Several of my current and former students have asked for advice about preparing applications to different types of graduate school programs. First, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everyone must apply to graduate school. I often try to discourage people from leaping into it if they don’t yet have a clear goal. Some of the best applicants to graduate school are people who became more grounded in their ideas and experiences years after their undergraduate education. In my case, going to graduate school was the LAST thing on my mind after earning my bachelor’s degree. But five years later, after working and teaching in different communities, graduate school made sense as a way for me to advance my own learning on schooling, social structures, and reform strategies.
From my perspective, there’s a tremendous difference between the undergraduate versus graduate school admissions, which no one necessarily teaches you. In many of these conversations, we focus our attention on the student’s academic goals, and how to communicate these effectively in a personal statement to a graduate school admissions committee.
1) Ask yourself if your personal statement clearly answers this question: Why are you and this particular graduate program a good match for one another?
2) Show them you’ve done your homework by adding tailored connections to individual faculty members, such as, “I’m interested in Prof. X’s courses on Y and Z because. . . ” or “Having the opportunity to work with Professor A’s research on B would build upon my prior experience in. . .. ” or “I’ve read Prof C’s article/book and am interested in learning more because it expands on my interest in. . . ”
3) Remember to describe your own academic research experience at Trinity. (It’s surprising how many students forget to include this.) If you designed and wrote a senior research project or thesis, include the title in your essay and add a paragraph describing your research question (or testable hypothesis), sources & methods, and findings if appropriate. If you uploaded your senior research to the Trinity Library digital repository, or published a research-based essay on the public web, consider adding a link in your statement. Similarly, if you gained relevant experience through a community learning project or internship, describe your role with the partner organization and add details to help the reader evaluate your skills in this field.
4) Whenever possible, emphasize any prior experience as a research assistant and/or teaching assistant. Remember that graduate schools often look for applicants who they can hire to work as a faculty member’s RA or TA. Some graduate schools offer funding to recruit these highly-skilled applicants, as universities rely on a steady stream of labor to run their grant-funded studies and large undergraduate classes.
Updated April 2016: Samantha Alcala ’11 gave me permission to share a copy of the personal statement she wrote when applying to the M.A. program in Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University
Updated April 2013: Lis (Pennington) Fornaro ’07 gave me permission to share a copy of the personal statement she wrote when applying to the Ph.D. program in Urban Education at Temple University.
If you would like me to consider writing to a graduate program on your behalf, see also: How to request a recommendation letter