what information is required; read the Dean's message, the policy on admission, questions asked on the reference forms, and so on, and provide relevant information that matches the requirements
  • Determine which application category you fit into (e.g., regular, mature, special consideration, access) and focus your application accordingly. The definition of these application categories can be different for each institution

Organization

  • Use a thematic or chronological pattern of organization, or a combination of the two when appropriate
  • First, consider the idea or theme (either provided by the department or chosen by you): your statement will centre around this theme
  • Go back to your list of experiences and select those that support your theme
  • Outline your structure; make sure your ideas flow from one to the next by using effective transitions; avoid unnecessary repetition

Content 

  • The opening paragraph of your statement is very important: you want to create a positive impression and to interest the reader in the rest of your statement. Consider writing the introduction and conclusion after completing the rest of the statement; these pieces often take as much time and thought to write as the body of the statement
  • If applicable, indicate how your experiences have added to your understanding of world issues, trends, or events and how they demonstrate why you have chosen your area or field of study
  • If you have had a pivotal or significant experience that has influenced your decision, describe it in detail and explain why it was important and what you learned from it
  • Represent yourself honestly and genuinely; do not merely try to impress committee members with what you think they want to hear
  • Focus the reader's attention by clearly describing your role and contribution in various experiences (e.g., how you interacted with patients/clients/professionals in the field, what you observed, learned, and so on) and by minimizing details about extraneous factors
  • Distinguish yourself by writing about your experiences with conviction, enthusiasm, and professionalism
  • Although you want to market yourself, do not be too self-congratulatory
  • Avoid discussing controversial issues or topics unless you can relate your experiences to them in a positive way. However, be aware that you can trigger readers' personal and professional biases that may raise concerns about you and your application
  • Do not repeat information about the program; instead focus on something specific about, for instance, a specialization, the number of clinical hours you have to your credit, or the research you have conducted
  • Ensure that you answer the question(s) and adhere to word limitations and font size requirements
  • Complete your statement and then put it aside for a couple of days before you attempt to edit it
  • Keep copies of your submitted application, noting where and when it was sent. Use express or priority mail to deliver your package; pages should be single-sided unless otherwise specified; include your full name on each page

Style 

  • Your statement should be clear, succinct, and well written. Spelling and grammar must be impeccable
  • Use sensory details and action verbs to help the committee visualize the situation or environment you are describing
  • Do not use gimmicks (e.g., don’t send your statement in the form of a brief for law school or as a poem for a department of English unless you are specifically asked to be creative); use humour with caution
  • Avoid overuse of "I" statements: they become monotonous. Try to vary your sentence structure to make your statement more interesting

Upon completion of your statement, evaluate it and ask others to review it. Each person will have a different perspective, but remember that ultimately it is your work and that you need to be comfortable with what you submit. Centre for Career Action provides individual Professional/Graduate School Application/Personal Statement Review appointments. The Writing Centre has a limited number of consultation appointments to review your statement for writing style, grammar, and so on.