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How to start a personal statement for grad school

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A well-written personal statement showcases an applicant’s unique qualities, experiences, and aspirations to the admissions committee. This guide will help you start the process of writing an effective personal statement for grad school, providing valuable tips to help you stand out from the crowd.

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Begin the writing process early to allow ample time for brainstorming, drafting, and revision. This is your chance to explain why you are a capable candidate for the program and how it aligns with your aspirations. Take the time to reflect on your strengths, achievements, and what sets you apart from other applicants.

Research the graduate program thoroughly so you can understand its specific requirements, values, and objectives. For example, with USC Price’s Master of Public Administration program online it is important to recognize how your personal experiences, background, and interests have shaped you and will shape your engagement in the program and USC Price community. This knowledge will help you tailor your personal statement, highlighting why it is an ideal fit for your academic and career goals. 

Before you start crafting your essay, there are a few prompts you can ask yourself to start the brainstorming process. For example:

  • What are the key points you want to communicate about yourself?
  • What exactly are your career goals, and how does graduate school play into them?
  • What have you learned about this field already? 

For a full list of prompts visit USC Online’s guide on How to Write a Stand-Out Personal Statement for Your Graduate School Application.

How to format a personal statement for grad school

It’s important to first read the essay prompt on the university’s website and follow the specific requirements listed. For example, USC Price’s Master of Publication Administration Online’s Admissions section explains that statements should be approximately 1,000 words and address the following questions: Why are you interested in pursuing the Master of Public Administration degree? How will a Master of Public Administration degree affect or enhance your career aspirations and goals?

To ensure a well-structured and cohesive personal statement you should plan and outline your ideas before you begin writing. Consider the prompts you’ve already asked yourself, the research you’ve done on the program, the main points you want to address and the order in which you will present them. This will help maintain a clear and logical flow.

Start with a captivating introduction that grabs the reader’s attention and provides a glimpse into your story. Then, develop the body paragraphs to highlight your academic background, relevant work experiences, and skills. Finally, conclude by summarizing your goals and emphasizing how you will contribute to the field.

Remember, the personal statement serves two functions – it allows the admissions committee to get to know the applicant better, and it serves as a sample of your writing skills. 

The Introduction

Perhaps the most important part of your essay is the introduction. This is your opportunity to hook the reader. Attempt to offer a unique perspective and avoid clichés. Here are some ways to start your personal statement: 

  • Reflect on your motivations and interests: Share the experiences or moments that sparked your interest in the subject. Explain why you find the field meaningful and how your previous academic or professional experiences have contributed to your decision. By showcasing your genuine passion and dedication, you can create an engaging opening that demonstrates your commitment to the field.
  • Start with a thought-provoking question: Pose a relevant and specific thought-provoking question that encourages the reader to contemplate the topic. This approach instantly grabs attention and shows your eagerness to explore complex issues within your field. Ensure that the question seamlessly connects to your experiences or interests.
  • Tell a compelling story: Share a personal anecdote or transformative experience that highlights your journey, challenges faced, and lessons learned. Connect your story to your field of study. By narrating a compelling story, you make your personal statement memorable and provide the admissions committee with a deeper understanding of your character and motivation.
  • Begin with a bold statement: Start with a bold claim or surprising fact that challenges conventional thinking within your field of study. Support such statements with evidence or personal experiences that validate your viewpoint, positioning yourself as a forward-thinking and motivated candidate.

Finish strong with a compelling conclusion

A strong conclusion for your graduate school personal statement is crucial for leaving a positive and lasting impression on the admissions committee. Here are some tips to help you craft a compelling conclusion:

  • Recap your key points: Summarize the main ideas you have discussed throughout your personal statement. Highlight your achievements, skills, and experiences that make you a strong fit for the program. However, avoid simply restating what you’ve already mentioned. Instead, offer a concise recap that reinforces your qualifications.
  • Connect to future goals: Transition from discussing your past experiences to emphasizing your future goals. Demonstrate how the graduate program aligns with your aspirations and explain how the knowledge and skills you’ll gain will help you achieve your career objectives. This shows that you have a focused and clear vision.
  • Express enthusiasm and commitment: Convey your excitement and enthusiasm for the program and your chosen field of study. Highlight why you are genuinely interested in pursuing further education in this area and how you plan to contribute to the field. For example, a Master of Public Administration applicant could express enthusiasm for helping nonprofit organizations connect with their constituents. This demonstrates your dedication and readiness to make a significant impact.

Remember to keep your conclusion concise and focused, as you have limited space to make your final case. Ensure that your conclusion aligns with the overall tone and theme of your personal statement and reinforces the key messages you have conveyed throughout the essay. By following these tips, you can craft a compelling conclusion that strengthens your application and leaves a positive impression on the admissions committee.

Tips to make you stand out from the crowd

In addition to nailing down the right grad school personal statement format, you also have to ensure you are using an appropriate tone and highlight relevant key points that enhance your chances of being selected for the program. Below are some tips to consider:

  • Be reflective and authentic: Admissions committees seek personal statements that are authentic and reflective of your unique qualities and experiences. Avoid generic statements and clichés, instead focusing on specific examples that illustrate your strengths and abilities. Reflect on your journey by sharing personal anecdotes, experiences, or research projects that demonstrate your commitment to the field.
  • Highlight relevance: Based on your research, emphasize the relevance of your professional experiences, skills, and academic background to the program. Draw connections between your academic achievements, research projects, internships, or work experience and the skills and knowledge required in your field of study. Clearly articulate how your past experiences have prepared you for the challenges of the program and how they align with your future goals. For example, a successful applicant to the MPA online program cited how their experience working remotely during the pandemic prepared them to collaborate on group projects in the program. 
  • Demonstrate motivation and fit: Admissions committees are interested in understanding your motivation for pursuing graduate studies, why you are passionate about the field, and what drives your intellectual curiosity. Highlight specific faculty members, courses, research opportunities, or unique aspects of the program that attract you. This demonstrates that you have done your research and have a genuine interest in the program.
  • Revise and seek feedback: After completing your first draft, take the time to revise and edit your personal statement. Ensure that your writing is free from grammatical errors and that you are within the word count. Read your statement aloud to check for flow and coherence. Once you feel like it is ready, seek feedback from trusted mentors and peers who can provide suggestions.


A compelling personal statement is crucial for making a lasting impression on the admissions committee. This guide on how to start a personal statement for grad school is the first step in helping you stand out from the crowd. Remember to allow ample time to prepare, craft a strong introduction and conclusion, and follow our tips to make a compelling case for why you are the perfect fit for the program. 

Learn more about the Master of Public Administration online admissions requirements by registering for an information sessions here, or connect with a USC admissions counselor at [email protected] who can help guide you through the application process.

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